Daniel Berrigan: Sword of Wisdom, Maker of Peace

Berrigan in cuffs

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. — Daniel Berrigan[i]

On May 17, 1968, nine Roman Catholic activists broke into a draft board office in Catonsville, Maryland, transferring 378 files to the parking lot to be incinerated with home-made napalm. As the fire burned, the “Catonsville Nine” prayed for peace. They were arrested, tried and sentenced to prison, but four of them, including two priests— Daniel and Philip Berrigan— went underground, eluding capture for a number of months, occasionally surfacing to speak at antiwar rallies.

At one of these public appearances, following a dramatic tableau of the Last Supper with giant puppets, Dan Berrigan made his escape inside one of the Apostles. “I was hoping it wasn’t the puppet of Judas,” he said later. His comical getaway affirmed irrepressible life even as it mocked the powers of death. Berrigan, a puckish and playful spirit, knew that laughter could be a serious form of subversion.

After being sheltered by 37 different families, Dan Berrigan, S.J., was finally captured August 11, 1970, in the house of Episcopal lawyer and theologian William Stringfellow. He was reading Plato’s The Trial and Death of Socrates when F.B.I. agents showed up at the door.

On Palm Sunday of the following year, I designed a liturgy where two carpenters constructed a large cross near the altar during the course of the ritual. At various points, dialogue between the carpenters would interrupt the liturgical texts. The two workers expressed curiosity about the intended victim and the nature of his crime. They wondered about the morality of their own complicity in the official machinery of death. What if they just stopped making crosses? Would it make any difference? Or would they just find themselves without a job? In the end, they suppressed their doubts and finished the cross, hammering it together loudly during the eucharistic prayer: This is my body, given for you … This is my blood, shed for you …

It was no coincidence that I had just been reading No Bars to Manhood, Dan Berrigan’s compelling account of the influences and experiences underlying his Christian activism. Its conclusions were clear: as witnesses to the Resurrection, the friends of God must say no to death. No more cross-building. No more remaining passive spectators at the world’s crucifixions. “There are times so evil,” he wrote, “that the first and indeed the only genuinely prophetic function is to cast down the images of injustice and death that claim [the human being] as victim.”[ii]

A Newsweek blurb on my well-worn 95-cent paperback from 1971 reads, “Daniel Berrigan is the sort of priest who causes the lights of the Vatican to burn through the night.” The actions he took and the company he kept often strained the patience and understanding of his clerical superiors. One of his friends in the Society of Jesus told him, “Do you want to know why you’re in trouble so frequently? It’s because you and some others show us what Jesuits can be. And that’s why we can’t stand you.”[iii]

Today, when so many horrors are cloaked in euphemisms like “collateral damage,” Dan Berrigan’s truthful language still delivers a shock. His response to the charge of incinerating draft board records is justly famous:

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. For we are sick at heart, our hearts give us no rest from thinking of the Land of Burning Children … We have chosen to say with the gift of our liberty, if necessary our lives: the violence stops here. The death stops here. The suppression of the truth stops here. This war stops here.[iv]

Even in his contentious moments with the Church, Berrigan understood his priesthood to be deeply rooted in the ethos of his religious community, where, he wrote, one’s life might “be purified of the inhuman drives of egoism, acculturation, professional pride and dread of life.”[v] In the trial of the Catonsville Nine, when asked whether such radical protest was in harmony with Catholic teaching, he replied, “May I say that if that is not accepted as a substantial part of my action, then the action is eviscerated of all meaning and I should be committed for insanity.”[vi]

For those of us who tend to play it safe in conforming our own choices to the gospel, Berrigan’s life of witness poses hard questions about discipleship and the imperatives of conscience. “He was dangerous, as holiness should be; he was a sword of wisdom.”[vii] A college student, after hearing Berrigan speak at Stanford in the late Sixties, put it this way: “Father Berrigan has raised the ante for all of us.”[viii]

That student’s religion professor, Robert McAfee Brown (one of my own most admired teachers), considered the question of whether the Berrigan brothers were signs or models. Their words and actions clearly signified the world’s sin and brokenness in parabolic gestures difficult to ignore. But were we obligated to model our lives after theirs, or might we find other ways to be faithful, according to our own distinctive calling? This question has troubled the conscience of many, including my own.

