William Sloane Coffin Award Acceptance Speech

By John Bouman

Thank you! Happy Birthday PCG, and congratulations to Nancy Brandt, Ronald Sampson, and Eugene Winkler.

This is a very humbling and satisfying moment for me. It means a lot to be recognized and honored with this particular award, named for such a fine activist faith leader, William Sloane Coffin, who is so far above my pay grade.

Let’s see. I have managed to acquire wonderful and talented colleagues and board members at the Shriver Center whose work I often get credit for. And I have a fantastic set of friends and allies—like Protestants for the Common Good—whose work is essential to the accomplishment of anything of consequence. There is very little you can get done alone. And I have had the profound lack of imagination to stay more or less in the same place for several decades. That’s something, I guess. And if all that adds up to this award, well so be it!

It not only means a lot to receive an award named for William Sloane Coffin, it means even more to get it from this particular organization and these particular people. What can I say about Protestants for the Common Good and its staff, and its founding directors honored here today, especially my good friend Nancy Brandt?

Al Sharp, thoughtful as always, provided me with some writings by Reverend Coffin that gave me a good start on figuring out what to say. Here is something from one of Coffin’s sermons:

I like St. Augustine’s observation: “Hope has two beautiful daughters. Their names are anger and courage; anger at the way things are, and courage to see that they do not remain the way they are.”

But in all this talk of anger, there is a caveat to be entered. We have to hate evil, else we’re sentimental. But if we hate evil more than we love the good, we become good haters, and of those the world already has too many. However deep, our anger must always and only measure our love.

…You remember how with unconscious eloquence St. Paul wrote: “Now abide faith, hope, love, these three; and the greatest of these is love. And his very next sentence reads: “Make love your aim.”

Too many religious people make faith their aim. They think the “greatest of these” is faith, and faith is defined as all but infallible doctrine. These are the dogmatic, divisive Christians, more concerned with freezing the doctrine than warming the heart.

If faith can be exclusive, love can only be inclusive. “Make love your aim.”
That is a pretty good definition of what Protestants for the Common Good means when it promotes “the common good”. They testify to a faith that produces a particular kind of active hope. A hope with two beautiful daughters, anger and courage, that inspire action. Action driven by hatred for evil, to be sure, but always measured by love of the good. And the good—the common good—comes from an inclusive, we’re all in this together, regard for everyone, especially those in need.

Nancy and the other founders molded PCG in this image of forceful hope. This is an organization that goes forth to cynical places like Springfield under the banner of the Beloved Community, the common good. That is a formula that does not necessarily prompt respect from hardened politicians and lobbyists. And yet, the way Al and the PCG staff have implemented the mission, it does generate respect. It works. They are uncommonly good at it.

And—something for which I am personally grateful—PCG provides a frank public statement and example of how faith should manifest itself in the world on questions of public policy and governance. PCG stands in juxtaposition to what Reverend Coffin calls the dogmatic and divisive and exclusionary brand of public Christianity. To me PCG came on the scene as a great relief. PCG is a voice from my faith community in the public policy arena that I can be proud of. Thank you.

Al asked me to talk briefly about why I do this work and why I don’t burn out. Gee thanks, Al

As with most things when I was younger, I did not sit down and puzzle out why I wanted to enter the law in general or public interest law in particular. I followed my nose and didn’t examine my course very much. For a while, I thought entering a career in representing poor people was a combination of idealism about justice and equality and a sort of anarchistic stick-it-to-the-man attitude—both of which were dominant themes on the campuses of the 60s and 70s.

But it was, as I said, not thought through. It was a default setting. Much later I began to understand that the default setting did not come about by accident. In my family, the family business is the ministry. Both grandfathers, a six-pack or so of uncles, and my older brother Steve are all Lutheran clergy. My dad was not—he branched far out and was a Lutheran schoolteacher and really fine church musician. None of these people knew the first thing about making money; none of them had that or taught that as a guiding thing in life. I was taught, mostly by example, that a well-lived life was one of service. That you get an inner peace from faith, and that in gratitude for that peace, you use your talents to help people. This is of course reinforced over and over again by straightforward messages in Bible stories—how often does it talk about the poor, about justice? And not just about personal behavior but about how governments are supposed to act—who was the just king? It was reinforced by strong and intellectually challenging preaching at Grace Lutheran Church in River Forest, IL, by talented parish preachers, Dean Lueking for many years, now Bruce Modahl, and always (in various venues) brother Steve.

A big part of this whole lifelong lesson, from back before I consciously thought about it to right now, is the fact that the point of our work and the predominant joy of it is the work itself, not the outcomes. Yes, for sure, it is important and valuable to win positive changes that improve lives and equalize opportunities in our society. To be able to look back and see a footprint and know that things are better because of the work that you have done is a fine and satisfying thing. But that will always be counterbalanced by the work still to do. The real goal and the lasting satisfaction comes from the effort itself. To engage in a useful life, to strive for excellence, to revel in good colleagues, to serve those who need help, to re-balance the power equations in society, to increase the measure of justice just by being in the game. That there is always more work to do does not produce burnout, but the opposite—it means we get to keep doing it.

So, coming from where I do, I think you get a sense for how gratified I am about the work of PCG and the fact they thought me worthy of this award. It is not my role to invoke the messages of faith in my public advocacy. But I am sure glad someone does.

I’d like to leave you with some words from a favorite passage from the prophet Isaiah, which some of you may have heard me use before (sorry about that, but I like it and it fits quite well):

If you take away from the midst of you the yoke, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.

And the Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your desire with good things, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters fail not.

And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in.

My friends of Protestants for the Common Good—that’s your ambition and your role and your just reward. May your bones be strong! Thank you so much

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