Thursday, February 15, 2007

Moral lassitude

Interview with Religion & Ethics Newsweekly

August 27, 2004

Q: You have, in the course of your life, participated in a good many great causes and have done so with a lot of passion. As you look around the country today, I wonder whether you see an absence of commitment to great causes with great passion.

A: I think we lack passion. We're showing moral lassitude. In universities tolerance is very apparent, but often it feels like abdication. There's not the kind of prophetic fire which also produces insight. Universities are very leery about passion. They think it's poured on top of judgment. But passion produces also insight. Read the Bible. All the great prophets in the Bible were very passionate.

Q: Why do you think that is, in the country as a whole? Why aren't people in the streets today the way they were in the civil rights movement, the antiwar movement?

A: We're prosperous. ... And now, of course, fear has taken hold, and in life you can either follow your fears or be led by your values, by your passions. Now we have an administration which sponsors fear -- of immigrants, homosexuals, crime, terrorists particularly. And this fear-mongering, I'm afraid, is quite deliberate because the more you can make people fear, the more a government can control you. I've seen that in many countries, and now I see it in the United States, where the administration is engaging in fear-mongering. Everybody is fearful. The Congress is made up of practicing cowards, and people don't feel a sense of accountability for what the nation should stand for -- and money doesn't help.

Q: What's the role of churches in this?

A: Unfortunately the churches now are pretty much down to therapy and management. There's very little prophetic fire in the churches. When I was growing up we had church leaders -- Catholic Church leaders, Protestants, and wonderful rabbis like Abraham Joshua Heschel -- who were full of passion, highly intelligent. They knew that love demands the utmost in clear-sightedness. And they were not lazy about doing homework. They were really present, you know? Now, we haven't got quite as many. But that being said, we have wonderful individual ministers, I would say primarily women, and individual Catholic priests, but not quite the way it used to be.

Plato said once, "What's honored in the country will be cultivated there." When we started as a nation we had only, what, three million people? Less than Los Angeles County today? And yet we turned out statesmen (there were no women, unfortunately) named Washington, Hamilton, Jefferson, Adams. You can name a list as long as your arm. How many people on the public political stage can you name of the caliber of that first generation? "What's honored in the country will be cultivated there." We have fantastic athletes, and we deserve them, and we have rather mediocre politicians and clergy.

Q: Where does the rise of conservatism, especially on the religious Right among Protestant evangelicals, fit into this whole thing?

A: I think most people prefer certainty to truth, and when they feel insecure and want to secure themselves against a sense of insecurity, they engage in what psychiatrists call "premature closure." They close off too early. I'm often asked what I think of the Christianity of President Bush. I think his God is too small. After all, it's a profound Christian conviction that we all belong one to another, every one of us on the face of the Earth -- from the pope to the loneliest wino, and that's the way God made us. Christ died to keep us that way. Our sin is always that we're putting asunder what God has joined together. For every serious believer the question arises: Who is big enough to love the whole world? How, for instance, can the president call Iran, Iraq, and North Korea the axis of evil when all of humanity suffers immeasurably more from environmental degradation, pandemic poverty, and a world awash with weapons? Our God is too small, and then our God is much too nationalistic. A good patriot is not a nationalist. What really puzzles me about the Christian Right is how they can applaud the messianic militarism of the president, a kind of divinely ordained cleansing fire of violence, all in the name of Jesus Christ, the mirror opposite of the Jesus we find in the four Gospels.

I would like to say that for the president to offer a constitutional amendment is very painful. He believes that all people are not created equal, not if they're gays and lesbians. And he wants a constitutional amendment to reinforce the inequality. That's a cruel, cruel thing to do. If he had any more feel for what the suffering of the gay and lesbian crowd is all about, if he'd just be available to the suffering, he'd understand that it's not their outward expression, it's the inner connection that really counts. And he ought to know that straights have not cornered the market on life-sustaining, deep-caring love. Gays can do that just as well as straights. It's like Christians and Jews. They are different -- not different up, not different down, just different. Gays and straights, they're different. Not different up, not different down, just different. And what the world needs is a pluralistic vision of love, if we're going to survive.

Q: Many, many religious conservatives read the same Scripture that you do and come out very differently on social issues. Why?

A: I think they read the Book of Revelation more than they do the gospel. This apocalyptic view which allows them to substitute fate for faith doesn't make them feel accountable in the same way. Now, if you read the Gospels, you know Jesus was servant of the poor. So how can you say compassionate conservatism should be directed primarily at CEOs and unborn babies? Why doesn't the Christian Right pay attention to hunger, homelessness, poor education, absent health benefits of babies already born? I'm not saying social justice is the same thing as the gospel; it isn't, but social justice is at the heart of the gospel, not ancillary to it. And that seems to be an understanding that is, unfortunately, not very deeply appreciated here -- not in Latin America, though.

Q: Many of us say, "Well, you know, I've got to work hard to support my family, I don't have a lot of time," or "I don't want to seem radical," or "I don't want to cause my neighbors to suspect I'm not fully patriotic." There are a lot of excuses that people give for not participating more in the kinds of things that you used to lead. What do you say to those people?

A: I understand that people want to be safe, polite, obedient, comfortable, but that's not being alive. Irenaeus, the great early church father, said the glory of God is a human being fully alive. Now, if you back off from every little controversy in your life you're not alive, and what's more, you're boring. It's a terrible thing that we settle for so much less. Religion is the revelation of the love of God and of human possibility. Christ is a mirror to our humanity and tells us what it means to be alive and well. So it's hard for me to think they are very good examples for the kind of Christianity I believe in.

Q: After September 11 there was a surge of patriotism. Sometimes it has seemed that patriotism blocked any kind of criticism, that we were afraid if we spoke out against going to war or the policies after the Iraq war, that it would be considered disloyal to the troops and our country. How do you separate patriotism from criticism?

A: In a democracy, dissent is not disloyal. But that's hard for people to accept when they don't like criticism. During the war against Vietnam, there was that bumper sticker: "America: Love it or leave it." That bumper sticker really said, "America: Obey it or leave it." Or maybe it said "America: Obey it or it will leave you in the cold." You will be called unpatriotic. You will be told, "Go back to a communist country," or something like that. It takes work to stay alive. It takes work to engage in dissent. But I would say the great trouble now is self-righteousness. Self-righteousness is the bane of all human relations -- interpersonal, international, interfaith. Self-righteousness destroys our capacity for self-criticism. It makes it very hard to be humble, and it destroys the sense of oneness all human beings should have, one with another. I think the fact that we are, as a nation, rather self-righteous now is a terrible danger for us and very bad for other countries.

