I just spent the last hour in tears. The occasion was a tribute to Dan Berrigan on Democracy Now (the best daily news program available). The saintly Jesuit poet, peace activist and prolific author died on Saturday. He was about to celebrate his 95th birthday this week. What a giant!
Father Berrigan stands with Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton as the most powerful U.S. prophets and social justice activists or our era. They along with Martin Luther King are the true saints of our time.
All of them changed the way Americans approach issues of war and peace. In particular they changed the Catholic Church – challenging it to reverse 1700 years of belligerence and unquestioning support of imperial war, and to follow instead the clear teachings of Jesus the Christ.
Dan Berrigan not only wrote and spoke in ways that uncomfortably juxtaposed the Gospel of Jesus with United States imperialism; he also walked the walk – literally. He marched, spoke out, carried signs, and was arrested more times than he could remember. He spent years in prison, and staged creative protests against the Pentagon and the arms industry.
During the Vietnam War, Berrigan and other activists raided the Selective Service offices in Catonsville MD. They removed nearly 400 files from the place, and burned them with homemade napalm in the adjoining parking lot. They justified the act saying it was better to burn paper than children’s bodies.
Berrigan knew first-hand what he was talking about. In 1968 he traveled to North Vietnam with historian, Howard Zinn. They had set out on an ultimately successful mission to free three U.S. airmen captured by the Vietnamese. In the process, he saw the burn wounds of children and the elderly scorched by the liquid fire that pursued them relentlessly even in their underground bunkers. He experienced war’s realities as he huddled there with the children and elderly during terroristic bombing raids by his own country.
On another occasion, Dan along with his brother Phil and other “Plowshares” members entered the General Electric nuclear arms plant in King of Prussia PA. There they found an (as yet unarmed) missile and used hammers to beat its nosecone to smithereens. They said they were following the injunction of the prophet Isaiah to turn swords into plowshares (IS 2:4).
I knew Father Berrigan personally. He spent a fall with us here in Berea in the mid-‘80s. His brother, Phil, visited Berea College more than once in connection with a wonderful course called “The Christian Faith in the Modern World.” Imagine actually conversing with saints like that!
I remember how enthusiastic Dan was in supporting the work of the “Berea Interfaith Task Force for Peace.” We were busy at the time with the Nuclear Freeze Movement and with resisting U.S. wars in Central America, especially in Nicaragua.
He met with us regularly – on at least one occasion, in Peggy’s and my home in Buffalo Holler in Rockcastle County. We have a snapshot of him there in our family album. He’s seated on our deck, eating from a paper plate with a bottle of beer on the floor beside his chair.
Another photo shows him standing up in protest with the rest of us at the Bluegrass Army Depot in Richmond Kentucky. (The Depot holds WWII ordnance – mustard gas and chemical weapons still awaiting demolition.) We had infiltrated a patriotic celebration there.
Our Task Force had entered the facility with protest signs folded up under our shirts. We stood up to display them in the middle of a triumphant speech by one of the generals. Mine read “US out of Nicaragua!” Dan’s message was printed on his tee shirt. When he removed his outer shirt, everyone could see it. “Stop the Arms Race!” it said.
One of my most memorable Ash Wednesdays came when Dan was here. In his humble understated way he celebrated a thoughtful Mass to begin the season of Lent. It reminded our packed church of St. Clare’s about the ashes created and left behind by brutal U.S. bombing campaigns and unending wars. He called us to repent by refusing our support of such conflicts.
I attended a class Dan taught three times a week during his semester at Berea. It analyzed the Book of Revelation written by John of Patmos – an otherwise unknown author who had been exiled to the Island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea by the Roman Emperor, Domitian at the end of the first century CE. Like Father Berrigan, the book’s author, “John the Revelator,” was a political prisoner. His crime was that of prophecy – of speaking truth to power. So Father Berrigan claimed a kind of “hermeneutical privilege” in dealing with the Book of Revelation. He said his exegesis was a matter of “one jailbird to another.”
I recall driving Dan to the Bluegrass Airport in Lexington the day he left us. Always on task, Father Berrigan spoke about the similarities between Israel’s occupation of Palestine and the apartheid system still flourishing in South Africa. “All these ‘settler societies,’” he said, “operate in the same brutal ways.” Sadly, his words remain true to this day.
In my early days of working at Berea College, I was privileged to give three lectures a year to the entire sophomore class assembled in Phelps-Stokes Chapel along with my colleagues, their teachers. The context was a two-semester, primary-source survey course called “Religious and Historical Perspectives.” ( I loved the course. It taught me more than any other academic experience in my life.) My lectures were on Jesus (in the fall), on Marx (in the middle of the spring semester), and on Harvey Cox’s The Secular City (the last presentation of the year).
I remember centralizing Dan Berrigan in my Secular City talk. I held him up (as I still do) as an example of what the great Jewish prophets, Jesus of Nazareth and Karl Marx, have to tell us about Christians’ relationship to the realities Harvey Cox described in his book. I recalled Father Berrigan being arrested after spending four months underground resisting relentless pursuit by J. Edgar Hoover and the F.B.I.
Dan’s hands were handcuffed in front of him, I recalled. And he was asked by a reporter if he had anything to say before going off to Danbury State Prison. Father Berrigan gave a one-word response. He held up his handcuffed hands and made a peace sign. He said simply: “Resist!” That’s his message to us today!
Thank you, Father Berrigan, for having the courage to resist and for challenging us so consistently to do the same. May we follow your prophetic example.