In the old days, these spirited folks would have filled the rank and file of the legendary Wobblies, the long-forgotten source of the modern trade union movement in America. Protesting is something they do. It’s simply part of who they are. It is their identity, and, for more than 30 years, Berrigan was their mentor.
To this overflow crowd, the likes of the assistant secretary of defense, Paul Wolfowitz, is a Dr. Strangelove, belonging not in the Pentagon but in a straitjacket. They think President Bush is in way over his marginal intellect, that Vice President Cheney is a lapdog for “Big Oil” and the military-industrial complex, that Israel’s deranged Ariel Sharon is the worst thing that’s happened to the Jewish people since the Roman General Titus sacked Jerusalem in 70 A.D., and that the U.S. Congress represents the best politicians that money can buy.
The setting was St. Peter Claver’s R.C. Church in West Baltimore. It’s a working-class neighborhood, where Berrigan was once stationed as a young parish priest in the late ’60s. The church was dedicated in 1888, to the African-American community.
Berrigan’s “No” to authority had always rung out loud and clear, whether it was his opposition to the Vietnam War, to the U.S. establishment’s nuclear arms race and misuse of depleted uranium, the death penalty, or, to the latest menace, known as the “New World Order.” He knew early on that his conscience couldn’t permit him to live within a church that was being led mostly by careerists. He became a master, too, at resisting the power of an LBJ or a Richard Nixon. No wrongdoing — from Apartheid in South Africa to British colonialism in the north of Ireland, from the violence of the death squads in Central and South America to the evil of Israeli state’s terrorism against the Palestinian people in the occupied territories — avoided his wrath.
The mourners had really come to “celebrate” Berrigan and his prophetic life mission of justice seeking. They knew the deceased was half Irish and that a traditional “wake” served that purpose. And besides, he wouldn’t have wanted any tears shed over his death. He was laid out in the middle aisle, in a plain wooden box, with his distinguished poet brother, the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, S.J., greeting each viewer.
There were funny stories, and nostalgic songs, too, from his many close colleagues during a sharing period in the service. One friend from Florida said, “Phil told me, ‘Prayer is great, but you need action, too.’ ” Another recalled how at a protest action at the Pentagon, he was doing a sit down, but in the wrong place. Phil had to come over and physically tow him 40 yards away “to the right spot.”
“Phil helped us to be peacemakers,” said one man. A young woman added, “Phil was wonderful, he would let anyone get arrested. I called him, ‘General Berrigan.’ ” He was remembered as “courageous,” “kind,” “thoughtful,” “the most righteous man,” and “modest.” Associates came from as far away as Florida and the West Coast to bid their fond good-byes.
The first sign I saw when walking into the church was a huge banner that read, “Stop Bombing the Children of Iraq.” Another sign blared out, “Plowshares vs. Depleted Uranium.” When one of the speakers asked if another activist was present in the church, she added, “Oh well, if I know her she’s probably sitting in front of a bulldozer in Hebron.”
Berrigan made a lot of powerful enemies in this life by speaking out on controversial issues. Henry Kissinger, America’s Iago, was one of them. But, Berrigan retained his soul, while the repulsive Kissinger is still looking for his. Berrigan gained a deeper kind of life that reflected his commitment to social justice. It also cost him 11 of his 79 years spent behind bars and resulted in him living near or below the poverty line.
Unlike his ideological opponents, Berrigan loved the American Republic. The fact that Elliott Abrams, a cheerleader for the Contra thugs, will soon be NSO’s Condoleeza Rice’s gofer for Near East and North African Affairs, would have brought the best out of him. Berrigan wanted America to live up to its highest values, while wire pullers, like Abrams, intend to use it for their own ends. Terry Allen was right on target when he labeled Abrams a “public serpent.”
As a soldier in World War II, Berrigan had seen conflict at its bloodiest, from the beaches at Normandy to the Battle of the Bulge. His anti-war and anti-nuke philosophy didn’t come out of any text book or a Steven Spielberg Hollywood movie. He had earned it the hard way — in the trenches.
In one of his last public appearances, last march, Berrigan spoke at a Society of Friends’ office in Baltimore. I had an opportunity to do a two-minute narrated film of that event. His final remarks deserve repeating. After expressing his deep concerns about our country slipping away from us, he warned: “This is supposed to be a representative democracy, but less and less of that is happening. We better start using (our First Amendment Rights), because the times are ominous and they are critical.”
William Hughes is the author of “Andrew Jackson vs. New World Order” (Authors Choice Press) and “Baltimore Iconoclast” (Writer’s Showcase), which are available online. He can be reached at email@example.com.