The following question was raised a few years back, before Bill Coffin’s death. But I feel the theme is relevant now and I am sure Bill will not mind an effort to stimulate discussion and debate.
What Do Jim Wallis, Bill Coffin and Jim Forbes Have in Common?
I lived with Bill Coffin (William Sloane Coffin, Jr.) and his then wife Eva Rubenstein following my resignation from my fraternity at Williams College in 1958. He was the chaplain.
The following year I enrolled at Union Theological Seminary in New York City and one of my classmates was Jim Forbes (The Rev. James Forbes) who is currently the minister of Riverside Church in New York City.
During the 1960s I founded and edited Renewal Magazine in Chicago and developed a fundamental understanding of church reform and the relation of church and society which has remained substantially unchanged, though its theological underpinnings are now a good deal more developed. When Renewal tapered off and underwent its terminal permutations in the early 1970s, the emergent radical US Protestant publication was called Sojourners and its editor was Jim Wallis.
No, it is not that I know two out of three of these persons or that they are all US Protestants or that they are, even today, seen as spokespersons for the more liberal-to-radical side of that Protestantism, that explains what they have in common.
What they have in common is a mistaken approach.
All three would say, in possibly similar words, that they want religion to have an impact in the public square. But none of them, to my knowledge, adds that the religion of which they are a part is part of the problem.
They might all argue that how a candidate for President deals with poverty is a religious problem, without adding that religion per se is a problem.
In 1969 some radical Christians gathered to confront the churches in Detroit where the National Council of Churches was holding a major meeting. Though the agendas and understandings of our diverse movement varied, the focus was correct.
Instead of the easy route of suggesting that religion have a voice in the public square, those of us in Detroit chose the harder route of seeking to confront and change and refocus church leadership of the mainline churches, predicting their precipitous decline should they fail to face their structural disunity and lack of true ecumenism.
Most of the people who were in that movement in 1969 are voiceless today — they remain more pertinent than voices that merely seek to be heard over against the typical evangelical and born again voices which continue to dominate American religion.
The most prominent survivor of that doomed effort is probably my longterm colleague and friend Will Campbell, who subsequently eschewed any effort to renew or reform the Church and what passes for an ecumenical movement within it.
Some of us still talk together but we know that vaunted American religion is in little danger as long as Bill Coffin, Jim Forbes and Jim Wallis content themselves with making political points to which the bulk of Christendom pays little mind.
Better they might deal with the sickness within religion itself — its superstition, its slavish caving in to the edicts of patriotism and militarism, its turning of Jesus into a code word for narcissistic personal redemption, its irrelevance when it becomes merely a proof-texting code for anything one wants to advance.
I suppose they could come back with the statement that some leaders like Bishop Spong have tried to speak out, to approximately the same level of disinterest. It may well be there is simply no possibility that the ground liberal, mainline Protestantism has ceded to a new mainline evangelicalism will ever be regained.
The simple message needed to start such an effort is suggested in my CAP pages.
More in-depth reasoning will be found on my pages on creedal messianism and my book Beyond Creed: From Religion to Spiritiuality.
The history of the last fifty years of American Protestantism is the history of a failure to engage, on Biblical grounds, the movement that has won the day in the US. That failure means that our popular religion will continue to be an offense, not the offense of the Cross spoken of Biblically, but an offense against reason and good sense and simple understanding of how things work.
The simple theology of our movement is expressed in Will’s phrase that we are all sons o’ bitches but God loves us anyway. From this understanding, one does not enter the public square as a religious representative or functionary, but just as Jesus did — as a human being with no credentials, teaching the Beatitudinal way.
The most political thing Jesus ever did was not telling the Romans he was on the side of peace, but showing the Temple he was on the side of integrity.
Following the lead of Reinhold Niebuhr, who regarded American religion as trivial,
spokespersons for liberal causes within the church remain a minority. They are no threat at all. They can be safely ignored.
When Jesus confronted the Temple the threat was too serious to ignore. Was our confrontation of the American Temple ignored in 1969?
By and large it was.
But I think time and history is on our side.