There are undercover agents infiltrating peaceful protests in America. Pretending to be political activists, law enforcement officials are monitoring the activities of advocacy and protest groups. Operating under the Attorney General’s new relaxed guidelines, is law enforcement abusing its power by spying on the lawful activities of ordinary citizens because they disagree with government policy? NOW exposes a disturbing national trend that some say is part of a coordinated effort by the government to criminalize dissent.
Bill Moyers sits down with the Reverend William Sloane Coffin for a poignant and revealing interview with one of America’s most prominent and controversial ministers about everything from life, love and finding solace in music, to not fearing death and coping with the loss his son, to standing up to injustice. A civil rights Freedom Rider and a vocal opponent of nuclear weapons proliferation, Coffin’s belief in faith as a force for resisting evil drives his commitment to global peace and social justice.
WATCH THE INTERVIEW WITH REV. COFFIN
You can access the original web page for this program at the archived NOW with Bill Moyers website.
MOYERS: Welcome to NOW.
While all eyes were on Super Tuesday, we were thinking about the eyes that may be on you when you least suspect it. This goes beyond President Bush’s call this week to renew the Patriot Act giving the government broad powers to wiretap and investigate suspected terrorists. Going after suspected terrorists is not our subject tonight. Going after people exercising their right of free speech, is.
BRANCACCIO: We all love a spy novel. But who knew that you could be plunged into the real world of espionage just by gathering to talk about a protest march? It’s one thing to carry out a war on terror. But few realize that Justice Department rules now let FBI agents go undercover to monitor citizen gatherings…whether or not there is evidence or suspicion of criminal activity. And local police are doing the same thing.
Our report was prepared by producer Brenda Breslauer.
March 2003, five days before the invasion of Iraq, outside Buckley Air Force Base in Colorado, what appears to be a garden variety antiwar protest is underway. But something in this picture is not what it appears to be.
It’s that woman in yellow. She looks like a protester, but she’s not.
PETERS: She sat with us, she chanted and sang with us.
BRANCACCIO: Nancy Peters was one of the organizers of that protest- she and 18 others from the Colorado Coalition Against the War in Iraq were arrested that day. Including that woman in yellow. She’d first shown up at the group’s planning meeting the night before.
PETERS: We were taken away in handcuffs one by one. She was arrested, she was even given a summons just like the rest of us. But there was a mystery. Our attorneys couldn’t find any police record of any arrest. There were 19 of us, they could only find 18. She was indeed an infiltrator.
BRANCACCIO: The police would later confirm she was one of theirs. Call her what you want: infiltrator or undercover investigator. Government spying at peaceful protests was big during the sixties, waned during the intervening years, but now the practice is back. The Colorado protesters were disturbed by the government’s use of its extraordinary powers to monitor their activities. But a month later, when it happened a second time, there were even more serious implications. Nancy Peters’ group had notified police they’d be presenting a peace resolution at the Colorado offices of US Senator Wayne Allard. But take a look at this man. He’s said his name was Chris, and he had joined up with the group the night before. The nonviolent group didn’t know who he was, and Peters says they were taken aback by what he had to say.
PETERS: Chris at one point, said, “Well, I don’t see why we don’t just form a line of the people who are going to do this protest and just kind of march on past the police. Kind of like storm them.” It was ridiculous. I mean, people said “No, come on, you know, are you crazy?”
BRANCACCIO: He too was an undercover officer, and despite his apparent provocation, the protest stayed peaceful. As the others were being taken away, “Chris” was caught on camera chatting with his fellow officers. Nancy Peters put two and two together when she arrived to post bail and ran into him leaving the county jail.
PETERS: I said “Chris, you’re out. Wow. What happened?” And he said “Well yeah, I’ve been, you know, I’ve been charged and I’m released.” And I, “Can I see your summons?” He said, “Oh, my summons.” And he starts fumbling around in all his pockets. Then he said, “Oh, you know, they didn’t even give me one.”
BRANCACCIO: His real name was Darren Christensen, of the Arapahoe County Sheriff’s department. In court testimony, he admitted he was working undercover but denied trying to provoke the group into violence.
PETERS: It was surprising that we— that one among us that we trusted and shared solidarity with was actually not one of us at all. But was spying on us.
