Bill Coffin has died. Rev. William Sloane Coffin was likely the most influential liberal Protestant clergyman and leader of his generation. One of the first white men to go South and be arrested in the civil rights movement, one of the first church leaders to dissent from the Vietnam War, one of the first moral voices against the nuclear arms race, Bill was a prophetic voice of Christian conscience to both church and state for many decades.
Bill died at his final home in Vermont of congestive heart failure but, as many have testified, his heart never failed a generation committed to putting their faith into action. While apparently unafraid of death, Bill Coffin (unsurprisingly) defied it to the very end.
Seemingly on the edge of death for month after month, Bill kept publishing new books, giving new speeches, founding new organizations, hosting a legion of pilgrims saying their last goodbyes and being ministered to once again by the prophet-pastor, and somehow finding the time to keep encouraging countless friends in the struggle for social justice and peace–including regular phone calls to our home to cheer me on during the God’s Politics book tour.
He would see a television interview and call just to offer his encouraging and wise words. Sometimes he would speak to Joy while I was on the road, and send me his good advice, “Tell Jim to let his success go to his heart but not to his head.”
I remember a special dinner for Bill, hosted by his friends, Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, and Rev. John Chane, the Episcopal Bishop of Washington. It was billed as Bill Coffin’s likely last visit to Washington, D.C., (it was) and a host of interesting people turned up. Dan Rather, then-CBS anchor, testified to the consistent moral voice that Bill Coffin offered to journalists such as him. Joe Hough, the president of Union Seminary, named him a genuine prophet for our time. Marian spoke of how impressed a young generation of civil rights activists was with the active support of a northern white clergyman.
And in an extraordinary story, Bill Moyers described an interview he once did with the Religion News Service while still press secretary in Lyndon Johnson’s White House.
After stepping into the makeshift phone booth used for phone interviews, the religion reporter kept challenging the administration’s arguments for the Vietnam War, and kept citing anti-war points made by a young chaplain at Yale–Rev. William Sloane Coffin.
No matter what Moyers’ rebuttals, the reporter kept coming back with Coffin’s clear theological and political objections to the war. After the interview, a frustrated Moyers instructed an aide to “find out who this guy Coffin is” and to get his arguments against the war. He got them; Moyers read them carefully, and the encounter with Coffin’s prophetic critique was the beginning of Moyers own change of heart on Vietnam and, eventually, many other things.
I don’t know if Bill had ever heard that story quite before, but the influence on Moyers was stunning to all of us in the room.
I had the job of helping Bill get up to the podium for his remarks in response to all the tributes he had received (strokes had diminished his mobility and slurred his words but had not dulled the sharpness of his mind or cooled the warmth of his heart.)
In introducing Bill to speak to all of us, I described how this young evangelical with a growing social conscience had failed to find many in his own contemporary faith tradition to learn from, but had discovered this liberal chaplain at Yale and senior minister at The Riverside Church who was more faithful to the gospel at the point of its social and political implications.
I gave Bill a big smile and tearfully testified that, “On the biblical matters of justice and peace, Bill Coffin was one of the most evangelical Christians of our time.”
Thursday was Bill Coffin’s memorial service at The Riverside Church in New York City. Many testified to his prophetic courage, his indomitable spirit, his great humor, and his pastoral care. And many, such as me, were just grateful to have been one of his many friends. Now Bill goes to God.
“The one true freedom in life is to come to terms with death, 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…. The more we do God’s will, the less unfinished business we leave behind when we die.”–William Sloane Coffin, June 1, 1924, to April 12, 2006
Jim Wallis is editor in chief and executive director of Sojourners. Source: Sojourners 2006 (c) http://www.sojo.net