The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr. died yesterday. Rev. Coffin was university chaplain during my time at Yale, and many years later has won my admiration as a genuine person of faith and a powerful voice for truth and justice and peace — God’s truth, God’s justice, God’s peace. The stories told about him and the stories told by him (see Credo, a collection of quotations and excerpts from his writing) have prompted me to do some serious re-examination of my self-understanding as a minister of the gospel.
A year ago, Yale Divinity School brought together Rev. Coffin and some four hundred of his friends, colleagues, and students to celebrate “The Public Witness and Ministry of William Sloane Coffin, Jr.” Here is an excerpt of the remarks given by Rev. Coffin at that event. I strongly suggest that you click on the link at the end of the excerpt and read the whole of his address! As Jesus’ followers and as Jesus’ church, we need to listen carefully to this voice of wisdom and courage and faithfulness.
Arthur Miller, of blessed memory, once wrote â€œI could not imagine a theater worth my time that did not want to change the world.â€
I feel the same way about religious faith; it should want to change the world. The â€œblood-dimmed tideâ€ loosed in the last century claimed more lives than all wars in all previous centuries, and the present century is filled with violence and cruelty. We seem more intent on fighting God’s will than doing God’s will. Therefore, the most urgent religious question is not â€˜What must I do to be saved?â€ but rather â€œWhat must we all do to save God’s imperiled planet?â€
Spirituality takes various forms. In many faiths some are very profound while others, particularly these days, appear to be a mile wide and one inch deep. Urgently needed for our time is a politically engaged spirituality.
I believe Christianity is a worldview that undergirds all progressive thought and action. The Christian church doesn’t have a social ethic as much as it is a social ethic, called to respond to biblical mandates like truth-telling, confronting injustice and pursuing peace. What is so heart-breaking is that, in a world of pain crying out for change, so many American churches today are basically down to management and therapy.
A politically engaged spirituality does not call for theological sledgehammers bludgeoning people into rigid orthodoxy. Nor does it mean using scriptural language as an illegitimate shortcut to conclusions, thereby avoiding ethical deliberation. We have constantly to be aware of hard choices informed by the combination of circumstances and conscience. We insult ourselves by leaving complexities unexamined. But never must we become so cautious as to be moral failures …