BRANCACCIO: And it’s not just Colorado. Last September, members of the California antiwar group Peace Fresno, got a similar shock when the local paper printed the details of a tragic motorcycle accident. It turned out that a man who had been attending their meetings and protests for the past six months was in fact a local deputy sheriff. He had been “assigned to the anti-terrorist team under the vice-intelligence unit.”
Police in Fresno and Colorado say it’s all a matter of protecting the public from potential violence. But why are police or Anti-Terror Units infiltrating protest groups without evidence they plan to do anything more sinister than peaceful civil disobedience? Civil Rights attorney and activist Mara Verheyden-Hilliard says she knows.
VERHEYDEN-HILLIARD: This is an effort to criminalize dissent. It’s an effort from the Ashcroft Justice department specifically since September 11th, really, to intimidate people in the United States and to try and stifle dissent.
BRANCACCIO: Verheyden-Hilliard and her husband Carl Messineo run the Partnership for Civil Justice, a public interest law firm in Washington, D.C. They have four major lawsuits against the District of Columbia police and federal government for what they say are example after example of law enforcement infiltrating, monitoring, and disrupting protest groups exercising their rights to free speech.
VERHEYDEN-HILLIARD: They’re targeting people purely based on people standing up and saying they oppose government policy. That’s the trigger.
BRANCACCIO: She says evidence of what is now a four-year pattern of abuse was caught on tape the first day of the Bush Administration, with this incident in a group of protestors along the route of the Inaugural parade.
VERHEYDEN-HILLIARD: You see two undercover plain clothes police officers. One of them is wearing a camouflage jacket with the hat pulled down low.
The other is wearing a red jacket and he’s a full black face mask on.
You can see in the hand of the police officer wearing the red jacket a canister of pepper spray. You can actually see him shaking it. You can see that police officer as he stalks through the crowd, pepper spraying peaceful protestors in that crowd.
BRANCACCIO: Verheyden-Hilliard says it took a lawsuit on behalf of the protestors for the DC police to even admit the two were plainclothes officers. And while both the D.C. police and the Justice Department’s reviews of the incident conclude there was no use of excessive force, Verheyden-Hillard says the case led to an even greater revelation.
VERHEYDEN-HILLIARD: They currently have police department officers, who are assigned on long-term assignments to pretend to be political activists. To pretend to be part of protest groups. And to carry out these actions, in acknowledgment from the police, is that this is being done in the absence of allegations of criminal activity.
BRANCACCIO: “Done in the absence of allegations of criminal activity.” That’s an important point. Authorities wouldn’t get much complaint for gathering intelligence on groups with histories of violence or violent aims. Al Qaeda or the Ku Klux Klan come to mind. But that is not the case here. Here’s what the judge wrote in an opinion in the protestor’s lawsuit:
“The District of Columbia,…seems to be admitting that it maintains widespread, extensive spying operations on the activities and operations of political advocacy organizations…on the basis of their political philosophies and conduct protected under the First Amendment.” (US District Judge Gladys Kessler)
PATTERSON: I think the public would be very surprised to know that if they go to any meetings at all, they are at some risk of infiltration.
BRANCACCIO: D.C. Council Member Kathy Patterson pressed the issue of police surveillance in hearings last December. The police contend they don’t infiltrate protest groups. They just attend meetings undercover to prevent both terrorism and violent incidents like the ones in Seattle in 1999. But even with the police in the witness seat, Patterson had a hard time getting them to be specific about who they were monitoring or how.
BROADBENT: They don’t go in there wearing there uniform. Again, these are individuals who—
PATTERSON: No, no, you said that they attend as members of the Metropolitan Police Department. I’m just trying to understand.
BROADBENT: Well, well, let me just explain the language then. They are a member of the Metropolitan Police Department. When they go in there they do not say “I’m a member of the Metropolitan Police Department.”
PATTERSON: So they are in fact undercover?
BROADBENT: Yes, they are.
BRANCACCIO: DC, Denver, Fresno—All examples of local law enforcement infiltrating peaceful protest groups. But what happens when federal agents are involved? In fact, for the past two years the FBI has been allowed to do exactly the same thing and they’ve done it before. Remember the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover?
HOOVER: All work in the future best can be judged by the events of the past.
BRANCACCIO: From the 1950s to the 1970s, in a secret program called COINTELPRO, the Bureau conducted no fewer than 2000 operations of domestic spying, many aimed at disrupting civil rights and antiwar groups.
