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The Life and Lessons of Daniel Berrigan

Posted by Ryan Hall
11.22.16

By John Dear // John Dear gave this talk at the Call to Action National Conference, in Albuquerque, NM, on November 12, 2016

Now that Donald Trump is going to be the president and you and I are going to have to take a deep breath, pray and grieve, stay centered and mindful and redouble our work for justice and peace, to keep on following the nonviolent Jesus, to keep on walking the road to peace and nonviolence, to keep on resisting the culture of violence and greed and to keep on working for a new culture of peace and nonviolence as best we can, come what may. From now on, it’s nonviolent resistance as a way of life.

As a way to encourage us for the days ahead, I want to reflect with you about my friend Daniel Berrigan, the great peacemaker, poet, antiwar activist and writer who died on April 30, 2016. I’m his literary executor and edited five books of his writings including “Daniel Berrigan: Essential Writings.” It’s always helpful to study the lives of the saints, but in these dark days, it may be especially helpful to look at the life and lessons of this great nonviolent resister.

At Dan’s funeral, my friend Fr. Steve Kelly said Dan should be named a doctor of the church. I agree. I think Daniel Berrigan was one of the great saints and prophets of our time, right up there with Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., Thomas Merton, Rosa Parks, Cesar Chavez, Archbishop Romero, Archbishop Tutu, Mohandas Gandhi and Thich Nhat Hanh. He has come to embody the Christian insistence on peace and disarmament in a world of war, empire and nuclear weapons. He was the first priest in U.S. history to be arrested for protesting war, became the symbol of opposition to the Vietnam war and nuclear weapons, and helped make it possible for the rest of us to work for peace and justice as Catholics and Christians.

Dan exemplified a Christianity that works for peace, speaks for peace, and welcomes Christ’s resurrection gift of peace. He taught us that God does not bless war, justify war, or create war. He points to a nonviolent Jesus who blesses peacemakers, calls us to love enemies, and commands us to take up the cross of nonviolent resistance to empire. So Dan not only helped end the Vietnam war and lead the movement against nuclear weapons, he changed the church. His life offers a way forward for all of us. So let me walk through his life and then offers some lessons.

Daniel Berrigan was born on May 9, 1921 the fifth of six boys, grew up in Syracuse, entered the Jesuits in 1939, was ordained in 1952, and published his first book of poetry, “Time Without Number,” in 1957 which won the Lamont Poetry Award. Dan would go on to publish 50 books of poetry, essays, theology studies, journals, plays, and scripture studies. At Dan’s 80th birthday party, Kurt Vonnergut said to us, “Dan is Jesus as a poet.”

By the mid-60s, Dan became a leading voice against the war in Vietnam. On October 22, 1967, there was a massive mobilization on the Pentagon and Dan took a delegation of Cornell students to the protest and they all were arrested. Dan was the first priest ever arrested for protesting war in U.S. history. In February, 1968, he traveled to North Vietnam with Howard Zinn. While there, the U.S. bombed Hanoi and they hid out in a shelter for a week as U.S. bombs fell around him.

On May 17th, 1968, Dan and the Catonsville Nine entered a draft board house in Catonsville Maryland, took 300 draft files, went out into the parking lot and in front of the press, poured homemade napalm on the draft records and burned them. Here’s his amazing statement:

“Our apologies, good friends for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise.”

Their action attracted massive press, and led to 300 similar demonstrations and helped end the war and we know definitely ended the draft. He was found guilty and later wrote the play, “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine.” Then in April 1970, instead of reporting to prison, the Berrigans went “underground.” For five months, Dan traveled through the Northeast, speaking to the media, writing articles against the war, and occasionally appearing in public, much to the frustration of J. Edgar Hoover. He was eventually arrested in August, and spent nearly two years in Danbury prison and was released in February, 1972.

Dan became one the most well known priests in the world, and consistently called for the Church to abolish the just war theory and return to the nonviolence of Jesus. While he was underground, Dan wrote an open letter to the “Weathermen,” saying “The death of a single human being is too heavy a price to pay for the vindication of any principle, however sacred.” In other words, he said, there is no cause however noble for which we will ever again support the taking of a single human life. We do not kill. We do not support killing. We do not kill people who kill people to show that killing people is wrong. We work to stop the killing.

On September 9, 1980, Dan, Phil and six friends, walked in to the General Electric headquarters in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania and hammered on unarmed nuclear weapon nose cones. They were arrested, convicted and faced up to ten years in prison. Their “Plowshares” action was the first of 100 actions, including the one I did in 1993. Here’s what Dan said during the trial:

The only message I have to the world is: We are not allowed to kill innocent people. We are not allowed to be complicit in murder. We are not allowed to be silent while preparations for mass murder proceed in our name, with our money, secretly…It’s terrible for me to live in a time where I have nothing to say to human beings except, “Stop killing.” There are other beautiful things that I would love to be saying to people. There are other projects I could be very helpful at. And I can’t do them. I cannot. Because everything is endangered. Everything is up for grabs. Ours is a kind of primitive situation, even though we would call ourselves sophisticated. Our plight is very primitive from a Christian point of view. We are back where we started. Thou shalt not kill; we are not allowed to kill. Everything today comes down to that–everything.