“We must continually ask ourselves why we are so attracted to them.” Brown wrote, “when we hear what they say and yet do not do the things they do … [T]heir actions provide a disturbing sign that we must take seriously, particularly if those actions are not yet the model most of us are prepared to imitate.”[ix] Brown himself had the courage to live into those questions for the rest of his life, becoming one of the most eloquent theological voices for justice and peace.

As “the man who hears handcuffs close upon him,”[x] Berrigan felt a deep kinship with biblical prisoners for God like the prophet Jeremiah. “There is a meaning to things, however dark and damaging … Jeremiah wrestles with the meaning; his wrestling is the meaning; it defines the moral substance and limits of his activity in the world. At the same time, his struggle with the unknown One interiorizes, draws to a fine point and gravity his moral life.”[xi]

Like Jeremiah, Berrigan knew a God who contends with human injustice, who plucks up and breaks down our tainted and presumptuous projects.

We are so used to an acculturated and childish religion, whose ethos has joined forces with the society— with its militarism and racism and fear of life, that we are almost illiterate before a document such as Jeremiah’s. Can it be true that God is not a Niagara of pablum, spilling His childish comfort upon the morally and humanly neutral, whose faces are raised blankly to partake of that infantile nourishment?[xii]

Not every Christian received his rhetoric gladly. And the radical priest’s liturgical fusion of sacrament and protest also drew fire. After baptizing a baby in the chapel at Cornell, he kissed the new Christian’s forehead and invited him “out of the world of war and destruction.” While presiding at an “Electric Mass for Peace” on the same campus, he made explicit connections in the eucharistic prayer between Christ’s blood and the blood shed on both sides in Vietnam. Some saw these things as careless, even blasphemous. Others found them prophetic and profoundly faithful.

Berrigan’s words and actions had a deep and lasting influence on many in the antiwar and anti-nuclear movements, as well as progressive Christians. His dramatic forms of witness also drew immense media attention, for which he took some criticism as a “media freak.” But his vocation was stronger than the temptations of celebrity. As Paul Elie, chronicler of the great twentieth century Catholic writers, noted in a New Yorker blog:

He created no foundation, nonprofit, or N.G.O.; headed no pacifist think tank or Jesuit school of advanced study; gave no TED talk; engaged in no stagey dialogues offering equal time to the military point of view; and never reframed the ideals of nonviolence in any pocket-size manual for personal growth.[xiii]

Berrigan had no neutral gear. Even when the public spotlight moved on to other subjects, his writing lost nothing of its urgency and fire. In The Discipline of the Mountain, his poetic reflection on “Dante’s Purgatorio in a Nuclear World,” he wrote, “There is a hell for those who go too far, and there is a hell, or at least an anteroom of hell, for those who refuse to go far enough.”[xiv] Going far enough for the sake of the gospel was the driving force of his life. But as he once confessed to Robert Coles, “We are groping. We shouldn’t be sure of ourselves, because we can’t be, not now— not ever.”[xv]

Only death is sure, and that finally came last week, on Orthodox Holy Saturday, to Daniel Berrigan, S.J., in his 95th year. I barely knew him, hearing him preach twice and breaking bread with him once in a Los Angeles rectory. But this loss feels personal. He was both sign and model for many priests of my generation, and there are things he said which haunt me still.

In 1964, midway in his life’s journey, Berrigan imagined the moment of his own death:

As I walk patiently through life
poems follow close …

The poem called death
is unwritten yet. Some day will show
the violent last line,
the shadow rise,
a bird of omen

snatch me for its ghost.
And a hand somewhere, purposeful as God’s
close like two eyes, this book.[xvi]

And then what? Only faith can say, that Easter faith which alone can contain and complete the fullness of human life. At the end of his meditation on Dante’s Purgatorio, the poet/priest peers beyond death’s horizon to see a resurrected humanity being gathered into God.

