William Sloane coffin
"Not to Bring Peace, But a Sword"
Program #3519
First air date February 16 , 1991

Read the text 

The Rev. William Sloane Coffin served as Chaplain of Yale University during the VietNam War.  He was in early opposition to the war and became famous for his anti-was activities.  After serving as senior minister of New York's Riverside Church, he became president of the SANE/FREEZE campaign for global security, the largest peace and justice organization in the United States. [Biographical information is correct as of the broadcast date noted above.]

"Not to Bring Peace, But a Sword"
Let's start by recognizing that there is a fundamental, unacceptability about unpleasant truth. We all shield ourselves against its wounding accuracy. Not only do we do this as individuals, but we do this as a people, as a nation. Twenty-seven hundred years ago, as some of you may remember, not because you were there, but because you read the Bible, the priest Amaziah said of the prophet Amos, "...the land is not able to bear all his words."

Every prophet has realized that nobody loves you for being the enemy of their illusions. Every prophet has realized that most of us want peace at any price as long as the peace is ours and somebody else pays the price. That is why the prophet Jeremiah said, "'Peace, peace,' they say, when there is no peace." and why Jesus said, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword."

(Matthew 10:34 NIV)

The Soviet Union is in bad shape today, as we all know. It proves that the hardest moment for a bad government is when it tries to mend its ways. At least let's give credit to the Soviet leadership for having faced unacceptable, unpleasant truth.

It was almost in prophetic fashion that Gorbachev and other leaders said that without repentance there is no salvation, without judgment there is no hope. If there is a way to the better, it lies in taking a full look at the worst. Let's give them credit for doing everything they could to try and bury once and for all the evils of Stalinism for the sake of a saner, safer future for everybody.

I wonder if we Americans don't also have something that we should contribute, as it were, to the burial grounds of the world, something that would make the world a safer place. I think there is something in us. It is an attitude more than an idea. It lives less in the American mind than under the American skin. That is the notion that we are not only the most powerful nation in the world, which we certainly are, but that we are also the most virtuous. I think this pride is our bane and I think it is so deep-seated that it is going to take the sword of Christ's truth to do the surgical operation.

Let's recognize that there is good reason for this. I think this self-satisfaction may go all the way back to 1630, when on board the Arabella making its way towards what was going to be the Massachusetts Bay Colony, John Winthrop said in a now famous sermon, "We shall be as a city set upon a hill."

As moral aspiration for his Puritan hearers as for us, that image from the Sermon on the Mount was beautiful and appropriate, but think about it for a moment. It is fraught with dangerous implications. "We shall be as a city set upon a hill," implies that other folk will look up to us, perhaps with an attention so admiring and so rooted that eventually the world will be populated by frustrated, potential Americans.

That this has been the way most of us Americans have looked at ourselves and the world is borne out by brief testimony that I want to bring you from four famous outstanding Americans.

In the middle of the last century, Herman Melville -- most of you are probably still trying to finish Moby Dick, this was not Moby Dick, it was in a book called White-Jacket -- wrote, "Long enough have we Americans been skeptics as regards ourselves, doubting whether or not the political messiah had come, but he has come in us if we would but give utterance to his promptings." So wrote, arguably, the greatest American novelist.

Moving ahead fifty years, at the turn of the century, Senator Albert J. Beveridge informed his colleagues in Washington, "God has marked the American people to lead in the redemption of the world. This is the divine mission of America."

In the middle of the war in VietNam, when tossing his hat into the presidential ring, Bobbie Kennedy said, "At stake is not only the leadership of a party and a country, at stake is our claim to the moral leadership of the world." Aids reading the speech ahead of time, begged him to take that sentence out. It was the very language that got us into the war in VietNam in the first place, but their pleadings went in vain.

Fourthly, lastly, let me recall the words of President Reagan in his Second Inaugural in 1984. He said, "Peace is our highest aspiration. The record is clear, Americans resort to force only when they must. We have never been aggressors."

That would certainly come as news to Native Americans. It would come as news to Blacks; it would come as news to Filipinos, to Cubans, to Nicaraguans, where our Marines landed fourteen times in their history. All of which is to say that no nation, ours or any other, is well served by illusions of righteousness. All nations make decisions based on self-interest and then defend them in the name of morality.

It was good advice for us in our personal relations and for us as a nation in our international relations when St. Augustine said, "Never fight evil as if it were something that arose totally outside of yourself," a reflection of St. Paul's words, "All have sinned and fallen short..."

Not some, not a majority, not they, that evil empire, but all have sinned and fallen short. In other words, if we are not one in love with other nations in the world, at least we are one with them in sin which is no mean bond because it precludes the possibility of separation through judgment. That is the meaning of the scriptural injunction, "Judge not, that ye be not judged."

