The role of social activism within the Christian faith and the relationship between suffering and experiencing God’s grace were among the ideas explored during the fourth session of the annual Theologian-in-Residence series at Tusculum College on Tuesday.
Dr. Al Staggs, who has led the 2010 lecture series, performed his one-man drama, “William Sloane Coffin: A Priestly Prophet,” at the beginning of the session attended by approximately 130 people. The Theologian-in-Residence lecture series is co-sponsored annually by the Holston Presbytery and Tusculum College.
This was the first time that Dr. Staggs had performed the drama, which focuses on William Sloane Coffin’s service as pastor of the influential Riverside Church in New York City during the 1970s and 1980s.
In the play, Dr. Staggs devoted time to Coffin’s views of grace and how his own suffering and difficult times brought him a fuller realization and understanding of God’s grace that was also beneficial in making him more empathetic as a pastor to what people in his congregation were facing.
The play also focused on Coffin’s ideas about social activism and a Christian’s responsibility to be concerned with others and to work to make the world a better place for every one, including combating economic and political “structural evil.” While Dr. Coffin felt that a personal relationship with God was very important in an individual’s life, he also believed that relationship should lead an individual to see the world from a different perspective and be concerned for others and their situations.
“What amazed me about William Sloane Coffin was that he could speak prophetically and pastorally in the same sermon,” Dr. Stagg said. “While he might be speaking of political issues, he also had a word of grace, if only a sentence or two, that could be applied to any circumstance.”
Expressed in the play was Coffin’s view that a pastor is called to be a priest and a prophet and that one of his objectives in each sermon was to include words about God’s grace to provide hope and comfort for parishioners who were facing difficulties in their life. On the prophetic side, Coffin believed that a pastor needed to thoroughly study and know the Scriptures and be able to apply the Scriptures to current societal issues in sermons.
Coffin once said that he spent one hour in preparation for each minute of his sermons, which were about 20 minutes long. Coffin’s economy of words was part of the key to his profundity, Dr. Staggs noted.
In his research to prepare the drama, Dr. Staggs said he read Coffin’s sermons and found himself marking statements in each sermon that he wanted to use in the play. “It was a real dilemma to reduce it down to fit into an hour or an hour and 15 minutes,” he continued. “There were so many gems of wisdom.”
Coffin took courageous steps, becoming a leader in the Civil Rights and anti-war movements in the 1960s and 1970s and later the movement against the proliferation of nuclear weapons, Dr. Staggs said, but it was not out of a desire to be controversial.
In addressing social and political topics, Coffin was “astonishingly Biblical,” Dr. Staggs continued. “He never presented a true topical sermon. He used the text from the lectionary and would work miracles, making it relevant for the current time.”
During the play, advice that Coffin was given to “be conservative in the interpretation of Scripture, but be liberal in the application of it,” was shared.
Coffin, who passed away in 2006, is missed, Dr. Staggs said, because he was a nationally known figure who presented a Christian voice and perspective in the media that was different to the more prominently presented views of conservative fundamentalists.