About the death of renowned anti-war activist, poet and writer Father Dan Berrigan at the age of 94, the Rev. John Dear wrote, in part, that Dan: “inspired religious opposition to the Vietnam war and later the US nuclear weapons industry.”
But the phrase “religious opposition” minimizes the depth and breadth of the inspiration that Dan Berrigan gave to antiwar activism all over the world. Dan’s razor-sharp wit and devastating clear-headed prose inspired nonreligious and religious activists alike. Dan’s poetry, self-sacrifice and nonviolent risk-taking encouraged, motivated, validated, challenged and inspired millions of people in all walks of life.
The Catholic Church, beloved by Berrigan, could also feel his sting. When he observed occasions of church opulence, he quipped, “If this is the vow of poverty, bring on the chastity!”
Dan gave a lot of credit for the shocking and crystal clear symbolism of some of his antiwar actions to his brother Philip Berrigan, the Josephite priest who died in 2002. Phil was the instigator behind the May 1968 Catonsville Nine action, in which Catholic activists burned draft board records — instead of people — using homemade napalm. It may have been Phil, again, who was the main force behind the 1980 Plowshares Eight action, where eight pacifists hammered and poured blood on a Mark-12A (unarmed) nuclear warhead being manufactured by General Electric. (The same warheads are still atop Minuteman missiles in North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and Nebraska.)
The Catonsville Nine and Plowshares Eight actions inspired dozens of like-minded acts of civil resistance. The Milwaukee 14, the Washington Nine, the New York Eight, the Minnesota Seven, the Camden 28 (!) and many more all burned or otherwise ruined draft records, never harming a single person. More than 100 “plowshares” actions have been taken against nuclear weapons systems, in part because of the universality and irrefutable logic of hands-on disarmament: Disarm our genocidal weapons before they commit genocide. Some so-called “property,” like contraband, Dan insisted, has no right to exist.
After Catonsville, when US carpet bombing, secret wars in Laos and Cambodia, cluster bombs and napalm all continued their mass destruction in Southeast Asia, Dan wrote, “We have chosen to be powerless criminals in a time of criminal power. We have chosen to be branded as peace criminals by war criminals.” He was arrested in protests more times than he could remember, “but not enough” he quipped; he was hunted once by the FBI for four months and he was jailed again and again for acts of antiwar civil resistance.
But it was Dan Berrigan’s mastery of the written word, his particular genius, in peacefully fighting “American military imperialism,” as he called it, that probably had as much to do with inspiring peace activism as his lifelong commitment to stand with first victims of militarism — the poor — on the street, in jail and in prison.
I can’t forget the devastating speech he presented face-to-face to the trial judge in the Plowshares Eight case. He calmly thundered about nuclear weapons: “They are hammers of hell. They will clang the end of the world.” His condemnation is true even if you don’t believe in Biblical descriptions of hell, because the detonation of nuclear weapons produces its manmade version — at 1 million degrees — blinding people 50 miles away, and setting fire to everything inside 50 square miles.
In Conscience, the Law, and Civil Disobedience, Dan warned eloquently of the price to be paid for preventative antiwar actions that would damage the Sacred Cow of government property:
Let us grant from the beginning the serious nature of this subject. Indeed, it is so serious that on its behalf many good [people] have been driven against a wall — to death by violence, to prison in resistance to violence. Their blood and tears forbid us the luxury of an abstract debate.
Decades before US specialization in long-range, satellite-guided, push-button, drone war assassination, Dan wrote,
We put at a distance the question of violence, and therefore the question of nonviolence; neither question quite arrives on our doorstep. It is always guns in principle, guns as legitimate option, talk of guns, dream of guns, tactical guns. The guns are supremely useful tools…. They are, in fact, as are the nuclear weapons, both lethal and abstract; eminently fitted, hand-in-glove, to the culture, which seldom is obliged to look on its victims, and so remains at peace with murder.
“Our ethic, our vision, our tradition, are essentially at odds with the ethic, vision, political presumptions of the war-making state,” he wrote in Ten Commandments for the Long Haul. “We simply stand on other ground.” Ultimately, Dan shrugged and lamented the movement’s failure to successfully weaken the war system. “Things are worse now than ever,” he told Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman in 2007.
Years earlier he’d written, “The war continued, the warlike spirit prevailed. And we went on to prison in our turn …” But later he had to admit: “We haven’t lost, because we haven’t given up.”