MONDALE: A lot of people were intimidated.
BRANCACCIO: In 1975, then Senator Walter Mondale sat on the committee which investigated the abuses, chaired by Idaho Senator Frank Church.
MONDALE: The fact of it is, that thousands and thousand of people during this time were investigated, pursued, and some of them hurt by these secret policies of investigation and sometimes just plain abuse.
BRANCACCIO: After the program was exposed, Attorney General Edward Levi issued a series of guidelines to prevent domestic spying by the FBI.
LEVI: In our effort to seek such an accommodation the department has adopted standards and procedures designed to ensure the reasonableness under the Fourth Amendment of electronic surveillance. And to minimize, to the extent practical, the intrusion into individual interest.
BRANCACCIO: Levi’s Guidelines said that investigations should be limited to exposing criminal conduct and should not involve simple monitoring of political views.
MONDALE: The idea was to keep some accountability within the bureau so that they didn’t go beyond the law.
BRANCACCIO: And that’s generally how things stood for almost three decades, with occasional abuses of policy, like in the 1980s when the FBI was caught improperly investigating Americans who opposed U.S. policy in El Salvador. But in the spring following September 11th, the rules against domestic spying were gutted. Attorney General John Ashcroft said that his agents were too restricted in their investigative powers.
ASHCROFT: Today I am announcing a comprehensive revision to the department’s investigative guidelines.
BRANCACCIO: To fight the war on terror the Attorney General argued his agents needed aggressive techniques to investigate before crimes were committed. And under Ashcroft’s new guidelines, the FBI could attend public meetings like this even if there was no suspicion of criminal activity.
ASHCROFT: For the purpose of detecting or preventing terrorist activities, the FBI is authorized to visit any place and attend any event that is open to the public on the same terms and conditions as members of the public generally.
BRANCACCIO: That legalese meant the FBI could now go undercover — in effect, pretend they were the public. There was an immediate outcry. Even members of the president’s own party went on television to voice their concern over the new rules. James Sensenbrenner is the powerful chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
SENSENBRENNER: I believe that the Justice Department has gone too far in changing the domestic spying regulations that have been on the books for 25 years.
BRANCACCIO: Sensenbrenner said the old guidelines seemed to be doing just fine balancing the needs for public safety with those of public expression.
SENSENBRENNER: I get very, very queasy when federal law enforcement is effectively saying, going back to the bad old days when the FBI was spying on people like Martin Luther King.
BRANCACCIO: It’s a concern shared by Former Vice President Mondale.
MONDALE: The new Attorney-General almost flaunts his contempt for rules that protect citizens’ constitutional rights.
BRANCACCIO: Infiltration isn’t the only way the federal government monitors groups engaged in peaceful political dissent. Take the federal Grand Jury which investigates crimes in secret. It’s not often that a grand jury subpoena shows up at a university.
MAXWELL: I’ve been in higher education for 32 years. I have never experienced anything like this in my professional career.
BRANCACCIO: Dr. David Maxwell is the President of Drake University. Drake is a liberal arts school in Iowa. A quiet center of learning in the heartland. So imagine his surprise last month when a grand jury subpoena showed up for documents from an antiwar conference that had been held on campus.
MAXWELL: I think the most unsettling thing was that it seemed to be focused on a legitimate activity of the university.
BRANCACCIO: The subpoena ordered the university to turn over “all records and documents” from the conference “hosted by ‘the Drake chapter of the National Lawyers Guild,'” an activist student organization. Not just records of the November antiwar conference the group had sponsored, but names of “participants in the meeting,” agendas and other documents going back to 2002.
MAXWELL: We’re being asked to do something that makes a basic activity of the university look as if it’s illegal.
BRANCACCIO: Here’s one meeting at that campus anti-war conference last November, taped by a local news crew. Students and activists planning peaceful civil disobedience at the Iowa National Guard Base the next day.
A dozen protesters were arrested for trespassing.
Three months later, organizer Brian Terrell of the Catholic Peace Ministry received a subpoena commanding him to testify before the federal grand jury. An experience he found intimidating because of the business card that came with it.
TERRELL: The person who delivered the subpoenas left a card identifying himself with the FBI Joint Terror Task Force.
