Daniel Berrigan of the Christian Left on Christian anarchism
The Rev. Daniel Berrigan, undaunted at 92 and full of the fire that makes him one of this nation’s most courageous voices for justice, recently campaigned to get charges dropped against Occupy activists in New York City’s Zuccotti Park. What drives Rev. Berrigan?
It is as a religious radical that Rev. Daniel Berrigan gained national prominence, as well as numerous enemies within the Roman Catholic hierarchy. He and his brother Philip Berrigan, a Josephite priest and World War II combat veteran, along with the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, led some of the first protests against the Vietnam War. In 1967 Philip Berrigan was arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience and was sentenced to six years in prison.
Philip’s sentence spurred Daniel to greater activism. He traveled to Hanoi with the historian Howard Zinn to bring back three American prisoners of war. And then he and eight other Catholic priests concocted homemade napalm and on May 17, 1968, used it to burn 378 draft files in the parking lot of the Catonsville, Md., draft board.
Berrigan believes, as did Martin Luther King, that “the evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and the evils of racism.” And he has dedicated his life to fighting these evils.
“This is the only way to bring faith to the public and the public to the faith,” Berrigan says. “If faith does not touch the lives of others it has no point. Faith always starts with oneself. It means an overriding sense of responsibility for the universe, making sure that universe is left in good hands and the belief that things will finally turn out right if we remain faithful.”
There is one place, Berrigan says, where those who care about justice need to be—in the streets. The failure by large numbers of citizens to carry out mass acts of civil disobedience will only ensure that we remain hostages to corporate power.
In 1980 Daniel and Philip, along with six other protesters, illegally entered the General Electric nuclear missile facility in King of Prussia, Pa. They damaged nuclear warhead cones and poured blood onto documents. He was again sentenced and then paroled for time already served in prison.
By the time he died in 2002, Philip Berrigan had spent more than a decade in prison for acts of civil disobedience. Historian Howard said in eulogizing him that Philip Berrigan was “one of the great Americans of our time.”
In a culture that lacks many authentic heroes, and continues to preach that military service is the highest good, Daniel Berrigan is a potent reminder of what we must seek to become. His is a life of constant agitation, constant defiance, constant disobedience to systems of power, a life of radical obedience to God. His embrace of what has been called “Christian anarchism,” because of its persistent alienation and hostility to all forms of power, is the most effective form of resistance. And it is the clearest expression of the Christian Gospel.
“Some people today argue that equanimity achieved through inner spiritual work is a necessary condition for sustaining one’s ethical and political commitments,” Berrigan writes. “But to the prophets of the Bible, this would have been an absolutely foreign language and a foreign view of the human. The notion that one has to achieve peace of mind before stretching out one’s hand to one’s neighbor is a distortion of our human experience, and ultimately a dodge of our responsibility.”
[Excerpt of Truthdig article by Chris Hedges, a veteran foreign correspondent for The New York Times, who also graduated from Harvard Divinity School]