Throughout the ’80s and ’90s, Dan spoke each week around the country and published books of poetry, essays, and studies on the Hebrew bible. He also served as a hospital chaplain in New York hospitals for the poor. In 1984, he traveled to El Salvador and Nicaragua, and in 1985, went to South America where he helped out in the movie, “The Mission,” with Robert DeNiro, Jeremy Irons and Liam Neeson. Eventually, about ten years ago, Dan started to slow down, the community was disbanded, many of them died, and Dan moved into the Jesuit nursing home at Fordham. Over the last five years, he declined steadily, and lost weight and could barely walk, talk or hear, yet he never once complained and died peacefully a week before his 95th birthday.

I met Dan after entering the Jesuits in the early 1980s, and basically took him as my teacher for the rest of my life, moved into his community, and lived with him for many years, and we became close friends. We traveled the country together and to Ireland, gave talks together, and wrote weekly for years. I was with him just a week before his death and was on my way to see him when he died. Here are some lessons that I learned from Dan:

 —Dan insisted that Christianity today means working for peace and disarmament, practicing and teaching nonviolence, working to protect the poor, the enemy and the earth, and that this peace work is both contemplative and active, but always public. He had that great poem, “Peacemaking is hard, hard almost as war.”

—Dan taught us to let go of results as we work for peace and justice. Do the good because it’s good, he said. Speak the truth because it’s right. Work for peace and justice because that’s what God wants. We let go and leave the outcome to God, in God’s hands. In other words, it’s just ordinary for us. Nonviolence and nonviolent resistance are our ordinary day to day life.

—Dan told me when I was young that if you are going to spend your life resisting death, you better learn how to live life to the full. He both resisted death and lived life more than anyone I knew. He walked every day, he enjoyed healthy food and a drink, loved friends and laughter and nature and poetry and books and people. At the end of every community Mass, before drinks and dinner, he would say, “We’ve been good long enough.”

—Once, Martin Sheen gave us first class tickets to Ireland, to celebrate Dan’s 80th, and when we got to the Air Lingus lounge, three beautiful ladies in green appeared holding trays of champagne; shrimp cocktails; and cappuccinos. He turned to me and said, “Quick, call Martin, tell him we’re canceling the trip and going to stay in the Air Lingus lounge for 2 weeks.” That was Dan.

—Dan believed in community, and insisted that we all had to have a community, whether a church, or a peace group. His advice to young people was: find a circle of friends you can pray with and march with. When I was young he said, “All you have to do is close your eyes to the culture and open them to your friends.” He was a really good friend and believed in friendship and community to sustain us for the long haul of nonviolent resistance.

—Dan believed in nonviolence, but three types: contemplative nonviolence—he spent time in prayer every day; active nonviolence—he took action over and over again; and prophetic nonviolence, he believed in speaking out publicly for justice and peace. His nonviolence was like Merton’s—it was an eschatological nonviolence. He had a long haul view of things, a salvation view, he looked toward the Kingdom of God, and claimed his citizenship in the kingdom of God.

—Dan insisted on the cost of peacemaking, in costly nonviolence, not cheap nonviolence, in costly peacemaking, not cheap peacemaking, to paraphrase Bonhoeffer. Here’s his famous quote from the Vietnam war days:

 “We have assumed the name of peacemakers, but we have been, by and large, unwilling to pay any significant price. And because we want the peace with half a heart and half a life and will, the war, of course, continues, because the waging of war, by its nature, is total–but the waging of peace, by our own cowardice, is partial. There is no peace because there are no peacemakers. There are no makers of peace because the making of peace is at least as costly as the making of war, at least as exigent, at least as disruptive, at least as liable to bring disgrace and prison and death in its wake.”

—Dan believed we have to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience regularly, that the only way positive social change happens is when good people break bad laws and accept the consequences.

—The first time I met him at Kirkridge, we sat and talked into the night, and his message to me was: “Do not be afraid. Don’t live in fear. Live in faith and hope and peace.” I decided to try to do that, like him. He practiced fearlessness, like Gandhi. We have to do that, too.

—Dan was always hopeful and insisted on hope, and concluded that hope often looks like despair, because it is the hope of Jesus on the cross. He lived by the saying: If you want to be hopeful, you have to do hopeful things.” He used to say: “We’re going to reverse Dante and say, ‘Take on hope all ye who enter here.’”