BRANCACCIO: The U.S. Attorney later denied the subpoenas were part of any investigation by the Joint Terrorism Task Force. But Terrell says he was surprised to get that subpoena to begin with because the police had been invited to the conference.
TERRELL: The agenda was public and the agenda and program was sent to the Des Moines Police Department. And we told them they were welcome to come.
BRANCACCIO: It turns out that two Sheriff’s deputies did come. But undercover, according to documents unearthed by an attorney defending the protestors. The undercover officers’ confidential report included the names of seven individuals who’d discussed strategy during the planning meeting.
TERRELL: I think what was going was they were trying to find some way to pin the label of terrorist on us.
BRANCACCIO: After making national headlines last month, the subpoenas were withdrawn. But the names of those seven people — and likely many more — remain in government files.
TERRELL: Word gets out. The FBI Terror Task Force is looking at a meeting that happened at Drake University. Would you go to that meeting? Would you go to the next one? Are people gonna want to come to that?
MONDALE: We have a right and a duty in these agencies to protect America. But one of the things that ought to be protected is this crucial and sacred right of Americans to protest.
BRANCACCIO: How widespread is government infiltration and monitoring of citizens? The experience of the city of Denver offers a clue. Two years ago, the Denver police were forced to reveal that the department had collected surveillance and intelligence files for decades— files with information on more than three thousand individuals and close to a thousand organizations.
The files included groups the police labeled “criminal extremists.” One was The American Friends Service Committee. That’s a pacifist group. And it’s run by the Quakers.
MOYERS: In a few minutes you’ll meet a man who has long been on the frontlines of dissent — William Sloane Coffin. The playwright Arthur Miller calls “the visionary’s best companion, a joyfully embattled Christian.”
As you’re about to hear, he’s also no stranger to fear. First, though, we pause so that some public televisions across the country can ask for your support.
BRANCACCIO: For those of you staying with us, we turn to election year politics. As the race for the White House shifts from face-to-face campaigning to making big media buys on TV and radio, NOW has been keeping track of the politics of ordinary people.
In January, we dropped by the Conservative Political Action Conference in Virginia. And in February, we first told you about a new trend in grassroots organizing.
In Kansas City, people have come together to put on what looks like a county fair. They’ll set up stands for food and stages to hear live music, but they have ambitions way beyond a Saturday afternoon pastime. They want to reinvent politics.
CHEATUM: Well, corporations and big government have taken us over and this country is founded on the people and the populace and we want to have that again. So that’s why we’re having this. We’re going to take back America.
BRANCACCIO: How does one take back America? People here say you have to put the party back into politics.
That’s the mission of the Rolling Thunder Down Home Democracy Tour, a series of one-day festivals that bring together people who want to connect with democracy.
Like many efforts to invigorate politics, it’s not quite setting the world on fire. But, the founder of Rolling Thunder says you have to start somewhere.
HIGHTOWER: The idea of Rolling Thunder comes from nature. I grew up in north Texas, northeast Texas. And there, the Rolling Thunder is a national phenomenon. It is the harbinger of the rains that green up the grassroots and let the flowers bloom. And in this case, we’re talking about the flowers of democracy.
BRANCACCIO: Jim Hightower used to be the Texas agricultural commissioner. Now he’s an author, radio commentator and a national rabble-rouser who calls himself America’s #1 populist.
His latest book, THIEVES IN HIGH PLACES was a bestseller.
Hightower says that people come out to Rolling Thunder because they feel that politics is not speaking to them.
HIGHTOWER: People are yearning to meet each other. And not just high tech, but high touch. To actually be in touch with each other. And to talk back. And what if we all got together?
BRANCACCIO: Every Rolling Thunder event has tables and dozens of workshops on all sorts of issues, from campaign finance reform, to protecting civil liberties—
The goal is to let people learn from each other about local and national issues—as well as alternative ways of getting things done.
MAN: The antifreeze line right here is running next to the vegetable oil, so they heat it up. And as soon as it’s warmed up, you hit the switch and it goes to the vegetable oil. And it goes zoop, zoop, zoop, into your fuel injector.
WOMAN: My job is racial justice, so I work with different populations.
MAN: Small scale neighborhood credit unions instead of a giant, massive—
MAN: Just so money within the neighborhood stays within the neighborhood.