Q: It must make you terribly frustrated to see all the things you think are wrong and not being righted, and not be able to play the part in leading those movements that you once did.

A: Oh, no. With age, you should step aside. Let other people take over, you know, and maybe the next generation or the one after that will do something much better than we did. Besides, you know, the great Frenchman Albert Camus once said, "There is in the world beauty, and there are the humiliated. And we must strive, hard as it is, not to be unfaithful either to the one or to the other." Well, blessed as I am living in Vermont, it's easy to be loyal to beauty. If I get too down on our failure to deal with the humiliated, I can always say, "God was good; the creation hasn't totally been corrupted yet." Hope needs to be understood as a reflection of the state of your soul, not a reflection of the circumstances that surround your days. So I remain hopeful. The opposite of hope is despair -- not pessimism. As a very convinced Christian, I say to myself, "Come on, Coffin, if Christ never allowed his soul to be cornered into despair, and his was the greatest miscarriage of justice, maybe, in the world, who the hell am I to say I'm going to despair a bit?" And besides, when I addressed people as I used to frequently in the peace movement, there would be, in the last ten years, always somebody saying, "I am so disillusioned." Well, being old now, I can be forthright and say, "Who the hell gave you the right to have illusions in the first place?" We have no right to have illusions. So we have only ourselves to chastise when we feel disillusioned.

Q: What's the essential connection for you between religious faith and justice?

A: Justice is at the heart of religious faith. It's not something that is tacked on. And justice is not charity. Charity tries to alleviate the effects of injustice. Justice tries to eliminate the causes of injustice. Charity is a personal disposition. Justice is public policy. What this country needs, what I think God wants us to do, is not practice piecemeal charity but engage in wholesale justice. And that's not only to erase or greatly reduce the wage gap and the living standards in America, but really to be committed to doing something about the horrible, really horrible poverty of at least one third of the people on the planet. If you want to do something good for national security, and every American should, take billions of dollars and wage war against world poverty. That would have a very sobering effect on terrorism. Terrorism now has a wonderful recruitment policy supplied by the United States foreign policy. If we were serious, with other nations, to engage the war on poverty around the world, that would stem the flow of recruits to the ranks of terrorists.

Q: Let me ask you to look back a little bit at some of the great movements you were part of. The civil rights movement: What do you remember with the greatest pleasure or what was the greatest lesson of it?

A: The greatest pleasure was being with black civil rights leaders and followers, because they were so alive. You can be more alive in pain than in complacency. These often very poor blacks in Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia with whom I had the great pleasure of working, they were so wonderfully alive, so cheerful, so courageous. It was inspiring, really inspiring. I felt from the get-go that the so-called "black problem," as it was called in those days, was the white man's problem, and we were the ones discriminating against black folk. We were the ones being pressed not to give them their rights, but to restore rights that should never have been taken away. While it was right to have the civil rights movement led by leaders like Martin Luther King, Fred Shuttlesworth, Ralph Abernathy, all the wonderful black leaders, whites were necessary -- to bail them out of jail. The NAACP's Legal Defense Fund did that very well, and whites were very much necessary to raise money, and the Jewish community in New York City was generous to a fault. It was very moving to see that. The rest of us who weren't lawyers and who didn't have money -- we could go to jail with our black brothers and sisters.

Q: How about the antiwar movement?

A: That was in many ways more painful than the civil rights movement. I think everybody knew discrimination was evil; no question about it. Integration was painful but necessary. I had great sympathy for Southern whites who, if they were against segregation, were like anti-Soviet Russians in communist Russia. Very difficult. The antiwar movement split the nation in a more acute, painful way. It wasn't quite as clear that we had the Constitution behind us. I think, in retrospect, everybody agrees it was a terrible, terribly misconceived war. After all, the separation between North and South Vietnam was a temporary military line, not a permanent political one. The Geneva Accords in 1953 made that clear, and then Eisenhower admitted, in his autobiography, that we ignored the elections called for because Ho Chi Minh would have won hands down. So it was, in effect, a unilateral, massive intervention in a small Third World country's civil war. And, of course, the slaughter was just heartbreaking -- on both sides. Let's not forget the other side. There was such a fuss made about missing-in-action Americans. There were about 39 to 45. We went over there; they helped us find them. Meantime, Americans forgot there were about 300,000 missing in action among the Vietnamese.

Q: The nuclear disarmament movement?

A: It's a new world when you have weapons of mass destruction, and particularly nuclear weapons, which is why Kofi Annan at the UN said the abolition of all nuclear weapons is at the top of the UN agenda. Only God has the right to destroy all life on the planet. All we have is the power. We haven't the authority; we only have the power. Therefore, to threaten to use nuclear weapons must be an abomination in the sight of God. As far as what we can do about it, it's not hard. We have to recognize a single standard for all nuclear weapons: either universal permission or universal abolition. Now, there are retired admirals, retired generals, including the U.S. Strategic Air Commander George Leroy Butler, who have been calling for years for the abolition of all nuclear weapons. We don't need them for our national defense. We are only lacking the political will to do it -- obviously under stringent international inspection.

I think the danger of nuclear destruction grows every day. The terrorists will get a hold of it if we don't police the storage points now. More nations will get a hold of it, because we can't stop them. We've been practicing nuclear apartheid. The nuclear powers have arrogated to themselves the right to build, deploy, threaten to use nuclear weapons, while policing the rest of the world against their production. Now, we all know racial apartheid couldn't succeed in South Africa. That was apparent from the beginning. Nuclear apartheid will fail, too. That's why strenuous efforts must be made to abolish nuclear weapons. My personal sadness is, if Kofi Annan says the abolition of nuclear weapons is at the top of the agenda of the UN, why isn't it at the top of the agenda of every church in this country, every synagogue and mosque?

Q: Are you a pacifist?

