2017-07-12
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.

Too many ministers, also, are dependent on the love of their congregation. A real friend is one who risks her friendship for the sake of her friend, rather than using the friend for the sake of her friendship. The clergy don’t speak out because they don’t want to risk the love of their congregation. It’s pathetic! If [a parishioner] says, "If you say anything like that again, you’ll never see me in this church again," you should say to him, "You know, I must have said something very important. It certainly got you all riled up." But most ministers would take the hand in both hands, "Oh, come on Joe. There must be some misunderstanding. I’ll call you. We’ll have a date over a cup of coffee."

If you’re shepherd of the flock, you’re supposed to keep the wolves out so more sheep can come in. And the hills are full of browsing sheep, wondering whether there’s room in the fold for them. But they look in and say, "There’s no Good Shepherd there, lots of wolves. I’ll stay browsing outside."

Do you ever struggle with despair?
If Jesus never allowed his soul to be cornered into despair, who the hell am I to give into despair? Despair is not an option. The worse a situation gets, the more pessimistic you become, because reality reflects pessimism. That is the moment for hope as opposed to optimism. I love what Vaclav Havel said, "Hope is not tied to the successful outcome of an issue, but to the fact that the issue makes good sense." That’s wonderful. In other words, keep the faith, despite the evidence. Only by doing has the evidence any chance of changing.

'We have to recover the Bible, but we also have to recover from it.'

What is the religious challenge at our universities?
The loss of wonder is really critical as technology evolves more and more. I feel so strongly about wonder because, finally, it’s an ethical consideration. Only reverence can restrain violence, whether it’s against nature or against one another. And loss of reverence, loss of wonder, is a terrible, sad loss.

So what is the role of the university chaplain?
Obviously ethics are crucial. They don’t exhaust the gospel, but they’re not ancillary to the gospel. So a focus should be the ethical considerations of our personal life and, particularly these days, of our national life. Justice and peace are pretty primary in our public life, or they ought to be. How is it, [Duke divinity professor and Nelson Mandela’s prison chaplain] Peter Storey once asked, that good people allow their institutions to do their sinning for them? These are concerns that I think the chaplain should always be raising. It’s very important to ask the right questions.

So that’s the job of a chaplain?
Very, very much. And to relate scholarship to faith. Religion in the academic world is not so much challenged as it is ignored, aside from the horrors of fundamentalism. So the important thing is to push the questions very hard.

One of your predecessors at Riverside, Harry Emerson Fosdick, preached a sermon on "Why Fundamentalism Must Fail." It didn't fail, and his sermon seems more relevant than ever.
Intolerance in theology leads to intolerance in behavior, and we’re back again to self-righteousness. I’m very much in favor of doctrine, but doctrines are signposts. Love is a hitching post. If we get that wrong, we’re in real trouble.

So we have to recover the Bible, but we also have to recover from it. The Bible supports polygamy, supports slavery, it says don’t eat barbecued ribs--that’s a Torah abomination, just like sleeping with another man. Most Southern fundamentalists I know believe in barbecue ribs.

These days, campuses are very concerned with religious pluralism. How does a true Christian operate in a pluralistic world?
To say, "I thank you Lord that I am not as the others are" precludes the possibility of humility or the capacity for self-criticism. It destroys the possibility of solidarity. This pertains in international relationships, and the same is true of interfaith relations. If I say, "I thank you, Lord, that my Christian faith is not as other faiths are," I’ve destroyed the possibility of self-criticism and humility. How can I even claim the name of the Christian without the humility?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was quite a great mentor to me and good friend. He said, "The starting point for all interfaith relationship is faith. Otherwise we compromise what’s different between us for the sake of convenience. That will never work." Now, my Christian faith is deeply rooted but the point of having roots is to grow branches. I should branch out to Jews whose branches are deeply rooted in their faith, likewise through Islam and so forth. The impulse to love God and love the neighbor is as much at the heart of Judaism and Islam as it is at the heart of Christianity.

 

So if someone says, "Are you saved?" what do you say?
I think being a Christian is a position of aspiration, not a fixed position. When you say you’re not sure where you’re going in the ministry, I say "Thank God." Avoid premature closure. I think becoming a Christian is the best that we could hope for. And if I’m saved it’s because there’s more mercy in God than sin in me.

I hope to have the humility to recognize that guilt is the last stronghold of pride. Forgiveness from you, for me to accept it, is for me to allow you to do for me what I can’t do for myself. Likewise, God’s forgiveness is for God to do for me what I cannot do for myself. That’s a central point of all religious life. We have to get strength beyond our own, a capacity to love beyond our own.

What about heaven and hell?
They’re both very powerful symbols of life with God and life alienated from God. In that sense, heaven and hell begin right now on earth. I do believe in an afterlife, not with intellectual certainty, but with a kind of psychological certitude or spiritual certitude, because I believe that God goes from God, in God, to God again. Having caught on a little to what love is all about, it would be too bad not to go on with that kind of relationship and knowledge. But basically that’s in God’s hands. If I know who’s there I don’t have to know what’s there.

Do you believe everyone’s there?
That’s a mystery. Do I know where Saddam Hussein is going? That would be presumptuous, just like it’s presumptuous to say, after the terrible train wreck, God saved my life. Well, why didn’t God save her life, his life, that kid...

You preached a sermon to that effect when your son died...
After my son Alex was killed in Boston, a very nice woman came with arms full of cheeses or something, very thoughtful, but as she started off to the kitchen, she said, "I never could understand God’s will." I set off in pursuit of her and said, "Listen, lady, what makes you think it's worth the will of God? Nobody knows enough to say that." I said in the sermon, "My solace lies not in the fact that it was the will of God, but because I believe God’s heart was the first of all the hearts to break."

That was the core of the sermon that has meant so much to a lot of people. They realize that God’s will is not that somebody die, that God doesn't go around with his finger on triggers, or his hands on the controls of airplanes.

What is your relationship to Jesus?
Jesus is two things to me. One, he’s a mirror to our humanity, showing us what really good human beings should be. The glory of God is a human being fully alive. Jesus is my human being fully alive.

And Jesus is also a window to divinity. When we see Jesus scorning the powerful, empowering the weak, healing various hurts, we have seen transparently the power of God at work. When we pray to God asking for mercy beyond our own powers of forgiveness, we're asking God for strength beyond our own strength. How can we do that? How do we know that’s possible? Through Jesus Christ our Lord. That’s why our prayers end up that way.

But to say that God is most essentially defined by Christ is not to say that God is confined to Christ. And therefore people like Rabbi Heschel--whom I consider a much more profoundly religious person than I could ever aspire to be--he has a route to the same kind of God through his own paths of Torah and Talmud as I follow through Jesus.

'Guilt is the last stronghold of pride. Forgiveness ... allows you to do for me what I can’t do for myself'

In your prayer life do you tend to direct your prayer life to Jesus or God?
To me, that's not crucial, except when people say you can only pray to Jesus and therefore Muslims and Jews can’t pray right.

At Riverside, the profession of faith is "Jesus is Lord." Can you explain what that means for you?
Yeah. Many people would be willing to say that Jesus is a prophet. One of the greatest prophets in the world. Many people would be willing to say Jesus is indeed a mirror to our humanity—showing us what human beings should be like. Jesus said that the more we love the greater …our souls. But to say Jesus is Lord is to say that Jesus is not only a mirror to our humanity but also the window for me, to divinity.



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