William Sloane Coffin, Jr.

James Carroll

“WILLIAM SLOANE COFFIN IN DIES AT 81,” the New York Times headline read. A subhead defined him as “A preacher on behalf of the poor to the most prominent.” The Boston Globe headline read, “CIA agent became beacon of antiwar movement.”

Even these quick references caught the genius of the man, and, as I collected my thoughts in preparing to speak at a memorial service, I saw what had made him great. There was tension in the headlines – poor versus prominent, CIA versus antiwar – and such tension gave structure to his life. A first white man to stand with blacks in the civil rights movement. A patrician who was tribune of the nobodies. A patriot who had served his country nobly, but was suddenly in disobedient dissent. A critical thinker with a simple faith. Bill embodied in his very biography the possibility that the divisions of life can be brought into resolution.

What made Bill Coffin famous was his rhetorical flair. His genius for the energetic soundbite was the solution to every reporter’s deadline problem.

“It’s not enough to pray for peace. Work for justice!”

“War is a coward’s escape from the problems of peace.”

“We must be governed by the force of law, not by the law of force.”

Such language was a reflection of the choices that defined him – the dynamic of “versus” again. This is the rhetoric of irony, a bringing together of polarities to see how the tensions of life and the various levels of meaning can be brought to resolution. Irony of this sort is the essence of humor, which is why those who knew Bill Coffin, or ever heard him speak, remember, above all, his great rolling laughter.

Irony depends on an exquisite balance of language and ideas both, opposites held in tension with each other not to split them apart, but to propose a new kind of unity. In the choices he made, and in the language he used, Bill Coffin held up the possibility of hope. He proclaimed by his preaching and his living that the human heart is not doomed to break, however cracked it is by war, by injustice, or even by the sorrows, say, of a child who dies too young.

By his preaching and living, Bill Coffin told us that the divisions of the human heart can be brought into unexpected harmony. This, of course, always assumes that “the heart is a little to the left.” That book title of his, derived from Brazilian Archbishop Helder Camarra, is the perfect example of the free and freeing mind of Bill Coffin, a sly but gentle jibe at right-wingers, reminding them that the human body itself suggests we are all meant to be liberals.

A man of paradox and hope. For all of the political power that accrued to Bill, through his civil rights and antiwar celebrity, it was his religious conviction that most defined him. Peace and Justice were his absolute values. But, by his own account, he had those values not from his privileged background, nor from his beloved America, nor from Yale. To the mystification and even consternation of many, Bill Coffin defined himself by Jesus. And what did Bill love about Jesus if not the paradox? The contradictions that added up to hope. Jesus, the peasant nobody who is Lord of the universe. Jesus, the victim who is victorious. Jesus who can say “My God, my God, why have You abandoned me?” while also saying, “Into Your hands.” With that habitual rhetorical flair of his, Bill said “I don’t know what is waiting for me after death, but I do know Who.”

I first met Bill Coffin forty years ago, when I was a seminarian. He gave me a new idea of what the ministry could be. In large part because of him, I became a college chaplain – and then, however timidly, a war resister. Once, I found myself in a jail cell next to his after a demonstration. Through a long and – to me – terrible night, Bill led the cellblock in choruses from Handel’s Messiah. Even now, when I hear its sweetest refrain – “Comfort ye!”– I hear his resonant voice. I am consoled and emboldened both.

Through the decades, Bill faithfully maintained his commitments. He was a firm critic of the unnecessary war in Iraq, and he never stopped decrying America’s unbroken bondage to nuclear weapons. But with his unfailing generosity of spirit, he never stopped embodying the hope that oppositions, even of the kind that still divide his beloved America, can be overcome.

James Carroll is best known for his work, An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War That Came Between Us (1996). He resides in Boston, MA, where he writes a weekly column for The Boston Globe.