The Common Good
January 2009

A Timeless Prophet

by Steve Loy | January 2009

As mainline churches work to find positions on difficult social issues, Westminster John Knox Press recovers a 20th-century pro­phetic voice.

As mainline churches work to find positions on difficult social issues, Westminster John Knox Press recovers a 20th-century pro­phetic voice. William Sloane Coffin served as the senior minister of The Riverside Church in New York City from 1977 to 1987. During his 10-year tenure, Coffin preached more than 300 sermons, nearly two-thirds of which addressed social issues. Frequently ahead of his time, he preached on topics ranging from nuclear disarmament to homosexuality in ways that were both pastoral and prophetic.

Coffin gained notoriety first in the freedom rides of the early 1960s, then by helping students at Yale resist the Vietnam draft, and finally as a leader in nuclear disarmament in the 1980s. Never one to shy from an argument, Coffin regularly assumed bold, progressive positions on divisive issues, doing so in a way that invited dialogue and differing opinions. Often theoretical and academic in style, his sermons remain both credible and accessible because he devoted his life to actively working for peace and justice.

This second volume of Coffin’s Riverside sermons begins with his first sermon of 1983, the one that would become his most famous, titled “Alex’s Death.” Preached just two weeks after his son’s death in an auto accident, Coffin questions the commonly held notion that death is God’s will. He counters with the promise that when Alex died, “God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.” These sermons, from his last five years of parish ministry, represent the maturity of Coffin’s thought and the culmination of 30 years of living and preaching the social gospel. Most remember Coffin for his activism, but Sunday after Sunday he used the pulpit to challenge, coerce, and cajole his congregation to stand with Christ. These sermons are essential reading for those who believe the gospel beckons Christians to social action.

Coffin dares other religious leaders to embrace the social gospel. Recalling a clergy gathering where he was questioned about his progressive position, Coffin responds: “‘How many of you have read two books on homosexuality and the church?’ I asked. About four hands went up. ‘How many of you have read two books on the arms race?’ This time there were about 20 hands—but that was out of several hundred. ‘ … Most of you would bite your tongues purple rather than speak out on a controversial issue; you wouldn’t know what to say. And to make matters worse, to the degree that your ignorance stems from your complacency, it is an ethical and not an intellectual default.’”

COFFIN’S PREACHING STYLE contains a mix of rigorous intellectual pursuit, passionate liberalism, neo-orthodox theology, and pithy, quotable sayings. In a sermon titled “God is Love,” when speaking about doctrine he says, “I’m not trying to get rid of dogma, only put it in its proper place—which is penultimate, not ultimate. Dogma is a signpost, not a hitching post. ‘God is love’ means that purity of doctrine is second to the integrity of love.” In the same sermon, he expresses the fullness of the social gospel when he muses, “That Christ­ians could better the lot of humanity, even save the world, goes without saying. The only question is whether we will.”

Like most prophets, his words take on a timeless character. In his time, and now in ours, Coffin affirms, “In any nation, self-righteousness is anathema to God and disastrous to human unity, because it concentrates all attention on the sins of others. It is deaf to St. Augustine’s admonition: ‘Never fight evil as if it were something that arose totally outside of yourself.’ Moreover, self-righteousness tends toward zealotry, which, by providing a nation with motives that appear selfless, can lead in turn to the perpetration of a kind of ‘redemptive’ violence.”

One last thought, from a sermon titled “Find Something Worth Doing”: Drawing on the healing of Peter’s mother-in-law, Coffin says, “On entering the world of 1987, Jesus noticed that it had achieved more brilliance than wisdom, more power than conscience, that it knew less about living than it did about killing. And he touched the hands of all who made and applauded weapons, and the war fever left them.”

As the United States spends billions of dollars on war while cutting social programs, when the debate over abortion, education, and sexuality continues at a fevered pitch, Coffin’s Riverside sermons challenge us to imagine the church as the primary place for social change, a change that begins in the pulpit.

Steve Loy is pastor of Peace Lutheran Church in Las Cruces, New Mexico.

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