The Common Good

Remembering William Sloane Coffin

Sojomail - April 20, 2006

Quote of the Week : A Christian Peacemaker's Easter reflection
Hearts & Minds : Jim Wallis: Remembering William Sloane Coffin
Action Alert : Raise your voice to save lives!
Spiritual Practices : Were you there?
Culture Watch : Subverting the empire
Sojourners in the News : This week's media round-up
Boomerang : Readers write
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"Christ teaches us to love our enemies, do good to those who harm us, pray for those who persecute us. He calls us to accept suffering before we inflict injury. He calls us to pick up the cross and to lay down the sword.

We will most certainly fail in this call. I did. And I'll fail again. This does not change Christ's teaching that violence itself is the tomb, violence is the dead end. Peace won through the barrel of a gun might be a victory but it is not peace. Our captors had guns and they ruled over us. Our rescuers had bigger guns and ruled over the captors. We were freed, but the rule of the gun stayed. The stone across the tomb of violence has not been rolled away."

- Christian Peacemaker Teams member James Loney, in an Easter reflection published by the Toronto Star about his 118-day captivity by Iraqi militants and rescue by British special forces troops.

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Remembering William Sloane Coffin
by Jim Wallis

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."

Today is Bill Coffin's memorial service at The Riverside Church in New York City. Many will testify to his prophetic courage, his indomitable spirit, his great humor, and his pastoral care. And many, such as me, will just be 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

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The Secret Message of Jesus
by Brian McLaren

Brian McLaren, one of Time magazine's "25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America," is back. His latest work, The Secret Message of Jesus, leads readers on a journey as ground-shaking as it is life-changing. The quest: find the essential message of Jesus' life - even if it overturns conventional ideas, priorities, and practices.

"Through the years, I have frequently had an uncomfortable feeling," wrote McLaren, "that the portrait of Jesus I found in the New Testament didn't fit with the images of Jesus in the church." Out of that nagging discomfort arose McLaren's most revolutionary book to date.


Raise your voice to save lives!
by Jim Wallis

Last summer, before the G8 summit, Sojourners co-convened a forum in London between religious leaders in the U.S. and U.K. The London Forum agreed to a "Church Leaders' Statement on the G8" to serve as a theological and political framework for mobilizing the prophetic voice of the church around global poverty.

In that statement we said, "There is no place for apathy in a world which sees 30,000 children die each day because of poverty-related conditions. The Bible teaches that whatever we do to the poorest we do also to Jesus. We believe God judges nations by what they do to the poorest. This means all of us in the prosperous world, governments, churches, the media, and populations stand under judgment, to the degree that we fail to respond to such a situation with costly compassion and generosity, so that we may help in God's name and by God's grace to secure justice for the poor.

One of the specific points we made was on poverty related development assistance - "The moral scandal of extreme poverty requires that the wealthy nations do much more to assist the poorest countries in fighting poverty, hunger and disease through a dramatic improvement in the quantity and quality of aid."

We have a chance to increase U.S. leadership toward this commitment through the Bread for the World 2006 Offering of Letters, which urges Congress to increase poverty-related development assistance by $5 billion in 2007. The funding would go to the types of aid that most effectively help in reducing extreme poverty, thus directly saving people's lives. I urge you to read the alert that follows and to add your critical voice by asking your member of Congress to support this desperately needed funding. "The One Spirit. One Will. Zero Poverty" campaign provides a compelling platform and set of tools to change the wind in Congress around effective development assistance. I pray that you will join with me in adding your voice to the growing chorus of people putting their faith into action to end extreme poverty.

Tell Congress: Honor Our Promise to Overcome Global Poverty

By now most of us know these statistics that hurt the very heart of God: Nearly half the world's population lives on less than $2 per day. More than 850 million people suffer from chronic hunger and malnutrition. Every day 30,000 children die from preventable causes, more than half of them related to hunger and malnutrition. But here's another. Currently the United States contributes less than one half of one percent (0.42%) of our federal budget for poverty-focused development assistance. We can and must do better.

The United States has pledged to double aid to Africa by 2010, but we are tragically far short of fulfilling this critical goal due to the lack of political and moral will. To change this, we are partnering with Bread for the World, the One Campaign, and others to call on Congress to increase effective aid to Africa by $5 billion next year, which would empower families and children in Africa to gain access to food, medicine, opportunities for sustainable economic development, and - most importantly - hope.

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Were you there?
by Steve Thorngate

...Sometimes the spirit of God moves through the words and symbols of Holy Week and physically chills me. But I'm not always there in the same way, or to the same degree. Other times it causes me to think about the work I'm not getting done while I sit in church for three hours on a Friday. Still other times, it causes me to catalog ways in which a service might be different had I been involved in the planning. Such distractions are unpredictable. In a given year, I might be moved to tears by a particular station of the cross but barely notice six or seven others. I'll be struck by the power of one great hymn and annoyed by the length of another.

This year, for whatever reason, I had a hard time getting into Good Friday.

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Help protect suffering children!

The freedom to practice one's own religion. The right not to be hungry or cold. Protection from abduction, abuse, exploitation, and neglect. The right to live. Every child deserves these fundamental protections - everywhere and always.

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The U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child protects the basic rights of children and has been ratified by 192 countries - all but Somalia and the U.S. Sign the petition to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and urge U.S. to join the rest of the world and protect the basic rights of every child!

P.S. Please spread the word to friends and urge them to speak out for suffering children!


