Remembering Rev. William Sloane Coffin

One of his Yale students, famed cartoonist Garry Trudeau, said of Yale University Chaplain, Williams Sloane Coffin, during those heady years in the Sixties; “Without him, the very air would have lost its charge. With him, we were changed forever.”

Who was this former Army Captain, ex-C.I.A. agent, talented musician, linguist and motorcycle rider? How did he become one of the most influential clergymen of his time by focusing public attention on the essential moral questions so often avoided in times of war, strife over civil rights and the perilous nuclear arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union? Most clergy do not roam so far from their Church.

When challenged to stick with his ministerial duties, this great speaker of sweeping vision and public virtue replied:

Every minister is given two roles: the priestly and the prophetic. The prophetic role is the disturber of the peace, to bring the minister himself, the congregation and entire social order under some judgment. If one plays a prophetic role, it’s going to mitigate against his priestly role. There are going to be those who will hate him.

And with that definition, the Rev. Coffin became the outspoken activist and doer of nonviolent civil disobedience directly from the principles of his Christian faith. He wrote, spoke, organized, marched, protested, was arrested, jailed and prosecuted. He inspired the struggles against the Vietnam war, Jim Crow laws, the military draft, poverty here and abroad, and the planet-threatening atomic arms race. He did all this with an historical frame of reference, biblical wisdom, and humor which was almost always witty and informative.

There was an arresting moment right after World War II when infantry Captain Coffin was assigned to the French and then the Russian army to compel Soviet refugees, who had been taken prisoner, to return to the Soviet Union. He admits to using deception to lure them onto the trains heading for Russia, leading some to attempt suicide because they knew what awaited them there. Many simply disappeared.

In his memoir Once to Every Man (1977), Rev. Coffin said his behavior left him a “burden of guilt I am sure to carry the rest of my life.” It led, he wrote, to his spending “three years in the C.I.A. opposing Stalin’s regime.”

In 1978, he became the head minister at the large, interdenominational Riverside Church in New York City, where he advanced his often affluent congregation toward addressing problems of unemployment and juvenile offenders.

Last October, I arranged a telephone interview about the Iraq war with Rev. Coffin from his Strafford, Vermont home. Though seriously ill, he was typically upbeat: “How are you, Reverend?” “Better than I have any right to feel, the rest is commentary,” he replied.

He made a number of cogent points in the interview, to wit:

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.

Local clergy must brave the accusation of meddling in politics, a charge first made no doubt by the Pharoah against Moses. When war has a bloodstained face, none of us have the right to avert our gaze.

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’.

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.

What we shouldn’t do is to believe President Bush when he says that to honor those who have died, more Americans must died. That’s using examples of his failures to promote still greater failures.

I asked him what he thinks should be done by the peace movement? He was direct, saying “I am very much in favor of well thought out, nonviolent civil disobedience, of occupying congressional offices, telling lawmakers, ‘You have to stop the slaughter, to admit mistakes and to right the wrong.'” (Click here to read the entire interview.)

Reverend William Sloane Coffin passed away in Strafford on April 12 at the age of 81.

Five weeks earlier, another storied man of conscience who waged peace for 65 years died at the age of 88 in Santa Rosa, California. Caleb Foote was such a profound war-resister that he spent 18 months in federal prison because he did not want to easily fake a religiously-based conscientious objection status, since his opposition was based on humanistic principles.

He went on as a law professor to engage decades of championing racial, economic and criminal justice. Not just by representing aggrieved defendants but by also putting forth studies which addressed systems of reform. He spent his later years active in local conservation initiatives.

Should their relatives and many friends and admirers be contemplating the extension of their legacies, they may wish to consider establishing an institution dedicated to the thought and action which these two men demonstrated.

Around two years ago, Reverand Coffin’s was honored at a large dinner in New York City. After eloquent encomiums by several noted speakers, he rose to give a few remarks. Listening on C-SPAN radio, I paraphrase one of his urgings to carry on: It is as if our long gone, valiant reformers in our country’s history were reaching out to us and saying “finish the job, finish the job.”



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

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