William Sloane Coffin Extended Interview

Read Bob Abernethy’s full interview with William Sloane Coffin:

Q: You have, in the course of your life, participated in a good many great causes and have done so with a lot of passion. As you look around the country today, I wonder whether you see an absence of commitment to great causes with great passion.

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A: I think we lack passion. We’re showing moral lassitude. In universities tolerance is very apparent, but often it feels like abdication. There’s not the kind of prophetic fire which also produces insight. Universities are very leery about passion. They think it’s poured on top of judgment. But passion produces also insight. Read the Bible. All the great prophets in the Bible were very passionate.

Q: Why do you think that is, in the country as a whole? Why aren’t people in the streets today the way they were in the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement?

A: We’re prosperous. … And now, of course, fear has taken hold, and in life you can either follow your fears or be led by your values, by your passions. Now we have an administration which sponsors fear — of immigrants, homosexuals, crime, terrorists particularly. And this fear-mongering, I’m afraid, is quite deliberate because the more you can make people fear, the more a government can control you. I’ve seen that in many countries, and now I see it in the United States, where the administration is engaging in fear-mongering. Everybody is fearful. The Congress is made up of practicing cowards, and people don’t feel a sense of accountability for what the nation should stand for — and money doesn’t help.

Q: What’s the role of churches in this?

A: Unfortunately the churches now are pretty much down to therapy and management. There’s very little prophetic fire in the churches. When I was growing up we had church leaders — Catholic Church leaders, Protestants, and wonderful rabbis like Abraham Joshua Heschel — who were full of passion, highly intelligent. They knew that love demands the utmost in clear-sightedness. And they were not lazy about doing homework. They were really present, you know? Now, we haven’t got quite as many. But that being said, we have wonderful individual ministers, I would say primarily women, and individual Catholic priests, but not quite the way it used to be.

Plato said once, “What’s honored in the country will be cultivated there.” When we started as a nation we had only, what, three million people? Less than Los Angeles County today? And yet we turned out statesmen (there were no women, unfortunately) named Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Adams. You can name a list as long as your arm. How many people on the public political stage can you name of the caliber of that first generation? “What’s honored in the country will be cultivated there.” We have fantastic athletes, and we deserve them, and we have rather mediocre politicians and clergy.

Q: Where does the rise of conservatism, especially on the religious Right among Protestant evangelicals, fit into this whole thing?

A: I think most people prefer certainty to truth, and when they feel insecure and want to secure themselves against a sense of insecurity, they engage in what psychiatrists call “premature closure.” They close off too early. I’m often asked what I think of the Christianity of President Bush. I think his God is too small. After all, it’s a profound Christian conviction that we all belong one to another, every one of us on the face of the Earth — from the pope to the loneliest wino, and that’s the way God made us. Christ died to keep us that way. Our sin is always that we’re putting asunder what God has joined together. For every serious believer the question arises: Who is big enough to love the whole world? How, for instance, can the president call Iran, Iraq, and North Korea the axis of evil when all of humanity suffers immeasurably more from environmental degradation, pandemic poverty, and a world awash with weapons? Our God is too small, and then our God is much too nationalistic. A good patriot is not a nationalist. What really puzzles me about the Christian Right is how they can applaud the messianic militarism of the president, a kind of divinely ordained cleansing fire of violence, all in the name of Jesus Christ, the mirror opposite of the Jesus we find in the four Gospels.

I would like to say that for the president to offer a constitutional amendment is very painful. He believes that all people are not created equal, not if they’re gays and lesbians. And he wants a constitutional amendment to reinforce the inequality. That’s a cruel, cruel thing to do. If he had any more feel for what the suffering of the gay and lesbian crowd is all about, if he’d just be available to the suffering, he’d understand that it’s not their outward expression, it’s the inner connection that really counts. And he ought to know that straights have not cornered the market on life-sustaining, deep-caring love. Gays can do that just as well as straights. It’s like Christians and Jews. They are different — not different up, not different down, just different. Gays and straights, they’re different. Not different up, not different down, just different. And what the world needs is a pluralistic vision of love, if we’re going to survive.

