Sunday, May 28, 2006

Thoughts on an Unrepentant Prophet

A friend on Future Faiths Forum, one of the lists on
which I participate, sent in a couple of quotes
by the late Rev. William Sloane Coffin of New York's
Riverside Church. Coffin was an amazing prophetic
figure in a mainline Christianity known more for its
obsessions over genital contact and social respectability
through observance of middle class morality than for
anything particularly related to the Kingdom of G_d.

Here are the quotes and some musings on their content:

"Hope criticizes what is, hopelessness rationalizes it.
Hope resists, hopelessness adapts."
William Sloane Coffin (1924-2006) pastor, Riverside Church

I think Coffin was onto something when he spoke about
hope and criticism. In a film I show in my classes,
Faces of the Enemy one of the speakers talking
about the Reformation said that the presumption of
the reformer who criticized the Roman Catholic
Church was that things could be better and
thus we had the obligation to try to make them so.
I see many social activists in the same light. They
see the potential of a society and in their critique
insists that a people live into that potential.

Inevitably they are seen as assailants and malcontents
by those who cannot see a larger picture than the
immediate construction of reality. These are folks
who confuse patriotism with an uncritical support
of policy regardless of its deleterious effects on
others and its contradictions vis-à-vis one's own
stated principles. These are folks who cannot distinguish
critique for purposes of betterment of a society from
bashing for purposes of denigrating its current leadership.
The author of Proverbs observed that without a vision
the people perish. Rarely were such words more on target
than in today's America.

But I wonder if it's simply hopelessness that prompts
the rationalization and adaptation to destructive
social constructions that Coffin talks about. I am
strongly informed by the work of M. Scott Peck whose
book The Road Less Traveled speaks of the force of
entropy, declining to one's lowest level of functioning
if no energy is exerted to counteract that trend.
Peck assessed the causes of entropy as laziness,
fear of the unknown (the devil you know v. the devil
you don't know) and the aversion to any kind of
suffering. He called entropy "original sin." That's
the only definition of that concept that's ever made
sense to me.

So, I guess I wonder if what Coffin calls
hopelessness is not so much a lack of hope as
lack of will to exert the energy, endure the pain
and face the unknown that he called entropy. In
other words, it's not that human beings are incapable
of doing the right thing or even that we don't know
what it is. We simply choose to avoid it when we
can get by with it. Little wonder, then, that prophets
are stoned. They blow the cover of the entropist,
they explode the rationalizations and call the
adapters on the lives they lead vis-a-vis the
principles they say they believe.

"It is one thing to say with the prophet Amos,
"Let justice roll down like mighty waters,'
and quite another to work out the irrigation system.
Clearly there is more certainty in the recognition of wrongs
than there is in the prescription for their cure.
William Sloane Coffin (1924-2006) pastor, Riverside Church

Truer words were never spoken. And here's where the
entropy is really felt. To critique a system
means to recognize two things: one, it has the
potential to be better, to be more closely
approximating of its ideal; but, two, that to
create a more perfect union, to move closer to
that ideal will require the ability to conceptualize
with a wide angle lens, to figure out ways to
actualize that vision and then to muster the hard
work to get there. Frankly, I feel weary even as
I write these things. Doing them is even more

On the other hand, it is unreasonable to expect
the prophetic voice of the critic to also have
all the answers for fixing that which they decry.
Indeed, to demand that critics have an answer
as a condition of listening to their critique
is a prime example of the entropic qualities
Peck decries. In both the critiqued construction
and the replacement construction, the masses
have remained uninvolved. They've not had to
exert any energy, face an unknown or endure the
pain required to recreate their society.

It is not reasonable to expect one critic or
even a handful to provide the replacement for
the current way of being a people. It took years
and countless souls to create the current version
of society which is not working. It will take more
than a small group of prophetic voices to make
the necessary changes.

In the meantime, do we have the luxury of
simply blowing off the task of dealing with
global warming? or the grinding, death dealing
occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq? or the
slow but sure build to the attacks on Iran?
or the genocide in Darfur and Timor? That a
problem is huge and difficult does not mean
we are somehow excused from dealing with it.
Rationalization and adaptation in the face
of crises like these are not viable options
for people of good faith. Indeed, they are not
viable options for a people who value their
ongoing existence.

Without a vision the people perish.


The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Instructor: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes.


No comments: