By Eric Martin
When FBI agents descended upon Block Island in 1970 disguised as birdwatchers, wrote Harvey Cox, they came seeking “one of the strangest and most unusual specimens of the species christianis americanis, a truly rare bird.” His name was Daniel Berrigan.
They sought him for the crime of burning draft records at a time when burning Vietnamese children might warrant a medal. He and eight Catholics entered a draft board in Catonsville, Maryland on May 17, 1968, grabbed hundreds of files and shoved them in a wire basket, doused them with napalm and set them aflame in front of the media while reciting the Lord’s Prayer.
It was a political act. It was a liturgical act. The Catonsville Nine knew that the two were not separate.
One year ago today, Berrigan died at 94. A Jesuit, a poet, a teacher, a writer – in all things he was a peacemaker. But the making of peace, as he said in word and deed, is hard. He struggled against his religious superiors to immerse himself in the civil rights movement, and he defied the government in the antiwar movement, receiving exile from the church and prison from the state. As the structures of white supremacy and warmaking rage on with (not terribly) new faces today, his witness is valuable to those organizing with new zeal.
Berrigan held power, and he knew it. He was a male in a patriarchy, a priest in a clerical church, white in the Jim Crow era, and an empire’s citizen. He was aware, as his brother Phil wrote to him in 1965, these categories held “worth and impact disproportionate to [their] real value, but nonetheless, there.” He brainstormed with others with similar privilege, fumbling for a path forward with those like Phil and the Trappist monk Thomas Merton. What was their responsibility in such deadly times? They held to Gandhi’s notion of experimenting with truth, figuring things out as they went by trial and prayer and error. “I am being led in the damnest directions,” he wrote back to Phil, “without any roadmap except that of good friends.”
The directions became increasingly drastic. “One has to consider,” Merton wrote to Berrigan, “that no matter how far one goes now, it is not going to be far enough.” He marched in Selma and joined Phil for the now-famous March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 4, 1963. The brothers appealed to fellow whites in their home newspaper. “We were learning again what it meant to be Americans,” they wrote; “that until all Americans are free, no American is free.”
But neither was allowed by their order’s superior to join the Freedom Riders in the fight for integration. This infuriated Dan, who would travel to South Africa in March of 1964 to join the anti-apartheid struggle by preaching and organizing with laity on the ground, particularly with the women’s organization The Grail. His racial consciousness was growing, and after Catonsville he wrote: “There is virtually no example of a white twentieth-century man living in the world, becoming conscious in a white skull… refusing the benefits of inherited colonialism, speaking the truth to corrupt power, urging the facts upon the deluded.” That his church prevented him from fully working for black liberation made him consider leaving the Jesuits altogether.
A central aspect of Berrigan’s witness was issuing an emphatic No to any entity, even the church, tolerating and therefore enabling death. “Say no!” he urged, “The ‘No’ makes the hero.” His discipleship demanded this denial, no matter the cost. Christians, he observed, are often “afflicted with the wasting disease of normalcy.” And “because of this we cry peace and cry peace, and there is no peace. 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 liable to bring disgrace and prison and death in its wake.” So he said No from jail, the White House, the Pentagon, the classroom, the lecture hall, his poems, his books – even a bomb shelter in Hanoi with Vietnamese peasants huddling under American explosions. “Know where you stand,” he said, “and stand there.”
And yet, he said No from silent spaces as well. “I don’t think we ever felt our conscience was tied to the other end of a TV cord,” he replied when asked whether it was hard lacking popularity. He spent years tending to those dying of AIDS at the height of the epidemic hitting the gay community in New York, changing bed pans, holding hands, praying fervently. He said No to the culture that ignores the ugliness of disease, defines queer people as “objectively disordered,” and deflects the task of accompaniment to others.
That is, he organized with those who held power like him. But he also opened himself to, marched with, listened to, learned from, became community with, was converted by black Americans and South Africans, lay women, the poor, queer and dying AIDS patient, draft resisters, and others who were disenfranchised, exploited, and neglected. He co-founded Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, but he also looked into the frightened eyes of children in a Hanoi bomb shelter. He sought something he loved about his friend Dorothy Day: becoming “permanently interrupted.”
Reports of American bombs killing 200 Iraqi civilians just weeks ago are already forgotten news. We have simply moved on. It is a symptom of what Berrigan called a “cannibal culture” surviving on the death of others. The president has promised more torture, more killing of children. Our national feast awaits.
Black lives, Palestinian lives, Yemeni lives, Lakota lives must be allowed to interrupt and convert. The suffering of creation must interrupt and convert. In a church that withholds power from women and violently defines LGBT lives, queer and woman voices must interrupt and convert. “I could not announce the gospel from a pedestal,” Berrigan said. Nor could Jesus. There is no supremacy of the white, male, straight, rich, Christian, or American kind in the gospels. But there is kenosis, humility, service, finding Christ in the oppressed, and being with.
Christianis americanis need not be a rare bird. Our extinction lies simply in accepting what is offered.
In prayer, in community, say No.
Eric Martin is a doctoral candidate in systematic theology in the Department of Theology at Fordham University. His dissertation work is on the theological contributions of Daniel Berrigan, S. J. With Daniel Cosacchi, he is the co-editor of the 2016 volume from Orbis Books, The Berrigan Letters: Personal Correspondence Between Daniel and Philip Berrigan.