Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Reflections on the passing of the Rev. William Sloane Coffin

Rev. William Sloane Coffin, an icon of Protestant liberalism died on April 12, 2006 at the age of 81 years at his home in Strafford, Vermont. The New York Times' obituary article that appeared the next day traced the flamboyant and controversial career of Coffin. It noted that the Presbyterian minister "embraced a philosophy of social activism at the heart of his clerical duties." He came from a family of great wealth and privilege. His forebears had been on the Mayflower. His father, also named William Sloane Coffin, was a vice-president of W. & J. Sloane, the furniture manufacturer, and the president of the board of trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. His uncle, the Rev. Henry Sloane Coffin, was president of Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

As a young man Coffin studied music in Paris in hopes of becoming a concert pianist. His undergraduate studies at Yale were interrupted by his service in Europe in World War II as an infantry officer. He returned to complete his college studies at Yale and then move on to the Yale Divinity School where he was influenced by the ideas of Reinhold Niebuhr. He took the post as Chaplain at his alma mater in 1958 and served there until the late 1970s.

While Chaplain at Yale his radical social gospel ideas developed as he engaged first in the civil right movement and then in the ant-Vietnam war movement. In 1965 he formed a group called Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam, and by 1967 he was arrested for encouraging students to burn their draft cards. In 1978 he became the pastor of the Riverside Church in New York City, a bastion of liberal Christianity. After leaving Riverside in the late 1980s he became the leader of Sane/Freeze, a group that lobbied for nuclear disarmament and a freeze on nuclear testing. In 1999 he suffered a debilitating stroke, and this year the Rev. Sloane Coffin went the way of all flesh.

Why did I take note of the passing of this very liberal, northern minister of privilege who so eagerly embraced a na├»ve social gospel? I took note because I recalled that when I was a seminary student in the late 1980s at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, that Dr. Sloane Coffin had been a guest on campus. I had attended one of his presentations at which he had given one of his diatribes against nuclear armament and preached whole-heartedly the social gospel. At the time I was an impressionable seminarian at the then moderate school, but even then I recall being bothered by Rev. Coffin’s presentation. "Where is the gospel in this?" I kept thinking.

As I recall, Dr. Coffin was the guest of one of the ethics professors at Southern at that time. When I talk with someone today still wanting to argue that our SBC seminaries really were not all that liberal before the conservative resurgence, I always try to point out to them the fact that when I was in seminary there were no professors in the ethics department who were clearly and vocally pro-life. Imagine that! No pro-life ethics professors in an SBC seminary! If they do not believe me, I pull off my shelf the text that was used in the Christian ethics class I took at the old SBTS under Dr. Paul Simmons and read them a few selected passage from his book, Birth and Death: Bioethical Decision-Making (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1983): pp. 105-06:

The Bible gives a great deal of guidance on the abortion issue. This is not in the form of a rule or commandment prohibiting abortion, nor even casuistic details regarding circumstances under which it may be permitted or prohibited….

In terms of the current debate, the claim that the Bible teaches that the fetus is a person from the moment of conception has been tested and found wanting. The notion comes from natural law theory, not from the Bible….

Further, the Bible gives no support for those efforts to prohibit abortion at law. It is clearly not "antiabortion" in the sense that contemporary groups would have us believe….

The silence of the Bible on the subject of elective abortion is an eloquent testimony to the sacredness of this choice for women and their families and then privacy in which it is to be considered….

One is free to abort or not to abort, as God leads. This is the freedom of grace.

Yes, that’s right. This was the worldview being advocated while I was at Southern. On one hand, they were encouraging the students to be anti-war social activists like Coffin. On the other hand, they were saying that it is OK to abort babies. Inconsistency.

As I read the rest of William Sloane Coffin’s obituary, I was struck by the inconsistencies of his life. A man born into wealth and privilege made his mark by becoming an activist for the poor, but he did so on one of the most elite campuses in America. He preached about social justice to a tony Riverside Church congregation. As the Times noted: "So if Dr. Coffin preached on behalf of the poor and downtrodden, he did so to the most prominent and talented parishioners." I am reminded of the wag who observed, "the liberals opted for the poor, but the poor opted for the evangelicals."

More striking than the inconsistencies of Coffin’s professional life were those of his personal life. The obituary noted that he had been married three times and divorced twice. His marriage to Eva Anna Rubinstein, which had produced three children, ended in divorce in 1969. That same year he married Harriet Gibney from whom he divorced in 1976. His third wife, Virginia Randolph Wilson, survived him. It seems that the peace for which Coffin was such a vocal advocate among nations was not a state that he could maintain in his own household. Yale alumnus and cartoonist Gary Trudeau of "Doonesbury" lampooned Coffin with a character known as "Rev. Scott Sloan" a "thoroughly modern minister/enabler."

So when I read of the passing of Rev. William Sloane Coffin I thought of those days at Southern when I heard him speak, and I remembered how thankful I am that ministers in the coming generation being trained at SBTS will have a much different set of ministry icons put before them to emulate.

JTR

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