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Issue Date:  April 29, 2005

'A soldier in the nonviolent army'

Through anger and pain, father of son killed in Iraq works for peace

Fayetteville, N.C.

The Passion story came a few hours early to this Army town in March. While Christians prepared for the Holy Week story of Jesus’ suffering and death, the family members of the dead took center stage to share their losses and grief at a rally in Rowan Park marking the second anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq.

On a grassy hillside, Michael Berg, in a turtleneck and knit cap, carrying a backpack, patiently stood for an interview. The Berg family’s story has come to symbolize the horror and brutality of this war that has split the nation.

Last May, Berg’s youngest child, Nick, 26, who was working as a contractor in Iraq, was kidnapped and beheaded by a resistance group opposed to the U.S. occupation. In a gruesome video, Berg’s beheading was shown to the world. The masked executioners claim on the tape that Berg was killed in retaliation for the abuses of Iraqis at Abu Ghraib prison.

In a speech at the March 20 rally, Berg, who almost always seemed on the verge of tears, said: “It’s too late for my son, Nick, and it’s too late for me, but it’s not too late for you. ... Become a soldier in the nonviolent army and work for change.”

Berg’s wrenching grief was broadcast around the world as he publicly grieved his son’s murder, while steadfastly refusing to allow the Bush administration to exploit the tragedy to promote the war.

“Their intention is to shake our will,” Bush had said in reaction to Berg’s death. “We will complete our mission.”

In response, Michael Berg said: “Nick died for the sins of George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld.”

More than 10 months later, Berg, a retired schoolteacher, has traveled around the world on a mission to oppose the war that claimed his son’s life.

Berg, a secular Jew who lives in West Chester, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia, initially tried to honor the wishes of his family members who asked him not to speak out after Nick’s death. But with dozens of media crews staking out his house in the days following Nick’s death, Berg said he felt compelled to respond.

“My family begged me not to say anything,” Berg said. “They all felt as I did about the war. They were all against the war, but they all begged me not to go out and not to talk to the media, and for a day or two I tried not to talk, but it was churning up and boiling up inside of me, and finally one day I was riding home from the YMCA on my bicycle and I stopped in front of them and started talking and essentially I haven’t stopped since then.

“It was just something that had to come out of me. It was like a huge pain inside of me. Although it boiled up and festered up many, many times again, and it still does, it was an immediate relief there. The rest of my family was just the opposite. When the media would approach them they would draw back.”

Berg said he is still angry that some of the media “crossed the line,” even shining spotlights into the Berg house at night to try to get pictures of the family. With unseasonably hot weather last May, the house windows were open in the days following Nick’s death, and Berg said the noise and fumes of media vans’ generators disturbed the family’s sleep.

Berg said he had to struggle to balance his family’s anger and pain over Nick’s death with what he saw as a responsibility to speak out against the war. He realized “this was bigger than just my family and there was an opportunity to show the people of the world the horror of war. I never cared that people saw me at moments of emotional breakdown. I would have cared more if they hadn’t seen me that way because people needed to see how much it hurts.”

Berg said he couldn’t watch television or read a newspaper because he had been told about the images of his son in those last moments of his life.

“For the first two months we didn’t have the television on in the house, and we didn’t read a newspaper because of my son’s picture in that awful orange jump suit. We couldn’t look at it.”

Berg said he never heard from Bush following Nick’s death, “but John Kerry called me.”

While he supports the arrest of the men who killed his son, Berg said he also wants some U.S. officials held accountable.

“I do very much blame, specifically, George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld and Alberto Gonzales for my son’s death, because aside from destabilizing the country so that the people they say killed my son could come in, they also thought up, researched the legal references for and gave the OK for the atrocities that took place at the Abu Ghraib prison. And the videotape of my son’s death says that they killed him in retaliation for those atrocities.

“So I blame them, and I still blame them and I feel that even though I forgive, I have the right to blame them. I don’t wish them any physical ill. I don’t wish them any harm, psychological or otherwise. I do wish them to be disenfranchised of their power. I would like to see them be tried as war criminals, so I do seek justice and I think that is perfectly compatible with forgiveness.”

In the wake of his son’s death, Berg took a course on forgiveness at Immaculata University (see story below).

