Thursday, April 13, 2006

RIP: Rev. William Sloane Coffin 1924-2006

It was with great sadness that I read of the passing of civil rights leaders and Christian moral leader Rev. William Sloane Coffin April 12.

I had the honor of getting to know this truly great man while he was a visiting professor at Lawrence University in Appleton ten years ago.

Gay activists nationally will remember that Rev. Coffin marched in New York City's Stonewall 25 parade back in 1994. We in Wisconsin will also remember his principled response to the late Reggie White following the Packer hall of famer's notorious speech to the Wisconsin Assembly at the request of Congressional candidate John Gard: the one where White in a few sentences managed to insultingly stereotype Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans and gay people.

At the time he wrote that response, Rev. Sloane Coffin had been active the civil rights movement for nearly four decades. In 1962, he was a Freedom Rider in the black civil rights movement in the South. As chaplain at Harvard, he provided sanctuary to draft-resistors to the Vietnam war. In 1979, he was one of four clergy permitted to minister to the Americans held hostage in the U. S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran. Rev. Throughout the 1990's and until his death, Rev. Coffin had been active in the gay civil rights movement, marching with his wife and at times with his (straight) children in numerous Gay Pride parades in New York and other cities.

Rev. Coffin's words are worth re-reading as we continue to battle the ban of same sex marriage and civil unions here:


Dear Reggie White,

I've only heard good things about you, and nobody for a moment doubts your greatness as an athlete. But if your words to the (Wisconsin) legislature this week were accurately reported, I'm troubled, and in particular about what you said about homosexuality.

I write to you as one ordained minister to another. As the Bible is the founding document of every Christian church in the world, it can't be taken seriously enough. But if you take the Bible seriously, you can't take it literally - not all of it.

For instance, in the book of Leviticus, it is a "toevah" - an abomination - not only to eat bacon, sausage and ribs, it is sinful even to touch the skin of a dead pig. If you thought that insight valid today, would you be playing football?

Homosexuality is not a big issue for Biblical writers. In the 66 books of Scripture (71 if you're Roman Catholic), only seven verses refer to homosexual behavior. Some time ago, I picked up a pamphlet entitled "What did Jesus say about homosexuality?" Opening it, I came across two blank pages. Closing it, I read on the back, "That's right, nothing."

St. Paul thought all men were straight. He assumed all homosexual activity was done by heterosexuals.

This assumption is true as well of Old Testament writers, which means that all the Biblical passages used to flay gays and lesbians have really nothing whatsoever to say about constitutionally gay people in genuinely loving relationships.

As Christians, we don't honor the higher truth we find in Christ by ignoring truths found elsewhere. I'm impressed that the American Psychological Association does not consider homosexuality an illness, and that natural scientists have discovered homosexuality in mammals, birds and insects. Clearly, God is more comfortable with diversity than we are!
In my experience, a lot of people talk in the abstract about homosexuality being a sin, but without first-hand knowledge of gays and lesbians. Wouldn't it be better to talk with rather than about homosexuals?

I write you all this in large part because today the "gay agenda" has replaced the "communist threat" as the battering ram of reactionary politics. It grieves me to see you put your considerable muscle behind such a blunt instrument of prejudice.

We live in a land of great prejudice and you as an African American and I as a white man have had to overcome the differences we have invented about one another. It is urgent that men and women, gays and straights, do the same, for as James Baldwin described us, "Each of us, helplessly and forever contains the other - We are a part of each other."

--Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Lawrence University

It's interesting to note that in his final year and a half of his life, Reggie White rejected the anti-gay tenets of Christian fundamentalists as well as the fawning born-again types who were drawn by his celebrity not his Christianity.

Also, compare Rev. Coffin's take on the Bible with the Dominionist thinking of Julaine Appling in her Holy Week Wisconsin Family Connection screed:

"We aren't interested in constitutional amendments for purely social and political reasons. We're engaged in this campaign for nobler and higher reasons. We're motivated by a Sovereign Who some 2000 years ago devoted His sacred Head on our behalf, as undeserving as we are. Surely the least we can do is to stand up for Him and His Truth. "

Of course Ms. Appling is telling a bald faced lie. Julaine's goal - like fellow Dominionist Rantin' Ralph Ovadal's - is re-shaping laws and Constitutions to mimic their twisted view of "Biblical principles," one that creates a more perfect union by banishing (or worse) those pesky homosexuals and anyone who takes the Golden Rule literally.

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