I woke up dissatisfied with what I wrote last night. I wrote what I felt, yet I struggle with coming across as the guy who rants from his desk and then does little else. I want to be more than pissed off at our government; that doesn’t get me much of anywhere. I want to get beyond the feeling of isolation, here in my little South Shore suburb, which tempts me to buy into the lie that life is really happening somewhere else. I also woke, not planning to write this early. heck, no one will have had time to read what I wrote last night, even if it left me less than pleased.
Then I read the news that William Sloane Coffin died yesterday of congestive heart failure. He was 81. I’ve been reading articles and obituaries for the past hour or so. Coffin has been a voice of hope and encouragement for me, particularly in the last several years. Here are some of the things said about him today.
From the New York Sun:
“But for Coffin, a hue and cry was confirmation that he was doing his job. When a minister once lamented to him that the press was disinterested in mainline churches, Coffin replied, ‘Do something interesting.’ Following his own advice, Coffin resigned the pastorate at Riverside in 1987 to focus on peace and nuclear disarmament, as president of SANE/Freeze, now called Peace Action. After retiring in the early 1990s, he continued to speak out and write. His most recent book was “Letters to a Young Doubter” (2005), in which he quoted Rilke’s words, “be patient towards all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves,” for gradually, “you will live into the answers.” Turbulence and doubt were to be expected, and indeed were the genesis of Coffin’s ministry.”
From the Toronto Star:
“’Bill’s voice was part of a chorus of conscience for a nation dealing with issues of poverty, war, disarmament, racism and bigotry,’ the Rev. Frederick Streets, Yale’s current chaplain, said yesterday. ‘He distinguished himself by rising above and emerging out of his own background of privilege to speak on behalf of the poor.’’
“The World War II veteran and scion of a wealthy New York family travelled to North Vietnam during the war with that country and to Iran during the hostage crisis there, bringing harsh criticism from some quarters. To those who questioned his patriotism, Coffin often replied that the true patriot is one who maintains ‘a lover’s quarrel’ with his country.”
And from AlterNet:
“81-year-old William Sloane Coffin’s life is the life of the second half of the 20th Century. A progressive second half, that is.
“An heir to the W & J Sloane fortune, he was a CIA agent, an organizer of the first Peace Corps trainings, the chaplain of Yale, an ally of Martin Luther King Jr. (he was a Freedom Rides organizer), president of SANE/Freeze, and opposed the Iraq War in his later years.
“He’s even got a permanent spot in the Doonesbury comics as the Rev. Sloan.
“The Presbyterian minister occupied such a vaunted place in the progressive world The Nation recently asked, as his health was failing, who the next William Sloane Coffin would be.”
I somehow think Coffin would smile at that question. I don’t think he saw himself as leaving a vacancy as much as simply living hs life.
“The one true freedom in life is to come to terms with death,” he wrote in Credo, “ and as early as possible, for death is an event that embraces all our lives. And the only way to have a good death is to lead a good life. Lead a good one, full of curiosity, generosity, and compassion, and there’s no need at the close of the day to rage against the dying of the light. We can go gentle into that good night.” (167)
I am heartened that a person can move from the CIA to the Peace Corps to being a Freedom Rider and a peace activist. If that is the arc of a faithful life, then there is hope for me, for you, for the Congo, for America. And I need the hope. What leaves me most dissatisfied – even desperate – when I think about Congo, or Darfur, or the child slaves in Ivory Coast, or the war in Iraq, is I have to deal with the part of me that doesn’t expect anything to change. I want to believe we, as human beings, can respond differently, that we can do something besides destroy one another, and that violence will not have the last word. There’s a good chunk of me that thinks the darkness is unending and so I flail at it quixotically, raging in some sort of existential temper tantrum that leaves me mostly exhausted.
“It’s comforting to be bitter about evil – not creative, but comforting,” Coffin wrote. “It’s also easy to blame everything on tragedy. But in my experience most people give up on life not because of tragedy, but because they no longer see joys worth celebrating; they do not see that human life, under any circumstances, never ceases to have meaning. Tragedy offers the opportunity to find new meaning and most of all to reevaluate what’s important.” (129)
On this, the penultimate day of darkness on the Christian calendar, I realize one of the ways I am different from Jesus. (There are several, trust me.) He was willing to be fully human. I don’t want to admit that the people who inflict violence and pain around the world are people like me. I want to be different than they are. Sometimes I don’t want to be human. Then, one way or another, I’m challenged to remember that faith, hope, grace, and love are transmitted incarnationally: human to human.
Coffin was one of the voices in our time who called us to be fully human, in the truest sense. Thanks, Bill, for the continuing reminder.