From the Worldwide Faith News archives

[PCUSANEWS] 'Nothing to complain about'

Date Wed, 7 Apr 2004 14:25:10 -0500

Note #8191 from PCUSA NEWS to PRESBYNEWS:

April 7, 2004

'Nothing to complain about'

Social-justice firebrand Coffin is anticipating a gentle, quiet death

by Alexa Smith

LOUISVILLE - Having spent his life raging against bigotry, nuclear arms and
economic excess, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin says he intends to die
gently, without fuss, without fury.

"We should cooperate gracefully with the inevitable," he says pragmatically,
acknowledging with some amusement that, while he's had a fiery public life,
he is a man who picks his battles. "If you don't come to grips with death
early on, but know you'll die, it will make you insecure. And that's the
worst thing that humans can do, try to secure themselves against insecurity.
With money. Or power. Pretending that life will go on forever. And it makes
others pay a gruesome price.

"You see, you can't get rich without making someone else poor. You can't get
power without disempowering somebody else. All of these things are forms of
pride ... and are essentially corrupt."

At 79, Coffin's words still flow flawlessly. He is ever the preacher.

Coffin, who has been the voice of northern liberal religious dissent for a
quarter-century, is a magnet for controversy. Ironically, he was an Army and
CIA veteran in 1969 when he became a defendant in the "Boston 5"
draft-resistance trial. He achieved fame while serving as chaplain at his
alma mater, Yale University, as a lightning rod for opposition to the Vietnam
War. A man born to privilege, he was jailed many times as a civil rights
Freedom Rider, the first time in 1961. He was senior minister of Riverside
Church in Manhatten for more than 10 years, and is president emeritus of
SANE/FREEZE: Campaign for Global Security.

Since he suffered a stroke, Coffin's speech is slightly slurred; he sometimes
must repeat a word or two. His voice doesn't boom like it used to, but he can
still rant against what he finds intolerable - lately the duo of Bush and
Cheney, men he believes are muddied by deception and are putting U.S.
soldiers' lives at risk in a war with Iraq that shouldn't even be.

This morning, however, at his daughter's home in Oakland, CA, he is talking
about death, and not just philosophically. He may not see another Easter this
side of eternity. But he acknowledges death casually, like a man awaiting the
first snowflake of the winter, not knowing its day or time.

He complains that he's short of breath before he even gets out of bed, and
says his tennis-player legs are "pretty well gone." He can walk around the
house, but needs a wheelchair to leave it, and usually needs his wife, Randy,
the woman who helped him learn to speak again after his stroke, to push it.
And there are grandkids always happy to push Poppy around. Without slapping a
technical diagnosis on his condition, Coffin says that his heart is
"thickening," which means that less and less blood gets pumped through it.

"I can do some things. I write a bit. ... I have not lost my marbles," he
says, describing his good fortune to have a new book published by
Westminster/John Knox Press, Credo, a compilation of quotes that is rapidly
climbing the best-seller lists and on which, he, happily, did little of the

 His old friend Bill Moyers recently interviewed him on NOW, about his life,
about his impending death. There's a documentary, Coffin's Lover's Quarrel
with America. Warren Goldstein has just published a biography, William Sloane
Coffin Jr.: A Holy Impatience, published, appropriately, by Yale University

"I've got nothing to complain about," he says.

While Credo is rife with rage about a lack of justice in the world, the
callousness of the rich, and Christians' reluctance to confront both, it is
evident from its opening, Faith, Hope and Love, through the final chapter,
The End of Life, that God is the central character in this volume - and
Coffin's strength and comfort.

At its close, he contradicts the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, saying: "The only
way to have a good death is to lead a good life. Lead a good one, full of
curiosity, generosity, and compassion, and there's no need at the close of
the day to rage against the dying of the light. We can go gentle into that
good night."

There is no rage here, even though that may seem ironic to some.

Early on, Coffin got his mind around the core of a faith that has irony at
its heart: Where love is the mightiest power, where unmerited good is as much
a marvel as evil, and where a life put in God's good hands can instill hope
and life even in the face of death.

