Category: Archive

Warriors for peace: Berrigan brothers keep beat, beat, beating on heaven’s door

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Ray O’Hanlon

The Bible reveals to us, via the prophet Isaiah, a vision of humanity beating its swords into plowshares. It also speaks of an eye for an eye. It can be a confusing book. Argument has raged over its true meaning for centuries and the result has often been a very human splitting of differences. An example: War is inherently bad but sometimes necessary is a widely held and frequently expressed point of view. The majority of people on this earth would say they prefer peace to war, but, at the same time, most of them would probably not describe themselves as pacifists. Then there are those who see war as an end in itself, a very reason for being. We sometimes call them warmongers. Hitler immediately comes to mind. At the other end of the spectrum entirely are conscientious objectors and pacifists.

Even in this latter category there are shades and subtle differences. There are passive pacifists and active ones. Some retreat from the world and its daily travails. Others face into the world, its troubles and contradictions. The Berrigan brothers likely fall into this latter category. They have spent a lifetime in the pursuit of peace. But they are not removed from a world they believe needs to change, change utterly. Instead they have faced into the storm, challenged the acceptance by most that war is a necessary evil. In a sense, they have spent decades fighting for peace. Daniel and Philip Berrigan are now in their 70s. None would fault them for taking it easy. But that’s not their way, said Fr. Daniel Berrigan S.J.

"My first real activity was around 1967 when I was arrested at the Pentagon and when Philip and three others burned draft cards in Baltimore," Fr. Berrigan said. "And so it goes on. Philip is just out of prison again."

Berrigan spoke recently from his Upper West Side apartment in Manhattan. He is recovering from the flu, an illness likely compounded by a recent protest outside the New York City immigration jail near Kennedy Airport.

Brother Philip is a ways to the south. A former Jesuit, he runs the Jonah House community in Baltimore. Keeping a close eye, as brother Dan puts it, on Washington and the Pentagon.

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After more than 30 years as a peace activist, Daniel Berrigan finds solace in a movement that has grown in size and acceptance. However, he is also troubled by the way the post-Cold War world is turning out.

"Everything gets worse," he said. "But I’ve come to the point where I’m willing to keep working because it’s good work — that’s what my friends and family have taught me — and to leave the outcome in other hands because that’s where it is anyway."

Daniel Berrigan was ordained a Jesuit in 1952. One of six brothers raised in Minnesota, he followed something of a tradition in a family that, in retrospect, seems to be an ironic reflection of Berrigan’s later life.

"I was the first Jesuit, but we had a long history of priests. My uncle and great uncle were priests, although not Jesuits."

While brother Philip would join Dan in the Jesuit order in 1957, the Berrigans also gave four sons to military service in World War II. Plowshares and swords have both been evident in the story of a family that traces its Irish roots to the time of the Great Hunger in County Tipperary.

Peace ministry

Berrigan, who is now 77, says that his own order has been somewhat reluctant to accept that he has a particular calling, that his activities for peace are in themselves a clear ministry.

"The Jesuits have come to realize very slowly that this [work] has that kind of dignity," Berrigan said.

The work, of course, often means spending time in prison, a familiar state of affairs to Daniel and Philip Berrigan but also one that is now embraced by a couple of younger Jesuits such as Fr. John Dear, executive director of the Nyack, N.Y.-based Fellowship of Reconciliation group.

"We in this community, the West Side Jesuit Community, have four Jesuit felons," Berrigan said.

And just in case the unusual nature of the statement doesn’t quite sink in, Berrigan quickly adds, for emphasis: "With felony records."

With a family history of wearing both clerical collars and military uniforms, it is not surprising that Berrigan is often asked questions concerning the military and its role in the past and present United States. Is a military, acceptance of it, support for it and participation in it a legitimate position for Christians?

"I’ve got to distinguish here, what is allowed Christians and what is allowed to citizens," Berrigan said. "I get a lot of that ambiguity from people all that time about we, what are we to do? I say, Who are we? Are we Americans first, are we Catholics or Christians first? A law is a law to Americans; it is not a law to us. So I can speak as a Christian and say no one is allowed to kill and let it go at that because we got very clear instructions on that.

"Christians are not allowed to kill. There are other ways of settling conflict."

Berrigan is not particularly sanguine about the current state of world affairs. The end of the Cold War did not mean the end of conflict. All would share that view. At the same time, Berrigan is not convinced, as some might have it, that we are all living in a time that is more peaceful than before, more peaceful than it otherwise might be.

"It depends on what you read," he said. "There is very solid evidence, for example, that these daily air attacks against Iraq are killing civilians in large numbers. We are never without war. This country is never without war. One could go on and on about the domestic war against the poor, a common problem these days."