Q: Many, many religious conservatives read the same Scripture that you do and come out very differently on social issues. Why?

A: I think they read the Book of Revelation more than they do the gospel. This apocalyptic view which allows them to substitute fate for faith doesn’t make them feel accountable in the same way. Now, if you read the Gospels, you know Jesus was servant of the poor. So how can you say compassionate conservatism should be directed primarily at CEOs and unborn babies? Why doesn’t the Christian Right pay attention to hunger, homelessness, poor education, absent health benefits of babies already born? I’m not saying social justice is the same thing as the gospel; it isn’t, but social justice is at the heart of the gospel, not ancillary to it. And that seems to be an understanding that is, unfortunately, not very deeply appreciated here — not in Latin America, though.

Q: Many of us say, “Well, you know, I’ve got to work hard to support my family, I don’t have a lot of time,” or “I don’t want to seem radical,” or “I don’t want to cause my neighbors to suspect I’m not fully patriotic.” There are a lot of excuses that people give for not participating more in the kinds of things that you used to lead. What do you say to those people?

A: I understand that people want to be safe, polite, obedient, comfortable, but that’s not being alive. Irenaeus, the great early church father, said the glory of God is a human being fully alive. Now, if you back off from every little controversy in your life you’re not alive, and what’s more, you’re boring. It’s a terrible thing that we settle for so much less. Religion is the revelation of the love of God and of human possibility. Christ is a mirror to our humanity and tells us what it means to be alive and well. So it’s hard for me to think they are very good examples for the kind of Christianity I believe in.

Q: After September 11 there was a surge of patriotism. Sometimes it has seemed that patriotism blocked any kind of criticism, that we were afraid if we spoke out against going to war or the policies after the Iraq war, that it would be considered disloyal to the troops and our country. How do you separate patriotism from criticism?

A: In a democracy, dissent is not disloyal. But that’s hard for people to accept when they don’t like criticism. During the war against Vietnam, there was that bumper sticker: “America: Love it or leave it.” That bumper sticker really said, “America: Obey it or leave it.” Or maybe it said “America: Obey it or it will leave you in the cold.” You will be called unpatriotic. You will be told, “Go back to a communist country,” or something like that. It takes work to stay alive. It takes work to engage in dissent. But I would say the great trouble now is self-righteousness. Self-righteousness is the bane of all human relations — interpersonal, international, interfaith. Self-righteousness destroys our capacity for self-criticism. It makes it very hard to be humble, and it destroys the sense of oneness all human beings should have, one with another. I think the fact that we are, as a nation, rather self-righteous now is a terrible danger for us and very bad for other countries.

Q: It must make you terribly frustrated to see all the things you think are wrong and not being righted, and not be able to play the part in leading those movements that you once did.

A: Oh, no. With age, you should step aside. Let other people take over, you know, and maybe the next generation or the one after that will do something much better than we did. Besides, you know, the great Frenchman Albert Camus once said, “There is in the world beauty, and there are the humiliated. And we must strive, hard as it is, not to be unfaithful either to the one or to the other.” Well, blessed as I am living in Vermont, it’s easy to be loyal to beauty. If I get too down on our failure to deal with the humiliated, I can always say, “God was good; the creation hasn’t totally been corrupted yet.” Hope needs to be understood as a reflection of the state of your soul, not a reflection of the circumstances that surround your days. So I remain hopeful. The opposite of hope is despair — not pessimism. As a very convinced Christian, I say to myself, “Come on, Coffin, if Christ never allowed his soul to be cornered into despair, and his was the greatest miscarriage of justice, maybe, in the world, who the hell am I to say I’m going to despair a bit?” And besides, when I addressed people as I used to frequently in the peace movement, there would be, in the last ten years, always somebody saying, “I am so disillusioned.” Well, being old now, I can be forthright and say, “Who the hell gave you the right to have illusions in the first place?” We have no right to have illusions. So we have only ourselves to chastise when we feel disillusioned.

