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Cover story

Philip Berrigan:
An unrepentant radical who has spent years behind bars


Physically, Philip Berrigan isn’t the imposing figure he once was. Age -- he’s 78 -- and more than 11 years served behind U.S. prison walls have slowed his body. When he speaks, however, listeners quickly discover nothing much else has changed about the man who has been at the forefront of the Catholic peace movement for more than three decades.

In 1971, Berrigan, along with his older brother, Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan, made the cover of TIME for the brothers’ staunch opposition to the Vietnam War. Both went to federal prison for destroying draft board files. When the war ended, Berrigan, a former Josephite priest, married and started a family with former nun Elizabeth McAlister. They raised three children, Frida, Jerry and Kate, all of whom join their parents at various antiwar gatherings.

For the first time in a long time, the family of five and the other members of Baltimore’s Jonah House community, where Berrigan and McAlister have lived between jail stints since 1972, were together for Christmas. On Dec. 14, Berrigan was released from an Ohio federal prison where he spent more than 10 months locked up for a probation violation. In all, Berrigan has spent more than four of the last five years incarcerated for various acts of nonviolent civil disobedience.

Despite his advanced age, Berrigan has met a string of judges that have come down hard on the unrepentant radical whose antiwar message remains unchanged: “The Christian must be familiar with the inside of a jail cell,” says Berrigan.

On Dec. 28, Berrigan and two other recently released war resisters, Susan Crane and Kenji Warren, sat on a panel together at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C. Their comments, spoken on the Feast of the Holy Innocents, were heard by about 80 likeminded pacifists, most of them Catholic.

“The folks at home had it a hell of a lot tougher than we did,” Berrigan said, downplaying his years spent in prison.

Berrigan said the current war with Afghanistan has nothing to do with stopping terrorism and everything to do with maintaining a steady flow of oil to the United States from the Middle East. Afghanistan is a major player in the region.

“This war is a gigantic scam,” he said, “and we need to scream this from the housetops. It’s a gigantic swindle. It’s the biggest lie in our recent history, and we Americans are very, very good at lying.”

Berrigan called war and violence a “social psychosis” and likened killing to demonic possession. He cited Chapter 8 of John’s Gospel where Jesus accuses those who want to kill him of having ties to Satan. “He asked them a simple question. He says, ‘What are you trying to kill me for?’ And they say ‘Who’s trying to kill you? You’ve got the mentality of a Samaritan,’ another hated people. And he says, ‘You are trying to kill me because of your father, and your father is not Abraham. Your father is Satan.’ And then he begins to do something that I’ve never found in any of world literature. He links lying and murder, and he links them both with demonism. And he says, ‘If you’re into killing people, you’re possessed. You’re into devil worship.’

“And it’s the only place in scripture that I’ve seen that the demons are demythologized; they’re stripped of their cover. You want to kill another person? OK, you’re opening yourself up for demonic possession. Because we’re sisters and brothers of one another, and God knows he or she did not intend us to be killing one another.”

Berrigan chastised the United States for consuming too much of the world’s natural resources. “I would say we are consuming from the planet six or seven times our share right now,” he said, “energy, goods and services, what have you. And we’re a drain upon the world, and in the eyes of many, including the Muslim world, we’re a curse upon this world.”

Berrigan, who often carries with him a tattered copy of a Bible, also recommended scripture reading to his audience.

“All of us ought to have our nose stuck in that Bible on a daily basis,” he said. “It’s written for our instruction.”

Patrick O’Neill is a freelance writer living in Raleigh, N.C.

National Catholic Reporter, January 25, 2002