The Common Good
June 2004

Roots of a Mentor

by Duane Shank | June 2004

I first heard of William Sloane Coffin in 1967,

I first heard of William Sloane Coffin in 1967, when he was a leading spokesperson for "A Call to Resist Illegitimate Authority," a manifesto pledging to "counsel, aid, and abet" young men in resisting the draft. It made a strong impression on me and, with other influences, led to my refusing to register with the Selective Service System two years later. Our paths crossed occasionally over the next 20 years until the late 1980s, when I had the privilege of working with him in the merged SANE/Freeze anti-nuclear organization.

One memory that stands out is a trip we made to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, for a speaking engagement. As we crossed the Susquehanna River into the rolling hills and farms, I told him that no matter how far my life had moved from that lush farmland where I grew up, returning there always felt like coming home. He smiled and remarked, "A tree can’t have branches unless it first has roots."

These books describe the roots and branches in Coffin’s life. A Holy Impatience, a biography written with the cooperation of Coffin, his family, and his friends, is both story and analysis. Through recording the span of a life, Goldstein also provides a history of the social movements in which Coffin was involved.

Coffin’s roots are in the liberal northern Protestant establishment of Yale University and Union Seminary, institutions with an activist sense of noblesse oblige that shaped his life. The early death of his father, a stint in the Army during and after World War II, and CIA service during the Korean War are chronicled with interesting detail.

In 1958, he accepted the chaplainship of Yale University, as one of America’s elite universities was slowly accepting the cultural changes shaking the country. Coffin found his calling in progressive religious-based activism. The seminal moment came in 1961 when, heeding an invitation from Martin Luther King Jr., he led a group from Yale to participate in the Freedom Rides. They were arrested in Montgomery, Alabama; for the first time "respectable" northern whites had joined the movement.

"Coffin’s decision sheds light on the power of a genuine movement," Goldstein writes. "Without the public example and sheer bravery of the (mostly young) southern civil rights workers, white northerners would not have risked bodily harm on behalf of people they did not know and who lived in an utterly different world."

This newfound activism, combined with his verbal eloquence and strong personality, made Coffin one of the pre-eminent activist religious leaders of the next 40 years. From his leading involvement in the anti-Vietnam War movement to the pulpit of New York City’s Riverside Church, from the Riverside Disarmament Program to the presidency of the merged SANE/ Freeze, he was, writes Goldstein, "the most influential liberal Protestant in America" after Martin Luther King.

What distinguished him, Goldstein concludes, was that, "Coffin’s preaching remained relevant and inspiring to his audiences for 40 years because, like the biblical prophets, he never allowed his enemies…as much power as he ascribed to the love of God. By taking his God seriously and preaching Christianity joyously, William Sloane Coffin Jr. helped create a ‘holy impatience’ with injustice…that will live long beyond his own life."

CREDO COULD WELL be subtitled "The Best of William Sloane Coffin." The book is a collection of sentences and paragraphs from a lifetime of sermons organized into topical categories—"conclusions," Coffin writes, "from a lifetime of continuous education."

On faith: "It is terribly important to realize that the leap of faith is not so much a leap of thought as of action. One must…dare to act wholeheartedly without absolute certainty."

On economic rights: "Had I but one wish for the churches of America I think it would be that they come to see the difference between charity and justice. …Charity seeks to alleviate the effects of injustice; justice seeks to eliminate the causes of it."

On the church: "To Christians, political decisions are not at the center of their faith; they are at the periphery of their faith. But without a periphery there can be no center. …Together, faith in Jesus Christ and political application of that faith form one unbroken circle."

Most moving is his final chapter, "The End of Life." More than a year ago, Coffin was given one month to live. He’s still here, but reflecting on the inevitable end. "The one true freedom in life is to come to terms with death, and as early as possible, for death is an event that embraces all our lives. And the only way to have a good death is to lead a good life. …The more we do God’s will, the less unfinished business we leave behind when we die."

For me, as with all those who know Bill Coffin, have worked with him, and been inspired by him, he leaves us better able to go about the business for which he lived. These books ensure that his "holy impatience" with injustice will live and continue to inspire.

Duane Shank is policy adviser at Sojourners.

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