Leading the way are “the intractable ones” who have suffered prison, torture and martyrdom for their faithful witness. In them we see at last “the human venture vindicated.” Their faces and Christ’s face become as one, in an upward gaze that “breaks the glacial will of God.”[xvii]

They embrace         one after another
Tears    laughter     two weathers
contending in one sky

 

 

[i] Daniel Berrigan. S.J., No Bars to Manhood (New York: Bantam Books, 1971), 49

[ii] ibid., 97

[iii] ibid., 19

[iv] q. in Robert McAfee Brown, “The Berrigans: Signs or Models?”, in The Berrigans, ed. William Van Etten Casey, S.J. & Philip Nobile (New York: Praeger Publisher, 1971), 62

[v] q. in Edward Duff, S.J., “The Burden of the Berrigans,” in The Berrigans, 19

[vi] ibid., 15

[vii] Daniel Berrigan, The Discipline of the Mountain: Dante’s Purgatorio in a Nuclear World (New York: The Seabury Press, 1979), 99. The quote is by Berrigan, describing “an Indian holy man” with whom he once led a retreat. But it also seems aptly applied to Berrigan himself.

[viii] R.M. Brown, 61

[ix] ibid., 66, 69

[x] No Bars, 99

[xi] ibid., 96

[xii] ibid., 97

[xiii] Paul Elie, “Postscript: Daniel Berrigan, 1921-2016” (New Yorker online, May 2, 2016)

[xiv] Discipline, 39

[xv] Robert Coles, “Thinking About Those Priests,” in The Berrigans, 219

[xvi] Daniel Berrigan, “A Dark Word,” Poetry Magazine, April 1964, online at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/browse?contentId=29700

[xvii] Discipline, 119-120

Keeping the faith in a time of terror

The Deposition (early Gothic; Leon cathedral on the Camino de Santiago)

The Deposition (early Gothic; Leon cathedral on the Camino de Santiago)

Keep your mind in hell, and despair not.

— Staretz Silouan[i]

Ah, children, ah, dear friends, do not be afraid of life!

— Fyodor Dostoevsky[ii]

How do we sing the Lord’s song in the shadow of terror? In solidarity with all the victims of Brussels and the whole human family this week, I protest, I rage, I grieve, I pray. But I must also try to think.

Indiscriminate terror has long been a scourge on this earth, but its globalization through television and social media has now made it emotionally inescapable. Were I to dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea, I could not flee from its presence.[iii]

So as we try to absorb the terrible news from Brussels, how do we “despair not” even in the face of monstrous evil? No simple task, and easy answers seem disrespectful in the time of weeping. But I do believe the antidote to despair is to keep the faith. We must never forget the sacred story we belong to. Even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.[iv]

The terrorist, on the other hand, belongs to a story which for most of us in inconceivable. Terror is “the language of being noticed,”[v] a kind of performative rhetoric designed to bring a neglected or disregarded worldview into the open by subjecting others to the violent norms of its alternate reality. They see themselves as global victims, in search of a global audience for their cruel narrative. Mark Juergensmeyer, in his study of religious violence, explains this terrorist rationale:

If the world is perceived as peaceful, violent acts appear as terrorism. If the world is thought to be at war, violent acts may be regarded as legitimate. They may be seen as preemptive strikes, as defensive tactics in an ongoing battle, or as symbols indicating to the world that it is indeed in a state of grave and ultimate conflict.[vi]

In the minds of many terrorists, the war they are so eager to wage is apocalyptic, a cosmic conflict of good and evil in which there is no compromise or bridging of differences. They are, in Don DeLillo’s term, “lethal believers.” And the very worst thing we could do in response would be to play the part they have written for us: satanic enemies in a cosmic struggle. The proposals of certain American presidential candidates to “bomb the hell out of them,” or bring back the good old days of torture, would play perfectly into the terrorists’ hands, conceding the primacy of their deadly story.