REGGIE: So tie in this these workshops, make a commitment to one of these groups, and get your email on that list so that other people can find you.
BRANCACCIO: The inspiration for Rolling Thunder came from a movement that began in 1874 on the banks of Lake Chautauqua, New York. There, families would camp out every summer to hear speakers and music, put on plays, and engage in open forums on philosophy, literature, art, religion and science. Chautauquas, as they were known, became so popular, they went on the road. And at their peak in the 1920s, they attracted at least 10 million people a year.
Jim Hightower saw the potential in creating a modern day Chautauqua, but one with agitators in the mix.
Like filmmaker and author, Michael Moore.
MOORE: You guys all just gotta do it!
BRANCACCIO: Congressman Jesse Jackson Jr.
JACKSON: All Americans deserve the right to a public education of equal high quality.
BRANCACCIO: And columnist Molly Ivins.
IVINS: Y’all need to have more fun.
HIGHTOWER: Agitation is what America is all about. Were it not for agitators, we’d be wearing white powdered wigs singing God Hail the Queen here this afternoon! America was built by agitators!
BRANCACCIO: There’s no question that there are plenty of agitators on hand. But after the tents and tables are put away, it remains to be seen if people will go home and reinvent politics.
MULKEE: I think that one of the benefits of getting together like this is to see that there are more of us than we think there are. You know. Even if it is preaching to the choir. You know. That’s ok. There’s a time for that.
MOORE: And I think people are gonna go from here and do— go back to their towns, go back home and do something. Not everybody. It doesn’t have to be everybody.
Just need one Rosa Parks that was here today. That’s all we need.
BRANCACCIO: What kind of impact will Rolling Thunder have on the political landscape? Stay tuned. So far, 68,000 people have turned out to the events across the country—
From Seattle, Washington to Asheville, North Carolina. And there are six more cities planning festivals this year.
HIGHTOWER: Politics ought to be part of your life. It’s not something that is just in the last thirty days of an election.
But the whole idea of a Rolling Thunder Down Home Democracy Tour is to be festive, and mostly for you to enjoy it, and to think, “Hey, this isn’t bad. If this is what politics is, I could do this.”
MOYERS: You will find at your favorite book store a recent addition called CREDO.
Credo means “I believe.” For William Sloane Coffin, faith is life’s preemptive answer to the mystery and sting of death. Over the years he became one of America’s best known ministers—
A passionate preacher—.
COFFIN: God doesn’t want us narrow-minded. God doesn’t want us priggish. God doesn’t want us subservient, but joyful!
A lover of music—..
Above all, though, it was his commitment to social justice that made William Sloane Coffin pratically a household name.
In the early 60s, he went to jail as a freedom rider challenging segregation in the South.
He was arrested, again, for leading protests against the war in Vietnam.
COFFIN: To strive for military successes is in all likelyhood to invite moral and political defeat.
MOYERS: Garry Trudeau used him as a model for Reverend Sloan in the Doonesbury comic strip.
And that’s just the half of this remarkable life: as a child, he trained as a concert pianist; went on to become a captain of army intelligence in World War 2; served at the CIA at the height of the Cold War; and then, for seventeen years, was chaplain of Yale University. He became senior minister of New York City’s historic Riverside Church. And then moved on to lead the campaign for nuclear disarmament.
Faith, says Reverend Coffin, is a matter of resisting evil and serving justice.
COFFIN: Human beings who blind themselves to human need make themselves less human.
MOYERS: Four years ago he suffered a stroke, fought back, and last year, when his heart began to fail, learned that he has little time left. Time enough, however, for that one last book, CREDO, on the fire and passion that have driven his life and witness and taught him how to go gentle into that night without ever giving up.
When you had your stroke, many of us were really worried you were not coming back from that. And yet here you are.
COFFIN: Well, there are different kinds of strokes, you know. Some of them are rather minor, and some are major. For me, I lost my speech, just about. I did. I really did.
MOYERS: How long ago was this?
COFFIN: Four and a half years now. And, it took quite a time, a lot of work.
MOYERS: How did you do it?
COFFIN: My wife. She sat down with me two hours every day.
MOYERS: Randy did?
COFFIN: Yeah. And with great patience. And she did more than I did.
MOYERS: What did you do?
