william sloane coffin

william sloane coffin

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 “I could not imagine a theater worth my time that did not want to change the world.”

I feel the same way about religious faith; it should want to change the world. The “blood-dimmed tide” 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 ‘What must I do to be saved?” but rather “What must we all do to save God’s imperiled planet?”

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 …

Read the rest of Rev. Coffin’s address.

4 thoughts on “william sloane coffin

  1. Thank you, Tim, for your journal entry about William Sloane Coffin, and for giving us the entire speech. It certainly does confront us on what God considers important, doesn’t it? THANK YOU.

  2. The Sanity Inspector fails to account for the root of Coffin’s social witness and activism — a profound and personal faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. He is not is social engineer, not a closet communist, not even a Christian idealist. He is simply one who takes the life and witness of Jesus seriously and tries to live out its implications in his own time and place.

    He was a minister … for goodness sake! I am sure he dried the tears of many folks, but also thought it incumbent upon him and the church as Jesus’ people to try to do something about the powers and influences and institutions that were causing their tears in the first place!

  3. Tim,
    Thanks for this link to Coffin’s address. I was privileged to hear him at Riverside Church over the course of nearly ten years. His insight and his ability to translate faith language into everyday, helpful language remains with me to this day. I am currrently reading his last book (I think), Credo. It’s a first-person account of the life of faith.
    Thanks again.

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