Children are innocent and their innocence is beautiful, but adults should not be innocents. They should know that in the stream of human life it is not innocence but holiness that is our only option.

Nobody can doubt that the world would be a safer and saner place if somehow we Americans got over our self-righteousness in our foreign relations.

One more final thing, it is our pride-swollen faces that have closed up our eyes here at home to an almost unimaginable neglect of the poor, the bloat of the military, the size of the deficit, the sorrow of the aged and infirm among us. There are lots of implications to this and I find this tough text, "Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace on earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword," is a wonderfully honest statement about the need for the sword of truth, Christ's sword of truth, that heals the wounds it inflicts.

Interview with William Sloane Coffin
Interviewed by
David Hardin

David Hardin: Bill, with the ending of this forty-five year conflict between us and the Soviets, this Cold War, I sense people are letting down on their concerns about peace. What should be the concerns of the church and individual Christians about peace today?

William Sloane Coffin: I think it is a terrifically ripe moment and we should be capturing it. I have always felt that only God has the authority to end life on this planet. All we have is the power and, therefore, we should be getting rid of all these weapons of mass destruction, rid the whole world of them on a very stringent international inspection.

With the Soviets totally collapsed, this would be an easy thing to do if we take the lead and we accept inspections, etc. Then, invite all the world to do the same. You can't ask small countries to renounce access to nuclear weapons until you are willing to renounce them yourself.

Beyond that, we have got to stop this terrible sale of arms. Two years ago, in 1990, we sold 40% of all the arms that were sold around the world. I would hope that the church would be able to say that it is unacceptable that our government use the sale of weapons or the transfer of weapons to promote foreign policy goals. That is unacceptable, just like it is unacceptable to use food to award or punish people. Secondly, it is unacceptable that anyone in this country should sell arms for commercial profit.

Hardin: Let me take the two pieces of that, one at a time. On the issue of nuclear proliferation, you are saying that maybe we should start by unproliferating ourselves.

Coffin: A fat man can't talk to a skinny one about the virtues of not eating, not until he starts to diet. When we start getting serious about disarmament and we accept international on-sight inspection, at that point the rest of the world will listen to us.

Hardin: I remember in your TIME Magazine interview, someone said to you that we seem to be rather slow in the pacing of our disarmament with the Soviets. You said that was because we are afraid that a right-wing government would take over again, but then you said, "Aren't we better off if their weapons are gone."

Coffin: Exactly. It is very dangerous to have those weapons floating around when we do not know who is going to take over. It is also impossible to think of Arab countries not having nuclear weapons until Israel renounces its nuclear weapons. This disarmament has to take place in a region and it has to take place on a world-wide scale.

The other thing we have to keep remembering is that it is only if we bring down our military budget, which is our Berlin Wall -- $291 billion dollars -- that we will have enough money to start to do something about health care, rebuilding our cities.

Hardin: Where is work for peace most needed in the world today in your opinion?

Coffin: I think there are big basic causes. One is disarmament, we have talked about that. The other is to save the environment. We should be God's stewards of creation, or as the Orthodox say, "We should be priests of God's creation." We need to stop the depletion of the ozone layer and the greenhouse effect. That is the second big thing.

The third thing is we have got to narrow, not widen, the chasm between rich and poor. If Abraham Lincoln was right, that a nation can not long endure half-slave, half-free, the world is not going to long endure, partly- prosperous, mostly-miserable. We simply have to do something to narrow the chasm between rich and poor here at home and also throughout the whole world.

If we had solar energy, for instance, there would be an unlimited source a benign energy. What that would mean for most of the poor folk in this world who live in the southern tier, Central America, Latin America, Africa, Asia! The one thing that they all have in abundance is sunshine. Instead of putting research and development into weapons, put them into renewable energy like that. We would have a world that God could really smile on.

Hardin: We still support a lot of very heavy-handed governments, totalitarian dictatorships like Mobutu in Zaire, in places like Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia. What should we do about this support of people who are not allowing human rights and democracy?

Coffin: We should stop that now. The only reason we did it was because we were engaged in this Cold War with the Soviet Union. If they were anti-Communist that was enough, never mind that they were lousy for their own people.

I think we have to recognize that those who make peaceful evolution impossible make violent revolution inevitable. Our foreign policy should help always to make peaceful evolution possible before violent revolution becomes inevitable.

Hardin: Should we be willing to get out of places like the Philippines, etc.?

Coffin: We don't need bases in the Philippines and they don't need our weapons over there. They don't need our soldiers. How many prostitutes do they have around those bases now? It is heart-breaking to think of all those girls. It is not good for them; it is not good for us. The kind of aid they need is not military. That is true of the world over.

Hardin: That is where we should go.

Coffin: It is a long-term goal but we have got to start moving.


Home | History | Program Schedule | This Week | Sermons | Publications | Related Links | Contact Us