"Credo" & "William Sloane Coffin, Jr.: A Holy Impatience"

Kyle Childress

The Conrad Grebel Review 23, no. 1 (Winter 2005)

William Sloane Coffin. Credo. Westminster John Knox Press, 2004; Warren Goldstein. William Sloane Coffin, Jr.: A Holy Impatience. Yale University Press, 2004.

“True, we have to hate evil; else we’re sentimental. But if we hate evil more than we love the good, we become damn good haters, and of those the world already has too many. However deep, our anger, like that of Christ, must always and only measure our love” (Credo, 20). Not many are masters of the turn of the phrase, the one-liner, the memorable quote, like William Sloane Coffin. Coffin’s newest book, Credo, is a compilation of many of his most memorable lines from fifty years of ministry. Arranged topically, his quotes remind us that more is going on here than simply a quick wit; his wit is used in the service of something larger, the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is a wit that challenges and inspires us toward a more courageous witness.

Warren Goldstein’s biography of Coffin comes along at just the right time to be paired with Credo. Goldstein traces Coffin’s life from privileged birth in New York City to his retirement in Vermont in 1990 where he lives today at age 81. It includes his Yale education (like that of most of his ancestors), and his training to become an accomplished musician, his fluency in several languages, his years as a CIA case officer and then as a motorcycle riding seminarian back at Yale. Coffin became famous during his seventeen years as college chaplain at Yale for his activist ministry in the civil rights and anti-war movements from the late 1950s until the mid-’70s. In 1977 he became pastor of the most influential church in American Protestant liberalism, Riverside Church in New York City, and after ten years moved on to become president of SANE/Freeze, the largest disarmament organization in the US.

As a young minister, Coffin quickly learned the importance of being able to think on his feet and say something memorable. During Coffin’s years of riding buses during the Freedom Rides or going to jail for opposing the Vietnam War, Goldstein says that the press was attracted to him because of his energy, charm, and blue-blooded background. “You become quickly aware of the fact that the press and the country generally tend to value the sensational over the valuable,” Coffin remembered, “so you better cooperate gracefully with this and try to sensationalize what is valuable. And you better have that message ready. You better have done your homework.” He learned that “when they stick that mike in your face you better know what it is you want to say” (127).

His approach in using language and the memorable phrase to get his message across is an indicator of his approach to ministry and the mission of the church in proclaiming the gospel in today’s world. For Coffin, whether it was the given question of a reporter or the social issue of the day, he saw it as an opportunity to show the relevance of Christianity in engaging the world. And given his personality he did it with courage, elan, passion, and wit.

Goldstein reports that early in his ministry at Yale, Coffin said, “There is a big need to present the relevance of Christianity to all major areas of life [and] to the campus as a whole.” But Goldstein points out that “he made no effort to hide Christian messages under secular rubrics, to sneak in discussion of ‘values’ or ‘meaning’ without identifying their religious source. A biblically grounded, liberal Protestant minister, Coffin enjoyed the role of evangelist and wanted the entire Yale chaplaincy to reflect that unapologetic thrust and engagement with the world” (105).

Looking back, we now know that in seeking to be relevant to the world, liberal Protestantism often became so relevant there was little of the gospel left. But Goldstein’s Coffin is a reminder that it was not always quite so. Coffin’s relevancy was salted with the Bible and the love of Jesus Christ. Even though he was often impatient with the church, throughout his ministry the church remained central and the pulpit was always where he was at his best.

In both Goldstein’s enjoyable biography and in his own Credo, Coffin challenges the church of today to out love the haters and to be bold in its witness of Jesus Christ. As he puts it, “Most of all, in these times that are neither safe nor sane, I love to see Christians risk maximum fidelity to Jesus Christ when they can expect minimal support from the prevailing culture. I have in mind what the prophet Nathan did to King David – he spoke truth to power” (Credo, 148). Perhaps for such a time as this have these two books come along.

Kyle Childress, Austin Heights Baptist Church, Nacogdoches, Texas