"None of Us Have the Right to Avert Our Gaze"


Rev. William Sloane Coffin has been a leader against the war in Vietnam, an advocate for civil rights and an opponent of nuclear weapons. Coffin was an Army officer in World War II, acting as liaison to the French and Russian armies. Upon graduating from Yale University in 1949, Coffin entered the Union Theological Seminary until the outbreak of the Korean War when, in 1950, he joined the CIA and spent three years in Germany fighting Stalin’s regime. He earned his Bachelor of Divinity degree from Yale in 1956 and was ordained a Presbyterian minister.

Rev. Coffin became Chaplain of Yale University in 1958. Early on he opposed the Vietnam War and became famous for his anti-war activities and his civil rights activism. He had a prominent role challenging segregation in the “freedom rides.” Coffin used his pulpit as a platform for like-minded crusaders, hosting the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. , South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela, among others. Fellow Yale graduate Garry Trudeau has immortalize Coffin as “the Rev. Sloan” in the Doonesbury comic strip.

By 1967, Coffin increasingly concentrated on preaching civil disobedience and supported the young men who turned in their draft cards. In 1968 Coffin, Dr. Benjamin Spock, Marcus Raskin and others were indicted by a Federal grand jury for conspiracy to counsel, aid and abet draft resistance. All but Raskin were convicted, but in 1970 an appeals court overturned the verdict.

Coffin remained chaplain of Yale until December 1975. In 1977 he became senior minister at Riverside Church in New York City and became a leading activist, meeting with world leaders and traveling abroad to protest U.S. policies. He currently resides in Vermont.

RALPH NADER: With the majority of Americans in poll after poll turning against the U.S. war and occupation in Iraq and with many retired Generals, diplomats and intelligence officials opposed to the invasion in the first instance why is the organized opposition not greater? What can be done to turn this public support into organized opposition?

Rev. William Sloane Coffin: Sacrifice in and of itself confers no sanctity. Even though thousands of Americans and Iraqis are killed and wounded, the blood shed doesn’t make the cause one wit more or less sacred. Yet that truth is so difficult to accept when sons and daughters, husbands, friends, when so many of our fellow-citizens are among the sacrificed.

Because her son was killed Cindy Sheehan is not called unpatriotic. What the rest of us have to remember is that dissent in a democracy is not unpatriotic, what is unpatriotic is subservience to a bad policy.

The war was a predictable catastrophe and we’ve botched the occupation. However, I sympathize with those who are perplexed about what is best now to do. Soon I hope people will heed the call to renounce all American military bases in Iraq and to begin withdrawal of American troops. I think Bush has it wrong: he says: “When Iraqis stand up, Americans will stand down.” More likely its: when Americans stand down, then Iraqis will be forced to stand up. The question is, “Which Iraqis and for what will they stand?”

RN: Why do you think most of the anti-war groups stopped their marches in 2004 and became quiescent compared to 2003?

WSC: Wars generally mute dissent, and Bush is given to silence criticism, to keep problems hidden and ignored. Now that such tactics are no longer possible, given the many setbacks to his war aims, the marches will soon begin.

RN: What do you think the churches and the National Council of Churches should be doing that they are not now doing regarding the war-occupation?

WSC: Bob Edgar, the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, has been an eloquent protester of the war. Local clergy must brave the accusation of meddling in politics, a charge first made no doubt by the Pharaoh against Moses. When war has a bloodstained face none of us have the right to avert our gaze. And it’s not the sincerity of the Administration, but its passionate conviction of the war’s rightness that needs to be questioned. Self-righteousness is the bane of human relations, of them all-personal and international. And the search for peace is Biblically mandated. If religious people don’t search hard, and only say “Peace is desirable,” then secular authorities are free to decide “War is necessary.”

RN: Any comparisons between the domestic opposition to the Iraq War/Occupation with the domestic opposition to the Vietnam War?

WSC: There are similarities. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was based on a lie; so was the charge that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. And the lies continued: We were winning the Vietnam War, Iraqi oil would pay for the costs of the war and of the occupation.