COFFIN: Practice, practice. You just say all kinds of words that are very hard to say. For instance L’s are very hard now, and R’s. “Reverie” is a very difficult word for me to say. Or “religion.” So you have to keep working on it. And I consoled myself with Mark Twain’s observation about Wagner’s music, “It’s better than it sounds.” But it took a lot of work.
MOYERS: Two hours a day every day.
COFFIN: Oh, yeah, at least. And then I went to the hospital at Dartmouth for a speech therapist too. I must say, it was great going to the hospital because I ran into all kinds of codgers, older than I was, who had wonderful things to say.
One of them said to me, “You know, I wonder when my wild oats turned to shredded wheat.” Very seriously. Another one said, “You know, when I bend down to tie my shoes, I wonder if there aren’t other things I should be doing now that I’m down there.”
So you know, life is always interesting, even when you can’t speak, if you can listen, you know? And your curiosity and humor and compassion stays alive, you can do as well as you can do.
MOYERS: What is it like to know every morning when you get up, that there won’t be a day like this, a year from now?
COFFIN: It’s a very good incentive to enjoy that day. I think, Tacitus, somebody like that said, “There’s nothing like enjoying things when you know you’re probably not going to enjoy them again.”
MOYERS: Does the day go differently, because you know there won’t be another one a year from now?
COFFIN: Day by day, it’s pretty much the same. You know, I think it’s not death, but debilitation, that’s really threatening to people. And if you had Parkinson’s, or threatened with Alzheimer’s, losing your sight, losing your hearing, that’s much more a cause, I think, of distress and suffering, than death. And, as far as death goes, it’s the fear of death. You know. And so, the important thing is to get the fear behind you.
I think everybody knows — unconsciously or consciously — that I have only one life to lead. And life is pretty precarious. You know, youth think they’re immortal. But when they think about it a bit, they realize it’s pretty precarious.
People sense insecurity, and then try to secure themselves against the insecurity, by power. By money. By one thing or another. And false search for security is what does everybody in. But I think everybody fears death at a subconscious level.
COFFIN: What healthy people don’t realize is that when you lose your health, death can be quite welcome. Bach had a wonderful aria, Komm, du s—sse Todesstunde. “Come Sweet Death,” you know. And when you’re either in great pain, or just have no more energy, death is not that fearful.
MOYERS: You know, I did this series a few years ago on death and dying. And I remember a great doctor, who himself had been diagnosed with terminal illness, given about six months. He said a lot of people only get 20/20 vision after they go blind.
MOYERS: And he said, “I’ve only seen life clearly since I got a diagnosis of death.”
COFFIN: First of all, the doctors, when they have a brush with death, they become human beings. And they’re, I’ve seen them, radical change. For me, it’s been to be told you have six months, or a year, is a kind of wonderful reprieve.
To find out that you have a limited period gives you time to think. And plan. Do the things that are worthwhile. You know? It’s like your house is about to be burned. And you have to figure out, what is there to save, you know? And, it was family, friends, mostly.
MOYERS: One of the dying people I interviewed said that she had spent a good bit of the first week after her diagnosis reviewing her life. And that she’d come to the conclusion that life was not defined by the days. It was defined by the moments. And she was reviewing those moments, she said, in her mind. Have you done that?
COFFIN: There’s no question about it. There are certain moments in your life, when everything seemed right. And those, you know— As Eliot said, “Go, go, go, said the bird. Humankind cannot bear very much reality.”
But those real moments, when everything seemed to be absolutely right. You know? You love somebody. You marry somebody you love. The kids are just right, at that moment. Or a sentence came out just right.
MOYERS: It’s been 30-plus years since you were arrested and jailed for trespassing in the US Capitol, when you were protesting the Vietnam War.
Your fellow demonstrators remember that during the night, when they were uneasy, even depressed, they suddenly heard someone singing. And it was you. Do you remember that?
COFFIN: Yeah. It was a group of clergy and laity concerned with Vietnam. And so, they were all pretty religious folk. So, I started to sing “The Messiah,” as I remember. And quite a few people joined in. It was a good night.
MOYERS: What is it that enables a man to sing in prison?
COFFIN: Well. In my case music, after God, has been my chief source of solace. Song is an expression of hope. And hope is something that is experienced with a kind of psychological certitude, rather than intellectual certainty.
