The Rev. William Sloane Coffin is one of the founders of the Clergy Leadership Network. He was very kind to spend some time this afternoon on the telephone with me to discuss his views on the 2004 elections, the conflict in Iraq, and his views on what role churches should play on public policy issues.
CLN is hosting a National Gathering of progressive religious leaders on May 16-18 in Cleveland. This interview is the second in a series with CLN leaders before the May gathering. The first was with The Rev. Dr. Albert Pennybacker. A video presentation featuring Rev. Coffin will be shared in Cleveland.
William Sloane Coffin has been a leading voice for religious progressives for decades. For many years he served as the Chaplin at Yale University and as the senior minister of Riverside Church in New York City. He later served as president of SANE/FREEZE.
The first time I heard him speak was when I was a student at Pacific University and he was brought to campus by Dr. Russell Dondero. The Rev. Dr. Michael Kinnamon, a professor of mine at Eden Theological Seminary, is a CLN member and is a friend of Rev. Coffin's. He helped to facilitate my conservation with Rev. Coffin this afternoon.
Rev. Coffin, how important is it to you that George W. Bush not serve a second term as President?
Since 9/11 he has squandered the solidarity we had with the people of the world. The French said on 9/11 that “we are all Americans.” Our wonderful relationship with so many nations has been squandered.
He has turned enormous profit and surplus in the United States into deficits and cutbacks for programs for the poor.
I can’t say he gets high marks on security because the effect of his policies is that terrorism has spread and not receded.
When he calls himself a Christian, I think he should remember that it was the devil who tempted Jesus with unparalleled wealth and power. What does that say about Bush’s dreams about wealth and power? He has reversed Biblical priorities by making our economic policies be about helping the wealthy to acquire more wealth while abandoning the poor.
How does the Iraq conflict compare with Vietnam?
Both were about deception.
In the first place, this is a very unilateral effort. Few support us in Iraq and that was true of Vietnam.
We had an overblown ideology of anti-communism in Vietnam that got us into trouble. Now we have an equally over simplified notion that we can bring democracy to Iraq.
We were misled into Vietnam with the Gulf of Tonkin resolution and of course we were lied to about going into Iraq on the basis of weapons of mass destruction and a connection to 9/11. No evidence of either exists. Iraq has been a combination of deception and self-deception on the part of the Bush Administration.
You’ve worked through Vietnam and two Gulf Wars, you’ve worked on an international scale to stop nuclear proliferation, and you’ve worked to expand civil rights for African-Americans and gays and lesbians. Do you have much hope for the future?
I think that hope reflects the state of our soul rather than the circumstances that surround our lives. So hope is not the equivalent of optimism. Its opposite is not pessimism but despair. So I’m always hopeful. Hope is about keeping the faith despite the evidence so that the evidence has a chance of changing.
As I wrote in my book Credo:
Hope criticizes what is, hopelessness rationalizes it. Hope resists, hopelessness adapts.
What is the most important role the church can play in this century? What issues should we be focusing on?
Live and let live….
We need to get beyond that to live and help live. In America, “We The People” is meaningless unless it really means all of us. In the world at large, people have made the world great for some and now it is time to make the world great for all.
Economic justice is a great big, fat issue that churches need to address. Charity is not the same as justice. Charity mitigates some of the horrors of injustice, but the Bible is far more interested in ending injustice.
The second issue for our churches is peace. It is stunning to realize that individuals and small groups will shortly have the means of using weapons of mass destruction. As far as terrorism goes, economic justice would certainly slow down the recruiting of terrorists. Several billion dollars should be taken off the military budget to wage real war on poverty. Our policies energize terrorists, help recruit more of them, and are totally self-destructive. Iraq has become Bush’s West Bank.
The two great Biblical mandates are peace and justice. They need to be at the top of our agenda as churches.
That’s asking a lot, but we have to ask a lot. The country is now in spiritual recession.
Make sure that you register and attend the Clergy Leadership Network’s National Gathering where you will be joined by other religious progressives working to address the “spiritual recession” Rev. Coffin is talking about.