Thursday, March 22, 2007

Militant Non-Violence, William Sloane Coffin

Bio: Rev. William Sloane Coffin is a chaplain at Yale University, and one of the first men in the nation to challenge this country’s policy in Vietnam from a moral perspective. The following selection well illustrates this view.


"What we need to recognize is Gandhi’s truth that exploitation is the essence of violence, that violence in its cruelest form is not blue collar or no collar, but white collar; not individual and messy, but organized and efficient, antiseptic and profitable. The violent ones are less the mugging drug addicts that inhabit slum tenements than the modern-day Ahabs who occupy pentagonal palaces, skyscrapers like the Ling Tower, the house that: weapons built, and who never see blood unless their secretaries have a nosebleed.

To see how violent a world we live in, we have only to engage in an exercise of imagination: There are now three billion people on this planet. Reduce these peoples proportionately to a town of 1,000 and 60 will be Americans, 940 the rest of the world’s population. The 60 Americans will control half the total income of the town. The 60 Americans will enjoy on an average fifteen times as much of all material goods as the rest of the citizens. The 60 Americans will enjoy a life expectancy of 71 years while the 940 on an average will die before they are 40.

Now we can see how ridiculous it is to define violence in physical terms alone. For a man killed by a bullet is no less dead than a man who has died from a disease resulting from eradicable poverty. When you stop to think of it, poverty is no longer inevitable; there fore it is intolerable. It is no more a private tragedy; it is now a public crime.

But there are other forms of violence and death, the kinds suffered by the 60 Americans. American production is now power fully oriented toward consumption. And as consumption seems almost limitless, so too appears production. But to produce something, something else has to be destroyed, and the evidence of destruction is all about us. “Modern production,” write two commentators, “has obscured the sun and the stars, and it has made the cities unlivable. It chews up great forests and drinks whole lakes and rivers, and it consumes men’s religions and traditions and makes nonsense of their notions of the aims of education. It periodically slays heaps of men in war, and it daily mangles the spirits of millions of others in meaningless labor.”

Oh for a President who could repeat, in place of clichés whose application has long since ceased, these words of the poet-king so eerie in their timeliness:

The bay trees in our country are all wither’d
And meteors fright the fixed stars of heaven;
The pale-f ac’d moon looks bloody on the earth
And lean-look’d prophets whisper fearful change.

But what is to he done-non-violently? One obvious thing is to speak Elijah's truth that we dwell in a land of idol worshipers. Like Willy Loman we have the wrong dreams. The wrongness comes through most poignantly when talking with blue-collar Workers who, unlike blacks today amid unlike whites during the Depression are not excluded from the American pie; they are part of time American dream. Only what kind of a dream is it to return from spirit-mangling work to payments on the car, a mortgage on lime house, stultifying TV programs, an over-heated teen-age daughter amid a D-in-English car-smashing son? But who, particularly in the Church has had the candor and courage to tell them of their wrong dreams, to tell them that the wonders of man do not consist in consumer goods, to tell them that their wretchedness is interior and therefore that it is wrong to seek to scapegoat long haired students, liberal professors, the Vietcong, the UN?

In its most dangerous form, idol worshiping is reflected in the government and we need not bother with the obvious examples today."

"But what impresses me is that if High Noon encounters with nuclear weapons represent manliness, then we simply have to reinvent manhood.

And this, I think, is what non-violence is really all about: a new kind, or perhaps a New Testament kind, of manhood, patterned alter the person of Jesus.

I have only begun to think about this new kind of manhood, but this much at least seems clear. If the aim of non-violence is reconciliation and healing, both for the individual and society, then the emphasis must be not on being right but on being loyal to a truth that is good for all. It is not we who must prevail but a truth that is as true for our adversaries as it is for us. Clearly this demands an openness to, a willingness to learn from, our adversaries. (Actually a refusal to learn from another always reflects doubts about one’s own position.) In short, the fight is for everyone. Every confrontation should offer opportunities, as Gandhi would say, “for all to rise above their present conditions.” And this means we should avoid words or acts which inhibit the awakening of a decent response and only confirm us in our self-righteousness and self-pity."

"For until the adversary in power knows that non-violent men are willing to suffer for their beliefs, he will not be truly willing to listen to them, knowing he can count on their ultimate acquiescence to his power if not to his opinion. Of this we have had endless examples in recent years.

Somehow we have to combine a quality of openness with a quality of determination. We have to fight racial and class enemies, yet never as personal enemies. We have to become twice as militant and twice as non-violent, twice as tough and twice as tender, as only the truly strong can be tender.

That is why a Communion service is so meaningful to me. “After the same manner he took the cup, after he had supped, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood.’” That’s what we need—a new covenant with God and with Christ for a new kind of manhood. To this new covenant we must devote a great deal of thought. Perhaps we should inscribe on the exit doors of the church these words of Daedalus: “I go forth . . . to forge in the smith of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.”

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