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After life of resistance, he died sane


With Irish wit flavored with irony, Philip Berrigan liked to say that he was “a Catholic trying to become a Christian.” His cancer death in Baltimore Dec. 6 ended a life rooted in early-century Christianity when defiance of state violence, sharing communal wealth and risk-taking pacifism were the unwritten articles of faith. It was before dogmas, doctrines and the rot of the just war theory took hold and church leaders sidled close to Roman emperors.

Beginning in the mid-1960s, when he went beyond ordinary antiwar protests by destroying draft records, Berrigan persisted through the end of the 1990s to disturb the false peace of the national security state. Believing, as did Martin Luther King Jr. that “war is our government’s number one business,” Berrigan went into business for himself: the resistance business.

He was soon joined by his soul mate brother, Daniel, and wife, Liz McAlister. According to one biographer, Berrigan became the first American Catholic priest jailed for political dissent. He would go further: the first priest recidivist, toting more than 10 years accumulated hard time in county, state and federal cells.

My last exchange with Phil Berrigan was early 2001 when he was jailed in Hagerstown, Md., for conspiring to damage two A-10 Warthog warplanes. I was teaching at a Catholic girls’ school -- Stone Ridge, Bethesda, Md. -- and had the class read Berrigan’s 1970 essay, “Can We Serve Both Love and War?”

Written from the Danbury, Conn., federal prison, the essay brimmed with grit: “People have two problems when they try to serve love. The first is to know themselves. The second to know what they must be. As to the first, we are, in effect, a violent people and none of the mythological pablum fed us at our mother’s knee, in the classroom or at Fourth of July celebrations can refute the charge. The evidence is too crushing, whether it be Hiroshima, or nuclear equivalents of seven tons of TNT for every person on this planet, or scorched earth in the Iron Triangle or Green Berets in Guatemala or subhuman housing in the ghettoes of America. A substantial share of our trouble comes from what we own, and how we regard what we own. President Johnson told our troops: ‘They [the rest of the world] want what we have and we’re not going to give it to them.’ ”

When the students wrote reflection papers on the essay -- most were moved by the power of the language and the fire of the message -- I sent them to Berrigan. A week later, he replied with a gracious note: “When I read that 1970 essay of mine -- I had forgotten writing it -- I thought laughingly, ‘Gawd, he hasn’t learned a thing since.’

“But the kids’ responses were well-grounded and sophisticated. Thanks for sending them. I read everything they wrote.”

I had planned to take the class on a field trip to Hagerstown to visit Phil, but less than a month later he was transferred to a prison in Ohio.

Some students in the class were skeptical that the Berrigan method of resistance was effective. They weren’t alone. From the right and left, and the far reaches of both, critics have held forth. Some see the deeds of the Berrigans and those joining them in what are called Plowshares Actions -- civil disobedience or, more accurately, civil resistance -- as street theater that wins momentary applause but does little to change public policy. Others -- I am in this group -- see the Berrigans and those who join them in a long line of prophets, going back to Amos, Isaiah, Buddha and others who believed in the value of witness, and in paying heed only to the idea that being faithful counts more than being successful.

Phil Berrigan is also in a long line of one-time warriors who, after leaving the military and realizing they were hired killers, had conversions to nonviolence. These include Francis of Assisi, Garry Davis, Howard Zinn, Sargent Shriver, Daniel Hallock and countless others. Of ex-soldiers like himself -- “I was a very good killer,” Berrigan said. “We are all in need of healing, but we will not find healing by focusing on healing itself. Rather, we will find it through nonviolent resistance. … Why did God spare us in war except to expose the horrors to others? Why are we alive except to unmask the Big Lie of War?”

A question about Phil Berrigan has been: What did all those years in prison really accomplish? An answer can be found in the parable of the Buddhist spiritual master who went to the village square everyday. From sunrise to sunset he cried out against war and injustice. This went on for years, with no visible result. One day the master’s disciples implored him to stop: “People aren’t listening. They turn away. Everyone’s insane,” they told him. “It’s time to stop.”

“No,” said the master, “I need to keep crying out so I won’t go insane.”

Praise Phil Berrigan. He died sane.

Colman McCarthy, editor of Solutions to Violence, a high school and college textbook, directs the Center for Teaching Peace, Washington.

National Catholic Reporter, December 27, 2002