It’s trusting that things all will be well when the day is done. Or, as Havel said wonderfully, “Hope is not waiting for something good to turn up well. But being grateful that something really makes sense.” That’s enough to make you burst into song.
I asked an 85-year-old professor, great buddy of mine at Yale, “What makes you cry?” And he said, “Whenever I see or hear the truth.” That tear is a kind of a song. You know. It’s something apprehended at a very deep level.
MOYERS: But you know, you talk about hope. And I remember the story in the Old Testament, which you talk about here in CREDO. Moses, taken by God to Mount Nebo, to look out across the Jordan River. And told that there is the Promised Land. But of course, Moses never makes it And I’ve often wondered if that’s a cruel trick, a prankster God.
COFFIN: It would be worse, maybe, if we all made it. The journey is what really counts. And, I think all we need to know is who’s there, not what’s there.
You know, I lost a son. And people will say, “Well, when you die, Bill, Alex will come forth and bring you through the pearly gates.” Well, that’s a nice thought, and I welcome it. But I don’t need to believe that. All I need to know is, God will be there. And our lives go from God, in God, to God again. Hallelujah, you know? That should be enough.
MOYERS: You write in here that before birth, there was God. And after death, there is God. And that’s all that matters with you. But how do you know that?
COFFIN: That’s you don’t know, once again, intellectual certainty. It’s not believing without proof. It’s trusting without reservation. You and I can trust each other, because we know each other, and love each other.
Same thing with God, you know? You trust God. And that’s what faith is. Being faithful to your understanding of God. It’s not a question of believing without proof. It’s trusting without reservation, that God is good. And that something you’ve experienced the presence of God in your own life. And that’s what you trust.
MOYERS: You speak of your son’s death. And that is one of the great eulogies that I’ve ever read. The eulogy you delivered after the death of your own son. Where did you summon the strength to do that?
COFFIN: Well. We all do what we know how to do, maybe. I went right away to the piano. And I played all the hymns. And I wept and I wept. I did grief work. And read the poems.
Like A.E. Houseman, “To an Athlete Dying Young.” And I wept and I wept. And then, I’m a preacher. So. I wrote the sermon. And the folks in Riverside Church had to know whether or not they still had a pastor. Well, so I wanted them to know, they had a pastor. But I also, couldn’t think of anything else for the moment, but about Alex, and his death. So, I wrote the sermon about it.
COFFIN: I think the most important thing, I said was you can never say “God caused a death.” Nobody knows enough to say that. And, why should I live and another person die? Why should I be healthy, and you have a serious illness? We don’t know that thing. But, God is in the response to the death. My comfort is not that it was caused by God, but, God’s heart was the first of all the hearts to break.
MOYERS: You’re not supposed to outlive your children, are you?
COFFIN: No. I have a little sentence or two, about the Chinese Emperor who sent his wise man off for a month, to figure out, what is happiness? And the wise man’s gone back. And the Emperor said, “So? What is happiness?” And the wise man said, “Happiness is when the grandfather dies, and then the father, and then the son.” That is on the money. If the order gets mixed up, that’s misery. I know that.
MOYERS: You once said it was, I heard you somewhere say, that faith is being seized by love.
COFFIN: Yeah. That’s a good definition.
MOYERS: Well, it’s yours.
COFFIN: And there are a lot of people who were responding to God’s love. Even though they may not say they believe in God. I mean I’ve worked so much in the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement. And, most recently trying to bring some justice to gays and lesbians. I worked with people who were not believers as I am a believer, you know?
But, if the God believes in them, those are the people I wanna work with. You know? And do you remember Norman Thomas?
MOYERS: Oh, the Socialist Leader.
COFFIN: Yeah. I worked with him, he was a wonderful wonderful wonderful man. And I went to see him in Long Island. He was on his deathbed. And we called him Big Daddy. And I said “Big Daddy, how are you doing?” And he was blind, you know, he couldn’t see a thing. And he held up a gnarled fist that I could shake, thoroughly racked his body was with arthritis.
And he said, you know, I’m never going to get off this bed. And I said how do you feel about that? Well, I believe in euthanasia, but it scares everybody else to death, you know. And then I heard myself saying to him, “Big Daddy, do you believe in God?” And he said, “Well, not the all powerful, God that is heard about in seminary.”
