The William Sloane Coffin Project: How Do We Respond To Tragedy?

“In the midst of unexpected tragedy, we have a choice — not to whom we attribute the tragedy, but how we’re going to respond.”   — William Sloane Coffin, Lent, March 20, 1983[1]

We make choices.  Hopefully, most of our choices are deliberate and rational.  Coffin reminds us in his 1983 Lenten sermon Whiners Or Fighters of the choice made by Jesus’ disciples between autonomy and surrender.  In Galilee, before the end, Jesus’ disciples enjoyed a bit of autonomy.  Those were the simple days of freedom by the sea.  Then there’s Jerusalem, and we know what happens in Jerusalem.  Coffin writes, 

“Autonomy, let me suggest, is the key word to describe a Christian in Galilee.  But following Christ to Jerusalem means you have to surrender this greatest possession, your hard-won autonomy.  In Jerusalem, you lose control over your life, just as Jesus did, just as Peter refused to when he denied Jesus.  Peter didn’t realize that the key word to describe a Christian in Jerusalem is no longer autonomy, but surrender.” (p.22)

Coffin knew, though, that few of us are truly autonomous, even in Galilee.  How much control do we really have over our lives?  We cannot control the events that happen around us and to us, tragic or otherwise, and often we cannot explain why they happen.  We cannot control events in our community, natural events, or the choices of others.  I wondered, though, as I read his March 20 Lenten sermon, about Coffin’s remarkable response to the tragedies in his own life in the preceding three months.

Tragedy In Coffin’s Life

Only three monthes earlier, in December, 1982, Coffin’s mother died.  A month later, Coffin’s son, Alex, was killed in a car accident at the age of 24.  A couple of months later, by March 20 he preached about choices and responses:  “In the midst of tragedy, we have a choice — not to whom we attribute the tragedy, but how we’re going to respond.”  

Most remarkable to me, only 12 dark days after the tragic death of his son, on January 23, 1983 Coffin climbed into the pulpit at Riverside Church in New York City to deliver the penetrating sermon Alex’s Death.  Coffin could not control the tragedies  around around him, but he chose how to respond.  Coffin chose to preach about it.  He needed to preach about it.

Biographer Warren Goldstein explains,

The fact was that Coffin knew no other way to grapple with his own deepest emotions.  For nearly thirty years he had addressed the most important things in his life by talking about them from a pulpit in front of a congregation … The only way that Coffin knew how to mourn his son — to engage Alex’s death and give it meaning and shape in his own mind — was to preach about it. [2]

Giving Meaning And Shape To His Grief

So, he preached.  Twelve days after his son’s death he gave meaning and shape to his grief, with a glimpse of the complicated emotional storm he confronted along the way.  In Alex’s Death Coffin offers the wisdom of a theologian laced with the righteous anger of one freshly abused by misplaced efforts of colleagues trying to console.  Regarding the letters he had received, for example, he chided: “Some of the very best , and easily the worst, came from fellow reverends, a few of whom proved they knew their Bibles better than the human condition.”  [3]

Coffin’s sermons were known to be rich with reliably biblical theology yet fueled by passion.   Alex’s Death was no exception.  His passion (anger), triggered by a visitor’s reckless comment about the will of God, sparked Coffin’s theological reflection here:         

For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around this world with his finger on triggers, his fist around knives, his hands on steering wheels.  God is dead set against all unnatural deaths … The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is, “It is the will of God.”  Never do we know enough to say that.  My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break. (p.4)    

According to Goldstein, Coffin’s argument about the will of God accounts for why clergy have been using this sermon in grief counseling ever since.  Alex’s Death has been the most requested and most widely reprinted of all Coffin’s sermons.     

One Choice Remains

During Lent, Christians are invited to remember and embrace our mortality.  From dust I have come, to dust I will return.  I am human, flawed, and fragile.  I will die somehow, some day.  And you, too.  But when death comes too quickly, tragically perhaps, to those we love, we are confronted with the harsh reminder that we are not autonomous.  We do not have control.  Yet one choice remains, not “to whom we attribute the tragedy, but how we’re going to respond.”  William Sloane Coffin’s response?  He preached.

© Copyright by Jeffrey Y. Harlow, PhD (2011)

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  1. Coffin, William Sloane (2008).  The Collected Sermons of William Sloane Coffin: The Riverside Years, Volume II.  Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, p23.
  2. Goldstein, Warren (2004).  William Sloane Coffin, Jr.: A Holy Impatience . New Haven: Yale University Press, p.309.
  3. Coffin, William Sloane (2008).  The Collected Sermons of William Sloane Coffin: The Riverside Years, Volume II.  Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press, p4.

2 Comment(s)

  1. Jeff, I have been catching your worm related posts since I use worms to eat my garbage. Today’s post really touched me and fortified me following a difficult time counseling a family whose daughter died in childbirth. I know all these things and even preached them, but to read them put so eloquently today gave me renewed strength. Thank you.

    Susan | Mar 29, 2011 | Reply

  2. Thanks for reading, Susan. And thanks for the encouraging word. May God continue to bless your ministry.

    jharlow | Mar 29, 2011 | Reply

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