This Thing Called Courage

Friday, April 14, 2006

RIP, John Bell, and William Sloane Coffin

First off thank you to all of those who have sent condolences over the passing of my step-father, John Bell. He was an extraordinary man of compassion, humor, resilience, spirit, and love. He lost one leg many years ago between the knee and the hip, and four of his vertabrae were fused together with metal, but he never complained, nor did these impedients stop him from driving quickly and recklessly, doing anything he set his mind to, being active, or taking risks. In the late summer of 2001, I spent a month and half up at John's ocean-front house in Maine, converting the front landscaping. Despite his physical disabilities, John would be waiting for me every morning outside, with a shovel, ready to pitch in. Part of the job called for the builidng of a retaining wall, about 60 feet long and three feet high, (see photo above) using heavy wall black with a fieldstone face. Nothing I could say would dissuade John from carrying the heavy stones over to me. "I can help! I can help!" he'd say, a little bit pleadingly-- and indeed he could, and did.
And he so loved my mother. One time driving back from Maine, he dropped my mother off at Aunt Flo's in Chelmsford, then proceeded to drive me home to Stoneham. On the way he said, "You know, I just dropped your mother off, but I miss her already. I love her so much that I can hardly wait to go back and pick her up again."
You, your love, and your humor John will be greatly missed. Rest in Peace.

On the same day as John's passing, we lost another great man, another great American: William Sloane Coffin, who came to prominence back in the 60's and 70's as chaplain at Yale for his passionate anti-war activities. Later in the 80's and 90's he became head of SANE/FREEZE, an anti-nuclear proliferation group. He was also a Freedom Rider during the Civil Rights movement, a passionate critic of US foreign policy (he claimed that all true patriots had, by definition, a 'lover's quarrel' with their country) a gifted musician, and, in his youth, a one-time operative for the Civil War.
He believed in the justice-loving, justice-fighting kind of religion: the religion of mercy, the religion of compassion, the religion of charity, and peace, and social-activisim. He said that God also had a 'lover's quarrel' with this world-- and said often that when people, faced with some horrible event like 911, or a mass genocide due to hunger, turn their faces to heaven and implore, 'God, how could you let that happen?', at the same time, God is looking down at people, and asking them, 'How could you let this happen?'

He was an outspoken critic of the 'illegal' invasion of Iraq, and a frequent critic of the Bush Administration and its policies. Of the Iraq War he said,
The war against Iraq is as disastrous as it is unnecessary; perhaps in terms of its wisdom, purpose and motives, the worst war in American history…. Our military men and women…were not called to defend America but rather to attack Iraq. They were not called to die for, but rather to kill for, their country. What more unpatriotic thing could we have asked of our sons and daughters…?”
And of compassion, and religion without social justice, he said,
"To show compassion for an individual without showing concern for the structures of society that make him an object of compassion is to be sentimental rather than loving.”
Today's 'On Point' show rebraodcast several conversations held with Rev. Coffin over the past several years, and I recommend them here:


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