The Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr., a civil rights and antiwar campaigner who sought to inspire and encourage an idealistic and rebellious generation of college students in the 1960's from his position as chaplain of Yale University, then reveled in the role of lightning rod thrust upon him by officials and conservatives who thought him and his style of dissent dangerous, died yesterday at his home in Strafford, Vt. He was 81.
The cause was congestive heart failure, said his daughter, Amy Coffin. She said he had recently been under hospice care.
Dr. Coffin, a believer in the power of civil disobedience to bring social and political change, was arrested as a Freedom Rider early in the 1960's and was an early admirer of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
An ordained Presbyterian minister, he embraced a philosophy that put social activism at the heart of his clerical duties. In the late 1970's, when he became senior minister of Riverside Church in New York — an institution long known for its social agenda — he used his ministry to draw attention to the plight of the poor, to question American political and military power, to encourage interfaith understanding, and to campaign for nuclear disarmament. Courage, he preached over the years, was the first virtue, because "it makes all other virtues possible."
In his later years, he devoted himself to antiwar crusades, advocating a nuclear freeze, opposing the 1991 war in the Persian Gulf and speaking out against the invasion of Iraq in 2003. But he did not consider himself a pacifist, and when genocide broke out in Bosnia, he asserted that there were times when international intervention with force was justified.
But it was as the outspoken chaplain at Yale in the tumultuous years when the Vietnam War was escalating that Dr. Coffin's name became known across America. While he questioned the wisdom of the war almost from the start, he came only slowly to a decision to apply to this cause the same tactics of civil disobedience he had already engaged in on behalf of the struggle for integration in the South.
Yet when he did, the spectacle he created — the chaplain of an Ivy League university counseling students that they were right to resist the draft, and accepting their draft cards to be turned in to the Justice Department — so infuriated the Johnson administration that Attorney General Ramsey Clark, himself a prominent liberal, sought to imprison him.
In one of the most celebrated trials of the day, Dr. Coffin, Dr. Benjamin Spock and three others were accused of conspiracy to encourage draft evasion. Dr. Coffin, Dr. Spock and two others were convicted, but the verdicts were overturned on appeal. The case became a cause célèbre for the antiwar left and civil libertarians, who considered the prosecution's eventual failure an incomplete vindication of the right of free speech.
Here's something Dr. Coffin said as recently as 2003 that is worth pondering along with the Deepak Chopra quote I posted below:
Patriotism at the expense of another nation is as wicked as racism at the expense of another race...Let us resolve to be patriots always, nationalists never. Let us love our country, but pledge allegiance to the earth and to the flora and fauna and human life that it supports — one planet indivisible, with clean air, soil and water; with liberty, justice and peace for all.
May he rest in peace and may light perpetual shine upon him.