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The Religious Left 

Published February 11, 2004 at 5:00 a.m.

Aristotle got it wrong. It's not the unexamined life that's not worth living, but the uncommitted life. So says the Reverend William Sloane Coffin, long-time political activist and current resident of Strafford, Vermont. His fervor for social justice as chaplain at Yale, then pastor of New York's prestigious Riverside Church, and finally president of SANE/FREEZE has made him one of the key progressive voices of recent decades. His new book Credo offers a retrospective of utterances from that very public ministry.

The word "credo" comes from the same root as "cardio." As his title suggests, faith for Coffin is less a matter of the head than the heart. Unconditional trust and love are at the center of all great religions and of the God-experience itself. And our differing ways of talking about the divine -- historic creeds and confessions -- are less "hitching posts" than "sign posts" for Coffin. They are not intended to be intellectual stopping places but rather spiritual starting points that direct attention to what is most central to human existence.

Our relationships are what give texture and meaning to life, and much of the dis-ease of modern existence stems from a culture that cares more for things -- luxury and lucre -- than for human beings. "There are people and things in this world," Coffin declares, "and people are to be loved and things are to be used." But increasingly we have it backward, loving things and using people like expendable commodities.

Coffin's heart is clearly located on the Left. He reminds us that "God 'n' Country" is not one word. And like the makers of Hebrew National Kosher Hot Dogs -- whose ads boast "We Answer to a Higher Authority" -- Coffin reminds us that loyalty to the Biblical tradition means adherence to higher standards than "national security" in matters of war and peace. He challenges the flag-waving that often passes for patriotism in America. The slogan "my country right or wrong" is like saying "my grandmother drunk or sober," Coffin says. Real patriotism demands an effort to restore sobriety to a nation drunk on wealth and military might.

Comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable is part of the job description of the prophet, and for Coffin, denouncing the "plutocracy" that puts corporate greed ahead of human need is all in a day's work. "We can have a democracy or we can have great wealth concentrated in the hands of the few," he says, quoting Justice Louis Brandeis. "We cannot have both." When the poor take money from the rich, it's called class warfare, he notes. When the rich take from the poor, it's called an economic plan.

But Coffin has another plan in mind -- some would say a vision. Where but from a pulpit like his would you encounter an alternative analysis of both the problems facing our world and such radical solutions as, for example, a call for the total elimination of nuclear weapons? Presidential aspirants and party hacks alike might get a transfusion of conviction from clerics like Coffin. He reminds us that while politics may be the art of the possible, hope consists in making things possible tomorrow that seem impossible today.

The final section of Coffin's Credo focuses on "The End of Life," and it is clear that at age 79, the author is thinking about the journey's end. "It's not that I feel I'm withdrawing from the world, only that I'm present in a different way," he muses. "Although still outraged by callous behavior, particularly in high places, I feel more often serene, grateful for God's gift of life."

Too weak to take on a major writing project himself, Coffin relied on editor James Carroll to collect and compile snippets from a lifetime of sermons and lectures, arranged around broad themes such as "The Church" and "Nature," to create this volume.

In his prime, Coffin must have been a commanding physical presence. In his introduction to the volume, Carroll recalls the first night the two spent in jail together, locked up for trespassing at the U.S. Capitol in 1972. In the darkness of the night, as each of the priests and ministers who had been arrested lay alone in their cells, Coffin's deep baritone began to sing. The words were from Handel's Messiah -- "Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people" -- and the voice was rich, resonant and full of strength.

Unfortunately, that voice is much diminished in these pages. Although intended as the record of a high-voltage career, Credo lacks the personal dimension that might give extra amperage to pronouncements that are often more edifying than electrifying. The reader wants more of the man spilled out on these pages, less of the pundit or preacher.

Despite or because of the work's aphoristic quality, however, Coffin proves himself a master of the epigram and theological one-liner:

"We put our best foot forwards, but it's the other one that needs attention."

"The woman most in need of liberation is the woman in every man."

"Christ came to take away our sins, not our minds."

"It is often said that the Church is a crutch. Of course it's a crutch. What makes you think you don't limp?"

For a short refresher course in discipleship -- and why the Bible remains a revolutionary document despite its misuse by the Religious Right -- no better teacher exists than William Sloane Coffin. If only more of those who call themselves Christian, from the White House on down, could learn from the humility of this passionate and compassionate man.

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About The Author

Gary Kowalski


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