RIP Rev. William Sloane Coffin

The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, a civil rights and anti-war advocate, has died at 81.

[H]e used his ministry to draw attention to the plight of the poor, to question American political and military power, to encourage interfaith understanding, and to campaign for nuclear disarmament. Courage, he preached over the years, was the first virtue, because "it makes all other virtues possible."
Compare this to the Pope’s decision to use the occasion of Good Friday to

deliver a blistering attack on the “satanic” mores of modern society today, warning against an “inane apologia of evil” that is in danger of destroying humanity.

In a series of Good Friday meditations that he will lead in Rome, the Pope will say that society is in the grip of a kind of “anti-Genesis” described as “a diabolical pride aimed at eliminating the family”. He will pray for society to be cleansed of the “filth” that surrounds it and be restored to purity, freed from “decadent narcissism”.

Yesterday, in response to Spudsy’s post, I commented about the problem that arises out of Christian church leaders continuing to promulgate a doctrine of discrimination. There are denominations which don’t denounce homosexuality or reproductive freedom, who are willing to ordain women and regard them as equals within the church infrastructure, but they remain a frustratingly distant minority. This is not to suggest that every Christian who attends a church founded on a doctrine of passive or active discrimination is him- or herself personally engaged in discrimination (though if they're putting coin in the collection plates every week, they're subsidizing it), but for those adherents who are, they use the existence of such doctrine as justification for their actions. Hostility breeds hostility, which inevitably manifests in other forms.

What, exactly, are Catholics meant to take away from the Pope’s screed? That those things he deems “aimed at eliminating the family” should be regarded with apathy, or that they should actively endeavor to put a stop to them? This is the danger of espousing a doctrine of discrimination. Many of its subscribers will discriminate, and feel justified in doing so.

The Rev. William Sloane Coffin has his modern heirs. They preach a positive message, a message of inclusion. But they are being drowned out, and not just by the people who we criticize for acting seemingly in contradiction to Jesus’ teachings. They are being drowned out by the silent enablers who continue to act largely free of condemnation—Christian church leadership who provide the basis for their beliefs and actions. Not just Jerry Falwell, or James Dobson, or Pat Robertson, but the ministers and priests in small churches in small towns across the country, from a myriad of denominations, and the denomination leadership, who, whether they actively incite discrimination or not, continue to provide a basis for its existence. Saying, “We preach that homosexuality is evil, and that women are not equal in every part of society (starting with our church), and that birth control and abortion are abominations, but we don’t expect our parishioners to actually turn that into discriminatory action in society” just isn’t good enough. (And many of them don’t say that at all, but hope that the butts who fill the pews on Sunday genuinely do turn such preaching into political action.) It's not a coincidence that the denominations whose doctrine encourages full equality and inclusion don't have a marauding mass of bigots seeking to codify discrimination into the fabric of our society.

Simply disapproving of adherents who act on the doctrine effectively treats doctrine as bursting forth from a void. A man like Rev. William Sloane Coffin reminds us that is not so. Christian leadership, like the leadership of any other political or social movement, must share in the responsibility for the doctrine they form and transmit—and if that doctrine is inciting discrimination and hatred, it’s not enough to suggest that the wagers of the crusade should know better.

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