A: Fifty-one/forty-nine. I'm a nuclear pacifist, that's for sure. But there is an irremediable stubbornness about evil. We have to recognize it, including our own complicity in it. St. Augustine said, "Never fight evil as if it were something that arose totally outside of yourself." We have to constrain it, but I doubt we'll ever eradicate it. It's incredibly na�ve of President Bush to say that we'll rid the world of evil. Come on. The pacifists I greatly admire are those who know that the mystery of evil is beyond their solutions. Nonviolence cannot eradicate violence, which means we have a dilemma, because violence is not working very well either. I keep coming back to the wonderful verse in the 33rd Psalm: "The war horse is the vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save." In short, I'm looking forward to a day when universal police action will take the place of national armies. That would be a blessed day, if we got to that point. In the meantime, we have pacifists and nonpacifists and a terrible dilemma.

Q: As you look back on everything you've done in your wonderful life, what are you most proud of?

A: I never thought that was a question I should answer. It's not so much a question of pride; it's deep satisfaction. Joy in this world comes from self-fulfillment. Joy is a more profound experience than mere happiness. Happiness connotes pleasure. Joy can include, and not exclude, pain. The moments of great satisfaction in my life are many, for which I'm deeply grateful. Most of all because I'm a pastor and my pastoral relations have been some of the most satisfying experiences of my life. After all, when I was at Yale for 18 years, I spent almost every afternoon when I was in town -- and that was most of the time -- just counseling students, one on one. People who invite you into the garden of their soul are really wonderful people. They're never boring. I don't bear fools' company gladly, but people who are deeply personal and willing to air their conflicts -- that's very satisfying. That was a part of my life that was very satisfying. And, I must say, when you feel a sense of undeserved integrity because you think you're in the right fight -- against segregation, against the war in Vietnam, against the stupid and cruel discrimination against gays and lesbians -- these are the right fights, I feel very deeply. The sense of self-fulfillment which comes with being in the right fight is a very wonderful thing. And lastly, only because I'm mentioning it last, is my family. I was too busy when I was younger to really appreciate the incredible ties I have with the family, with my children and two stepchildren also, and with a wife without whom, I think, I would not be sitting here now. When you get older, friendship obviously runs deeper and deeper. And, I would add, nature gets more interesting the nearer you get to joining it, and also more beautiful. I can sit on the front porch here with a little bit of "mother's milk," which I learned to appreciate when I was a liaison officer with the Russian Army (they had lots of it), and just sit there and watch the sun coming in through the maple leaves. You know, God is good.

Q: How about regrets?

A: Regrets? Well, I mentioned one, the fact that -- I don't say this to excuse myself, but I think it's basically a myth that people who are so devoted on public fronts have a wonderful relationship with their families. They're kidding themselves. My regret is that when my children were growing up, I was there for them but not in the way that a father ought to be there for them.

Q: You preached that wonderful sermon after your son's death, and there were some ideas in there about what is "God's will."

A: The part that most people most appreciated was that I said I have no comfort in thinking that it was the will of God that Alex die. My comfort lies in feeling that of all hearts to break, God's was the first as the wave closed over the sinking car. God is not too hard to believe in; God is too good to believe in, we being such strangers to such goodness. The love of God is, to me, absolutely overwhelming. It was an awful tragedy, and you have to go into the depths of pain, and grief is experienced often as the absence of God: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" said Jesus from the cross. But that's the first words of the 22nd Psalm, and the end of the psalm is in praise of God. It's always in the depths of hell that heaven is found and affirmed and praised.

Q: How about your own death? Do you think about that?

A: Not very much. I'd just as soon live a little bit longer. But when you're 80 you can't complain. To quote Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his inaugural address, "We have nothing to fear but fear itself." Fear of death is what is insidious, and once the fear is behind you, then it is only the physical death which is ahead of you. If we didn't die we'd be immortal, like the Greek gods, and perhaps up to their same dumb tricks. It's a very good thing we die. In fact, it's death which brings us to life. But we need to be scared to life, not scared to death. I await death with no protest. "Do not go gentle into that good night, rage, rage against the dying of the light": I'm sorry, Dylan Thomas, but that's not always the case. You can go gentle into that good night. Stop complaining. Remember that, as old Hamlet said, "The readiness is all." Basically, when I said I don't think much about death, I was really thinking, I don't think much about what comes next because I believe our lives run from God, in God, to God again. And that's enough. We might want to know more, but we don't need to know more, and demanding that I know more about the afterlife somehow demeans my faith. I think, one world at a time. The second world will be in God's hands, whereas we were lucky enough to live in this world.

Q: We've been talking about a lot of big problems. But you seem to be able to deal with these problems in a way that recalls some deep confidence. There's something deep in there that involves joy and hope. How are you able to look at the world as it is and still have the capacity for feeling joyful?

A: First of all, it's clear to me that almost every square inch of the Earth's surface is soaked with the tears and blood of the innocent, and it's not God's doing, it's our doing. That's human malpractice. Don't chalk it up to God. Every time people lift their eyes to heaven and say, when they see the innocent suffering, "God, how could you let this happen?" it is well to remember at that exact moment God is asking exactly that same question of us: "How could you let it happen?" You have to take responsibility, and then you have to say with the poet, "We're always undefeated because we keep on trying." You have to keep the faith despite the evidence, knowing that only in so doing has the evidence any chance of changing. You hang in there, and not to hang in there is to abdicate and to get bored and be boring, and it's important to be engaged in the right way. For instance, I mentioned self-righteousness. It's very hard for me to war against the self-righteousness of my beloved nation without engaging a little bit in self-righteousness. I have to watch that all the time, because the quality of the engagement is very important. Abraham Joshua Heschel always had a wonderful sense of humor about him. King wasn't exactly a barrel of fun, but still he had a kind of ability to step back and not run himself into the ground. Humor is very important. Faith is important for the ultimate dilemmas of life; humor can take care of the immediate ones rather nicely. I have a wonderful son, David, who keeps me in good jokes, and a joke a day keeps the doctor away. I'm a great believer in that. And then you have to have moments when you let it go. Often I work with one crowd and drink with another, because the drinking crowd is a little bit more fun, but I wouldn't want to work with them.

Q: Your faith and the nature of God and God's love -- what is the bedrock there for you?

