Faith Without Illusion
Unitarian minister, peace activist
Rev. William Sloan Coffin was a leading prophetic voice against the war in Vietnam and the unofficial chaplain to a generation of peace activists. As peace initiatives failed and anti-government sentiment grew he would tell us that the only effective vaccine against disillusionment, and its first cousin cynicism, was to have no illusions. Coffin captured the pressing need for activists to sustain the urgency of their efforts by having a realistic "passion for the possible."
In the bright light of the first months of the Obama Administration this is precisely the advice that activists of all ages and causes need. The harsh realities of war and entrenched militarism, economic and social oppression based on race, gender, homophobia and class will not be overcome anytime soon.
In the early 1970s, when the only audacity in the White House was official mendacity, I met Mildred Scott Olmstead whose confidence in the future transcended her historic moment and inoculated her against illusion and cynicism. What Mildred had, and we needed then and need again today, was both a long view of history and a faith that transcends our time-location. Back then I was quick to recite a litany of losses that our common causes had suffered. Hearing the growing cynicism in my voice she would counter "those who oppose women's rights and peace should be quaking in their boots."
At that time her statement seemed ill-founded, if not delusional. But Mildred knew what I did not yet know, that acting with urgency today can bend the arch of history toward justice, but only slowly. Mildred had no illusions. She had seen war close up as a social worker during the First World War in Europe. After that she helped birth a vibrant peace movement between two world wars and worked with Jane Addams to establish the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. She was an outspoken advocate for civil rights and dialogue with the Soviet Union during the cold war. Her blue eyes would sparkle when she told of campaigns won and lost and she would always punctuate her stories with the phrase "it's a great day to be alive."
In the coming months and years those who worked so hard to see the arrival of this new day must guard against the illusions of the quick fix and uncompromising victory. At a time like this it would be good to recalled Reinhold Niebuhr words: "Nothing worth doing can be completed in a single life time, therefore we are saved by faith."
Stephen Shick is the former director of U.S. programs for the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee. A lifelong peace activist, he is senior minister at the Unitarian Church of Marlborough and Hudson in Hudson, Massachusetts and the author of Be the Change: Poems, Prayers & Meditations for Peacemakers & Justice Seekers.
Posted by: hsnkhwj | May 23, 2009 3:20 PM
Report Offensive Comment
Posted by: CCNL | May 22, 2009 3:09 PM
Report Offensive Comment
The comments to this entry are closed.