William Sloane Coffin died last week. The former Yale chaplain and pastor at Riverside Church in New York City was a leader in two major social movements during the 1960s, the fight for civil rights by African-Americans, and the anti-Vietnam War actions later in the same decade.
Certainly, he was more than just a man who translated belief into social action. He was also a theologian who encouraged his followers to discuss their beliefs, to study and ask questions about faith, to treat it as a journey, not a set of inflexible dogma.
Here’s an excerpt from Letters to a Young Doubter, one of his last books, published in 2005:
I think self-righteousness is the bane of human relations, of all of them – interpersonal, international, and interfaith. I’m sure it was self-righteousness that prompted Pascal to say, “Human beings never do evil so cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” Self-righteousness blocks out our capacity for self-criticism, destroys humility, and undermines the sense of oneness that should bind us all.
Self-righteousness inspired the Christian Crusades against Muslims and, centuries later, the Easter pogroms of Eastern Europe, the sermon-induced slaughter of Jews after the morning celebration of the resurrected rabbi. Today this same self-righteousness encourages some American Christians to cheer President Bush’s messianic militarism, a divinely ordained form of cleansing violence, and all in the name of a Jesus Christ who is the mirror opposite of the Jesus of the four Gospels.
Self-righteousness makes believers of all faiths doctrinaire, dogmatic, and mindlessly militant.