Advice to a Young Minister

A meeting between two ministers, one the descendant of the other's spiritual ancestor.

William Sloane Coffin died on April 12, 2006.  This article first ran on Beliefnet in June of 2004.

William Sloane Coffin is considered the most important liberal white preacher of his generation, in the line of great American prophetic voices that began with Henry Ward Beecher and extended to one of Coffin's models, the great Social Gospel theologian, Walter Rauschenbusch. Invited to speak at Rauschenbusch's seminary in Rochester in the 1960s, Coffin arrived to find he'd forgotten his gown. No problem, said his host, who furnished one, adding meaningfully, "That's Walter Rauschenbusch's."

It wasn't the last time Coffin would carry Rauschenbusch's mantle. As senior minister at The Riverside Church in Manhattan and Yale University's chaplain, Coffin created a spiritual space in which the civil-rights, anti-war, and anti-nukes battles of the 1960s and '70s could be waged. Like Rauschenbusch before him, Coffin urged Christians to examine how their faith informed the ethics and life of their nation.

Paul Raushenbush (Beliefnet's Pastor Paul) is Walter Rauschenbusch's great-grandson (the spelling of the family name was changed slightly in the 1940s). He is the first of the theologian's descendants to be ordained. A university chaplain at Princeton and a former associate pastor at The Riverside Church himself, Paul has long looked to Coffin as an inspiration. This Spring, Beliefnet sent Paul to interview Coffin at his home in Vermont.

Something I wrestle with is the balance between pastoral presence and prophetic witness as a minister.

My own feeling is you have to be as pastoral as you can be without surrendering one single iota of ethical initiative. Nothing ever stops a minister from saying, in the middle of the sermon: "What I now want to say it’s hard for me to say, so I can imagine how painful it’s going to be for some of you to hear. Let us remember that in the church, our unity is based not on agreement, but on mutual concern. So let me tell you what’s on my heart and mind and then you be good enough to tell me where you think I went wrong."


But that’s not the way it’s done. Right now, not to address the conscience of the nation about what’s going on in the occupation of Iraq--you can’t even do that? Just get it out there. Say it softly, don’t say it loudly. A freshman at Yale once said to me, "May I give you a bit of advice? When it’s true and painful, say it softly." Very nice. You have to say what’s true and painful, and you better say it softly.

'The bright flames of Christianity are now down to smoldering embers. There's little prophetic fire.'

At Yale, I always felt an obligation to use my position to provide cover for other people. These days, Richard Clark’s book, "Plan of Attack," "The House of Saud and the House of Bush"--those books provided cover for Rather, Jennings and Brokaw--made it so they could now move out a little more [in questioning the Iraq war]. The fact that Bush is tottering a little allows them to kick his shins a little. It’s very important that Yale, Princeton, and Harvard provide cover for others--particularly because their graduates will play a much more lethal role. Look at all the Yalies in power now. [As university chaplain at Yale,] I certainly didn’t get to Bush when he was there.

If you had a pastoral visit with the president, what would you say?
I think I’d have to say: "Mr. President, in the British military, the chaplain assumes the rank of the person he’s addressing. Can we for a moment accept that understanding between us?" And if he said yes, I’d say, "Then George, may I have your permission to talk about one or two things that I found sorrowful?" I would have to ask, because otherwise people get defensive. But if they give permission, presumably they’re willing to take it.

I would take it as Christian-to-Christian. I would say, "George, Jesus is considered the servant of the poor. He was concerned most for those society counted least. You don’t come through very Jesus-like in your approach to the war. And as for these rather grandiose dreams of hegemony, economic and military hegemony for the United States, have you ever stopped to think that the devil tempted Jesus with unparalleled wealth and power? It was the devil." There would be a couple of things like that. Then I’d probably say, "I don’t want to keep you much longer. I’ll just leave you with that."

What should churches be doing in the face of what’s going on in our country right now?
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. The Roman Catholic Church is so caught up in all the sexual problems of abuse, they’ve lost a lot of their moral authority. 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." When we got started as a country, we had no more than 3 million people--less than Los Angeles County today. Yet we turned out Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Hamilton--you can name a list as long as your arm. How many people on the public stage can you name today who are of the caliber of those first men? And why aren’t there more? Because what’s honored in the country will be cultivated there.

Or how come those itty, bitty Italian city-states turned out one fantastic painter and sculptor after another? Because every kid couldn’t wait to get his mitt on a paint brush. What’s honored in the country will be cultivated there. We have fantastic athletes. I watched the Spurs and Lakers yesterday. Those guys play basketball like nobody’s business. Yet 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.


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