However, I choose to belong to a better story, the one enacted and embodied in the powerful liturgies of Christ’s Passion. Step by step on the Way of the Cross this Holy Week, Christians will bring to mind and heart the saving journey which Jesus made, without weapons, into the abyss of suffering and death.

Renouncing all violence and hatred, Jesus remained faithful to the end. After pouring his whole life into a ministry of healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation, he continued to show us the face of love even as he was tortured on the cross. “Father, forgive,” he said with his dying breath. To the last moment, in his most bitter hour, he remained the human who shows us God by doing what God does.

Which story do we choose to live in? The story of terror and violence, or the story of self-diffusive love? Both are costly in the end, but only one leads to new and unconquerable life. Even after Brussels, the word remains: Be not afraid! Love makes the abyss into a Way.

The cross shows us how it is possible to absorb evil and neutralize its effects, rather than pass on the anger and live in bitterness. Turning the other cheek, going the extra mile, giving away your coat to the robber who steals your shirt, loving enemies, doing good to those who hate, blessing those who curse us – all this turns out to be an intelligent and intelligible Christian way of living.[vii]

When medieval women mystics contemplated the cross in prayer and vision, they saw not death’s triumph but a kind of birth. The crucified Jesus was like a woman in labor, enduring pain and travail in order to bring us all to birth: Ah! Sweet Lord Jesus Christ, who ever saw a mother suffer such a birth! For when the hour of your delivery came you were placed on the hard bed of the cross and … in one day you gave birth to the whole world.[viii]

To see such a death and call it birth is the central act of Christian imagination. It is why we declare victory at the cross. We don’t wait for Easter Sunday. We declare victory at the cross, because the Passion isn’t just a story about violent powers that always trample the weak and kill the prophets. It’s also a story about the Realm of God, where dry bones breathe and lost hopes dance, where the prodigal is welcomed home and the tears are wiped from every eye. The Love that makes such a realm was nailed to a cross, but was not consumed by it. Death did what death does, and God did what God does.

And on the outcome of that story, I stake everything.

 

 

Related posts

We are the singers of life, not of death

After Paris and Beirut, what story shall we tell?

Beyond Punch and Judy: The art of nonviolent resistance

 

 

[i] Staretz Silouan (1866-1938) was a Russian monk on Mt. Athos in Greece. Appearing as an epigraph to Gillian Rose’s book, Love’s Work, I found this provocative saying in Andrew Shanks’ Against Innocence: Gillian Rose’s Reception and Gift of Faith (London: SCM Press, 2008), 9. Rose herself added this typically intense comment: “What Staretz Silouan is talking about is the subjective experience of God-forsakenness,” and even there finding God. “I want to sob and sob and sob,” she says, “until the prolonged shrieking becomes a shout of joy.”

[ii] From Alyosha Karamazov’s final speech in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky (New York: Vintage Classics, 1991), 776

[iii] cf. Psalm 139:6, 8

[iv] Burial of the Dead, Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, 499

[v] Don DeLillo, quoted in Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000 ), 139

[vi] Juergensmeyer, 10

[vii] David Wood, in Consuming Passion: Why the Killing of Jesus Really Matters, eds. Simon Barrow & Jonathan Bartley (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2007), 118

[viii] Marguerite d’Oingt (d. 1310)

Beyond Punch and Judy: The art of nonviolent resistance

image

In Faith and Violence, a book published amid the political turbulence of 1968, Thomas Merton told an old Hasidic story about two men, one drunk and one sober, who were beaten and robbed as they traveled through the forest. Asked later about what had happened, the sober one described the violent encounter in vivid detail, but the drunken one seemed quite placid. “We’re all right,” he said. “Everything is fine.” Merton went on to observe that for some, faith “seems to be a kind of drunkenness, an anesthetic, that keeps you from realizing and believing that anything can ever go wrong.” But, he asked, is faith a “narcotic dream” or is it “an awakening”? Then he delivered his punch line: “What if we were to awaken to discover that we were the robbers, and our destruction comes from the root of hate in ourselves.”[i]