Q: What’s the essential connection for you between religious faith and justice?

A: Justice is at the heart of religious faith. It’s not something that is tacked on. And justice is not charity. Charity tries to alleviate the effects of injustice. Justice tries to eliminate the causes of injustice. Charity is a personal disposition. Justice is public policy. What this country needs, what I think God wants us to do, is not practice piecemeal charity but engage in wholesale justice. And that’s not only to erase or greatly reduce the wage gap and the living standards in America, but really to be committed to doing something about the horrible, really horrible poverty of at least one third of the people on the planet. If you want to do something good for national security, and every American should, take billions of dollars and wage war against world poverty. That would have a very sobering effect on terrorism. Terrorism now has a wonderful recruitment policy supplied by the United States foreign policy. If we were serious, with other nations, to engage the war on poverty around the world, that would stem the flow of recruits to the ranks of terrorists.

Q: Let me ask you to look back a little bit at some of the great movements you were part of. The civil rights movement: What do you remember with the greatest pleasure or what was the greatest lesson of it?

A: The greatest pleasure was being with black civil rights leaders and followers, because they were so alive. You can be more alive in pain than in complacency. These often very poor blacks in Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia with whom I had the great pleasure of working, they were so wonderfully alive, so cheerful, so courageous. It was inspiring, really inspiring. I felt from the get-go that the so-called “black problem,” as it was called in those days, was the white man’s problem, and we were the ones discriminating against black folk. We were the ones being pressed not to give them their rights, but to restore rights that should never have been taken away. While it was right to have the civil rights movement led by leaders like Martin Luther King, Fred Shuttlesworth, Ralph Abernathy, all the wonderful black leaders, whites were necessary — to bail them out of jail. The NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund did that very well, and whites were very much necessary to raise money, and the Jewish community in New York City was generous to a fault. It was very moving to see that. The rest of us who weren’t lawyers and who didn’t have money — we could go to jail with our black brothers and sisters.

Q: How about the antiwar movement?

A: That was in many ways more painful than the civil rights movement. I think everybody knew discrimination was evil; no question about it. Integration was painful but necessary. I had great sympathy for Southern whites who, if they were against segregation, were like anti-Soviet Russians in communist Russia. Very difficult. The antiwar movement split the nation in a more acute, painful way. It wasn’t quite as clear that we had the Constitution behind us. I think, in retrospect, everybody agrees it was a terrible, terribly misconceived war. After all, the separation between North and South Vietnam was a temporary military line, not a permanent political one. The Geneva Accords in 1953 made that clear, and then Eisenhower admitted, in his autobiography, that we ignored the elections called for because Ho Chi Minh would have won hands down. So it was, in effect, a unilateral, massive intervention in a small Third World country’s civil war. And, of course, the slaughter was just heartbreaking — on both sides. Let’s not forget the other side. There was such a fuss made about missing-in-action Americans. There were about 39 to 45. We went over there; they helped us find them. Meantime, Americans forgot there were about 300,000 missing in action among the Vietnamese.

Q: The nuclear disarmament movement?

A: It’s a new world when you have weapons of mass destruction, and particularly nuclear weapons, which is why Kofi Annan at the UN said the abolition of all nuclear weapons is at the top of the UN agenda. Only God has the right to destroy all life on the planet. All we have is the power. We haven’t the authority; we only have the power. Therefore, to threaten to use nuclear weapons must be an abomination in the sight of God. As far as what we can do about it, it’s not hard. We have to recognize a single standard for all nuclear weapons: either universal permission or universal abolition. Now, there are retired admirals, retired generals, including the U.S. Strategic Air Commander George Leroy Butler, who have been calling for years for the abolition of all nuclear weapons. We don’t need them for our national defense. We are only lacking the political will to do it — obviously under stringent international inspection.

