Blessed are the Peacemakers
Daniel Berrigan SJ, priest, poet and anti-war activist, died on April 30th, aged 94
The Economist | From the print edition | May 21st 2016
TO DO good. On every occasion to do the right thing as he saw it and Christ taught it, no matter how disruptive and no matter what the cost. This was Daniel Berrigan’s motivation. He was not concerned with the outcome of it, let alone success. A good action must go somewhere; do it, let it go. If God willed, it might mean lives saved, swords beaten into ploughshares and the world smiling with peace.
In the febrile America of the Vietnam-war years, however, it more often meant obloquy, humiliation, scorn, the hand of a federal agent on his collar. Between 1970 and 1995 he spent a quarter of his time in prison, in denim garb he liked to think of as the vestments of a new Catholic church. He was declared the enemy both of that church (by Francis Cardinal Spellman, Archbishop of New York) and of the state (by J. Edgar Hoover, head of the FBI). But then, as he liked to say, if you were serious about Jesus, you had better start considering whether you’d look good on wood.
The best act, one he wished he had done much sooner, was carried out on May 17th 1968 in a parking lot in Catonsville, Maryland. He and eight others, mostly in religious orders, one his priest-brother Philip, made a blaze there of 378 stolen files of young men about to be drafted to fight in Vietnam. The fire was set with napalm they had made at home, from soap-shards and kerosene. He apologised over the pyre for “the angering of the orderlies in the front parlour of the charnel house”; but they had not, like the government, burned children. Only papers: or, as he saw them, hunting licences to track, rape and char human beings.
This destruction of government property won him three years in jail, which he refused to accept. It was morally inconsistent to bow to an illegitimate system, so he went on the run instead, living exultantly for four months in “felonious vagrancy”, the first-ever priest on the FBI’s most-wanted list. Come, Holy Spirit! Like a Pentecost, Catonsville lit up people’s hearts, a spreading fire of protest across America. It also made him that “pumped-up absurdity”, a celebrity-priest with a bad Beatles haircut and a black polo-neck, puckishly turning up wherever trouble beckoned.
He had been warned about that. The two chief influences in his life—Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement, and Thomas Merton, a Trappist philosopher—pushed him to work among outcasts and to labour for peace, but not in the public eye. His Jesuit superiors, embarrassed by his fervour, tried to restrain him by sending him abroad, to France and Latin America. Contact with worker-priests there just fired him all the more. How could he be quiet, when all around him in the 20th century men continued to ignore God’s fundamental precept, Thou shalt not kill? *How could he be invisible, when lepers, beggars and the downtrodden cried for something to be done? Outraged love drove him to be loud, turning lessons into lectures at Yale and Cornell, addressing crowds and writing 50 books, many of them poetry, as this, called “Miracles”:
Vietnam over, he did not rest. In 1980 he led a group into GE’s missile plant in Pennsylvania to attack the eggshell-thin warheads with hammers: the most violent gesture in a life dedicated to non-violence, to opening hand and heart to the enemy. He too struggled mightily to replace his own anger, “the death game”, with love. In his 80s he took part in Occupy Wall Street and marched against war in Iraq. Fearlessly he stood in the path of governments and corporations: for “powers and dominations” remained subject to Christ, to his gentleness. Day by day he listened (“Want to rap?”), shared whatever he ate and held the hands of the dying in an AIDS hospice in Greenwich Village. “Let’s re-member each other,” he would say.
Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam
To many—to himself sometimes—it seemed odd that he was a Jesuit, submitting himself to their discipline, authority and institutional life. It did not fit with the thin boy, a poor feeder and never brawny, who had so feared his father’s heavy judgment-tread and his rages like an uncontrolled cyclone. It did not fit with his teenage suspicions of a distant, blind-as-a-bat deity, or even with his later hope that God would just stop imagining these flawed creatures called men. Oddly, though, the Jesuits had room for his sort, with only moments of squirming; and from the age of 18 his loyalty never swerved. . .
Read the entire obituary in The Economist. . .
* As a Jesuit Priest, Berrigan, should know that the Mosaic Code, Thou shalt not kill, was for all men to adhere to. But what if someone did not, then his God gave a different command in Matt 26:52, For all who take the sword will perish by the sword. And again in Romans 13:4,5: But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for “the government” beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil …”
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