Apart from the Vatican conference on peacemaking, April 2016 also marked the passing of one of the great peacemakers of our age. Daniel Berrigan, the renowned antiwar activist and Jesuit priest who inspired religious opposition to war and nuclear weapons, died April 30, just a week shy of his ninety-fifth birthday.
Berrigan was my greatest friend and teacher for over thirty-five years. We traveled the nation and the world together, went to jail together; I edited five books of his writings. In one of our first conversations he said to me, “The whole point is to make one’s life make sense in light of the gospel, to get your life to fit into the story of the gospel.”
We don’t need to canonize Berrigan, but we need to take seriously his life, his commitment to the Word, his faith in the God of peace, and his steadfast resistance to evil.
During his lifetime Berrigan published over fifty books of poetry, essays, and scripture commentaries, but he will be remembered best for the day he lit the match that ignited widespread national protest against the Vietnam War. On May 17, 1968, along with his brother Philip and seven others, Berrigan burned draft files in Catonsville, Maryland, with homemade napalm to protest the war. “Our apologies, good friends,” he wrote, “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.”
The action attracted massive press coverage and led to hundreds of similar demonstrations. In his autobiography To Dwell in Peace, Berrigan reflected on the effect of the Catonsville protest:
The act was pitiful, a tiny flare amid the consuming fires of war. But Catonsville was like a firebreak, a small fire lit, to contain and conquer a greater. The time, the place, were weirdly right. They spoke for passion, symbol, reprisal. Catonsville seemed to light up the dark places of the heart, where courage and risk and hope were awaiting a signal, a dawn. For the remainder of our lives, the fires would burn and burn, in hearts and minds, in draft boards, in prisons and courts. A new fire, new as a Pentecost, flared up in eyes deadened and hopeless, the noble powers of soul given over to the “powers of the upper air.” “Nothing can be done!” How often we had heard that gasp: the last of the human, of soul, of freedom. Indeed, something could be done, and was. And would be.
In his 1969 bestseller, No Bars to Manhood, Berrigan wrote:
We have assumed the name of peacemakers, but we have been, by and large, unwilling to pay any significant price. And because we want the peace with half a heart and half a life and will, the war, of course, continues, because the waging of war, by its nature, is total – but the waging of peace, by our own cowardice, is partial. … 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.
On September 9, 1980, Berrigan opened a new chapter in the history of nonviolent resistance. Drawing inspiration from the biblical prophet Isaiah – “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” – he and Philip and six friends walked into a General Electric plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and hammered on unarmed nuclear weapon nosecones. They were arrested, tried, convicted, and faced up to ten years in prison for destruction of government property.
Berrigan exemplifies a Christianity that works for peace, speaks for peace, and welcomes Christ’s gift of peace. His life work, he would say, was modest. But the cumulative effect of his writings and actions show us what the church might look like, what a Christian looks like in such times, indeed, what a human response looks like in an inhuman world. From the days of the “war on communism” to the even darker days of the “war on terror,” from the Cold War doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” to “shock and awe” in Iraq, Berrigan steadfastly said no to war, empire, and nuclear weapons. At the same time, through his poetry, books, retreats, and talks – indeed by his very life – he offered an affirming yes to the God of life and peace. He understood that you can’t have one without the other.
I consider Daniel Berrigan not just a legendary peace activist but one of the greatest saints and prophets of modern times. He waged peace with his whole heart, will, and life, and paid the cost. Time and time again he was denounced and exiled, arrested and imprisoned, and yet he continued to stand at the center of the culture of war with the good news of Christ the peacemaker. In a world brimming with death he was a witness to resurrection. We don’t need to canonize him, but we need to take seriously his life, his commitment to the Word, his faith in the God of peace, and his steadfast resistance to evil. His witness gives us hope that we too can be instruments of God’s peace and join with the saints and martyrs of history to give birth to a new world without war, injustice, or nuclear weapons.
Also by John Dear in this issue: Death Knell for Just War: The Vatican’s Historic Turn toward Nonviolence.
Photographs courtesy of Jim Forest.