Daniel Berrigan (1921–2016)

Daniel Berrigan was a force for justice in a world full of oppression.

Dan Barrigan after being released from prison in Danbury, Connecticut. (John C. Goodwin / Flickr)

In The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, Daniel Berrigan, both its author and protagonist, wrote:

Our apologies good friends

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 . . .

Berrigan went on to say that he and the other eight who participated in the 1968 burning of draft cards with napalm in Catonsville, Maryland were willing to risk their lives and liberty for the sake of a new order, an order that recognized “life and gentleness and community and unselfishness.”

These few lines are perhaps the best known of all those in Berrigan’s many written works. They have a particular poignancy today not only because Berrigan, a brilliant poet, playwright, and author as well as a steadfast peacemaker, has died, but also because we need to hear and live these words more than ever.

Berrigan was born on May 9, 1921 in Virginia, Minnesota, to Frieda Fromhart Berrigan and Thomas Berrigan. “We were Depression babies, all of us,” Daniel, the fifth of six sons, would later write of his early years. “[Yet] I remember vividly that we housed and fed a continuing number of homeless men during those dark years of loss.”

Daniel’s brother Philip Berrigan, an author and an activist who spent eleven years of his life in prison for his peacemaking activities, had similar recollections: even though the Berrigan family was living on slim pickings at the time, his mother never turned away any of the starving men and women who came to their door. From an early age, the young Berrigans were provided with a model of “how to survive as human beings in a world more and more officially given over to violence and death.”

Daniel — who, along with his five brothers, had attended Catholic grade schools — entered the Society of Jesus, the social-justice-minded Catholic order better known as “the Jesuits,” in 1939. Nearly a decade later, Berrigan began corresponding with the Trappist monk, author, and peacemaker Thomas Merton, thus beginning a friendship that was to last until Merton’s death in 1967.

In the early 1950s, Berrigan went to France for further study and lived with a community of French worker-priests who taught him, as he later wrote in his autobiography To Dwell in Peace, how to be human. After a brief two-month stint as an army chaplain at a US army base in West Germany, he was assigned to teach philosophy and French at Brooklyn Prep, a Jesuit-run high school in Brooklyn, New York. It was at this time, as he accompanied his students to the Catholic Worker’s Maryhouse in New York’s Lower East Side, that he met one of the movement’s co-founders, Dorothy Day.

Day opened his eyes in a way few others had. Her gift, aside from accompanying and serving the impoverished, was to make visible those who tended to be ignored and to look at war as a primary reason for the impoverishment of so many people. In his essay “The Long Loneliness of Dorothy Day,” Berrigan explained why the pacifist had so captivated him:

Why in a sane world, would a wounded human being lie in a ditch unattended? She began to speak, literally to re-member that body.

The crime, the neglect were universal, she cried. All over the world, on an “average day,” the unemployed and unemployable, the victimized and vacuous, the homeless and feckless, the alcoholics and druggies, the flaky and furious — in great numbers these were struck down and fell into ditches.

And the world went its amnesiac blank-eyed way, the way named, on the largest signpost of all, lettered in blood — war.

Before the pope spoke up, before the bishops and priests, Dorothy cried into the contrary wings: “No more war, war never again! No wars, no such thing!”

At the same time, Berrigan was honing his rather remarkable gift for writing. He eventually published over sixty books of poetry and prose as well as numerous articles; received the prestigious Lamont Poetry Prize and the American Academy of Poetry’s James Laughlin Award for his first volume of poems, Time Without Number; and won the Melcher Book Award, the Obie Drama Critics Award, the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award, and the Catholic Book Club’s Campion Medal, to name just a few, for his later writings.

His works — now housed in archival collections in major universities — demonstrate not only astonishing theological insight but some of the best critical political, economic, and social analysis I have ever read. To paraphrase a comment made by his niece Frida Berrigan in a recent interview on Democracy Now, Berrigan also had an astonishing ability to bring a single written passage into the fullness of life. The biblical passage she was referring to is one that animated Berrigan’s life: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nations shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”

Berrigan’s numerous university teaching positions and world travels moved him further from the center of the American empire and more into the margins, the dwelling places of the meager and the hyper-exploited.

