A Conversation with Rev. William Sloane Coffin

I recently spoke to Rev. William Sloane Coffin about the war in Iraq and what concerned citizens can do to stop this illegal and unjust war.

Rev. William Sloane Coffin was a leader against the war in Vietnam and is a leading advocate for civil rights and opponent of nuclear weapons. Coffin was an Army officer in World War II. He earned his Bachelor of Divinity degree from Yale in 1956 and was ordained a Presbyterian minister.

In 1977, he became senior minister at Riverside Church in New York City.

He currently resides in Vermont.

My interview with Rev. Coffin follows.

Ralph Nader: With the majority of Americans in poll after poll turning against the U.S. war and occupation in Iraq, and with many retired Generals, diplomats and intelligence officials opposed to the invasion in the first instance why is the organized opposition not greater? What can be done to turn this public sentiment into organized opposition?

Rev. William Sloane Coffin: Sacrifice in and of itself confers no

sanctity. Even though thousands of Americans and Iraqis are killed and

wounded, the blood shed doesn’t make the cause one wit more or less

sacred. Yet that truth is so difficult to accept when sons and

daughters, husbands, friends, when so many of our fellow-citizens are

among the sacrificed.

Because her son was killed Cindy Sheehan is not called unpatriotic. What

the rest of us have to remember is that dissent in a democracy is not

unpatriotic, what is unpatriotic is subservience to a bad policy.

The war was a predictable catastrophe and we’ve botched the occupation.

However, I sympathize with those who are perplexed about what is best

now to do. Soon I hope people will heed the call to renounce all

American military bases in Iraq and to begin withdrawal of American

troops. I think Bush has it wrong: he says: “When Iraqis stand up,

Americans will stand down.” More likely its: when Americans stand down,

then Iraqis will be forced to stand up. The question is, “Which Iraqis

and for what will they stand?”


RN: Why do you think most of the anti-war groups stopped their marches

in 2004 and became quiescent compared to 2003?

WSC: Wars generally mute dissent, and Bush is given to silence

criticism, to keep problems hidden and ignored. Now that such tactics

are no longer possible, given the many setbacks to his war aims, the

marches will soon begin.


RN: Any comparisons between the domestic opposition to the Iraq

War/Occupation with the domestic opposition to the Vietnam War?

WSC: There are similarities. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution was based on

a lie; so was the charge that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass

destruction. And the lies continued: We were winning the Vietnam War,

Iraqi oil would pay for the costs of the war and of the occupation.

I think the absence of a draft has much to do with the present lack of

student protest. On the other hand, I think the colossal blunders of the

Administration will quicken an antiwar movement faster now than during

the Vietnam War. After all, it was only after the Tet Offensive in 1968,

not originally in ’62,’63 or ’64, that the American opposition to the

Vietnam War became massive.

RN: What should the U.S. government do now?

WSC: The U.S. government should realize that if we can’t defeat the

insurgents, we have lost. The insurgents, on the other hand, have only

not to lose to declare victory. And to defeat the United States and its

allies might go a long way to assuage, to offset the humiliation and

rage so many Muslims presently feel. All of which indicates we should

start to withdraw our troops. What we shouldn’t do is to believe

President Bush when he says that to honor those who have died, more

Americans must die. That’s using examples of his failures to promote

still greater failures.

RN: What do you think should be done strategically and tactically by the

peace movement?

WSC: I am very much in favor of well thought out non-violent civil

disobedience, of occupying congressional offices, telling lawmakers,

“You have to stop the slaughter, to admit mistakes and to right the wrong.”

Unfortunately, to get media attention, you have to sensationalize the

valuable. But town meetings, letters to the editor, flooding Washington

with protest letters and marches – all that is still very important if

the protest continues and gains momentum.

RN: What advice do you have for strengthening our democracy and

confronting the concentration of power and wealth over the life

sustaining directions our country (with its impact on the world) needs

to take? Please address any specific reforms that demand priority.

WSC: Something happened to our understanding of freedom. Centuries ago

Saint Augustine called freedom of choice the “small freedom,” libertas

minor. Libertas Maior, the big freedom was to make the right choices, to

be fearless and selfless enough to choose to serve the common good

rather than to seek personal gain.

That understanding of freedom was not foreign to our eighteenth century

forebears who were enormously influenced by Montesquieu, the French

thinker who differentiated despotism, monarchy, and democracy. In each

he found a special principle governing social life. For despotism the

principle was fear; for monarch, honor; and for democracy, not freedom

but virtue. In The Broken Covenant, Robert Bellah quotes him as writing

that “it is this quality rather than fear or ambition, that makes things

work in a democracy.”

According to Bellah, Samuel Adams agreed: “We may look to armies for our

defense, but virtue is our best security. It is not possible that any

state should long remain free where virtue is not supremely honored.”

Freedom, virtue – these two were practically synonymous in the minds of

our revolutionary forbears. To them it was not inconceivable that an

individual would be granted freedom merely for the satisfaction of

instinct and whims. Freedom was not the freedom to do as you please but

rather, if you will, the freedom to do as you ought! Freedom, virtue –

they were practically synonymous a hundred years later in the mind of

Abraham Lincoln when, in his second inaugural address, he called for “a

new birth of freedom.” But today, because we have so cruelly separated

freedom from virtue, because we define freedom in a morally inferior

way, our country is stalled in what Herman Melville call the “Dark Ages

of Democracy,” a time when as he predicted, the New Jerusalem would turn

into Babylon, and Americans would feel “the arrest of hope’s advance.”


Rev. Coffin or Ralph Nader can be reached through Kevin Zeese at

[email protected]. The full interview with Rev. Coffin is

available at www.DemocracyRising.US.

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