Friday, April 28, 2006

Bill Moyers on Bill Coffin

I never knew Bill Coffin.  But I've decided to share some excerpts from a powerful piece delivered at his funeral by a man who has fundamentally changed the way I think about life and death and the world and the afterlife.

A friend of mine sent it to me. 

I was moved.

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Remembering Bill Coffin

By Bill Moyers
April 21, 2006

The following remarks were delivered by Bill Moyers at the funeral service for William Sloan Coffin on Thursday, April 20, at Riverside Memorial Church in New York City.
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[Bill Coffin] had the pastor’s heart but he heeded the prophet’s calling. There burned in his soul a sacred rage—that volatile mix of grief and anger and love that produced what his friend, the artist and writer Robert Shetterly, described as “a holy flame.” During my interview with him he said, “When you see uncaring people in high places, everybody should be mad as hell.”

... I once heard Lyndon Johnson urge Martin Luther King to hold off on his marching in the south to give the president time to neutralize the old guard in Congress and create a consensus for finally ending institutionalized racism in America. Martin Luther King listened, and then he answered (I paraphrase): “Mr. President, the gods of the South will never be appeased. They will never have a change of heart. They will never repent of their sins and come to the altar seeking forgiveness. The time has passed for consensus, the time has come to break the grip of history and change the course of America.”

When the discussion was over Dr. King had carried the day.
The president of the United States put a long arm on his shoulder and said, “Martin, you go on out there now and make it possible for me to do the right thing.”

... Like Martin Luther King, Bill Coffin also knew the heart of power is hard; knew it arranged the rules for its own advantage, knew that before justice could roll down like water and righteousness like a flowing river, the dam of oppression, deception and corruption had first to be broken, cracked open by the moral power of people aroused to demand that the right thing be done.
... When he came down from Vermont two years ago for that final interview, we talked about how democracy had reached a fork in the road—what Tony Kushner calls one of those moments in history when the fabric of everyday life unravels and there is this unstable dynamism that allows for incredible change in short period of time—when people and the world they are living in can be utterly transformed for good or bad.

Take one fork and the road leads to an America where military power serves empire rather than freedom; where we lose from within what we are trying to defend from without; where fundamentalism and the State scheme to write the rules and regulations; where true believers in the gods of the market turn the law of the jungle into the law of the land...
Take the other fork and the road leads to the America whose promise is “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for all.
[Coffin] believed in democracy. There is no simpler way to put it. He believed democracy was the only way to assure that the rewards of a free society would be shared with everyone, and not just elites at the top.
That last time we talked, he told me how much he had liked the story he had heard Joseph Campbell tell me in our series on The Power of Myth — the story of the fellow who turns the corner and sees a brawl in the middle of the block. He runs right for it, shouting: “Is this a private fight, or can anyone get in it?”
... Someone sidled up to me the other night at another gathering where Bill’s death was discussed. This person said, “He was no saint, you know.” I wanted to answer: “You’re kidding?” We knew, alright. Saints flourish in a mythic world. Bill Coffin flourished here, in the cracked common clay of an earthly and earthy life. He liked it here.
Even as he was trying to cooperate gracefully with the inevitability of death, he was also coaching Paul Newman to play the preacher in the film version of Marilynn Robinson’s novel Gilead. He enjoyed nothing more than wine and song at his home with Randy and friends. And he never lost his conviction that a better world is possible if we fight hard enough.
... Faith, he once said, “is being seized by love.” Seized he was, in everlasting arms. “You know,” he told me in that interview, “I lost a son. And people will say, ‘Well, when you die, Bill, Alex will come forth and bring you through the pearly gates.’ Well, that’s a nice thought, and I welcome it. But I don’t need to believe that. All I need to know is, God will be there. And our lives go from God, in God, to God again. Hallelujah, you know? That should be enough.”

Well, he’s there now. But we are still here. I hear his voice in my heart: “Don’t tarry long in mourning. Organize.”

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