I think the danger of nuclear destruction grows every day. The terrorists will get a hold of it if we don’t police the storage points now. More nations will get a hold of it, because we can’t stop them. We’ve been practicing nuclear apartheid. The nuclear powers have arrogated to themselves the right to build, deploy, threaten to use nuclear weapons, while policing the rest of the world against their production. Now, we all know racial apartheid couldn’t succeed in South Africa. That was apparent from the beginning. Nuclear apartheid will fail, too. That’s why strenuous efforts must be made to abolish nuclear weapons. My personal sadness is, if Kofi Annan says the abolition of nuclear weapons is at the top of the agenda of the UN, why isn’t it at the top of the agenda of every church in this country, every synagogue and mosque?

Q: Are you a pacifist?

A: Fifty-one/forty-nine. I’m a nuclear pacifist, that’s for sure. But there is an irremediable stubbornness about evil. We have to recognize it, including our own complicity in it. St. Augustine said, “Never fight evil as if it were something that arose totally outside of yourself.” We have to constrain it, but I doubt we’ll ever eradicate it. It’s incredibly naïve of President Bush to say that we’ll rid the world of evil. Come on. The pacifists I greatly admire are those who know that the mystery of evil is beyond their solutions. Nonviolence cannot eradicate violence, which means we have a dilemma, because violence is not working very well either. I keep coming back to the wonderful verse in the 33rd Psalm: “The war horse is the vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save.” In short, I’m looking forward to a day when universal police action will take the place of national armies. That would be a blessed day, if we got to that point. In the meantime, we have pacifists and nonpacifists and a terrible dilemma.

Q: As you look back on everything you’ve done in your wonderful life, what are you most proud of?

A: I never thought that was a question I should answer. It’s not so much a question of pride; it’s deep satisfaction. Joy in this world comes from self-fulfillment. Joy is a more profound experience than mere happiness. Happiness connotes pleasure. Joy can include, and not exclude, pain. The moments of great satisfaction in my life are many, for which I’m deeply grateful. Most of all because I’m a pastor and my pastoral relations have been some of the most satisfying experiences of my life. After all, when I was at Yale for 18 years, I spent almost every afternoon when I was in town — and that was most of the time — just counseling students, one on one. People who invite you into the garden of their soul are really wonderful people. They’re never boring. I don’t bear fools’ company gladly, but people who are deeply personal and willing to air their conflicts — that’s very satisfying. That was a part of my life that was very satisfying. And, I must say, when you feel a sense of undeserved integrity because you think you’re in the right fight — against segregation, against the war in Vietnam, against the stupid and cruel discrimination against gays and lesbians — these are the right fights, I feel very deeply. The sense of self-fulfillment which comes with being in the right fight is a very wonderful thing. And lastly, only because I’m mentioning it last, is my family. I was too busy when I was younger to really appreciate the incredible ties I have with the family, with my children and two stepchildren also, and with a wife without whom, I think, I would not be sitting here now. When you get older, friendship obviously runs deeper and deeper. And, I would add, nature gets more interesting the nearer you get to joining it, and also more beautiful. I can sit on the front porch here with a little bit of “mother’s milk,” which I learned to appreciate when I was a liaison officer with the Russian Army (they had lots of it), and just sit there and watch the sun coming in through the maple leaves. You know, God is good.

Q: How about regrets?

A: Regrets? Well, I mentioned one, the fact that — I don’t say this to excuse myself, but I think it’s basically a myth that people who are so devoted on public fronts have a wonderful relationship with their families. They’re kidding themselves. My regret is that when my children were growing up, I was there for them but not in the way that a father ought to be there for them.

Q: You preached that wonderful sermon after your son’s death, and there were some ideas in there about what is “God’s will.”

A: The part that most people most appreciated was that I said I have no comfort in thinking that it was the will of God that Alex die. My comfort lies in feeling that of all hearts to break, God’s was the first as the wave closed over the sinking car. God is not too hard to believe in; God is too good to believe in, we being such strangers to such goodness. The love of God is, to me, absolutely overwhelming. It was an awful tragedy, and you have to go into the depths of pain, and grief is experienced often as the absence of God: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” said Jesus from the cross. But that’s the first words of the 22nd Psalm, and the end of the psalm is in praise of God. It’s always in the depths of hell that heaven is found and affirmed and praised.

