Tuesday, March 27, 2007

In Memory of William Sloane Coffin

William Sloane Coffin died a year ago on April 12th. Here are few of my favorite sayings by him:
Q. ... Do you have much hope for the future?

A. I think that hope reflects the state of our soul rather than the circumstances that surround our lives. So hope is not the equivalent of optimism. Its opposite is not pessimism but despair. So I'm always hopeful. Hope is about keeping the faith despite the evidence so that the evidence has a chance of changing.

As I wrote in my book Credo: Hope criticizes what is, hopelessness rationalizes it. Hope resists, hopelessness adapts.

Source: Interview with Chuck Currie: William Sloane Coffin Talks About Bush, Iraq and Leadership. Apr. 29, 2004.

MOYERS: You once said it was, I heard you somewhere say, that faith is being seized by love.

COFFIN: Yeah. That's a good definition.

MOYERS: Well, it's yours.

COFFIN: And there are a lot of people who were responding to God's love. Even though they may not say they believe in God. I mean I've worked so much in the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement. And, most recently trying to bring some justice to gays and lesbians. I worked with people who were not believers as I am a believer, you know?

But, if God believes in them, those are the people I wanna work with. You know?

Source: NOW with Bill Moyers, March 5, 2004.

"Now, suppose you hear and you believe the prophet Isaiah," Coffin said, referring to Isaiah 43:1, when God says to Jacob: "I have called you by name, you are mine."

"Among other things, it means you never have to prove yourself," Coffin said. "God's love doesn't seek value; it creates it. It's not because we have value that we are loved, but because we're loved that we have value. So you don't have to prove yourself -- ever. That's taken care of."

However, Coffin said, you do have to express yourself. "Indifference to evil is violence," Coffin said, quoting Tolstoy. ...

"The world is full of gentle cowards who think their gentleness offsets their cowardice. It doesn't," he said.

Compassion frequently requires confrontation, he continued, citing the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the gay and lesbian movement.

"So don't let money tell you who you are. Don't let power tell you who your are. Don't let enemies and -- for God's sake -- don't let your sins tell you who you are," Coffin said. "Don't prove yourself. That's taken care of. All we have to do is express ourselves. It's difficult, but we're a lot more alive in pain than in complacency."

Source: Jon Sanford. "The Rev. William Sloane Coffin: 'Who tells you who you are?' " Stanford Report. March 14, 2001.
Truth is above harmony. Those who fear disorder more than injustice invariably produce more of both.

Source: The Rev. Philip Zaeder. "Recollections of William Sloane Coffin." WNET's Religion and Ethics Newsweekly. August 27, 2004.

Because we love the world, we pray now, O [God], for grace to quarrel with it, O Thou whose lover's quarrel with the world is the history of the world ... Lord, grant us grace to quarrel with the worship of success and power ... to quarrel with all that profanes and trivializes [people] and separates them ... number us, we beseech Thee, in the ranks of those who went forth from this place longing only for those things for which Thou dost make us long, [those] for whom the complexity of the issues only served to renew their zeal to deal with them, [those] who alleviated pain by sharing it; and [those] who were always willing to risk something big for something good ... O God, take our minds and think through them, take our lips and speak through them. Take our hearts and set them on fire.

Source: Patricia Farris. "Be Happy (Micah 6:1-8; Matthew 5:1-12)." This article appeared in The Christian Century, January 26, 2005, p. 18.
Let's start by recognizing that there is a fundamental, unacceptability about unpleasant truth. We all shield ourselves against its wounding accuracy. Not only do we do this as individuals, but we do this as a people, as a nation. Twenty-seven hundred years ago, as some of you may remember, not because you were there, but because you read the Bible, the priest Amaziah said of the prophet Amos, "... the land is not able to bear all his words."

Every prophet has realized that nobody loves you for being the enemy of their illusions. Every prophet has realized that most of us want peace at any price as long as the peace is ours and somebody else pays the price. That is why the prophet Jeremiah said, "'Peace, peace,' they say, when there is no peace," and why Jesus said, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword."

... I find this [a] tough text, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword," is a wonderfully honest statement about the need for the sword of truth, Christ's sword of truth, that heals the wounds it inflicts.

Source: William Sloane Coffin: "Not to Bring Peace, But a Sword." Sermon first broadcast on February 16, 1992. Chicago Sunday Evening Club.

"Justice, not charity," was one of Coffin's constant refrains, which I now try to teach to a community service-oriented college generation that often seems politically unaware and inactive.

Coffin's contention was: "Many of us are eager to respond to injustice, as long as we can do so without having to confront the causes of it. There's the great pitfall of charity. Handouts to needy individuals are genuine, necessary responses to injustice, but they do not necessarily face the reason for injustice. And that is why so many business and governmental leaders today are promoting charity; it is desperately needed in an economy whose prosperity is based on growing inequality. First these leaders proclaim themselves experts on matters economic, and prove it by taking the most out of the economy! Then they promote charity as if it were the work of the church, finally telling us troubled clergy to shut up and bless the economy as once we blessed the battleships."

... "The churches have to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and shelter the homeless. But they have also to remember that the answer to homelessness is homes, not shelters. What the poor and downtrodden need is not piecemeal charity but wholesale justice." He taught that they need political action and structural change in society, not just a warm meal and a bed in a church basement.

Coffin quoted the biblical prophet Amos regularly: "Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood, and bring righteousness to the ground. You who trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain. Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate." Justice, not charity. Not trickle-down economics or faith-based social services, "but," in Amos's words, "let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream."

Source: Scotty McLennan. "The Legacy of William Sloane Coffin." Boston Globe. April 15, 2006.

Asked by a church group why he found himself getting arrested so frequently, Coffin replied, "I can only reassure you that I don't like to go around picking fights. Some fights pick you."

Source: Eric Alterman. "Three Liberal Lives." The Nation. May 29, 2006.

Q. What should churches be doing in the face of what's going on in [the United States] right now?

A. I think the bright flames of Christianity are now down to smoldering embers, if not ashes, of feeling comfortable. The church is pretty much down to therapy and management. There's really little prophetic fire. And the poor rabbis have a problem being critical of Israel because the congregations don't want to hear it so much. The only people who could save the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are American Jews. If they said to Bush, "We have to change," that would be it. But they're not saying it audibly, and not in concert, that's for sure.

The churches are a reflection of the truth of Plato's statement, "What's honored in the country will be cultivated there." ...

... we have mediocre politicians, and the clergy is pretty mediocre also. But what's honored in a country will be cultivated there. The greatest recession in this country is not economic; it's spiritual. And so the great biblical mandates of pursuing justice and seeking peace are shortchanged.

Source: Paul Raushenbush. "Advice to a Young Minister." Interview with William Sloane Coffin on Beliefnet.com. June, 2004.

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