Peace and civil rights activist William Sloane Coffin, this term's Montgomery Fellow, stressed the importance of love and compassion not just in people's personal lives, but also in service to the community at large in a speech last night in 105 Dartmouth Hall.
Coffin's address, titled "The Politics of Compassion," was delivered to a capacity crowd, with audience members crowding in the aisles and sitting on the floor long before the speech was scheduled to begin. The Rev. Coffin was greeted with enthusiastic applause as he stepped on stage.
He used examples from the Bible, history and contemporary society to demonstrate that love and compassion should never be restricted just to our personal lives, but also should be extended to include the community, especially those members of the community in need.
Coffin set the tone for his speech by comparing left-wing and right-wing violence to the left and right hands, and saying that one could take note of the fact that the two hands were both part of the same body, but that the heart was "a little to the left."
Speaking from the heart, he said, is important, and although this does not mean embracing socialist answers, it is crucial to continue asking socialist questions.
Along with mercy and compassion, faith, hope and love are the most important qualities -- but of these, love is the greatest, Coffin said.
He stressed the importance of making love one's aim, rather than a set of beliefs. One should be concerned not with what a person deserves, but with the fresh start and forgiveness needed by that person, Coffin said.
Socrates and Descartes were wrong in claiming that an unexamined life is one not worth living, he said. Rather, an uncommitted life is not worth living.
Coffin then explained that love should be the core value of life, "unlimited love" that extends beyond the close circle of friends and family.
Those nearest to us, he said, are those near us who are in need, regardless of race, religion or origin.
Love as a core value, he said, applies not only to individual life, where it is commonly practiced, but also to public life, what he referred to as corporate love.
Coffin pointed out that we are still far away from applying the value of love to our public lives, as many of us never transcend our childhood view of religion.
People, in general, still tend to pursue a personal relationship with God, and it is easier to speak of charity rather than justice, he said. Justice causes political controversy while charity poses no threat to the status quo, Coffin added.
"The comfortable are in control," he explained. "What we need is not piecemeal charity but wholesale justice."
Love is a communal value, he said, and to incorporate it and kindness and compassion into one's personal reality was insufficient to challenge the status quo.
Coffin said it was not by chance that the recent push for welfare reform attributed so much importance to personal responsibility, as it has been directed at the powerless people in society.
"The victims are blamed for evils that are largely systematic," he said -- adding that we should have a sense of responsibility for evils in democratic society.
As American citizens we should ask ourselves, Coffin said, whether we hold the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence to be more important. He explained that of the 26 Amendments to the Constitution, the 20 dealing with issues such as abolishing slavery, granting women the vote and eliminating the poll tax mandated the extensions of democracy.
"These things that seem obvious now were once sharply disputed and viciously opposed," he said, "and the best of our citizens were found where the fight was fiercest.The politics of compassion demands that that's where our place should be."