The William Sloane Coffin Award for Peace and Justice
Honoring Robert B. Wilcox
April 18, 2010
I count myself doubly privileged today—privileged, first, to speak about Bob Wilcox, and privileged, second, to stand in for Donald Benedict, the person who would have done this better had he not returned, before Bob, to the boundless love of God. Don Benedict and Bob Wilcox had a special bond, forged in part when Don was Executive Director and Bob board member and board president at the Community Renewal Society. How they admired each other. On Bob’s self-understanding, his practice of the law was set within his more inclusive vocation as a citizen committed to the common good, and he and Don were completely at one on principle and purpose. Still, Don ran to the prophetic, and Bob was relentlessly pragmatic—and together each made the other the more effective. So, when Don, some 15 years ago, determined to found a new venture through which Christian faith might make a difference to politics and public life, he turned straightway to Bob, and Bob’s support was direct and decisive.
The result was Protestants for the Common Good. I clearly recall the breakfast discussion in 1995 among 25-30 people, hosted at the University Club by Mr. John Baird, that effectively commenced the venture. Don opened the meeting with his reasons for convening the group. In a time when public concern for our common humanity had largely disappeared because individuals and institutions saw politics as simply another way to compete for private advantage, there was, in Don’s words, “precious little opportunity for serious dialogue on political issues, let alone any serious religious reflection on the future.” Those Protestant churches that were chiefly white seemed largely divided between equally deficient replies: politics on the Christian Right, which demonized opponents and focused on governmental enforcement of certain supposed “traditional values,” or the more liberal churches where Christian faith was held aloof from attention to public issues. A new Christian voice marked by respect for serious public dialogue and aimed at significant public consequence was imperative. Prior to general discussion at the breakfast, three other people involved in planning the event were to follow Don with brief comments, and Don called first on Bob. In his typically crisp way, Bob added an important note, but what I remember most is how he began: “I am honored,” he said, “to be called on first.”
He meant it, and it expressed what I came to know as Bob’s elemental modesty. But his opening words changed meaning through the 15 subsequent years at Protestants for the Common Good. To the board and staff, the honor has been all ours because Bob became in his way first among peers. As the organization matured—becoming active on issues of welfare support, school funding, campaign finance reform, affordable housing, the environment, and the criminal justice system—and both staff and budget grew, no other board member remained so informed, engaged, and encouraging—and steady. Without Bob’s presence, in season and out, giving legal and organizational shape to the venture, naming concisely issues needing address, securing new members of the board, giving and enticing financial support, I wonder: would we have endured to this hour?
My time with Bob has been largely confined to these years at Protestants for the Common Good, and I wish to add another word about the presence I’ve been permitted to witness: Someone once said that our public life is impoverished when we fail to purge it of self. If the common good is to win out, it must take over the discussion and debate, and concern for personal advantage or applause must be left outside the doorway to public participation, because the point is not about you. Before Bob Wilcox, I had not seen someone for whom attention to self was so absent—and focus on the issue or task at hand so entire. Not a hint of care for personal credit or recognition, he was invariably the one among us who most exemplified truly public attention. That rare virtue may be the most telling of the many moral and intellectual powers that made Bob a paradigm of public service, as was so apparent in earlier remarks this evening—and quite beyond our knowing, I expect, he leavened the rest of us.
To my loss, I never had occasion to discuss with Bob his personal faith, which made him a devoted churchman throughout his adult life. But hearing him speak on other things soon made this much clear: However he envisioned the One from whom we all come and to whom we all go, Bob shared the ancient faith of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln: the ultimate mystery of worth with which nature’s God surrounds our lives includes the laws of nature, whose application to our common life proclaims that all are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain rights—to life and liberty but also the pursuit of happiness, human flourishing. And the flourishing of all “we the people,” Bob believed, requires a common good providing for all, especially for victims of poverty and discrimination, access to social and political sources of achievement. He was a man of few words (although they were typically incisive), and he was not given to displays of righteous indignation. But he lived with contained passion for justice and an acute sense of where it is denied, and his resistance to inequity was tenacious. It is altogether fitting that today we honor Bob in the name of William Sloane Coffin, whose words Bob embraced: Christian love may be more than justice, but it is surely never less.
Some three years ago, all of Bob’s civic virtues and democratic principles gained eminent expression in a sustained initiative on the public problem of abusive drug use. Independently and thoroughly, he researched the problem, documented actual as opposed to intended consequences of current policies, and explored legislative steps toward change—and then wrote and rewrote an extended paper educating the rest of us. Government at all levels, he urged, must redirect its attention toward treatment of substance abuse as a public health challenge, with the ultimate goal of decriminalizing actions now defined as illegal drug use. At massive public cost, he concluded, the so-called war on drugs has been a massive failure—and the cost is not simply in dollars but also in wasting of the common good. People who might be helped toward productive lives for themselves, their families, and their communities instead are incarcerated and stigmatized for life, fashioned into burdens on rather than benefits to the larger society. And far from least in Bob’s indictment is the racism with which the criminal justice system has enforced the drug laws. Protestants for the Common Good, in partnership with others, has now become active for—indeed, a prominent voice toward—new directions for drug policy in Illinois, and we are there solely because Bob single-handedly advanced a compelling case.
Tomorrow and tomorrow will want for his presence, and I have days when I fear for our future without him. Still, I am confident in this: Bob Wilcox has received the warmest welcome into the heavenly city, where he will be forevermore cherished and admired among its citizens. We who are left in this earthly city are blessed to have in his legacy the standard for public virtue he set and to which we may aspire, and for this, as for the privilege of sharing our days with him, we can only say: thanks, thanks, and ever thanks.