A: The bedrock of my faith -- mind you, I didn't get to it easily. I think I have World War II to thank for it, because there are few things as irrelevant as an answer to an unasked question, and World War II asked all the important questions for me. When I went to college, I had the right questions. And as Rilke says, "Love the question, and live into the answer." Very nicely put. My rock-solid belief is that we are loved by God. He loves us as we are, but too much to leave us that way. We are loved by God, and that's what gives us value. We don't achieve value. It's not because we have value that we're loved by God, but because we're loved by God that we have value. Our value as human beings is not an achievement; it's a gift. We don't have to prove ourselves. All that is taken care of. What we have to do is express ourselves, return God's love with our own. And what a world of difference there is between proving yourself and expressing yourself. That's the core basis of my faith. And, of course, Jesus is primary. God is not confined to Christ, but to Christians God is most essentially defined by Christ. In other words, when we see Christ empowering the poor, scorning the powerful, healing the world's hurt, we are seeing transparently the power of God at work. How do we know what to pray? "Through Jesus Christ our Lord" -- that's why all Christian prayers end that way. We are confident about the things we pray for through Jesus Christ our Lord. That's not to say that Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who was a great mentor in my life, didn't see the same things about God from the perspective of the Talmud and the Torah and incredible Jewish literature throughout the ages.

I'm convinced that gratitude is the most important religious emotion. Duty calls only when gratitude fails to prompt. When you're grateful for the undeserved beauty of a cloudless sky, you're praying. You're saying, "Thank you, Lord," praying all the time about the beauty of nature, of a relationship with other people, the beauty of the deeds some people do. In World War II, occasionally a soldier fell on a grenade there was no time to throw back. Well, you could be absolutely appalled by their deaths, but you could be struck by the beauty of selfless courage. I feel grateful all the time, so my prayers of thanksgiving are very full. My prayers of petition -- I don't tell God what to do, but thinking about other people and trying to think what God would think about them is a way of directing my thoughts to other people. Praying for world peace -- instead of saying, "Grant us peace in our time, O Lord," God must say, "Oh, come off it. What are you going to do for peace, for heaven's sake?" It's not enough to pray for it; you have to think for it, you have to suffer for it, and you have to endure a lot for it. Don't just pray about it. A lot of people think their prayers aren't answered. They are answered; the answer is "No," and they haven't heard it. I don't think you have to be self-conscious about your prayer life. If you can live in wonder and gratitude and with a sense of wanting to respond -- responsible means "respond-able," able to respond. ... If you're able to respond to the beauty of nature, you'll be an environmentalist. If you're able to respond to human beings' basic right to peace, you'll be a peacenik. It's a matter of being full of wonder, thanksgiving, and praying for strength to respond to all the wonder and beauty there is in human life.

Q: I'm interested in the distinction between a speech and a sermon. What do you think it is?

A: A good sermon is like reading a whodunit: "That's right. I get it." It's a discovery of inevitability. A good sermon should raise to a conscious level the knowledge inherent in people's experience, so they recognize themselves as you do at the end of a whodunit: "Ah! Why didn't I think of that?" That's my idea of a good sermon. And you don't preach at people; you preach for all of us. You show your own humanity as well as the divinity of Christ. Very few preachers do this, including myself. It's not bad to end up with a question: "What do you think of that?" Let people go think about it, because a good sermon they will remember on Wednesday. If you leave them a question, they'll wrestle with it.

Speech? It depends on what you mean. Really good conversation is about pretty deep things, and that's not what Americans engage in very often. I remember asking a distinguished lawyer, "What did you do at the law firm when Martin Luther King was killed?" And he said, "What do you mean?" I said, "Didn't you senior partners call a meeting to discuss what this means in your lives and what this means to the nation?" And he looked quite surprised. So I asked the next lawyer, "What did you do when King died?" "What do you mean?" he asked. And I realized I couldn't find a lawyer whose law firm had the simple decency to call together a meeting and say, "Let's talk about it." Now that would be speech that would be very close to sermonic speech. It would come from the heart.

Q: What should we be mindful of when we make defense policy?

A: The art of defense is not to lose from within what you're defending against from without. In defending against terrorism, it's a great danger that we become like terrorists. We've become self-righteous. They certainly are self-righteous. We've become vengeful. "Vengeance is mine. I will repay," saith the Lord. We forget that. With the present attorney general, I fear all the time that he's going to lose from within the rights we're trying to protect against terrorists. The idea that in the Patriot Act the government can go into our own library here, any library in the whole country to find out what books people are taking out -- come off it. We have more things to do, better things to do than that. I fear desperately that if the terrorists attack again this summer, this fall before the election -- if there's a dirty bomb in the Holland Tunnel, the devastation will be heart-wrenching, and John Kerry will say, "I'm 100 percent behind the president." And bye-bye to a lot of human values that have made this country really great. That's following your fears, not being led by your values. That's an awfully, awfully important thing and, of course, religiously it's very important. The Scripture says, "Perfect love casts out fear."

Eulogy for Alex

Ten days after his son, Alex, was killed in a car accident, Reverend William Sloane Coffin delivered this sermon to his congregation at Riverside Church in New York City.

As almost all of you know, a week ago last Monday night, driving in a terrible storm, my son — Alexander — who to his friends was a real day-brightener, and to his family "fair as a star when only one is shining in the sky" — my twenty-four-year-old Alexander, who enjoyed beating his old man at every game and in every race, beat his father to the grave.

Among the healing flood of letters that followed his death was one carrying this wonderful quote from the end of Hemingway's "A Farewell to Arms":

"The world breaks everyone, then some become strong at the broken places."

My own broken heart is mending, and largely thanks to so many of you, my dear parishioners; for if in the last week I have relearned one lesson, it is that love not only begets love, it transmits strength.

When a person dies, there are many things that can be said, and there is at least one thing that should never be said. The night after Alex died I was sitting in the living room of my sister's house outside of Boston, when the front door opened and in came a nice-looking, middle-aged woman, carrying about eighteen quiches. When she saw me, she shook her head, then headed for the kitchen, saying sadly over her shoulder, "I just don't understand the will of God." Instantly I was up and in hot pursuit, swarming all over her. "I'll say you don't, lady!" I said.

For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn't go around this world with his fingers on triggers, his fists around knives, his hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths. And Christ spent an inordinate amount of time delivering people from paralysis, insanity, leprosy, and muteness. Which is not to say that there are no nature-caused deaths — I can think of many right here in this parish in the five years I've been here — deaths that are untimely and slow and pain-ridden, which for that reason raise unanswerable questions, and even the specter of a Cosmic Sadist — yes, even an Eternal Vivisector. But violent deaths, such as the one Alex died — to understand those is a piece of cake. As his younger brother put it simply, standing at the head of the casket at the Boston funeral, "You blew it, buddy. You blew it." The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is "It is the will of God." Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God's heart was the first of all our hearts to break.