Q: How about your own death? Do you think about that?

A: Not very much. I’d just as soon live a little bit longer. But when you’re 80 you can’t complain. To quote Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his inaugural address, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” Fear of death is what is insidious, and once the fear is behind you, then it is only the physical death which is ahead of you. If we didn’t die we’d be immortal, like the Greek gods, and perhaps up to their same dumb tricks. It’s a very good thing we die. In fact, it’s death which brings us to life. But we need to be scared to life, not scared to death. I await death with no protest. “Do not go gentle into that good night, rage, rage against the dying of the light”: I’m sorry, Dylan Thomas, but that’s not always the case. You can go gentle into that good night. Stop complaining. Remember that, as old Hamlet said, “The readiness is all.” Basically, when I said I don’t think much about death, I was really thinking, I don’t think much about what comes next because I believe our lives run from God, in God, to God again. And that’s enough. We might want to know more, but we don’t need to know more, and demanding that I know more about the afterlife somehow demeans my faith. I think, one world at a time. The second world will be in God’s hands, whereas we were lucky enough to live in this world.

Q: We’ve been talking about a lot of big problems. But you seem to be able to deal with these problems in a way that recalls some deep confidence. There’s something deep in there that involves joy and hope. How are you able to look at the world as it is and still have the capacity for feeling joyful?

A: First of all, it’s clear to me that almost every square inch of the Earth’s surface is soaked with the tears and blood of the innocent, and it’s not God’s doing, it’s our doing. That’s human malpractice. Don’t chalk it up to God. Every time people lift their eyes to heaven and say, when they see the innocent suffering, “God, how could you let this happen?” it is well to remember at that exact moment God is asking exactly that same question of us: “How could you let it happen?” You have to take responsibility, and then you have to say with the poet, “We’re always undefeated because we keep on trying.” You have to keep the faith despite the evidence, knowing that only in so doing has the evidence any chance of changing. You hang in there, and not to hang in there is to abdicate and to get bored and be boring, and it’s important to be engaged in the right way. For instance, I mentioned self-righteousness. It’s very hard for me to war against the self-righteousness of my beloved nation without engaging a little bit in self-righteousness. I have to watch that all the time, because the quality of the engagement is very important. Abraham Joshua Heschel always had a wonderful sense of humor about him. King wasn’t exactly a barrel of fun, but still he had a kind of ability to step back and not run himself into the ground. Humor is very important. Faith is important for the ultimate dilemmas of life; humor can take care of the immediate ones rather nicely. I have a wonderful son, David, who keeps me in good jokes, and a joke a day keeps the doctor away. I’m a great believer in that. And then you have to have moments when you let it go. Often I work with one crowd and drink with another, because the drinking crowd is a little bit more fun, but I wouldn’t want to work with them.

Q: Your faith and the nature of God and God’s love — what is the bedrock there for you?

A: The bedrock of my faith — mind you, I didn’t get to it easily. I think I have World War II to thank for it, because there are few things as irrelevant as an answer to an unasked question, and World War II asked all the important questions for me. When I went to college, I had the right questions. And as Rilke says, “Love the question, and live into the answer.” Very nicely put. My rock-solid belief is that we are loved by God. He loves us as we are, but too much to leave us that way. We are loved by God, and that’s what gives us value. We don’t achieve value. It’s not because we have value that we’re loved by God, but because we’re loved by God that we have value. Our value as human beings is not an achievement; it’s a gift. We don’t have to prove ourselves. All that is taken care of. What we have to do is express ourselves, return God’s love with our own. And what a world of difference there is between proving yourself and expressing yourself. That’s the core basis of my faith. And, of course, Jesus is primary. God is not confined to Christ, but to Christians God is most essentially defined by Christ. In other words, when we see Christ empowering the poor, scorning the powerful, healing the world’s hurt, we are seeing transparently the power of God at work. How do we know what to pray? “Through Jesus Christ our Lord” — that’s why all Christian prayers end that way. We are confident about the things we pray for through Jesus Christ our Lord. That’s not to say that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was a great mentor in my life, didn’t see the same things about God from the perspective of the Talmud and the Torah and incredible Jewish literature throughout the ages.