At a time when a brutal war was raging in the jungles of Vietnam, police and protestors were clashing in the American street, and leaders who spoke out for justice and peace were being assassinated, a monk dedicated to contemplative retreat from the world felt compelled to explore the theology of love in an age of violence, one which would “deal realistically with the evil and injustice of the world.”[ii] How do we resist the violence in our society without adding our own anger and demons into the mix? How do we resist systemic and social sin while harboring no illusions about our own capacities to do harm?

In recent days there have been numerous conversations about the escalating political violence surrounding the Trump campaign. My own post (March 12) on the topic has generated heartfelt responses of shared concern. Many of us are wondering what we can do about the situation without defaulting to our own versions of anger or fear. We need experienced guides through such tricky terrain, and Thomas Merton is one of the best.

“We no longer communicate,” Merton said. “We abandon communication in order to celebrate our own favorite group-myths in a ritual pseudo-event.”[iii] He wrote that in the Sixties, but he could have been describing a Trump rally, which, in the absence of substantive content, is mostly a ritual acting out of a group-myth, reaching its crescendo in the anticipated expulsion of protesters. As Rachel Maddow showed in a recent montage of those expulsions, Trump repeatedly asks the crowd, “Isn’t this exciting?” Roughing up protesters may express anything from personal rage to fascist methodology, but it is also entertainment. As Neil Postman has noted, Americans like “amusing ourselves to death.”[iv] When the anti-Trump signs come out, the crowd gets happy, knowing the real fun is about to begin.

This is all contemptible and sad. But I wonder: how do protestors avoid becoming unwitting collaborators in Trump’s entertainments? Even if they don’t hit back or give the crowd the finger, how do they escape complicity in a political Punch and Judy show? How do they avoid getting their own group-myths stuck in the futility of an endless ritualized dualism of “us versus them”?

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God. The peacemaker is committed to communion as the nature and destiny of humankind. As Martin Luther King said in a speech I remember from my college days, we must see the face of Christ even in the police who are attacking us with dogs and fire hoses. Or as Jesus himself taught, we must love our enemies. That does not mean capitulating to evil, or abstaining from the tainted ambiguities of political conflict. But it does mean that we ultimately belong to a much better story, where one day the tears will be wiped from every eye, the lion will lie down with the lamb, and the prodigal will be welcomed home. It means that our highest commitment is not to defeat our enemies but to make the divine love story of amazing grace come true for everyone.

As Merton wrote, “Christian nonviolence is not built on a presupposed division, but on the basic unity of [humankind]. It is not out for the conversion of the wicked to the ideas of the good, but for the healing and reconciliation of … the human family.”[v] This isn’t sentimental benevolence or passive submission. It’s a very tough form of love, as Jesus, Gandhi, King and many others have demonstrated in their costly commitment to a wider, more generous perspective than the self-righteous justifications of partisan interests. Our struggles must always reject the ultimacy of division in favor of communion. “The key to nonviolence,” Merton reminds us, “is the willingness of the nonviolent resister to suffer a certain amount of accidental evil in order to bring about a change of mind in the oppressor.”[vi]

But how do we apply this wisdom to the specific challenges of our own day? How can we respond creatively to the upwelling of anger, fear, racism and nativism poisoning our public life? In 1968, Merton compiled a list of principles for nonviolent resisters which is worth considering. While he admitted that the complexity and fluidity of events in that turbulent year could make any opinion lose its value in a matter of weeks, I believe his prescriptions retain an enduring value:

1) “be free from unconscious connivance with an unjust and established abuse of power”

2) “be not for [oneself[ but for others, that is for the poor and underprivileged”

