"Clearly the trick in life is to die young as late as possible," Reverend William Sloane Coffin From his last book, Credo.
Reverend William Sloane Coffin died Wednesday at the age of 81.
Bill Coffin, as his friends knew him, was one of our greatest and most eloquent prophetic voices. For more than forty years, his passionate calls for peace, social justice, civil rights, and an end to nuclear insanity challenged this nation’s conscience.
While Chaplain of Yale University in the 1960s, Coffin emerged as an indomitable opponent of the Vietnam War. A leader of the draft resistance movement, a proponent of civil disobedience, Coffin and four other antiwar activists (including Dr. Benjamin Spock) challenged provisions of the Selective Service Act. Tried in 1968, Coffin, Dr. Spock and two of the other three were convicted of conspiracy, but the verdicts were overturned on appeal. In 1978, Coffin was called to the very visible pulpit of Riverside Church and as its Minister led the church into the center of the antinuclear movement. (He was also immortalized as the offbeat Rev. Scot Sloan in Doonesbury. )Though slowed by a stroke he suffered in 1999, Coffin spoke out against the Iraq war and, just last October, he founded a religious organization calling for the elimination of nuclear weapons.
Over the years, Coffin contributed to The Nation. Occasionally, he’d call to propose an idea or offer a perspective on events gripping his imagination. He knew I spoke some Russian so he’d playfully use his–acquired during World War II when he entered a Russian language program in military intelligence. Because of his facility with languages, Coffin was made a liaison to the Russian army and, in 1946, he took part in operations to forcibly repatriate Soviet citizens who had been taken prisoner. He forever repented for this episode, writing in his memoir that it "left me a burden of guilt, I am sure to carry the rest of my life." That burden, he later said, influenced his decision to spend three years in the CIA opposing Stalin’s regime. But Coffin was quick to tell you that while he was anti-Soviet he was also very ‘pro-Russian."
I have a vivid memory of Coffin, when he officiated at my wedding in 1988, singing along with a mournful Russian ballad we chose to play–a song written by a man whose father and other familymembers had either perished or spent years in Stalin’s gulag.
A few years ago, James Carroll wrote of Coffin’s gospel, "…What a gospel it was. The world he described was upside-down; the church on the side of the poor; the powerful at risk for losing everything; the disenfranchised as sole custodians of moral legitimacy. Coffin, in his passionate sermon that day, was perhaps the first person from which you heard that defining question: Whose side are you on?"
In our latest issue Dan Wakefield remembers Coffin’s work –and that of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Father Daniel Berrigan and Rabbi Abraham Heschel–in battling racism, unjust war, nuclear proliferation, poverty and threats to civil liberties. "Their inspiring example, " Wakefield writes, "raises a disturbing question: Where are their counterparts now?"
In these last months, Wakefield traveled around the country putting that question to religious leaders and lay people, "trying to understand what has brought us to the political-religious crisis of our time and what, if anything, is being done about it." When Wakefield asks "who is the contemporary equivalent of Coffin…several mainline Christians sighed and said. ‘Well, I guess–Coffin."
Bill Coffin’s great friend Cora Weiss called Wednesday night. Cora was Bill’s closest ally in all of the important struggles for peace and social justice in these last years. "I called Bill a few days ago to read him Wakefield’s piece over the phone. The whole thing. At the end, I said, ‘Bill, you can’t go. Dan Wakefieldsays there’s no one to replace you." Coffin told Cora, "He’ll find out soon enough," intimating, for the first time Cora says, that he was beginning to fade. But, as she reminds,"conscience never stops."
Nor do the lessons of a man who was full of wit, fire, passion, joy, courage and commitment as he preached and worked to better the world. " I like to believe that I am an American patriot who loves his country enough to address her flaws," Coffin wrote in the introduction to his last book. "Today these are many and all the preachers worth their salt need fearlessly to insist that ‘God’n’ country’ is not one word."