Sunday, July 17, 2005

William Sloan Coffin, Prophet

Speaking of the prophetic witness, there's a new book out from one of the masters. Eighty-one years old, and he's still witnessing effectively.

William Sloan Coffin: A man of conviction

July 17, 2005

By KEVIN O'CONNOR, Staff Writer, Rutland Herald

STRAFFORD — William Sloane Coffin says it was almost three years ago when doctors gave him six months to live. So why is the 81-year-old Vermont cleric turned "Doonesbury" character around promoting his new book, "Letters to a Young Doubter"?

He always has listened to a higher authority.

"Hope reflects the state of your soul rather than the circumstances surrounding your days," the retired Presbyterian minister writes in a hardcover now arriving in stores. "Praise God and your soul gets stronger."

Speaking out also seems to fortify the firebrand. Forget that he was diagnosed with chronic cardiac problems in 2003 after a series of strokes. Sermonizing on everything from the Iraq war (which he opposes) to gay marriage (which he supports), he's still strong of heart.

"I didn't think I could write any more, but my editor said, 'You still have another book,'" Coffin says at his Strafford home. "I said, 'I'm supposed to be dead now.' She said, 'I'm not impressed.'"

And so he started writing his 185-page "Letters to a Young Doubter," a sequel of sorts to Rainer Maria Rilke's century-old classic "Letters to a Young Poet."

Coffin, a Vermonter since 1990, remembered back to his tenure as chaplain at Yale University from 1958 to 1975, when he was jailed for protesting racial segregation laws in the South, indicted on federal charges of conspiring with Vietnam draft resisters and immortalized as the Rev. Sloan in the comic strip "Doonesbury." [Note from Fausto: This is only half true. Coffin was only half the inspiration for "Rev. Sloan". The other half was our very own UU Rev. Scotty McLennan, now chaplain at Stanford U. But Coffin was McLennan's mentor.]

He envisioned a volume of letters written to an imagined student named Tom — after the Bible's Doubting Thomas — that would address "problems of faith, the difficulties of personal life, and the ever more confusing and complex problems in today's world."

'Fanning the embers'

Consider, Coffin writes, "President Bush's messianic militarism, a divinely ordained form of cleansing violence, and all in the name of a Jesus Christ who is the mirror opposite of the Jesus of the four Gospels."

"Osama bin Laden believes in faith-based violence; Bush believes in faith-based violence," the minister says in an interview. "Osama believes it's redemptive violence — he's going to take out the bad guy; Bush believes it's redemptive violence — we're going to rid the world of evil. You have to watch it — you become like the enemy you hate."

Some may consider Coffin a heretic, but the minister says he began honing his message as a U.S. Army liaison to French and Russian forces during World War II.

"I considered World War II a necessary evil, and I think I still do," he writes. "However, I now realize, particularly in the nuclear age, that war, like most necessary evils, is far more evil than necessary."

"How can the president call Iran, Iraq and North Korea 'the axis of evil' when the whole of humanity suffers infinitely more from environmental degradation, pandemic poverty and a world awash with weapons?" he continues in his book. "We must agree to be governed by the force of law, not by the law of force. … We don't have to lead the world; we have to join it."

Conservative readers, be warned — Coffin's just getting started. The husband, father and grandfather writes about abortion: "First of all, questions about abortion really should be addressed to women. … I can't see what right a man has to override the choice of a woman. So I remain pro-choice, pro-women's choice."

And homosexuality: "In a Washington cemetery, on the gravestone of a Vietnam veteran, it is written, 'When I was in the military, they gave me a medal for killing two men and a discharge for loving one.' Why, like the army, are so many churches on the wrong side of history? Why is a man loving another immutably immoral?"

And the religious right: "Those who are more intent on quenching the bonfires of sin than on fanning the embers of creativity — these are poor examples of Christianity. God doesn't want us narrow-minded, priggish and subservient, but joyful and loving."

'Better to wonder'

Coffin, holding court in a recliner beside a stack of Christian tomes, can't understand why so many religious people are speaking out for the death penalty and against homosexuality.

"Is this the word of the Lord for our time — that we should hate, fear, discriminate?"

He says of churchgoers who feel uncomfortable welcoming gays and lesbians: "With whose suffering do you ally your sympathy — the people in the church who are bigoted or the people who can't come to church because they're being discriminated against?

"Over the years I have been convinced that the more important question is not who believes in God, but in whom does God believe," the minister continues. "Rather than claim God for our side, it's better to wonder whether we are on God's side."

Coffin can be just as scathing with liberals who lament the state of the country.

"I get a little bit annoyed when somebody says, 'I am so disillusioned.' I'm old enough to say, 'Who gave you the right to have illusions?' If we're disillusioned, we have only ourselves to take to task. I like fighters, not whiners."

In his new book, Coffin quotes everyone from French writer Albert Camus to Vermont mystery novelist Archer Mayor. The minister also offers his own words on what makes a good sermon.

"No souls are saved after 20 minutes," he writes. "Be rich in emotion, strong in conviction and tender as only the truly strong can be tender. Love your congregation, and be the first to do what your sermon calls for. If you can't persuade yourself, how will you persuade others?"

"A good sermon is like a good whodunit," he says in an interview. "The surprise is the discovery of inevitability — why didn't I think of that?"

"When people complain that their prayers aren't answered," he adds in his book, "generally their prayers are answered and the answer is 'no' and they haven't heard it."

'Unduly optimistic'

Coffin, strong if a bit wobbly in his speech and walk, today gets much of his world view from a lace-curtained living room window overlooking the Strafford green.

"Nature gets more interesting as you get nearer to joining it," he says with a laugh.

Although happily retired in a town of 1,085 people (it's 15 unpaved miles north of the junction of interstates 89 and 91), Coffin remains a player in national publishing. Westminster John Knox Press released "Credo," a collection of excerpts from his sermons and speeches, to surprising success in 2003. It has similar hopes for his new book, for which the author will limit his public appearances to the Norwich Bookstore in Norwich on Aug. 3 at 7 p.m. and the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester on Aug. 27 at 7 p.m.

"Although if Oprah calls …" he says.

In the meantime, Coffin will continue to sermonize from his armchair pulpit. One day he's talking with a reporter for a local paper, the next he's welcoming the Los Angeles Times. His concerns are the same ones he spoke about after Yale: world hunger, homelessness and human rights as minister of New York City's Riverside Church and peace as former leader of the SANE/FREEZE nuclear weapons freeze campaign.

"I'm an old man in a hurry," he says. "I used to think the basic wisdom of the American people will come forth. I've waited quite a long time now. I may have been a little bit unduly optimistic."

Then again, Coffin still finds hope in his heart.

"You ask about my health," he writes in his new book. "I have known better days but none happier. My spirits are high and everything else is commentary."

Commentary he pens longhand on a legal pad.

"I suspect this will be the last book, but I said that after the last book," the minister says. "My wife asked, 'How long are you going to write?' I said, 'I'll know when I've stopped.'"


At July 17, 2005 at 12:42:00 PM EDT, Anonymous geode said...

Thanks for all the inspiring quotes by this guy, he does Vermont proud.


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