Berg said, “My initial motivation for taking this course was that I didn’t seem to have the anger and the hatred toward the men that killed my son that a lot of other people did. Part of that is because I don’t really know who killed my son. I don’t really know if [Abu Musab] al-Zarqawi exists or if he’s just somebody made up by the government or if he’s someone that the government killed years ago and they still use his name to blame for things. And I never saw their faces, and I can’t even say most of their names, so they weren’t very real to me; they’re not people I see on the street or even on TV every day.”

Berg said he gave up Jewish religious practice at age 16, and that he had to translate a lot of the language of God he has heard “into terms that I could accept.” He does not believe in life after death. “Nick is with me in my heart, and in my head and he always will be, but I don’t think Nick is anyplace else other than in a coffin in a cemetery,” he said. “Sure, I would like to believe in God, but I don’t. Belief is something that either you have or you don’t have.”

Berg said he envies those who hold religious beliefs. “I wish I did.”

In North Carolina, Berg was hosted by David Potorti, cofounder of September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. Potorti’s brother, Jim, died in the World Trade Center attacks in 2001. Berg said he also knows many people from the group Military Families Speak Out who have suffered the loss of loved ones.

“All the people that are here are my support group,” Berg said. “They are a special group of people. All of those people know the loss that I know. That is something that’s helpful. I can’t explain it, but it’s helpful. It’s a club that I’m an unwilling member of.”

Patrick O’Neill is a freelance religion journalist living in Garner, N.C.

Forgiveness course for 'wounded' culture

When Michael Berg was looking for help to come to grips with the grief and anger in his heart following his son Nick’s murder in Iraq, he sought out some people he could trust -- Philadelphia’s Immaculate Heart of Mary sisters.

Berg, a secular Jew who first met the sisters while teaching remedial reading at Villa Maria Academy, signed up to take an Immaculata University theology course titled “Forgiveness: The Best Revenge.”

Sr. Sheila Galligan, who has been teaching the course for four years, said it was developed “in a specifically Catholic-Christian context, because we wanted to make sure forgiveness is understood in correct ways, and in a specifically Catholic way; that forgiveness is the heart of our tradition. That is what makes us us.

“We need this course because our culture is very wounded, and we tend to respond in the instinctive way that needs grace -- out of hostility and revenge. It doesn’t work for good. That’s evident in sociological analysis of just simple things like road rage. We’re not a patient culture. We react instead of respond.”

The course was also offered to counter what Galligan calls “a lot of distortion, confusion and misunderstanding about the nature of forgiveness; the process of forgiveness; the psychological as well as the theological, Biblical perspective.”

Galligan said her course title is deceptive, because some students come in thinking, “Oh yes, revenge. It’s going to heal me.” But “the focus is on the other, the other, the other. We forgive because it is the gift that we give to the other. Then the consequence of that is healing for myself.”

The course uses the full text of Pope John Paul II’s encyclical, Dives in Misericordia (“Rich in Mercy”), and the prodigal son story from Luke 15. It also uses the Rembrandt painting depicting the prodigal son story as well as reflections taken from Henri Nouwen’s book, Return of the Prodigal Son.

In a recent e-mail to Galligan, Berg wrote: “You confirmed my beliefs in forgiveness, expanded them, and showed me the way to at least begin to attain what I truly do desire. The ideas and emotions inspired by my time with you are reinforced every time I am among people who love and desire peace.”

While he participated in class discussions, Berg decided from the beginning to not speak about his own journey as the father whose face was broadcast around the world when he blamed President George W. Bush and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld for his son’s death. “I just thought it would be disruptive to the class if I was identified,” Berg said. Galligan said she realized Berg’s identity only at the end of the semester as she was reading his final paper.

In an interview, Berg said, “Not to forgive hurts me more than anyone else, and secondly, the only alternative to forgiveness is revenge, and when people seek revenge, they always seek revenge at a higher level than the person who gets it thinks he deserves.

“So then they turn around and try to settle the score and things escalate, and that’s what we have in Palestine; that’s what we have in Iraq; that’s what we have all over the world today. One group doing something wrong to another, and then another group doing something more wrong to settle the score, and the first group feels that they have to go back. So to me this is the only alternative.”

-- Patrick O’Neill

National Catholic Reporter, April 29, 2005

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