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Bill Moyers Interviews William Sloane Coffin on NOW. 3.05.04
Credo means "I believe." For William Sloane Coffin, faith is life's preemptive answer to the mystery and sting of death. Over the years he became one of America's best known ministers÷
A passionate preacher÷.
COFFIN: God doesn't want us narrow-minded. God doesn't want us priggish. God doesn't want us subservient, but joyful!
A lover of music÷..
Above all, though, it was his commitment to social justice that made William Sloane Coffin pratically a household name.
In the early 60s, he went to jail as a freedom rider challenging segregation in the South.
He was arrested, again, for leading protests against the war in Vietnam.
COFFIN: To strive for military successes is in all likelyhood to invite moral and political defeat.
MOYERS: Garry Trudeau used him as a model for Reverend Sloan in the Doonesbury comic strip.
And that's just the half of this remarkable life: as a child, he trained as a concert pianist; went on to become a captain of army intelligence in World War 2; served at the CIA at the height of the Cold War; and then, for seventeen years, was chaplain of Yale University. He became senior minister of New York City's historic Riverside Church. And then moved on to lead the campaign for nuclear disarmament.
Faith, says Reverend Coffin, is a matter of resisting evil and serving justice.
COFFIN: Human beings who blind themselves to human need make themselves less human.
MOYERS: Four years ago he suffered a stroke, fought back, and last year, when his heart began to fail, learned that he has little time left. Time enough, however, for that one last book, CREDO, on the fire and passion that have driven his life and witness and taught him how to go gentle into that night without ever giving up.
MOYERS: When you had your stroke, many of us were really worried you were not coming back from that. And yet here you are.
COFFIN: Well, there are different kinds of strokes, you know. Some of them are rather minor, and some are major. For me, I lost my speech, just about. I did. I really did.
MOYERS: How long ago was this?
COFFIN: Four and a half years now. And, it took quite a time, a lot of work.
MOYERS: How did you do it?
COFFIN: My wife. She sat down with me two hours every day.
MOYERS: Randy did?
COFFIN: Yeah. And with great patience. And she did more than I did.
MOYERS: What did you do?
COFFIN: Practice, practice. You just say all kinds of words that are very hard to say. For instance L's are very hard now, and R's. "Reverie" is a very difficult word for me to say. Or "religion." So you have to keep working on it. And I consoled myself with Mark Twain's observation about Wagner's music, "It's better than it sounds." But it took a lot of work.
MOYERS: Two hours a day every day.
COFFIN: Oh, yeah, at least. And then I went to the hospital at Dartmouth for a speech therapist too. I must say, it was great going to the hospital because I ran into all kinds of codgers, older than I was, who had wonderful things to say.
One of them said to me, "You know, I wonder when my wild oats turned to shredded wheat." Very seriously. Another one said, "You know, when I bend down to tie my shoes, I wonder if there aren't other things I should be doing now that I'm down there."
So you know, life is always interesting, even when you can't speak, if you can listen, you know? And your curiosity and humor and compassion stays alive, you can do as well as you can do.
MOYERS: What is it like to know every morning when you get up, that there won't be a day like this, a year from now?
COFFIN: It's a very good incentive to enjoy that day. I think, Tacitus, somebody like that said, "There's nothing like enjoying things when you know you're probably not going to enjoy them again."
MOYERS: Does the day go differently, because you know there won't be another one a year from now?
COFFIN: Day by day, it's pretty much the same. You know, I think it's not death, but debilitation, that's really threatening to people. And if you had Parkinson's, or threatened with Alzheimer's, losing your sight, losing your hearing, that's much more a cause, I think, of distress and suffering, than death. And, as far as death goes, it's the fear of death. You know. And so, the important thing is to get the fear behind you.
I think everybody knows unconsciously or consciously that I have only one life to lead. And life is pretty precarious. You know, youth think they're immortal. But when they think about it a bit, they realize it's pretty precarious.
People sense insecurity, and then try to secure themselves against the insecurity, by power. By money. By one thing or another. And false search for security is what does everybody in. But I think everybody fears death at a subconscious level.
COFFIN: What healthy people don't realize is that when you lose your health, death can be quite welcome. Bach had a wonderful aria, Komm, du słsse Todesstunde. "Come Sweet Death," you know. And when you're either in great pain, or just have no more energy, death is not that fearful.
MOYERS: You know, I did this series a few years ago on death and dying. And I remember a great doctor, who himself had been diagnosed with terminal illness, given about six months. He said a lot of people only get 20/20 vision after they go blind.
MOYERS: And he said, "I've only seen life clearly since I got a diagnosis of death."