Berrigan would seem to be an individual that Catholics would see as a natural rallying point. That has not been the case, of course. Many Catholics find it difficult, if not impossible, to be so certain about the world.

Even within the church itself, Berrigan has struggled long and hard to win acceptance for a stance that, in the eyes of not a few, would appear somewhat utopian, impractical, if not absolutist and absolutely unobtainable. Is this the case in his own priestly order?

"Well," he said, "there are Jesuits and Jesuits and I have a lot of good solid support. The fact that we’ve had people in prison has been very thought provoking. If you see a brother in prison, you’ve got to question your own life.

"I speculate, rightly, about change here. When I started out it was very edgy and very difficult and I was very nearly given the exit notice from the order. But I had to let the chips fall and I did. And a change started once I took my chances and the late general of the order, Father [Pedro] Arupé, visited me in prison and I think that changed him.

"He came to visit me from Rome and I learned later that the CIA had visited him in Rome and urged him not to come," Berrigan said.

The rap sheet

Daniel Berrigan, who describes himself as "singleminded, if not obsessive," has no real idea how long he has actually spent in prison.

"I’ve been arrested a lot, but the New York courts are so clogged they won’t lock us up," he said. "We can’t even get a trial."

He has a better idea as to how much time his brother Philip has spent behind bars. Philip, who is 75, by his brother’s calculations has spent 10 years of the last 30 in prison.

"And he was a decorated officer in World War II," Berrigan said. "He was all through Western Europe right into Germany. He was commissioned in the field and decorated. He has undergone a few changes.

Philip Berrigan only recently completed his latest sentence, two years in a Virginia prison following his conviction for hammering on the side of a destroyer newly built in Maine and capable of carrying nuclear-tipped cruise missiles.

At one point during his incarceration, Berrigan was visited by Northern Ireland Peace People co-founder and Nobel Peace Prize winner Mairead Corrigan Maguire.

The two talked for a while and, when visiting time was up, Berrigan returned to his cell. Incensed by what she believed was a gross injustice, Corrigan Maguire decided then and there to stage her own protest. She refused to leave the prison. Police arrived from Richmond and carried her away. She spent a night in prison before authorities released her, apparently unwilling to bear the burdens of being jailkeeps for a Nobel laureate.

Back in Philip Berrigan’s prison, meanwhile, matters did not settle so easily. He was accused of putting Corrigan Maguire up to her protest. He denied this but was not believed. He was told he could not have visitors for a year. The ex-Jesuit was informed he could not even see his wife or three children.

Philip Berrigan was recently released and is back working for his Jonah House community, a group that paints the homes of people in Baltimore who can’t afford the high cost of such a job.

Daniel Berrigan, like his brother, is not planning to sit still anytime soon either. He teaches part-time at Fordham University in the Bronx. He is constantly on the road giving lectures, reading his poetry and conducting retreats. He has just finished a retreat for homeless people and is planning a visit to Northern Ireland late this year. The pace would slow a far younger man. He will be 78 in May.

Eyes not on the prize

The Berrigan brothers have been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize themselves on three occasions. "Maybe we’ll beat the undertaker yet," Berrigan said, laughing. He and his brother have debated as to whether they would actually accept the prize. The issue, he says, remains unresolved.

Berrigan believes that their work has been a positive force. He cites the condemnation of nuclear weapons by the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference, the church’s opposition to the death penalty and abortion, led most notably by Pope John Paul.

This, he feels, is a definite change over what he faced as a younger man during the Vietnam War.

"I was against abortion and against the war," he said. "The secular crowd would always say they were against the war and pro-abortion and the Catholic crowd would say they were against abortion and pro the war."

Berrigan says that during the 1960s and ’70s, American Catholics were his most ardent critics. "They were the ones most outraged, feeling betrayed by this priest in his collar," he said. "But it has softened since. There have been a lot of changes. I think we helped something get started."

Five of the six Berrigan brothers are still alive. One of the other three has recently joined Daniel and Philip in the family’s very own felony club. Jerome, a retired professor, is facing charges for spray painting a federal building in Syracuse, N.Y., with "Stop The Killing." The act was a response to U.S. bombing of Iraq.

"The feds were not amused," Daniel Berrigan said.

Not a few have been unamused by the Berrigans down the years. But it all hasn’t been about amusing people.

"It’s very easy to launch your own missiles," Berrigan said, "but to avoid cynicism and hatred, that requires a constant discipline."

Daniel Berrigan, if nothing else in his long life, has been constant.

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