And I said, “Well don’t you think, he’s a loving God?” “Yeah, that’s what they told me.” I said, “But don’t you think power is restricted by love? So if you’re all loving, you’re not all powerful.” And he said, “Well, I guess you could get away with that quite a while.” And then I said to him, “Well, you know, Big Daddy, whether or not you believe in God, is not important. To me, what’s important is whether God believes in you.”
And what would, without any condescension whatsoever, “I want to say to you, you are God’s faithful servant.” And he lay there and the tears began, and he put his hand up, you know, and I took his hand, Said, “That makes me feel good, Bill.” And I feel I wasn’t trying to comfort him. Or, I mean, God knows I didn’t want to condescend in anyway. But I believe that. I believe.
MOYERS: I once heard you speak in which you said, “We must always press the socialist questions. But be careful and dubious about the socialist answers.”
COFFIN: Well, the socialist questions are questions about justice. And it’s, you can say, with prophet Amos, let justice roll down like mighty waters, but figuring out the irrigation system is complicated. So that justice issue at the heart of socialism. But what’s the best irrigation system, maybe combination of a lot of things.
MOYERS: Do you believe that religious faith requires political commitment?
COFFIN: No, but not absolutely. But in certain situations and particularly in our times now when everything is so fragile, precarious. I believe then that politically-committed spirituality, that the people who are politically committed to express their faith.
And my understanding of Christianity is that it underlies all progressive moves to implement more justice. Get higher degree of peace in the world, you know? And although people don’t see it, that’s what I mean by politically-committed spirituality.
You know, the impulse to love God and neighbor, that impulse is at the heart of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. No question about it. We have much more in common than we have in conflict.
MOYERS: Let me come back to what we began discussing. If you accept death as naturally as you seem to be accepting it, as casually as you seem to be accepting it, is there a risk of undermining the value of life?
COFFIN: I wasn’t happy to hear, you said, casual. Because death is a very great mystery. And must not be demeaned, debased in any way. It’s a very, very important event. That’s why for the Roman Catholic you have last rites. It’s recognition of the seriousness. Not the casual attitude toward death.
MOYERS: Do you ever think about what happens when we die?
COFFIN: Not very, not very much. As I said before, who’s there, not what’s there, is what counts. For me.
When St. Paul says neither death nor life can separate us, for the love of God, or elsewhere whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord. Now that’s kind of nice, nose thumbing independence of death. You know, that’s not being casual about it. But being able to cooperate gracefully with the inevitable.
MOYERS: Does anything ever make you sad?
COFFIN: Oh, yeah. Really sad music and the personal side, you know, is, well, I have little, very small grandchildren who these days are having a tough time with croup and it’s very hard on their parents. And nobody sleeps at night. And that, you know, that makes me very sad.
But no, chirping optimism is terrible. But if you and a lot of people think, “I’ll never feel too good about anything so I won’t have to feel too bad about anything either.” And they think that emotional mediocrity is the good life. No. We should be able to plumb the depths of sadness and rise to the heights of joy, even ecstasy, though at my age, it’s not too easy.
MOYERS: What makes you angry?
COFFIN: Well, I’d say people in high places make me really angry. The way of corporations now of behaving the way the United States government is behaving about the same thing.
And what makes me angry is that they are so callous, really callous. Caring— there was a wonderful layperson in England, von Hugel. And he said in his dying breath, “Caring is the greatest thing. Caring matters most.” Now when you see uncaring people in high places, everybody should be mad as hell.
ANNOUNCER: And connect to NOW WITH BILL MOYERS online at pbs.org.
Check out the now timeline on the conflict between civil liberties and national security. Find out how you can file a Freedom of Information request in your state. Read about progressive religion in America.
Connect to NOW at pbs.org.
BRANCACCIO: That’s it for NOW. We’ll break from politics and world affairs over the next two weeks for a couple of those rare conversations that you only find here on NOW.
MOYERS: Forty years ago Maurice Sendak published WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE and launched a spectacular career as a great storyteller and one of childhood’s great interpreters.
About that same time Hal Holbrook was discovering a kindred spirit in Mark Twain. Maurice Sendak and Hal Holbrook will be my guests the next two weeks. Each has reached his seventies as I will shortly. So we’ll reflect on growing old and moving on. I’m Bill Moyers. For David Brancaccio and all of us at NOW, good night.
This transcript was entered on April 23, 2015.