COFFIN: First of all, the doctors, when they have a brush with death, they become human beings. And they're, I've seen them, radical change. For me, it's been to be told you have six months, or a year, is a kind of wonderful reprieve.
To find out that you have a limited period gives you time to think. And plan. Do the things that are worthwhile. You know? It's like your house is about to be burned. And you have to figure out, what is there to save, you know? And, it was family, friends, mostly.
MOYERS: One of the dying people I interviewed said that she had spent a good bit of the first week after her diagnosis reviewing her life. And that she'd come to the conclusion that life was not defined by the days. It was defined by the moments. And she was reviewing those moments, she said, in her mind. Have you done that?
COFFIN: There's no question about it. There are certain moments in your life, when everything seemed right. And those, you know÷ As Eliot said, "Go, go, go, said the bird. Humankind cannot bear very much reality."
But those real moments, when everything seemed to be absolutely right. You know? You love somebody. You marry somebody you love. The kids are just right, at that moment. Or a sentence came out just right.
MOYERS: It's been 30-plus years since you were arrested and jailed for trespassing in the US Capitol, when you were protesting the Vietnam War.
Your fellow demonstrators remember that during the night, when they were uneasy, even depressed, they suddenly heard someone singing. And it was you. Do you remember that?
COFFIN: Yeah. It was a group of clergy and laity concerned with Vietnam. And so, they were all pretty religious folk. So, I started to sing "The Messiah," as I remember. And quite a few people joined in. It was a good night.
MOYERS: What is it that enables a man to sing in prison?
COFFIN: Well. In my case music, after God, has been my chief source of solace. Song is an expression of hope. And hope is something that is experienced with a kind of psychological certitude, rather than intellectual certainty.
It's trusting that things all will be well when the day is done. Or, as Havel said wonderfully, "Hope is not waiting for something good to turn up well. But being grateful that something really makes sense." That's enough to make you burst into song.
I asked an 85-year-old professor, great buddy of mine at Yale, "What makes you cry?" And he said, "Whenever I see or hear the truth." That tear is a kind of a song. You know. It's something apprehended at a very deep level.
MOYERS: But you know, you talk about hope. And I remember the story in the Old Testament, which you talk about here in CREDO. Moses, taken by God to Mount Nebo, to look out across the Jordan River. And told that there is the Promised Land. But of course, Moses never makes it And I've often wondered if that's a cruel trick, a prankster God.
COFFIN: It would be worse, maybe, if we all made it. The journey is what really counts. And, I think all we need to know is who's there, not what's there.
You know, I lost a son. And people will say, "Well, when you die, Bill, Alex will come forth and bring you through the pearly gates." Well, that's a nice thought, and I welcome it. But I don't need to believe that. All I need to know is, God will be there. And our lives go from God, in God, to God again. Hallelujah, you know? That should be enough.
MOYERS: You write in here that before birth, there was God. And after death, there is God. And that's all that matters with you. But how do you know that?
COFFIN: That's you don't know, once again, intellectual certainty. It's not believing without proof. It's trusting without reservation. You and I can trust each other, because we know each other, and love each other.
Same thing with God, you know? You trust God. And that's what faith is. Being faithful to your understanding of God. It's not a question of believing without proof. It's trusting without reservation, that God is good. And that something you've experienced the presence of God in your own life. And that's what you trust.
MOYERS: You speak of your son's death. And that is one of the great eulogies that I've ever read. The eulogy you delivered after the death of your own son. Where did you summon the strength to do that?
COFFIN: Well. We all do what we know how to do, maybe. I went right away to the piano. And I played all the hymns. And I wept and I wept. I did grief work. And read the poems.
Like A.E. Houseman, "To an Athlete Dying Young." And I wept and I wept. And then, I'm a preacher. So. I wrote the sermon. And the folks in Riverside Church had to know whether or not they still had a pastor. Well, so I wanted them to know, they had a pastor. But I also, couldn't think of anything else for the moment, but about Alex, and his death. So, I wrote the sermon about it.
COFFIN: I think the most important thing, I said was you can never say "God caused a death." Nobody knows enough to say that. And, why should I live and another person die? Why should I be healthy, and you have a serious illness? We don't know that thing. But, God is in the response to the death. My comfort is not that it was caused by God, but, God's heart was the first of all the hearts to break.
MOYERS: You're not supposed to outlive your children, are you?
COFFIN: No. I have a little sentence or two, about the Chinese Emperor who sent his wise man off for a month, to figure out, what is happiness? And the wise man's gone back. And the Emperor said, "So? What is happiness?" And the wise man said, "Happiness is when the grandfather dies, and then the father, and then the son." That is on the money. If the order gets mixed up, that's misery. I know that.
