There was a great biblical prophet holding forth on campus, it seemed, when I arrived at Yale in 1966. The Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr., who died this week, was a giant of a man -- physically, intellectually, and spiritually. It was impossible not to notice him and be affected by him.
I took a life-changing ''Seminar for Friendly Disbelievers" with him in my freshman year, learned about deep religious confrontation with racism and war in my sophomore and junior years, and by senior year was a student deacon of Battell Chapel at Yale and on my way to divinity school. ''Justice, not charity," was one of Coffin's constant refrains, which I now try to teach to a community service-oriented college generation that often seems politically unaware and inactive.
Coffin's contention was: ''Many of us are eager to respond to injustice, as long as we can do so without having to confront the causes of it. There's the great pitfall of charity. Handouts to needy individuals are genuine, necessary responses to injustice, but they do not necessarily face the reason for injustice. And that is why so many business and governmental leaders today are promoting charity; it is desperately needed in an economy whose prosperity is based on growing inequality. First these leaders proclaim themselves experts on matters economic, and prove it by taking the most out of the economy! Then they promote charity as if it were the work of the church, finally telling us troubled clergy to shut up and bless the economy as once we blessed the battleships."
It was Coffin's inspiration that led me to develop a ''legal ministry" for low-income residents of Dorchester, under the auspices of the Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry, after I graduated from divinity school and law school in 1975. I started practicing housing law at a time when there was virtually no homelessness problem in Boston or anywhere else in the nation. Then a political decision was made in the early 1980s as part of a tax-cut regime to reduce the federal housing budget from $33 billion annually to $7 billion.
This was accompanied by political decisions nationwide to de-institutionalize mental patients in state hospitals, without fulfilling the promise to fund community mental health centers to house them. A lot of mentally ill people were simply discharged to the streets. As a direct result of these two decisions -- now largely forgotten, it seems, especially by this generation of college students -- homeless people began appearing in Boston and all over America, sleeping in subways, in parks, or on heating grates.
Strangely, this was all happening at the same time as new governmental incentives were being implemented for business, along with general tax reductions -- helping fuel an economic boom that resulted in enormous increases in wealth for the already well-to-do, but not for the poor, who lost ground during the 1980s. Churches and other charitable organizations were asked to step in, provide shelters and food pantries, and help the homeless and hungry at dramatic new levels.
Coffin's response was: ''The churches have to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and shelter the homeless. But they have also to remember that the answer to homelessness is homes, not shelters. What the poor and downtrodden need is not piecemeal charity but wholesale justice." He taught that they need political action and structural change in society, not just a warm meal and a bed in a church basement.
Coffin quoted the biblical prophet Amos regularly: ''Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood, and bring righteousness to the ground. You who trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain. Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate." Justice, not charity. Not trickle-down economics or faith-based social services, ''but," in Amos's words, ''let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream."
Coffin called the church to translate its moral teachings into politics: ''In Scripture, there is no purely spiritual answer to slavery; no purely spiritual answer to the pain of the poor. . . . In times of oppression, if you don't translate choices of faith into political choices, you run the danger of washing your hands, like Pilate."
A different and much more conservative religious vision holds sway today of how religion should affect politics, starting in the White House. Coffin, the man, will be deeply missed by many of us. It is our duty, however, never to let his biblical vision die.
Scotty McLennan is dean for religious life at Stanford University. This article was adapted from a sermon at Stanford Memorial Church.
© 2006 The Boston Globe