Subverting the empire
by Laryn and Janel Kragt Bakker

availability at:

»Independent book stores in your area
For those who reject cut and paste biblical literalism, yet maintain that the Bible is a genuine authority rather than merely a literary or cultural artifact, Sylvia Keesmaat and Brian Walsh present a refreshing alternative in Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire. Keesmaat and Walsh use the book of Colossians as a launchpad into their vision of scripture as a story of people struggling with what it means to live faithfully in the midst of a culture that is saturated with seductive, opposing ideas, and ideals.

After establishing the importance of context - both the original context and our own - they propose a hermeneutic of scripture which emphasizes the participatory nature of the story. We are not called to memorize lines from a completed script and "repeat [them] verbatim, over and over." Rather, they suggest - in concert with N.T. Wright, Anglican bishop of Durham, England - we are actors in a part of the story that is not yet written, and we are improvising with the help of a great Director. As society and culture unfold around us, we are entrusted with the great responsibility to live the continuing story. This isn't to suggest that the first acts of the play are not important; Keesmaat and Walsh go to great pains to emphasize that we must be "deeply immersed in the text, and...completely absorbed by the story." They draw on the imagery of a plant that is deeply rooted below the soil yet growing dynamically above ground as a metaphor for our own freedom and rootedness in interpreting scripture in our context.

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Soul Moments: Times When Heaven Touches Earth by Isabel Anders 1-56101-245-9, $14.95

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This week's media round-up

Top stories:

Humanity the Losers in Rigid Models of Rule and Religion
by Jim Wallis and Tim Costello in The Sydney Morning Herald
The result has been disastrous for progressive politics, guaranteeing victories for the right such as the Iraq war, which from the beginning was a mistake and a distraction. Religious or not, most people care about the moral compass of their society.

Jim Wallis, Progressive Evangelical, for President The Sydney Morning Herald
I have long since given up my search for heroes among our elected politicians. I'll happily defend elective politics as the best system we've got but, as the Chartists used to argue, democracy is fine but you must have someone worthy to vote for. Let me introduce you to Jim Wallis.

Christian Warns of Religious Right's Rise The Age
Australia must beware the rise of the "religious right" in politics, American Christian activist Jim Wallis has told a Melbourne audience. Mr Wallis said religious faith would be the most influential force in Australian politics for the next decade, but the country was in danger of allowing the religious right to dominate.

More Sojourners in the news:

Christian Takes on the Right The Australian

Evangelicals Debate the Meaning of 'Evangelical' The New York Times

You Gotta Have Faith

One Dollar, One Vote

Politicizing Jesus, That Radical Arkansas News Bureau

Don't Deny Desperately Needed Support Bethany Beach Wave

Jim Wallis Warns Against Religious Right in Australia Ekklesia

A Conversation With Dan Wakefield The Nation

Budgets and Taxes as Moral Issues The Decatur Daily

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William Sloane Coffin Jr. Prophetic Witness, National Hero, Beloved Friend. June 1, 1924 -- April 12, 2006. Read his words. See the documentary. Be inspired. Learn more with Wesminster John Knox Press.

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Readers write

Frank Aguilera writes from Webster, Texas:

What an extraordinary interpretation by Deanna Murshed of that biblical passage about the grain of wheat in her article "Bothered by the cross" [SojoMail Special Issue 4/17/2006]. Like Ms. Murshed, I also had these mixed feelings about the crucifixion and its meaning since childhood. Now as an adult, I confess that I was horrified and confused by his death, and baffled by his resurrection until recently. Ms. Murshed's article provided me with some deep and enlightening understanding of Christ's work on earth. I am grateful for this, and may God bless all your endeavors in the name of Jesus Christ.


Joel Stephanson writes from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada:

As a Canadian who has enjoyed the benefits of universal medicare from birth, I have been waiting for the day when my relatives and friends south of the border would be blessed with the same. I was very excited to read from David Batstone that Massachussetts has set the precedent in this area ["Uncommon sense," SojoMail 4/12/2006]. I only hope that their system will be a solid one, and that other states will soon follow suit. I say this not to gloat, but only to spur others on to activism: I simply can't imagine paying for all of the free medical services I receive. And I can't imagine what it must be like for low-income Americans to live in what appears to be a system of survival-of-the-richest. Congratulations to the Democrats and Republicans for working together to build this new system.


Galen Williams writes from Westminster, Colorado:

I must take issue with David Bastone's enthusiastic reception of the Massachusetts medical insurance legislation. This plan, and those who support it, confuse having a medical insurance plan with having access to health care. The insurance industry has reputedly invested approximately $7.5 million on this legislation, which forces all residents to buy the product sold by these companies. Low-cost policies tend to be high-deductible and low-service. Does this legislation mandate that the insurance providers provide access to affordable health care or just "affordable" policies? Or will working families have to forego college for the children, saving for retirement (or for a down payment on a home) in order to subsidize an industry that does not provide health care, but, in fact, simply profits from the universal need for it. Insurance is not the solution to the health care problems in America, rather it is a large part of the problem. Universal medical insurance is not universal access to affordable, necessary health care. Once again the wealthiest are growing ever more wealthy on the backs of working people.


Laetitia van Haren writes from Versonnex, France:

I know we have to act in Darfur, but I do not trust it gets any better if you ask your president, George Bush, to act [Action Alert: "Yes, We Can End the Genocide in Darfur" 4/7/2006]. He has already inflicted so much damage on the world as a whole and on the Iraqis in particular that I hesitate to urge him to intervene in Darfur, afraid of what it may lead to.


Want to make your voice heard? Click here to respond to SojoMail articles Boomerang is an open forum for all kinds of views, though we reserve the right to edit published responses for length and clarity.

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