William Sloane Coffin, Jr. (1924–2006) was a clergyman and long-time peace activist. Ordained in the Presbyterian church, he later received ministerial standing in the United Church of Christ. He was an athlete, a talented pianist, a CIA agent, and later chaplain at Yale, where the influence of Reinhold Niebuhr’s social philosophy led him to become a leader in the civil rights and peace movements of the 1960s and 1970s. He went on to serve as Senior Minister at the Riverside Church in New York and President of SANE/Freeze (now Peace Action), the nation’s largest peace and justice group.
Coffin prominently opposed United States military interventions in conflicts such as Vietnam up to the Iraq War. He was also an ardent supporter of gay rights.
In his book, The Courage to Love he wrote:
The temptation to moralize is strong; it is emotionally satisfying to have enemies rather than problems, to seek out culprits rather than flaws in the system. God knows it is emotionally satisfying to be righteous with that righteousness that nourishes itself on the blood of sinners. But God also knows that what is emotionally satisfying can be spiritually devastating.
Pointing a finger is far easier and far more emotionally satisfying than offering understanding and having the courage to search out the root causes of social ills. Many among us even blame the poor for their poverty rather than search for the flaws in system that perpetuates their poverty.
The growing number of poor and the hungry in our country are not our enemies. They are the living and suffering symptoms of a flawed and spiritually devastating economic system that we refuse to address.
With less self-righteousness and more courage to love we might come to a place where we are willing to look at the system rather than just continue pointing our fingers. Until then, however, we just continue to be nourished on the blood of sinners.
I have two enemies in all the world,
Two twins, inseparably pooled:
The hunger of the hungry and the fullness of the full.
This little poem I recently came across by Marina Tsvetaeva well describes my own feelings. After 40 years of walking along side the poor and hungry I still cannot reconcile myself to the apathy of those that have sufficient resources yet refuse to help those of our family in need. Here is an equally short poem I wrote over 30 years ago.
Hunger is an obscenity,
a four-letter word
scrawled across the lives of millions
by those that could, but do not share.