Author of An American Requiem…God, My Father and the War That Came Between Us
I first met Father Daniel Berrigan at a poetry reading in 1965. I was 22. Writing, I sensed from him, could be an act of worship. That idea defines me still. But that was only the beginning. And that is all you will hear about me.
Like so many, the arc of my life took its shape more, perhaps, from his example, his words, and ultimately his friendship than from any other figure. A personal hero. A literary hero. A Catholic hero. An American hero. So why should I not be awed and honored to be here at this celebration as Orbis Books pays its splendid tribute to Father Berrigan? That my partner in this precious act is James Forest seasons the awe I feel with pure joy at what, for me, is a long overdue reunion. If Dan Berrigan gave shape to my life, Jim Forest gave it a gentle if much needed push at just the right time. Jim, too, was a hero to me in the anti-war hey-day — his writing, his example. And to have his stirring biography of Dan is a gift beyond measure. Jim’s book will keep the epic Berrigan saga going - on into the future.
Pictured: James Carroll, photo by Katharine Gilbert
Orbis Books has long been a treasure of Catholic and Justice publishing, and At Play in the Lion’s Den is a crowning jewel of the great Orbis list. It moves me deeply to be with Jim here. I feel doubly humbled as I try to offer a worthy word in honor of Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J.
You know the story. But it is worth rehearsing. Our Church’s story. Our nation’s story. And Dan’s.
Bear with me if I presume to suggest that the story began a thousand years ago with the cry of a Pope. “God wills it!” declared Pope Urban II in the fall of 1095, the spark that ignited the first crusade — the beginning of a two hundred year-long holy war that sacralized violence, demonized Islam, launched Europe’s first anti-Jewish pogroms, and put the Roman Catholic Church on the side of those who hold that the answer to killing is more killing. In the wake of that primal “God wills it!” came heresy hunts, warrior monks, the Inquisition, and, ultimately, the religious wars that sundered Christendom.
Flash forward a full millennium. “God wills it!” finally had its rebuttal in the cry of another Pope — Paul VI, who, at the United Nations in 1965, cried “No more war! War never again!” That world-historic proclamation was brought to life in the Catholic imagination and in the American imagination by no one more than by Daniel Berrigan. Alas, that story begins in tragedy. In November of 1965, only weeks after Pope Paul VI’s resounding speech, a young Catholic named Roger LaPorte set himself aflame across from the United Nations building where His Holiness had spoken. LaPorte was driven to this act by the savage American violence in Vietnam, the soon to be infamous Operation Rolling Thunder that Lyndon Johnson had set loose in the far-away country, like ravaging war dogs. Johnson, recall, had been elected as the peace candidate the year before. Johnson had been stunned when the Pope, of all people, instead of denouncing Communism, as Johnson and New York’s Cardinal Francis Spellman had been certain he would, had denounced war, stirring the Catholic conscience. Apparently stirring Roger LaPorte’s. “I am a Catholic Worker,” he said before dying. “I am anti-war - all wars. I did this as a religious action.”
Daniel Berrigan, too, was associated with the Catholic Worker, and, like Jim Forest, he might well have called the great Dorothy Day his mentor. Dan had in no way encouraged Roger LaPorte’s action, had never approved his self-killing. But Dan, also, refused to denounce LaPorte. Dan prayed at the young man’s funeral, which was enough, as Dan understood, to bring down the wrath of Cardinal Spellman, who was, in fact, the godfather of America’s war in Vietnam. The Jesuits, agreeing with Spellman, banished Dan. That controversy transformed Dan’s reputation. From then on, he would be known more for his dissidence than for his poetry, but, in truth, it was the combination of bold resistance and eloquence that made him the tribune of “War No More!” Dan’s writing and work were central to the transformation of the “Just War Church” into the “Peace Church,” whose popes have, across the last forty years, opposed every one of American’s many wars.
We have just been through the D-Day commemorations, and once again the honoring of ordinary soldiers, sailors, and airmen for valor - and Omaha Beach was rife with valor - has reinforced American myopia about the larger evil of war, especially war in the nuclear age. In 1953, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists put the doomsday clock at two minutes before midnight - the midnight of nuclear apocalypse. It was around then that Dorothy Day - another sort of “D-Day” entirely — began her campaign of, as she called it, “noncompliance” with laws requiring citizens to participate in civil defense drills.
Dan Berrigan’s own “noncompliance” began with his arrest, with hundreds of others, at the Pentagon in October, 1967. I was there, although not with Dan, and certainly not arrested. He later told me, “I had no intention of getting arrested, but I saw the brutality with which the protesters were rounded-up.” He was in jail for a week. When he got out, he called his mother. She said, “You’re out of jail, but Phil is in.” On October 27, Phil and several others - in the press, it was always “the Berrigans and several others” — poured blood on draft files in Baltimore. That was, by the way, the very day on which a young Lt. John McCain was shot down and captured in Hanoi.