3) “dread a facile and fanatical self-righteousness and refrain from being satisfied with dramatic self-justifying gestures”

4) demonstrate “a desirable alternative” to violence and injustice

5) use means which embody and manifest the emergent way of being which Christians call the Kingdom of God

6) be “willing to learn something from the adversary”

7) be grounded in hope and humility – what we strive for is a gift from God’s future: not of our own making, and not yet fully here [vii]

I particularly like Number 4 (demonstrate a desirable alternative) and Number 6 (embody and manifest the Kingdom of God). It is what we do in the eucharist, where everyone is welcome, everyone practices reconciliation, and everyone shares the bread of heaven. But can we take such countercultural vision into the street?

Yes we can. There are various ways (many of which have yet to be invented!). Even into her nineties, my mother joined the “women in black” every Friday in silent vigil against the Iraq war on the streets of Santa Barbara. Their faithful witness was impossible to ignore, while at the same time it perfectly embodied the peace for which they stood.

A very different display of visionary resistance occurred at the World Trade Organization (WTO) protests in Advent of 1999. Those who watched the news only saw the Punch and Judy show of untrained police and young provocateurs turning a shoving match into a tear-gassed conflict. But the most important things that happened were not on television. This is what I myself witnessed on the day of the big rally and march[viii]:

There was a large banner which read, AN INJURY TO ONE IS AN INJURY TO ALL. It seemed a perfect summary of the gospel: “If you do it to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you do it to me.” All in Christ, Christ in all. Solidarity forever. We were there to speak for all those whom the WTO would rather silence or forget – voices crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.”

At 12:30 pm, we took to the streets, marching up Fourth Avenue. to join the thousands more who were already downtown. It was a wonderfully diverse procession: there were people dressed as Santa Claus, sea turtles, trees, and even death. But it was not some crazy fringe out there. As one writer put it, “These were the kids at UW, the ladies from church, the guys at Boeing. It was Seattle that was marching this week.”

As in all street rituals, there was a playful, carnival atmosphere. As Richard Shechner observes in his book, The Future of Ritual:

“When people go into the streets en masse, they are celebrating life’s fertile possibilities…They put on masks and costumes, erect and wave banners, and construct effigies not only to disguise or embellish their ordinary selves, or to flaunt the outrageous, but also to act out the multiplicity each human life is…They protest, often by means of farce and parody, against what is oppressive, ridiculous and outrageous…Such playing challenges official culture’s claims to authority, stability, sobriety, immutability and immortality.”[ix]

In other words, we were exhibiting the same spirit – dare I say “holy spirit”? – of playfulness, camaraderie, irony and subversion that was seen ten years ago at Tiananmen Square and the Berlin Wall and, during biblical times, at the Red Sea and the Triumphal Entry on Palm Sunday. And as faith tells us, the powers don’t stand a chance against the foolishness of God.

There were people on stilts, people carrying giant puppets, babies in carriages and elders with canes and walkers. I stuck close to the Anti-Fascist Marching Band, which played soulful New Orleans versions of “America the Beautiful”, “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War.” We all just danced up Fourth Avenue …

So, my friends, how shall we do the Kingdom dance in the year of grace 2016?

 

 

 

[i] Thomas Merton, Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice (Notre Dame, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1968) ix-x (All quotes from Faith and Violence are in The Thomas Merton Encyclopedia (New York: Orbis Books, 2002) under the entry on Merton’s book, but I have listed the original volume’s page numbers in the footnotes.)

[ii] ibid., 9

[iii] ibid., 159

[iv] Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York: Penguin, 2005)

[v] Merton, 15

[vi] ibid., 27-28

[vii] ibid., 21-25

[viii] From a sermon I preached the following Sunday at St. Augustine’s-in-the-Woods Episcopal Church, Whidbey Island, WA (Advent II, 1999))

[ix] Richard Schechner, The Future of Ritual: Writings on Culture and Performance (London & New York: Routledge, 1993), 46