I mentioned the healing flood of letters. Some of the very best, and easily the worst, knew their Bibles better than the human condition. I know all the "right" biblical passages, including "Blessed are those who mourn," and my faith is no house of rest, came from fellow reverends, a few of whom proved they knew their cards; these passages are true, I know. But the point is this. While the words of the Bible are true, grief renders them unreal. The reality of grief is the absence of God — "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" The reality of grief is the solitude of pain, the feeling that your heart is in pieces, your mind's a blank, that "there is no joy the world can give like that it takes away." (Lord Byron).

That's why immediately after such a tragedy people must come to your rescue, people who only want to hold your hand, not to quote anybody or even say anything, people who simply bring food and flowers — the basics of beauty and life — people who sign letters simply, "Your brokenhearted sister." In other words, in my intense grief I felt some of my fellow reverends — not many, and none of you, thank God — were using comforting words of Scripture for self-protection, to pretty up a situation whose bleakness they simply couldn't face. But like God herself, Scripture is not around for anyone's protection, just for everyone's unending support.

And that's what hundreds of you understood so beautifully. You gave me what God gives all of us — minimum protection, maximum support. I swear to you, I wouldn't be standing here were I not upheld.

After the death of his wife, C.S. Lewis wrote, "They say 'the coward dies many times'; so does the beloved. Didn't the eagle find a fresh liver to tear in Prometheus every time it dined?"

When parents die, as my mother did last month, they take with them a large portion of the past. But when children die, they take away the future as well. That is what makes the valley of the shadow of death seem so incredibly dark and unending. In a prideful way it would be easier to walk the valley alone, nobly, head high, instead of — as we must — marching as the latest recruit in the world's army of the bereaved.

Still there is much by way of consolation. Because there are no rankling unanswered questions, and because Alex and I simply adored each other, the wound for me is deep, but clean. I know how lucky I am! I also know this day-brightener of a son wouldn't wish to be held close by grief (nor, for that matter, would any but the meanest of our beloved departed) and that, interestingly enough, when I mourn Alex least I see him best.

Another consolation, of course, will be the learning — which better be good, given the price. But it's a fact: few of us are naturally profound. We have to be forced down. So while trite, it's true:

I walked a mile with Pleasure,
She chattered all the way;
But left me none the wiser
For all she had to say.

I walked a mile with Sorrow
And ne'er a word said she;
But the things I learned from her
But oh, the things I learned from her
When sorrow walked with me.
--Robert Browning Hamilton

Or, in Emily Dickinson's verse:

By a departing light
We see acuter quite
Than by a wick that stays.
There's something in the flight
That clarifies the sight
And decks the rays.

And of course I know, even when pain is deep, that God is good. "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Yes, but at least, "My God, my God"; and the psalm only begins that way, it doesn't end that way. As the grief that once seemed unbearable begins to turn now to bearable sorrow, the truths in the "right" biblical passages are beginning, once again, to take hold: "Cast thy burden upon the Lord and He shall strengthen thee"; "Weeping may endure for the night but joy cometh in the morning"; "Lord, by thy favor thou hast made my mountain to stand strong"; "For thou hast delivered my soul from death, mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling"; "In this world ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world"; "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."

And finally I know that when Alex beat me to the grave, the finish line was not Boston Harbor in the middle of the night. If a week ago last Monday, a lamp went out, it was because, for him at least, the Dawn had come.

So I shall — so let us all — seek consolation in that love which never dies, and find peace in the dazzling grace that always is.

When it’s true and painful, say it softly

Interview with Paul Raushenbush

Something I wrestle with is the balance between pastoral presence and prophetic witness as a minister.

My own feeling is you have to be as pastoral as you can be without surrendering one single iota of ethical initiative. Nothing ever stops a minister from saying, in the middle of the sermon: "What I now want to say it’s hard for me to say, so I can imagine how painful it’s going to be for some of you to hear. Let us remember that in the church, our unity is based not on agreement, but on mutual concern. So let me tell you what’s on my heart and mind and then you be good enough to tell me where you think I went wrong.

But that’s not the way it’s done. Right now, not to address the conscience of the nation about what’s going on in the occupation of Iraq--you can’t even do that? Just get it out there. Say it softly, don’t say it loudly. A freshman at Yale once said to me, "May I give you a bit of advice? When it’s true and painful, say it softly." Very nice. You have to say what’s true and painful, and you better say it softly.

At Yale, I always felt an obligation to use my position to provide cover for other people. These days, Richard Clark’s book, "Plan of Attack," "The House of Saud and the House of Bush"--those books provided cover for Rather, Jennings and Brokaw--made it so they could now move out a little more [in questioning the Iraq war]. The fact that Bush is tottering a little allows them to kick his shins a little. It’s very important that Yale, Princeton, and Harvard provide cover for others--particularly because their graduates will play a much more lethal role. Look at all the Yalies in power now. [As university chaplain at Yale,] I certainly didn’t get to Bush when he was there.

If you had a pastoral visit with the president, what would you say?

I think I’d have to say: "Mr. President, in the British military, the chaplain assumes the rank of the person he’s addressing. Can we for a moment accept that understanding between us?" And if he said yes, I’d say, "Then George, may I have your permission to talk about one or two things that I found sorrowful?" I would have to ask, because otherwise people get defensive. But if they give permission, presumably they’re willing to take it.

I would take it as Christian-to-Christian. I would say, "George, Jesus is considered the servant of the poor. He was concerned most for those society counted least. You don’t come through very Jesus-like in your approach to the war. And as for these rather grandiose dreams of hegemony, economic and military hegemony for the United States, have you ever stopped to think that the devil tempted Jesus with unparalleled wealth and power? It was the devil." There would be a couple of things like that. Then I’d probably say, "I don’t want to keep you much longer. I’ll just leave you with that."

What should churches be doing in the face of what’s going on in our country right now?