I’m convinced that gratitude is the most important religious emotion. Duty calls only when gratitude fails to prompt. When you’re grateful for the undeserved beauty of a cloudless sky, you’re praying. You’re saying, “Thank you, Lord,” praying all the time about the beauty of nature, of a relationship with other people, the beauty of the deeds some people do. In World War II, occasionally a soldier fell on a grenade there was no time to throw back. Well, you could be absolutely appalled by their deaths, but you could be struck by the beauty of selfless courage. I feel grateful all the time, so my prayers of thanksgiving are very full. My prayers of petition — I don’t tell God what to do, but thinking about other people and trying to think what God would think about them is a way of directing my thoughts to other people. Praying for world peace — instead of saying, “Grant us peace in our time, O Lord,” God must say, “Oh, come off it. What are you going to do for peace, for heaven’s sake?” It’s not enough to pray for it; you have to think for it, you have to suffer for it, and you have to endure a lot for it. Don’t just pray about it. A lot of people think their prayers aren’t answered. They are answered; the answer is “No,” and they haven’t heard it. I don’t think you have to be self-conscious about your prayer life. If you can live in wonder and gratitude and with a sense of wanting to respond — responsible means “respond-able,” able to respond. … If you’re able to respond to the beauty of nature, you’ll be an environmentalist. If you’re able to respond to human beings’ basic right to peace, you’ll be a peacenik. It’s a matter of being full of wonder, thanksgiving, and praying for strength to respond to all the wonder and beauty there is in human life.

Q: I’m interested in the distinction between a speech and a sermon. What do you think it is?

A: A good sermon is like reading a whodunit: “That’s right. I get it.” It’s a discovery of inevitability. A good sermon should raise to a conscious level the knowledge inherent in people’s experience, so they recognize themselves as you do at the end of a whodunit: “Ah! Why didn’t I think of that?” That’s my idea of a good sermon. And you don’t preach at people; you preach for all of us. You show your own humanity as well as the divinity of Christ. Very few preachers do this, including myself. It’s not bad to end up with a question: “What do you think of that?” Let people go think about it, because a good sermon they will remember on Wednesday. If you leave them a question, they’ll wrestle with it.

Speech? It depends on what you mean. Really good conversation is about pretty deep things, and that’s not what Americans engage in very often. I remember asking a distinguished lawyer, “What did you do at the law firm when Martin Luther King was killed?” And he said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Didn’t you senior partners call a meeting to discuss what this means in your lives and what this means to the nation?” And he looked quite surprised. So I asked the next lawyer, “What did you do when King died?” “What do you mean?” he asked. And I realized I couldn’t find a lawyer whose law firm had the simple decency to call together a meeting and say, “Let’s talk about it.” Now that would be speech that would be very close to sermonic speech. It would come from the heart.

Q: What should we be mindful of when we make defense policy?

A: The art of defense is not to lose from within what you’re defending against from without. In defending against terrorism, it’s a great danger that we become like terrorists. We’ve become self-righteous. They certainly are self-righteous. We’ve become vengeful. “Vengeance is mine. I will repay,” saith the Lord. We forget that. With the present attorney general, I fear all the time that he’s going to lose from within the rights we’re trying to protect against terrorists. The idea that in the Patriot Act the government can go into our own library here, any library in the whole country to find out what books people are taking out — come off it. We have more things to do, better things to do than that. I fear desperately that if the terrorists attack again this summer, this fall before the election — if there’s a dirty bomb in the Holland Tunnel, the devastation will be heart-wrenching, and John Kerry will say, “I’m 100 percent behind the president.” And bye-bye to a lot of human values that have made this country really great. That’s following your fears, not being led by your values. That’s an awfully, awfully important thing and, of course, religiously it’s very important. The Scripture says, “Perfect love casts out fear.”