Three months after Dan’s Pentagon arrest — as the famous Tet Offensive was unfolding - he went with Howard Zinn to Hanoi to received released American POWs. While Dan and Howard were there, a merciless American bomber force rained fire down on the North Vietnamese capital. Dan huddled in a bomb shelter with, especially, children. They obliterated from then on any capacity he might have had to cloak the realities of war in abstraction. His poem “Children in the Shelter” marks his transformation:
I picked up the littlest,
…In my arms, fathered
in a moment’s grace, the messiah
of all my tears. I bore, reborn
a Hiroshima child from hell.
It was children who Dan had uppermost in mind when, four months later, on May 17, 1968, he, Phil - “and seven others” — burned draft files in Catonsville, Maryland. “Our apologies, good friends —“You know these words, and we’ve just heard them so movingly rendered by Jim. “—for the burning of paper, instead of children.”
All at once, with the Berrigans and the noble company they mustered, including Jim Forest, the Catholic Church had a new image of what faith requires. “No more war! War never again!” The end, at last, of “God wills it!”
If Dan was a Catholic witness, he was an American witness, too. “The essential American soul” — this is D.H. Lawrence — “is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.” The nation that came into being through genocide and slavery has a constitutional inclination toward war. That is tragic enough in ordinary time, but ordinary time ran out in August of 1945. Since then, the rush toward war has been a rush toward the precipice of nuclear Armageddon. And no, that rush was not halted by the end of the war in Vietnam.
The peace movement to which Dan and his brother were key did not, in fact, stop the Vietnam War, but it stopped cold the open-ended escalation toward nuclear use that was advancing inside the Pentagon. But nuclear accumulation continued, like a Niagara current, in an image Henry James applied to the inexorable coming of World War I. An irresistible force, a momentum toward world-destroying catastrophe. Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.”
And so, yes, Dan and Phil — “and six others” — illegally entered the G.E, plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania to “beat” the noses cones of Trident nuclear missiles into ploughshares. The beginning of the Ploughshares Movement. That was 1980.
A year later, more than a million anti-nuclear protesters gathered in New York, the Freeze Movement, which was, over subsequent years, instrumental in the non-violent resolution of the Cold War. But with stoic American hubris insisting that the United States had “won” the Cold War, the US nuclear arsenal has been protected, glorified, and, lately, renewed. A terrible complacency is the Niagara current along which the nation still moves toward Armageddon.
Way back in 1970, the federal government sent a psychiatrist into Lewiston Prison to interview Phil Berrigan, hoping, in fact, to learn the whereabouts of his still-fugitive brother. Frustrated, the psychiatrist said to Phil, “You people are like salmon, trying to jump Niagara Falls.”
Yes. Precisely. There have been across these decades more than a hundred Ploughshares actions — heroes, some of whom are here, who made of their very lives “counter-friction to stop the machine.” If Dan were here today, he would insist that we lift up the Kings Bay Ploughshares Action that occurred on April 4, 2018, when seven people intruded on the Kings Bay Submarine Base in St. Mary’s, Georgia, to take hammer and blood to, yes, the demonic Trident nuclear missile. The seven await trial now - three of them from jail. They face many years in prison. This time, let their names be heard: Elizabeth McAlister, Phil’s widow and partner at Jonah House; Fr. Steve Kelly, a Jesuit; Carmen Trotta of the New York Catholic Worker; Clare Grady of the Ithaca Catholic Worker; Martha Hennessy of the New York Catholic Worker and the granddaughter of Dorothy Day; Mark Colville of the New Haven Catholic Worker; and Patrick O’Neil of the North Carolina Catholic Worker.
I referred to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists setting its doomsday clock in 1953 at two minutes before midnight - the most dangerous alarm ever sounded. Over the years, especially after the Cold War, the hands of that clock fell back — reassuringly. But only this year, the clock has been put back at two minutes before midnight again — an unprecedented return to mortal danger. And no wonder.
The Ploughshares heroes refuse to pretend that this jeopardy is not urgent and immediate. The madness of the current administration makes the point. Only last month, B-52s were sent to the Middle East. The United States not long ago abandoned the INF Treaty, having already abrogated the ABM Treaty. With its current policy of reinventing the arsenal with “usable” nukes, it is burying the sacred NPT Treaty, guaranteeing a near-term cascade of nuclear proliferation.
The long-nurtured dream of nuclear abolition - even if only given lip-service — has been abandoned by the American government, and the American public takes no notice. But still there is this school of salmon that refuses to quit jumping at Niagara Falls — never mind the height, never mind the opposing current. At the center of their memory, their imagination, and their hope is the figure of Daniel Berrigan.
Because the human future, for the first time in history, is itself imperiled by the ancient impulse to respond to violence with more and greater violence, even claiming that “God Wills it!”, there is that other cry that can be heard coming back at us — not now from a Pope or from an anti-war priest — from time ahead, the very future: War No More! War Never Again! The cry comes from the men and women who simply will not come into existence if the essential American soul does not change.
Daniel Berrigan believed in God, which was his way of believing in the human future to which, in courage, faith, and hope, he gave his entire life. His life to Life. He died three years ago, but, to paraphrase his beloved Edna St. Vincent Millay, that is all that Dan Berrigan ever did for death.
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Author of An American Requiem…God, My Father and the War That Came Between Us