I think the bright flames of Christianity are now down to smoldering embers, if not ashes, of feeling comfortable. The church is pretty much down to therapy and management. There’s really little prophetic fire. The Roman Catholic Church is so caught up in all the sexual problems of abuse, they’ve lost a lot of their moral authority. And the poor rabbis have a problem being critical of Israel because the congregations don’t want to hear it so much. The only people who could save the Palestinian-Israeli conflict are American Jews. If they said to Bush, "We have to change," that would be it. But they’re not saying it audibly, and not in concert, that’s for sure.

The churches are a reflection of the truth of Plato’s statement, "What’s honored in the country will be cultivated there." When we got started as a country, we had no more than 3 million people--less than Los Angeles County today. Yet we turned out Washington, Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Hamilton--you can name a list as long as your arm. How many people on the public stage can you name today who are of the caliber of those first men? And why aren’t there more? Because what’s honored in the country will be cultivated there.

Or how come those itty, bitty Italian city-states turned out one fantastic painter and sculptor after another? Because every kid couldn’t wait to get his mitt on a paint brush. What’s honored in the country will be cultivated there. We have fantastic athletes. I watched the Spurs and Lakers yesterday. Those guys play basketball like nobody’s business. Yet we have mediocre politicians, and the clergy is pretty mediocre also. But what’s honored in a country will be cultivated there. The greatest recession in this country is not economic; it’s spiritual. And so the great biblical mandates of pursuing justice and seeking peace are shortchanged.

Too many ministers, also, are dependent on the love of their congregation. A real friend is one who risks her friendship for the sake of her friend, rather than using the friend for the sake of her friendship. The clergy don’t speak out because they don’t want to risk the love of their congregation. It’s pathetic! If [a parishioner] says, "If you say anything like that again, you’ll never see me in this church again," you should say to him, "You know, I must have said something very important. It certainly got you all riled up." But most ministers would take the hand in both hands, "Oh, come on Joe. There must be some misunderstanding. I’ll call you. We’ll have a date over a cup of coffee."

If you’re shepherd of the flock, you’re supposed to keep the wolves out so more sheep can come in. And the hills are full of browsing sheep, wondering whether there’s room in the fold for them. But they look in and say, "There’s no Good Shepherd there, lots of wolves. I’ll stay browsing outside."

Do you ever struggle with despair?

If Jesus never allowed his soul to be cornered into despair, who the hell am I to give into despair? Despair is not an option. The worse a situation gets, the more pessimistic you become, because reality reflects pessimism. That is the moment for hope as opposed to optimism. I love what Vaclav Havel said, "Hope is not tied to the successful outcome of an issue, but to the fact that the issue makes good sense." That’s wonderful. In other words, keep the faith, despite the evidence. Only by doing has the evidence any chance of changing.

What is the religious challenge at our universities?

The loss of wonder is really critical as technology evolves more and more. I feel so strongly about wonder because, finally, it’s an ethical consideration. Only reverence can restrain violence, whether it’s against nature or against one another. And loss of reverence, loss of wonder, is a terrible, sad loss.

So what is the role of the university chaplain?

Obviously ethics are crucial. They don’t exhaust the gospel, but they’re not ancillary to the gospel. So a focus should be the ethical considerations of our personal life and, particularly these days, of our national life. Justice and peace are pretty primary in our public life, or they ought to be. How is it, [Duke divinity professor and Nelson Mandela’s prison chaplain] Peter Storey once asked, that good people allow their institutions to do their sinning for them? These are concerns that I think the chaplain should always be raising. It’s very important to ask the right questions.

So that’s the job of a chaplain?

Very, very much. And to relate scholarship to faith. Religion in the academic world is not so much challenged as it is ignored, aside from the horrors of fundamentalism. So the important thing is to push the questions very hard.

One of your predecessors at Riverside, Harry Emerson Fosdick, preached a sermon on "Why Fundamentalism Must Fail." It didn't fail, and his sermon seems more relevant than ever.

Intolerance in theology leads to intolerance in behavior, and we’re back again to self-righteousness. I’m very much in favor of doctrine, but doctrines are signposts. Love is a hitching post. If we get that wrong, we’re in real trouble.

So we have to recover the Bible, but we also have to recover from it. The Bible supports polygamy, supports slavery, it says don’t eat barbecued ribs--that’s a Torah abomination, just like sleeping with another man. Most Southern fundamentalists I know believe in barbecue ribs.

These days, campuses are very concerned with religious pluralism. How does a true Christian operate in a pluralistic world?

To say, "I thank you Lord that I am not as the others are" precludes the possibility of humility or the capacity for self-criticism. It destroys the possibility of solidarity. This pertains in international relationships, and the same is true of interfaith relations. If I say, "I thank you, Lord, that my Christian faith is not as other faiths are," I’ve destroyed the possibility of self-criticism and humility. How can I even claim the name of the Christian without the humility?

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel was quite a great mentor to me and good friend. He said, "The starting point for all interfaith relationship is faith. Otherwise we compromise what’s different between us for the sake of convenience. That will never work." Now, my Christian faith is deeply rooted but the point of having roots is to grow branches. I should branch out to Jews whose branches are deeply rooted in their faith, likewise through Islam and so forth. The impulse to love God and love the neighbor is as much at the heart of Judaism and Islam as it is at the heart of Christianity.

So if someone says, "Are you saved?" what do you say?

I think being a Christian is a position of aspiration, not a fixed position. When you say you’re not sure where you’re going in the ministry, I say "Thank God." Avoid premature closure. I think becoming a Christian is the best that we could hope for. And if I’m saved it’s because there’s more mercy in God than sin in me.

I hope to have the humility to recognize that guilt is the last stronghold of pride. Forgiveness from you, for me to accept it, is for me to allow you to do for me what I can’t do for myself. Likewise, God’s forgiveness is for God to do for me what I cannot do for myself. That’s a central point of all religious life. We have to get strength beyond our own, a capacity to love beyond our own.

What about heaven and hell?

They’re both very powerful symbols of life with God and life alienated from God. In that sense, heaven and hell begin right now on earth. I do believe in an afterlife, not with intellectual certainty, but with a kind of psychological certitude or spiritual certitude, because I believe that God goes from God, in God, to God again. Having caught on a little to what love is all about, it would be too bad not to go on with that kind of relationship and knowledge. But basically that’s in God’s hands. If I know who’s there I don’t have to know what’s there.

Do you believe everyone’s there?

