“The world is too dangerous for anything but truth and too small for anything but love.”
--–William Sloane Coffin, Jr.
I missed an important obituary last month, and I’m probably not alone. The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., died on April 12th at the age of 81.
I didn’t see any coverage of his death in our local newspaper or even on the PBS Newshour, and I suppose that in this time when the big name preachers are all card-carrying members of the Religious Right, I shouldn’t be surprised. But the fact that his passing merited little notice tells you just how far we’ve come in redefining Christianity and in repositioning the middle of the political spectrum.
For those too young to remember, and for those who have forgotten or foresworn the ‘60s, Coffin was an outspoken Christian leader and activist as chaplain at Yale University (1958-1976) and as Senior Minister at the Riverside Church in New York City (1977-1987). While at Yale, he became nationally recognized during both the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements.
He was arrested in 1961 while working to end segregation as a Freedom Rider in Montgomery, Alabama. He said at the time, “Every minister is given two roles, the priestly and the prophetic. The prophetic role is the disturber of the peace, to bring the minister himself, the congregation and the entire moral order to some judgment.”
To the children of the late ‘60s, he was best known for his early opposition to the Vietnam War. By 1967, he had decided that political leaders were not listening to reason and made a decision to use civil disobedience to bring about change in military policy. He was arrested for conspiracy to counsel draft evasion in 1968. As the Vietnam debacle dragged on, he remained a high profile peace activist. But he also played a major role in preventing violence from erupting on the Yale campus when other colleges and universities were literally exploding.
In later years, he continued his activities for peace, nuclear disarmament, poverty, homelessness, environmentalism and other moral and ethical issues.
Ironically, Coffin’s death coincided with the arrival of Kevin Phillips’ new book, American Theocracy, on the best seller lists. Phillips posits that our country is headed for ruin as a result of our thirst for oil, our spiraling personal and national debt, and because of the apocalyptic mindset of radical evangelical Christianity that has taken hold of the Republican Party.
In an April 2nd Washington Post piece titled “How the GOP Became God’s Own Party,” Phillips wrote, “The Republican Party has become the first religious party in U. S. History.”
He points out that millions of members of the new Republican coalition believe that the Armageddon mentioned in the book of Revelation is literally just around the corner and that the chaos in the Middle East is a harbinger for the second coming of Christ. He also notes that these folks share “a Bible-based disbelief in Darwinian theories of evolution, dismissal of global warming, disagreement with geological explanations of fossil-fuel depletion, religious rejection of global population planning, derogation of women's rights and opposition to stem cell research.”
Contrast that with the words of William Sloane Coffin: “Christians have to listen to the world as well as to the Word—to science, to history, to what reason and our own experience tell us. We do not honor the higher truth we find in Christ by ignoring truths found elsewhere.”
It’s important to remember that Christianity has not always been represented in the public eye by charlatans, shysters, kooks and far right propagandists like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. There was, in fact, a time in my memory when such preachers were relegated to the fringes, a sad and irrelevant joke to most thinking believers. There’s always been a constituency for such characters, but they didn’t get much credence from the mainstream of American society.
Times are different now, but hardly monolithic. Those who have actually read and comprehend the message of the Gospels could probably use a little shoring up. It’s easy to feel alone amidst the loud and ugly onslaught.
“My understanding of Christianity is that it underlies all progressive moves to implement more justice, [to] get a higher degree of peace in the world," Coffin told Bill Moyers in a televised interview two years ago. “The impulse to love God and neighbor—that impulse is at the heart of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. No question about it.”
copyright © 2006 Jim Newsom. All Rights Reserved.