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A Politically Engaged Spirituality
Comments by William Sloane Coffin, Jr.
April 28, 2005
“An Evening with Bill”
Yale University Commons

Arthur Miller, of blessed memory, once wrote “I could not imagine a theater worth my time that did not want to change the world.”

William Sloane Coffin, Jr.I feel the same way about religious faith; it should want to change the world. The “blood-dimmed tide” loosed in the last century claimed more lives than all wars in all previous centuries, and the present century is filled with violence and cruelty. We seem more intent on fighting God's will than doing God's will. Therefore, the most urgent religious question is not ‘What must I do to be saved?” but rather “What must we all do to save God's imperiled planet?”

Spirituality takes various forms. In many faiths some are very profound while others, particularly these days, appear to be a mile wide and one inch deep. Urgently needed for our time is a politically engaged spirituality.

I believe Christianity is a worldview that undergirds all progressive thought and action. The Christian church doesn't have a social ethic as much as it is a social ethic, called to respond to biblical mandates like truth-telling, confronting injustice and pursuing peace. What is so heart-breaking is that, in a world of pain crying out for change, so many American churches today are basically down to management and therapy.

A politically engaged spirituality does not call for theological sledgehammers bludgeoning people into rigid orthodoxy. Nor does it mean using scriptural language as an illegitimate shortcut to conclusions, thereby avoiding ethical deliberation. We have constantly to be aware of hard choices informed by the combination of circumstances and conscience. We insult ourselves by leaving complexities unexamined. But never must we become so cautious as to be moral failures.

For example: The income polarization in our country is more characteristic of third-world nations than can be found in Europe or East Asia . Determined to funnel federal dollars to religious institutions, President Bush in not only fudging separation of church and state; he is reneging on his constitutional obligation to “promote the general welfare.” He is actually putting charity in the path of justice, for what the poor need today is not piecemeal charity but wholesale justice. We are the only advanced democracy without a national health care system.

American churches need to understand that, while charity seeks to alleviate the ill effects of injustice, justice seeks to eliminate the causes. Charity preserves the status quo; justice demands “liberty and justice for all”—a more democratic egalitarian future for all citizens.

In the Book of Numbers, Moses says, “Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, that the Lord would put his spirit upon them.” In his day, Martin Luther spoke eloquently about “the priesthood of all believers.” In our time, how about a “prophethood of all believers?”

The seminaries could greatly help. If the poor are very much on God's mind, they should have a prominent place in the curriculum. How much attention is paid the poor in biblical studies? It's worth checking—in church history, in preaching, theology. And why in the academic world are theology and ethics so sharply distinguished? In prophetic theology they don't even interface; they are one. And let's be clear: The goal of prophetic theology, like the goal of biblical prophets, is not to chastise but rather to heal; to enhance, not diminish, humanity, because, as the old church father said, “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” (Iraneous)

Clearly, parish clergy could use a little more starch; they are gumption-deficient. But they also need more instruction from their seminaries to face difficult situations that lie ahead.

Same-sex couples are not about to go away, and civil unions—praise be Connecticut to join Vermont—civil unions don't provide benefits equal to those of married couples. The problem is not to reconcile homosexuality with biblical passages that condemn it. The problem is to make Christians face up to the fact that everything biblical is not Christ-like, and that Christians are called upon to worship the Word made flesh, not the Word made words.

We all know it's “toevah,” an abomination, in the Book of Leviticus for a man “to lie with another man as with a woman.” But it is also, in the same book, “toevah” to enjoy barbequed ribs and Monday night football because it is an abomination even to touch the skin of a dead pig.

The Religious Right is also not going away. As Robert Kennedy properly observed, “What is dangerous is not that extremists are extreme but that they are intolerant.” Almost equally dangerous, I would suggest, is the sense of superiority that keeps theologians and biblical scholars from taking on the Falwells of the world because they don't consider them worthy antagonists. I sympathize. The delusional is no longer marginal but has come in from the fringe and occupies the center of power. More people have to speak up than only brave journalists like Bill Moyers or Seymour Hersh.

Pollution, too, is hanging around. Scientists the world over have collected mountains of evidence against global warming, but Bush declares, “The jury is still out.” Wouldn't it be wonderful if the Yale Law School and its graduates, or the National Lawyers Guild—whose president I think is here tonight, a former deacon, Michael Avery—were to mount a suit against the Administration for failing “to provide for the common defense?” The suit might be called “frivolous,” but its guaranteed publicity would make a wonderful educational tool. To religious believers, global warming is a reminder that nature has been divorced from nature's God. They must rewed, because, finally, only reverence can restrain violence, be it against each another or against nature.

And lastly, nuclear weapons are only going to proliferate. Prophetic theology would declare that only God has the authority to end all Life on the planet; all we have is the power. And a politically engaged spirituality would point out that what the nuclear nations are practicing is nuclear apartheid. A handful of nations have arrogated to themselves the right to produce, deploy, threaten to use nuclear weapons, while policing the rest of the world against their production. Such an arrogant policy is not politically expedient, not in the long run. Nuclear apartheid has no more chance of succeeding in the world than did racial apartheid in South Africa . The only way to stop nuclear proliferation is to recognize that nuclear weapons demand a single standard – their total abolition, ours included, under the most stringent possible international control.

A policy that keeps the world only minutes away from annihilation is a fine example of fighting, not doing God's will. Kofi Annan says the abolition of nuclear weapons is at the top of the UN agenda. Why isn't it heading the agenda of every church, temple and mosque?

Said the redoubtable Abigail Adams: “Great necessities call out great virtues.” We have the former; now is the time to demonstrate the latter. Despair is not an option, for if we give up on justice, if we give up on peace, we give up on God.

Therefore, in Isaiah's words, let us “Mount up with wings like eagles, let us run and not grow weary, walk and not faint,” not until that day when faith and hope are outdistanced by sight and possession, and in the prediction of the psalmist, “The earth shall be filled with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the sea.”

Thank you for your attention, and thank you for most this amazing evening.