—Dan believed in God more than anyone I know. Dan believed in the God of peace, a God who wants us to live in his kingdom of nonviolence, and Dan did that…. In his last years, I witnessed Dan suffering a slow steady kenosis, diminishment, yet he never complained as he lost everything. Instead, he told me, he was totally centered on Jesus and the cross. He let go. He was always letting go, that was his mantra, and so he lived very freely in the present moment of peace, and was prepared for death. He lived well in peace and died well in peace, always in the presence of the God of peace.

—More than anyone I ever knew, Dan talked about Death with a capital D. He said what we are up against is not just war, nukes, capitalism and so forth, but Death itself. The culture of violence is Death, he said. We use Death as a social methodology. We see Death everywhere: in our 35 wars, in the 800 million sisters and brothers who are starving around the world; in our racism, sexism, corporate greed, executions, 16000 nuclear weapons, and ongoing environmental destruction. But, he said, you and I do not promote Death, serve Death, or work for Death. We do not bring good things to Death. More, he insisted, Death does not get the last word. He spoke of the “slight edge of life over death.”

—Dan always kept the focus on Jesus. In 1984, Pax Christi asked me to interview Dan, and I wanted to ask him the meaning of life, and I finally blurted out, “What’s the point of all this again?” And he said, “All you have to do is make your story fit into Jesus’ story.” That was so helpful!

—Later, in 1986, I went on a retreat with him, and his opening sentence was, “If you want to follow Jesus, you better look good on wood…”

—On another occasion, Bob Keck, Dan and I had Easter Sunday mass and a picnic in Central Park, and we were reflecting on the resurrection of Jesus. At one point, I said, if it were him, after all the violence that had been done to him, I wouldn’t have come back. I’d be resentful and angry, but Jesus makes breakfast for these people. There’s no anger or resentment or revenge. And Dan said, “Jesus didn’t have a mean bone in his body.”

—Then last year, I took Dan to Syracuse to see his older brother Jerry who died a short time later. We had Easter Sunday Mass together and I spoke about the risen Jesus by the Sea of Galilee. In his feeble state, Dan said, “In the presence of the risen Jesus, there are no bombs, no war, no violence and no death…” That was so beautiful!

—Here’s a great passage of his on Jesus and resurrection:

“Once there was a dead man, a criminal, a subject of capital punishment. And lo! He refused to stay dead. He stood up. As the authorities shortly came to sense, this was an earthquake in nature; in the nature of law and order, in the nature of death, the nature of war. For in the nature of things, as defined by the nation state (a great one for deciding what the nature of things is)–dead men stay dead. The word from Big Brother, the word that gives him clout, inspires fear, is–A criminal, once disposed of, stays disposed!

Not at all. Along come these crazies shouting in public, “Our man’s not dead, He’s risen!” Now I submit you can’t have such a word going around, and still run the state properly. The first nonviolent revolution was, of course, the Resurrection. The event had to include death as its first act. And also the command to Peter, “Put up your sword.” So that it might be clear, once and for all, that Christians suffer death rather than inflict it.

All worldly systems and arrangements are simply by-passed by the Resurrection. If death has no hold over people, in the sense that they’ve exorcised their fear of death–then what’s left worth fearing, or worth hoping, from any worldly structure? They deserve, one and all, the feisty appellation conferred on them by Dorothy Day, “The filthy rotten system.” I take it she was referring to their main function, multiplying the metaphors and means of death. The end of such a world, as she realized, and regarded it, was not only near. The end has occurred.”

—Lastly Dan talked and practiced resurrection. Dan referred to all his peace work as living in the resurrection. That’s why I define resurrection as having nothing to do with death, having not a trace of violence in you. Resurrection means total nonviolence. Dan knew our survival was already guaranteed, so we need not be afraid, or violent, or discouraged. We are heading toward resurrection! Here’s a great passage:

 “Since 1980 and all the Plowshares actions, some of us continue to labor to break the demonic clutch on our souls, of the ethic of Mars, of wars and rumor of wars, inevitable wars, just wars, necessary wars, victorious wars, and say our no in acts of hope. For us, all these repeated arrests, the interminable jailings, the life of our small communities, the discipline of nonviolence, these have embodied an ethic of resurrection. Simply put, we long to taste that event, its thunders and quakes, its great Yes. We want to test the resurrection in our bones. To see if we might live in hope, instead of the thicket of cultural despair, nuclear despair, a world of perpetual war. We want to taste the resurrection. May I say we have not been disappointed.”

My hope and prayer is that we too can carry on Dan’s work of peace and nonviolence now more than ever; that we too will resist the culture of violence and death; that we too will stand up publicly against this filthy rotten system, and pursue a new culture of nonviolence and peace; and that, like Dan, we too will strive to taste the resurrection.

Thank you and God bless you.

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