That’s a mystery. Do I know where Saddam Hussein is going? That would be presumptuous, just like it’s presumptuous to say, after the terrible train wreck, God saved my life. Well, why didn’t God save her life, his life, that kid...

You preached a sermon to that effect when your son died...

After my son Alex was killed in Boston, a very nice woman came with arms full of cheeses or something, very thoughtful, but as she started off to the kitchen, she said, "I never could understand God’s will." I set off in pursuit of her and said, "Listen, lady, what makes you think it's worth the will of God? Nobody knows enough to say that." I said in the sermon, "My solace lies not in the fact that it was the will of God, but because I believe God’s heart was the first of all the hearts to break."

That was the core of the sermon that has meant so much to a lot of people. They realize that God’s will is not that somebody die, that God doesn't go around with his finger on triggers, or his hands on the controls of airplanes.

What is your relationship to Jesus?

Jesus is two things to me. One, he’s a mirror to our humanity, showing us what really good human beings should be. The glory of God is a human being fully alive. Jesus is my human being fully alive.

And Jesus is also a window to divinity. When we see Jesus scorning the powerful, empowering the weak, healing various hurts, we have seen transparently the power of God at work. When we pray to God asking for mercy beyond our own powers of forgiveness, we're asking God for strength beyond our own strength. How can we do that? How do we know that’s possible? Through Jesus Christ our Lord. That’s why our prayers end up that way.

But to say that God is most essentially defined by Christ is not to say that God is confined to Christ. And therefore people like Rabbi Heschel--whom I consider a much more profoundly religious person than I could ever aspire to be--he has a route to the same kind of God through his own paths of Torah and Talmud as I follow through Jesus.

In your prayer life do you tend to direct your prayer life to Jesus or God?

To me, that's not crucial, except when people say you can only pray to Jesus and therefore Muslims and Jews can’t pray right.

At Riverside, the profession of faith is "Jesus is Lord." Can you explain what that means for you?

Yeah. Many people would be willing to say that Jesus is a prophet. One of the greatest prophets in the world. Many people would be willing to say Jesus is indeed a mirror to our humanity—showing us what human beings should be like. Jesus said that the more we love the greater …our souls. But to say Jesus is Lord is to say that Jesus is not only a mirror to our humanity but also the window for me, to divinity.

None of us have the right to avert our gaze

Interview with Ralph Nader

October 19, 2005

Ralph Nader: With the majority of Americans in poll after poll turning against the U.S. war and occupation in Iraq and with many retired Generals, diplomats and intelligence officials opposed to the invasion in the first instance why is the organized opposition not greater? What can be done to turn this public support into organized opposition?

Rev. William Sloane Coffin: Sacrifice in and of itself confers no sanctity. Even though thousands of Americans and Iraqis are killed and wounded, the blood shed doesn't make the cause one wit more or less sacred. Yet that truth is so difficult to accept when sons and daughters, husbands, friends, when so many of our fellow-citizens are among the sacrificed.

Because her son was killed Cindy Sheehan is not called unpatriotic. What the rest of us have to remember is that dissent in a democracy is not unpatriotic, what is unpatriotic is subservience to a bad policy.

The war was a predictable catastrophe and we've botched the occupation. However, I sympathize with those who are perplexed about what is best now to do. Soon I hope people will heed the call to renounce all American military bases in Iraq and to begin withdrawal of American troops. I think Bush has it wrong: he says: "When Iraqis stand up, Americans will stand down." More likely its: when Americans stand down, then Iraqis will be forced to stand up. The question is, "Which Iraqis and for what will they stand?"

RN: Why do you think most of the anti-war groups stopped their marches in 2004 and became quiescent compared to 2003?

WSC: Wars generally mute dissent, and Bush is given to silence criticism, to keep problems hidden and ignored. Now that such tactics are no longer possible, given the many setbacks to his war aims, the marches will soon begin.

RN: What do you think the churches and the National Council of Churches should be doing that they are not now doing regarding the war-occupation?

WSC: Bob Edgar, the General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, has been an eloquent protester of the war. Local clergy must brave the accusation of meddling in politics, a charge first made no doubt by the Pharaoh against Moses. When war has a bloodstained face none of us have the right to avert our gaze. And it's not the sincerity of the Administration, but its passionate conviction of the war's rightness that needs to be questioned. Self-righteousness is the bane of human relations, of them all-personal and international. And the search for peace is Biblically mandated. If religious people don't search hard, and only say "Peace is desirable," then secular authorities are free to decide "War is necessary."

RN: Any comparisons between the domestic opposition to the Iraq War/Occupation with the domestic opposition to the Vietnam War?

WSC: There are similarities. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was based on a lie; so was the charge that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. And the lies continued: We were winning the Vietnam War, Iraqi oil would pay for the costs of the war and of the occupation.

I think the absence of a draft has much to do with the present lack of student protest. On the other hand, I think the colossal blunders of the Administration will quicken an antiwar movement faster now than during the Vietnam War. After all, it was only after the Tet Offensive in 1968, not originally in '62,'63 or '64, that the American opposition to the Vietnam War became massive.

RN: What should the U.S. government do now?

WSC: The U.S. government should realize that if we can't defeat the insurgents, we have lost. The insurgents, on the other hand, have only not to lose to declare victory. And to defeat the United States and its allies might go a long way to assuage, to offset the humiliation and rage so many Muslims presently feel. All of which indicates we should start to withdraw our troops. What we shouldn't do is to believe President Bush when he says that to honor those who have died, more Americans must die. That's using examples of his failures to promote still greater failures.

RN: What do you think should be done strategically and tactically by the peace movement?

WSC: I am very much in favor of well thought out non-violent civil disobedience, of occupying congressional offices, telling lawmakers, "You have to stop the slaughter, to admit mistakes and to right the wrong."

Unfortunately, to get media attention, you have to sensationalize the valuable. But town meetings, letters to the editor, flooding Washington with protest letters and marches ­ all that is still very important if the protest continues and gains momentum.

RN: How is Vermont a model in this respect?

WSC: Representative Sanders, Senators Leahy and Jeffords ­ Vermont is well representative by these sensitive, intelligent people. The state is exceedingly environmentally friendly which tends to make people more peace-minded. Actually some Vermonters want to secede from the Union. I'm opposed. Better to stay where the guilt is and try to improve things throughout the country.

