CREDO

Review & Commentary

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  1. Review

    The author writes, “Local churches, ministers, and laity alike need to be prodded , for we domesticate God’s word too soon. Lacking the vigor to deal with big problems, we allow ourselves to be mesmerized by little ones.” For more than forty years William Sloane Coffin, in the tradition of the prophets of Israel and Jesus, has challenged the church and the nation to focus on the “big problems” of social and economic justice, war and peace. For example, “Come to think of it, attacking worldwide poverty could be our best defense policy. It certainly would marginalize extremists and slow down the recruitment of new terrorists.” One might add that a case could be made that we allow ourselves to be mesmerized by little problems because it is safer.

    Focusing his life on the big problems, he served in the U.S. Army during World War II as a liaison officer with French and Russian forces. After the war he worked at the CIA for three years. He then became chaplain at Williams College before becoming chaplain of Yale University where he served for eighteen years. During the early 1960′s he became a prominent leader in the civil rights movement and was jailed for disturbing the peace as a “Freedom Rider” in Montgomery, Alabama. In the years of the Vietnam War, he made headlines as a frequent speaker at anti-war rallies and was indicted with Benjamin Spock and others on a charge of conspiracy to aid draft resisters. After the war he became senior minister of The Riverside Church in New York City. After ten years in that position, he left to become president of the Sane/Freeze Campaign: for Global Security, renamed Peace Action in 1993. He is “immortalized” as Rev. Sloan by Garry Trudeau, the creator of the Doonesbury comic strip.

    In his Preface, Coffin states: “ Credo – I believe – best translates ‘I have given my heart to.’ He writes, “ However imperfectly, I have given my heart to the teaching and example of Christ, which, among many other things, informs my understanding of faiths other than Christianity.” In this collection of excerpts from a lifetime of sermons and unpublished speeches, we are given a clear picture of what it means to give one’s heart to “the teaching and example of Christ.” Organized around nine themes, the excerpts range from a sentence to a paragraph in length. Coffin suggests the book is “designed to be read slowly and in no particular order.”

    It might give the reader a glimpse into the treasury of this book by giving the titles of the chapters and one example from each. Even this small sample will help the reader appreciate why James Carroll calls Coffin “the greatest public preacher of his time.”

    Faith, Hope, Love – “To show compassion for an individual without showing concern for the structures of society that make him an object of compassion is to be sentimental rather than loving.” Social Justice and Civil Liberties – “Truth is always in danger of being sacrificed on the altars of good taste and social stability.” Social Justice and Economic Rights – “To know God is to do justice. To recognize this implacable moral imperative of faith represents the kind of good religion that mixes well with politics.” Patriotism – “Individuals and nations are at their worst, when, persuaded of their superior virtue, they crusade against the vices of others. They are at their best when they claim their God-given kinship with all humanity, offering prayers of thanks that there is more mercy in God than sin in us.” War and Peace – “Presently the United States spends on defense as much as the next fifteen nations combined. Our troops are stationed in seventh-five countries.” Nature – “It is a great mistake to talk, as many politicians do, of balancing the needs of the economy with those of the environment. An economy, national or the world, is a subsystem of the ecosystem. Therefore, we cannot speak of growth as an unquestioned good.” Life in General – “The longest, most arduous trip in the world is often the journey from the head to the heart. Until that round trip is completed, we remain at war with ourselves. And, of course, those at war with themselves are apt to make casualties of others, including friends and loved ones.” The Church – “Many of us Christians who feel so at home in our churches may, in fact, be miles away from God. As Karl Barth observed, ‘Many people go to church to make their last stand against God’” The End of Life, “I’ve noticed that the older, the more gnarled the cherry tree, the greater the profession of blossoms. And sometimes the oldest and dustiest bottles hold the most sparkling wine. I’m drawn by faces lined with crow’s feet, those ‘credentials of humanity,’beautifully lit from within.”

    In a time when the church is struggling to recover its mission to be “in but not of the world” it is salutary to discover what is possible when the teaching and example of Jesus the Christ is the focus of discipleship. This eloquent, disturbing, challenging and heartening book can be a daily resource for empowering the reader to follow “the way.”

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