Stanford Report Online

Stanford Report, March 14, 2001
The Rev. William Sloane Coffin: 'Who tells you who you are?'


"If your heart is full of fear, you won't seek truth; you'll seek security," the Rev. William Sloane Coffin told a crowd of roughly 250 people seated in Memorial Church. "If a heart is full of love, it will have a limbering effect on the mind."

Coffin, a former chaplain at Yale University and legendary anti-war and social activist, joined President John Hennessy, the associate deans for religious life, the assistant minister, faculty members and many others gathered in the church Monday afternoon for the installation of the Rev. Scotty McLennan as Stanford's new dean for religious life.

The Rev. William Sloane Coffin, right, joins The Rev. Joanne Sanders, assistant minister, and the Rev. Scotty McLennan for the singing of the Stanford Hymn. A mentor of McLennan, Coffin participated in Monday's Memorial Church installation of McLennan as the new dean for religious life. photo: L.A. Cicero.

Coffin, McLennan's mentor, traveled from his home in Vermont to attend the event and deliver a sermon.

He said McLennan has "great inter-religious reverence."

"He knows that frantic orthodoxy is rooted not in faith, but in doubt. When we aren't sure, we are doubly sure," Coffin said. "On the other hand, he's no admirer of spirituality that is a mile wide and one inch deep. And he knows the higher our education is, the higher our responsibilities are for a better society."

The pith of Coffin's sermon, however, turned on the following question: "Who tells you who you are?"

Some people, Coffin said, need money to tell them who they are. Others need power to tell them who they are. He noted that Abraham Lincoln, while a member of Congress, declared that the war against Mexico was unnecessary and unconstitutional.

"It cost him his seat in Congress," Coffin said.

Similarly, some Vermont legislators who recently voted to allow civil unions between gay couples lost their seats in the fall, he said.

"But certainly it made my heart rejoice to see people whose ethical instincts were still higher than their political instincts," Coffin said. (The civil union legislation is now law in Vermont.)

Still other people need enemies to tell them who they are, Coffin said, adding that American anti-Communists lost their identity when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. And when President Lyndon Johnson announced in 1968 that he would not seek another term, Vietnam War protesters also lost their identity.

"Fortunately, Nixon came along," Coffin added, provoking laughter from the audience.

"Now, suppose you hear and you believe the prophet Isaiah," Coffin said, referring to Isaiah 43:1, when God says to Jacob: "I have called you by name, you are mine."

"Among other things, it means you never have to prove yourself," Coffin said. "God's love doesn't seek value; it creates it. It's not because we have value that we are loved, but because we're loved that we have value. So you don't have to prove yourself -- ever. That's taken care of."

However, Coffin said, you do have to express yourself. "Indifference to evil is violence," Coffin said, quoting Tolstoy. And Coffin said indifference to evil categorizes many of today's college and university graduates.

"The world is full of gentle cowards who think their gentleness offsets their cowardice. It doesn't," he said.

Compassion frequently requires confrontation, he continued, citing the civil rights movement, the women's movement, the gay and lesbian movement.

"So don't let money tell you who you are. Don't let power tell you who your are. Don't let enemies and -- for God's sake -- don't let your sins tell you who you are," Coffin said. "Don't prove yourself. That's taken care of. All we have to do is express ourselves. It's difficult, but we're a lot more alive in pain than in complacency."

Music was performed by the a cappella group Talisman and university organist Robert Huw Morgan.

Rev. Scotty McLennan. photo: L.A. Cicero