He was quick to join a picket line in solidarity with poorly paid university staff, as he did at the University of Manitoba; organize peace houses and communities on campuses, as he did at LeMoyne University in the late 1950s and early 1960s: and stand with university students, as he did at Cornell University, as they demanded ethnic studies, women’s studies, and black studies programs. He marched in Selma in 1965, and the only thing that kept him from joining the Freedom Rides two years earlier was the Jesuit order denying him permission.

Later that decade, historian Howard Zinn accompanied Berrigan on a trip to Hanoi to assist three captured American pilots and bring them home. What Zinn saw seared his conscience and consciousness. It was transformative for Berrigan, too.

Upon his return, he set out to “pose the question of war to the American people” in ways he, and perhaps others, had not yet imagined. It was high time to move from dissenting against the Vietnam War to resisting that war, and all other wars. Theirs was to be a resistance that was nonviolent in nature and, at least for the Catholic left, based in community and grounded in Scripture. (Just a few years earlier, Berrigan had founded, along with Rabbi Abraham Heschel, the Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam.)

Berrigan’s most famous act of resistance came in May 1968. Phil Berrigan — who the previous October had, along with three others, poured blood on draft files in Baltimore in protest of the war — asked Daniel if he would be willing to set draft files ablaze in Catonsville. His affirmative answer, along with those of the others in the Catonsville Nine, ended up inspiring hundreds of similar actions between 1967 and 1972.

On April 9, 1970, Berrigan and the other defendants were convicted and sentenced to three years in prison for burning 378 draft files. On the day that he was to begin his time in prison, Berrigan, along with three other Catonsville activists, went underground. They did so, as he explained to Robert Coles in The Geography of Faith, because “[w]e felt that we had to persist in raising moral issues we felt involved in, and place our lives in jeopardy.”

Much to the consternation of the FBI, Berrigan occasionally appeared in public during his time underground; shortly after he absconded, he spoke before a crowd of fifteen thousand at an antiwar gathering at Cornell University. Four months later, Berrigan was captured by FBI agents posing as bird-watchers on Rhode Island’s Block Island. He was released from Danbury Federal Prison in 1972.

Throughout the 1970s, Berrigan — acting always, always in community with others — was often arrested outside of the White House, the Pentagon, and other major institutions for protesting the buildup of nuclear weapons, the militarized state, and the increased use of public monies for weapons instead of social spending.

He was also helping organize resistance and found peacemaking communities, including the Kairos peace community in New York City. It was in the context of one such community that his and others’ answer to the question of how to respond to “The Bomb” emerged: symbolic disarmament of nuclear weapons. Their initial action — disarming a Mark 12A warhead at a General Electric nuclear plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania on September 9, 1980 — ended up sparking the “Plowshares movement,” an allusion to the aforementioned biblical passage.

For Berrigan, the Plowshares action, like the Catonsville Nine, was an effort to call attention to the barbarity of war:

What most Americans took horridly for granted as “normal” — nuclear weapons studding the earth like the sores of Job, the Pentagon squatting monstrously on the land, brooding, hatching its hellish eggs, its invasions, bombings (add in the year 2002 a plague of depleted uranium, sanctions throttling the Iraqi children). Quite simply, these could not be taken as “normal” acts of a civilized people.

Berrigan risked arrest for the sake of peace for the next thirty years of his life. His last arrest, when he was close to ninety years old, took place on the grounds of the Intrepid Air and Space Museum in April of 2011.

In between his acts of civil disobedience, Berrigan ministered to AIDS patients in New York City’s Saint Vincent Hospital, gave peacemaking retreats around the country and world, appeared in the film The Mission, wrote a good number of his books on Scripture and poetry, taught at various universities, and served as a mentor to the Kairos peace community. Though physically frail, he made his way down to Wall Street on October 5, 2011 so he could participate in the Occupy movement.

Daniel Berrigan was a tremendous force for justice in an often-bleak world. Today, as the planet and its inhabitants face enormous peril, we would do well to seize upon his animating principles and continue his life’s work. In the tradition of Berrigan, we must “risk our good name and liberty” to finally win an order based on compassion, peace, and community.