MOYERS: You once said it was, I heard you somewhere say, that faith is being seized by love.
COFFIN: Yeah. That's a good definition.
MOYERS: Well, it's yours.
COFFIN: And there are a lot of people who were responding to God's love. Even though they may not say they believe in God. I mean I've worked so much in the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement. And, most recently trying to bring some justice to gays and lesbians. I worked with people who were not believers as I am a believer, you know?
But, if the God believes in them, those are the people I wanna work with. You know? And do you remember Norman Thomas?
MOYERS: Oh, the Socialist Leader.
COFFIN: Yeah. I worked with him, he was a wonderful wonderful wonderful man. And I went to see him in Long Island. He was on his deathbed. And we called him Big Daddy. And I said "Big Daddy, how are you doing?" And he was blind, you know, he couldn't see a thing. And he held up a gnarled fist that I could shake, thoroughly racked his body was with arthritis.
And he said, you know, I'm never going to get off this bed. And I said how do you feel about that? Well, I believe in euthanasia, but it scares everybody else to death, you know. And then I heard myself saying to him, "Big Daddy, do you believe in God?" And he said, "Well, not the all powerful, God that is heard about in seminary."
And I said, "Well don't you think, he's a loving God?" "Yeah, that's what they told me." I said, "But don't you think power is restricted by love? So if you're all loving, you're not all powerful." And he said, "Well, I guess you could get away with that quite a while." And then I said to him, "Well, you know, Big Daddy, whether or not you believe in God, is not important. To me, what's important is whether God believes in you."
And what would, without any condescension whatsoever, "I want to say to you, you are God's faithful servant." And he lay there and the tears began, and he put his hand up, you know, and I took his hand, Said, "That makes me feel good, Bill." And I feel I wasn't trying to comfort him. Or, I mean, God knows I didn't want to condescend in anyway. But I believe that. I believe.
MOYERS: I once heard you speak in which you said, "We must always press the socialist questions. But be careful and dubious about the socialist answers."
COFFIN: Well, the socialist questions are questions about justice. And it's, you can say, with prophet Amos, let justice roll down like mighty waters, but figuring out the irrigation system is complicated. So that justice issue at the heart of socialism. But what's the best irrigation system, maybe combination of a lot of things.
MOYERS: Do you believe that religious faith requires political commitment?
COFFIN: No, but not absolutely. But in certain situations and particularly in our times now when everything is so fragile, precarious. I believe then that politically-committed spirituality, that the people who are politically committed to express their faith.
And my understanding of Christianity is that it underlies all progressive moves to implement more justice. Get higher degree of peace in the world, you know? And although people don't see it, that's what I mean by politically-committed spirituality.
You know, the impulse to love God and neighbor, that impulse is at the heart of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. No question about it. We have much more in common than we have in conflict.
MOYERS: Let me come back to what we began discussing. If you accept death as naturally as you seem to be accepting it, as casually as you seem to be accepting it, is there a risk of undermining the value of life?
COFFIN: I wasn't happy to hear, you said, casual. Because death is a very great mystery. And must not be demeaned, debased in any way. It's a very, very important event. That's why for the Roman Catholic you have last rites. It's recognition of the seriousness. Not the casual attitude toward death.
MOYERS: Do you ever think about what happens when we die?
COFFIN: Not very, not very much. As I said before, who's there, not what's there, is what counts. For me.
When St. Paul says neither death nor life can separate us, for the love of God, or elsewhere whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord. Now that's kind of nice, nose thumbing independence of death. You know, that's not being casual about it. But being able to cooperate gracefully with the inevitable.
MOYERS: Does anything ever make you sad?
COFFIN: Oh, yeah. Really sad music and the personal side, you know, is, well, I have little, very small grandchildren who these days are having a tough time with croup and it's very hard on their parents. And nobody sleeps at night. And that, you know, that makes me very sad.
But no, chirping optimism is terrible. But if you and a lot of people think, "I'll never feel too good about anything so I won't have to feel too bad about anything either." And they think that emotional mediocrity is the good life. No. We should be able to plumb the depths of sadness and rise to the heights of joy, even ecstasy, though at my age, it's not too easy.
MOYERS: What makes you angry?
COFFIN: Well, I'd say people in high places make me really angry. The way of corporations now of behaving the way the United States government is behaving about the same thing.
And what makes me angry is that they are so callous, really callous. Caring÷ there was a wonderful layperson in England, von Hugel. And he said in his dying breath, "Caring is the greatest thing. Caring matters most." Now when you see uncaring people in high places, everybody should be mad as hell.