I think the absence of a draft has much to do with the present lack of student protest. On the other hand, I think the colossal blunders of the Administration will quicken an antiwar movement faster now than during the Vietnam War. After all, it was only after the Tet Offensive in 1968, not originally in ’62,’63 or ’64, that the American opposition to the Vietnam War became massive.

RN: What should the U.S. government do now?

WSC: The U.S. government should realize that if we can’t defeat the insurgents, we have lost. The insurgents, on the other hand, have only not to lose to declare victory. And to defeat the United States and its allies might go a long way to assuage, to offset the humiliation and rage so many Muslims presently feel. All of which indicates we should start to withdraw our troops. What we shouldn’t do is to believe President Bush when he says that to honor those who have died, more Americans must die. That’s using examples of his failures to promote still greater failures.

RN: What do you think should be done strategically and tactically by the peace movement?

WSC: I am very much in favor of well thought out non-violent civil disobedience, of occupying congressional offices, telling lawmakers, “You have to stop the slaughter, to admit mistakes and to right the wrong.”

Unfortunately, to get media attention, you have to sensationalize the valuable. But town meetings, letters to the editor, flooding Washington with protest letters and marches ­ all that is still very important if the protest continues and gains momentum.

RN: How is Vermont a model in this respect?

WSC: Representative Sanders, Senators Leahy and Jeffords ­ Vermont is well representative by these sensitive, intelligent people. The state is exceedingly environmentally friendly which tends to make people more peace-minded. Actually some Vermonters want to secede from the Union. I’m opposed. Better to stay where the guilt is and try to improve things throughout the country.

RN: What broader advice do you have for strengthening our democracy and confronting the concentration of power and wealth over the life sustaining directions our country (with its impact on the world) needs to take? Please address any specific reforms that demand priority.

WSC: Something happened to our understanding of freedom. Centuries ago Saint Augustine called freedom of choice the “small freedom,” libertas minor. Libertas Maior, the big freedom was to make the right choices, to be fearless and selfless enough to choose to serve the common good rather than to seek personal gain.

That understanding of freedom was not foreign to our eighteenth century forebears who were enormously influenced by Montesquieu, the French thinker who differentiated despotism, monarchy, and democracy. In each he found a special principle governing social life. For despotism the principle was fear; for monarch, honor; and for democracy, not freedom but virtue. In The Broken Covenant, Robert Bellah quotes him as writing that “it is this quality rather than fear or ambition, that makes things work in a democracy.”

According to Bellah, Samuel Adams agreed: “We may look to armies for our defense, but virtue is our best security. It is not possible that any state should long remain free where virtue is not supremely honored.”

Freedom, virtue ­ these two were practically synonymous in the minds of our revolutionary forbears To them it was not inconceivable that an individual would be granted freedom merely for the satisfaction of instinct and whims. Freedom was not the freedom to do as you please but rather, if you will, the freedom to do as you ought! Freedom, virtue ­ they were practically synonymous a hundred years later in the mind of Abraham Lincoln when, in his second inaugural address, he called for “a new birth of freedom.” But today, because we have so cruelly separated freedom from virtue, because we define freedom in a morally inferior way, our country is stalled in what Herman Melville call the “Dark Ages of Democracy,” a time when as he predicted, the New Jerusalem would turn into Babylon, and Americans would feel “the arrest of hope’s advance.”

RN: What about the Educational system as it relates to democracy?

WSC: Higher education is doing fairly well. Universities are only too expensive, and do too little to persuade students to make a difference, not money, to be valuable not “successful.”

Lower education, on the other hand, particularly for the urban and rural poor, cries for attention. And it’s all related ­ inadequate education, housing, jobs, day care, lack of medical assurance. Our children need teachers and doctors, not generals and wars. And they desperately need the incentive only good mentors and a good nation can provide.

RN: Are you writing another book?

WSC: Not that I know of.

To contact Rev. Coffin or RALPH NADER write the Director of Democracy Rising, Kevin Zeese at KZeese@DemocracyRising.US. You can comment on this interview on RALPH NADER’s blog at www.DemocracyRising.US.




Ralph Nader is a consumer advocate, lawyer and author of Only the Super-Rich Can Save Us!