It was out of such conviction that Coffin to delivered a now famous eulogy
for his son, Alex, absolving God of any blame in his death in a car accident
and rejecting the platitude that human suffering is part of God's will.
"Nothing infuriates me as much as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent
people to get it through their heads that God doesn't go around this world
with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering
wheels," he says. "... The one thing that should never be said when someone
dies is, 'It is the will of God.' Never do we know enough to say that. My own
consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die;
that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God's heart was the first of
all our hearts to break."

So the man whose social conscience is easily offended by human callousness 
especially in people in power - doesn't feel one ounce of anger toward God.
"I just don't," he says flatly. "If I am lucky enough to see God one day,
I'll have a few questions. But God will have many more to ask me, if he's
keeping tabs."

He quotes Paul as his expert, reciting the verse, "Whether we live or die, we
are the Lords's."

"Paul says: From God, to God, in God again," he says, adding: "People ask me
whether I think I'll see my son again. ... But I do not ... know. I need to
know I'll be in God's hands. To demand anything more belittles your faith."

Unmerited cruelty baffles Coffin, but he's more fascinated by the opposite
question: How to explain unmerited good?

"You have to be very tough-minded about God," he says. "If love is the name
of the game, then freedom is the only pre-condition. Love is self-restricting
when it comes to power. The only way God can stop the barbarous things that
happen on earth is to restrict our freedom." Something God won't do.

"We have to accept responsibility that the name of the game is love."

That's what teased him into faith in the first place  over time. "I've never
had anything as dramatic as the Damascus Road," he says. "I've had
mini-conversions, moments when I could see things more clearly."

As a not-particularly-religious college student, Coffin found himself
listening to an Episcopal priest intone the liturgy for two friends who'd
been killed in a car accident. While the clergyman's voice sounded nasal and
smug (Coffin thought about tripping the man as he walked down the aisle), the
words threw him slightly off-balance: "The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh
away." It was the "giveth" part that put his mind into motion, a corrective
to his youthful pride. "I just thought, 'You know, Coffin, you're only a
guest here. ... A guest, at best.'"

He realized, as he sang in the Yale choir, "All of our hearts are open, all
of our desires known," that unless the heart is full of love, the mind can't
think straight.

And it was on a whim that he signed up to go to Union Theological Seminary
one Monday for a "call to ministry" visit, during which he was bowled over by
the visions of justice held out by Reinhold Neibuhr and others. "It was all
gradual," he says now.

His theology and his politics combined to push him to the forefront of the
social movements that defined his times.

Death may be inevitable, he says, but atrocities and injustices are not.

Mention the war in Iraq, and he says that he wishes the military brass had
quit in protest. "Bush, Cheney, Pearl ... (they're) intellectually in a
bunker. They're lacking in imagination, and have misled the country,
including the military. I feel sympathy for those who are in Iraq."

Coffin says the churches have grown too conservative, like the whole country,
forgetting that the devil tempted Jesus with wealth and power. He thinks his
thesis in a book published in the 1980s by Westminster/John Knox, A Passion
for the Possible, still holds up - that the world the churches ought to be
working to create is one without violent conflict, without pollution, and
without "a yawning chasm" between rich and poor.

Some churches are "irrelevant(ly) righteous," he says, and others are "more
concerned with free love than free hate." He says the answer to bad religion
isn't no religion - it's good religion. He laments that much about church
life is "management and therapy. There is so little prophetic fire."

"Anger has a very important spiritual benefit," Coffin says. "If you don't
have anger, you end up tolerating the intolerable - and that's intolerable. I
still have plenty of anger that is ready to be used at a moment's notice."

He pauses, then adds: "When you get older, you find that you don't miss as
much as you thought you would. I was a damn good tennis player. Now, I can
hardly walk ... I don't grieve that. I was a serious pianist. But I no longer
have the energy to keep up my digital dexterity. So, I listen to music; I
don't play it. If you adapt in this way, it is a positive thing. You're not
in control anymore, less and less. And that's very nice. ...

"As I think I have said other places, it's a very good thing we don't live
forever. ... If life were endless, we'd be bored to death. ... The fact that
we're going to die gives meaning to life, gives meaning to our days. And that
is a good thing."

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