RN: What broader advice do you have for strengthening our democracy and confronting the concentration of power and wealth over the life sustaining directions our country (with its impact on the world) needs to take? Please address any specific reforms that demand priority.

WSC: Something happened to our understanding of freedom. Centuries ago Saint Augustine called freedom of choice the "small freedom," libertas minor. Libertas Maior, the big freedom was to make the right choices, to be fearless and selfless enough to choose to serve the common good rather than to seek personal gain.

That understanding of freedom was not foreign to our eighteenth century forebears who were enormously influenced by Montesquieu, the French thinker who differentiated despotism, monarchy, and democracy. In each he found a special principle governing social life. For despotism the principle was fear; for monarch, honor; and for democracy, not freedom but virtue. In The Broken Covenant, Robert Bellah quotes him as writing that "it is this quality rather than fear or ambition, that makes things work in a democracy."

According to Bellah, Samuel Adams agreed: "We may look to armies for our defense, but virtue is our best security. It is not possible that any state should long remain free where virtue is not supremely honored."

Freedom, virtue ­ these two were practically synonymous in the minds of our revolutionary forbears To them it was not inconceivable that an individual would be granted freedom merely for the satisfaction of instinct and whims. Freedom was not the freedom to do as you please but rather, if you will, the freedom to do as you ought! Freedom, virtue ­ they were practically synonymous a hundred years later in the mind of Abraham Lincoln when, in his second inaugural address, he called for "a new birth of freedom." But today, because we have so cruelly separated freedom from virtue, because we define freedom in a morally inferior way, our country is stalled in what Herman Melville call the "Dark Ages of Democracy," a time when as he predicted, the New Jerusalem would turn into Babylon, and Americans would feel "the arrest of hope's advance."

RN: What about the Educational system as it relates to democracy?

WSC: Higher education is doing fairly well. Universities are only too expensive, and do too little to persuade students to make a difference, not money, to be valuable not "successful."

Lower education, on the other hand, particularly for the urban and rural poor, cries for attention. And it's all related ­ inadequate education, housing, jobs, day care, lack of medical assurance. Our children need teachers and doctors, not generals and wars. And they desperately need the incentive only good mentors and a good nation can provide.

RN: Are you writing another book?

WSC: Not that I know of.

Practicing wholesale justice

Interview with Bob Abernathy

August 27, 204

The Rev. COFFIN: What this country needs, what I think God wants us to do, is not practice piecemeal charity but engage in wholesale justice. Justice is at the heart of religious faith. When we see Christ empowering the poor, scorning the powerful, healing the world's hurts, we are seeing transparently the power of God at work.

God is not too hard to believe in. God is too good to believe in, we being such strangers to such goodness. The love of God is to me absolutely overwhelming.

It's clear to me, two things: that almost every square inch of the Earth's surface is soaked with the tears and blood of the innocent, and it's not God's doing. It's our doing. That's human malpractice. Don't chalk it up to God. Every time people say, when they see the innocent suffering, every time they lift their eyes to heaven and say, "God, how could you let this happen?" it's well to remember that exactly at that moment God is asking exactly the same question of us: "How could you let this happen?" So you have to take responsibility.

If you back off from every little controversy in your life you're not alive, and what's more, you're boring.

ABERNETHY: I asked Coffin to think back on the civil rights and other protest movements he helped lead.

The Rev. COFFIN: I think the greatest pleasure was being with black civil rights leaders and followers, because they were so alive. You can be more alive in pain than in complacency.

The antiwar movement split the nation in a more acute, painful way. I think, in retrospect, just about everybody agrees it was a terrible, terribly misconceived war.

ABERNETHY: Coffin became the leader of the U.S. campaign against nuclear weapons.

The Rev. COFFIN: Only God has the right to destroy all life on the planet. All we have is the power. We haven't the authority. Therefore to make, to threaten to use nuclear weapons must be an abomination in the sight of God.

ABERNETHY: Are you a pacifist?

The Rev. COFFIN: Fifty-one/forty-nine. I'm a nuclear pacifist, that's for sure. But there is an irremediable stubbornness about evil. We have to recognize it, including our own complicity in it. We have to constrain it, but I doubt we will ever eradicate it. To say, "Grant us peace in our time, O Lord" -- God must say, "Oh, come off it! What are you going to do for peace, for heaven's sake?" It's not enough to pray for it. You have to think for it, you have to suffer for it, and you have to endure a lot for it. So don't just pray about it.

ABERNETHY: Coffin rails at neglect of the poor and U.S. policies in Iraq. Above all, he condemns what he sees as the country's self-righteousness.

The Rev. COFFIN: Self-righteousness destroys our capacity for self-criticism. It makes it very hard to be humble, and it destroys the sense of oneness all human beings should have, one with another.

ABERNETHY: As he conducts what he calls his lover's quarrel with his country, Coffin acknowledges that he has to be careful not to become self-righteous himself -- perhaps especially when he is honored, as he is often. Last year Union Theological Seminary in New York gave him its highest medal.

The Rev. COFFIN: And the rule is, he won't treat me as if I were too old if I won't treat him as if he were too young.

ABERNETHY: I spoke with Coffin about growing old.

The Rev. COFFIN: I'd just as soon live a little bit longer. But when you are 80, you can't complain. Joy in this world comes from self-fulfillment. Joy is a more profound experience than mere happiness. When you feel a sense of undeserved integrity because you think you're in the right fight -- against segregation, against the war in Vietnam, against the stupid and cruel discrimination against gays and lesbians -- these are the right fights, I feel very deeply. And the sense of self-fulfillment which comes from being in the right fight is a wonderful thing.

I remain hopeful. The opposite of hope is despair -- not pessimism, despair. And as a very convinced Christian, I say to myself, "Come on, Coffin. If Christ never allowed his soul to be cornered with despair, and his was the greatest miscarriage of justice maybe in the world, who the hell am I to say I'm going to despair a bit?"

When you get older, friendship obviously runs deeper and deeper. And, I would add, nature gets more interesting the nearer you get to joining it, and also more beautiful. I can sit on the front porch here and watch the sun coming in through the maple leaves. You know, God is good.

ABERNETHY: In our conversation, Coffin quoted words he liked, words he attributed to Irenaeus, an early church father: "The glory of God is a human being fully alive." Bill Coffin was such a man.