by Art Laffin
Throughout history the Word of God has been powerfully revealed through the prophets. One such prophet has been Daniel Berrigan, who called the nation away from idolatry and war making to God’s way of nonviolence, justice and peace. April 30 marks the third anniversary of the death of Dan, renowned Jesuit priest, peacemaker, and poet. He and his brother, Philip, who died in 2002, were prophets of peace and nonviolent resisters who made many sacrifices and endured long imprisonment for speaking truth to power, and for calling the nation and church to follow the nonviolent Jesus.
At the 1981 “Plowshares 8” trial, Berrigan succinctly stated the challenge for Christians living in a war-making empire and a world where killing has become the norm:
“Our plight is very primitive from a Christian standpoint. We are back to where we started. Thou shalt not kill; we are not allowed to kill. Everything today comes down to that — everything!”
And so, as people of faith, seeking to respond to a culture of violence and a time of endless war, we go back to the source of that faith, Jesus. In the Gospels, Jesus commands us to: love your neighbor, love your enemies, be merciful, put away the sword!
In his own life, Dan did all he could to live and proclaim the Gospel call of peacemaking, although his efforts were, more often than not, dismissed by religious and political authorities. Dan persisted to the end, like other Catholic peacemakers before him: Ben Salmon, the Catholic World War I resister; Franz Jägerstätter, the martyred Austrian Catholic who refused to serve in Hitler’s army; Thomas Merton, monk and renowned spiritual writer; and Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker; even if it meant being ostracized and rejected.
“They call us utopian,” he wrote in The Words Our Savior Gave Us, “because we want the killing of people to stop. Immediately, here and now. As God’s manifest will. As our way of declaring, ashamed, indeed, late indeed— that such questions never should have arisen; questions like ‘is it legitimate to kill?’ or, ‘how many can we kill, and still be bona fide Christians?’ We said, shame! Stop it! Not one more death. And that was, and is, the scandal.”
The inspiring witness of Dan and other Catholic peacemakers has not been in vain. They, in fact, laid the ground work for a recent historic breakthrough in the institutional Catholic Church. In April 2016, a “Nonviolence and Just Peace Conference,” sponsored by Pax Christi International and the Pontifical Council of Peace and Justice, was held at the Vatican and supported by Pope Francis. The conference called for an end to the use of the just-war theory and issued “An Appeal to the Catholic Church to Recommit to the Centrality of Gospel Nonviolence” and instituted The Catholic Nonviolent Initiative.
Dan lived through perilous times, similar to those we know today. Like other administrations of the past, the Trump administration is using military violence to assert its power to protect “vital” corporate interests and to enforce its imperial geopolitical objectives. To initiate its arrogant “America First” foreign policy, the first act of the new administration was a Jan. 29 military strike in Yemen, which killed an estimated 30 people, including women and children.
Since this criminal attack, the administration has increased its support for the Saudi onslaught of Yemen, supplying weapons and other forms of military assistance. As a consequence of this brutal U.S-backed Saudi war, Yemen is now experiencing widespread famine. The U.S. military has also escalated its intervention in Syria, carrying out multiple military strikes there, killing numerous civilians.
And then on April 13, Holy Thursday, the U.S. military, allegedly targeting suspected ISIS fighters, dropped the GBU-43/B massive ordinance air blast (MOAB) on Asad Khel, a small village in eastern Afghanistan. MOAB, the so-called “mother of all bombs,” is the most powerful conventional bomb ever used in combat; its blast effects are said to stretch a mile in every direction. At least 90 people died from the bombing, although the exact number is still unknown.
Meanwhile, the U.S. military has been waging a relentless assault on Mosul. Secretary of Defense Gen. James Mattis (Secretary of War), has a resume which includes serving as commander of the 1st Marine Division during the 2003 invasion of Iraq and playing a principal role in the battle of Fallujah in 2004, during which U.S. forces destroyed the city, killing untold numbers of Iraqis. Clearly the U.S. assault against Mosul is a replay of Fallujah!
In other dangerous developments, the Trump administration and the Republican-controlled Congress want to add $54 billion to an already exorbitant military (war) budget, while cutting critically needed social services for the poor, including health care. Racial violence, dehumanizing poverty and economic inequality are pervasive in our country.
There is U.S. saber rattling and provocations against nuclear-capable North Korea, including the U.S. deployment of a new missile defense system in South Korea — actions seen as threatening to China, as well as worsening U.S. relations with Russia. Killer drone strikes continue. The U.S.-backed Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza continues. A ban on travel from many Muslim countries was a prelude to a malicious crackdown against all immigrants. And the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientist has turned its “doomsday clock” to two-and-a-half minutes before midnight, reflecting the ever growing threats that climate change and the danger of nuclear war pose for the human family.
If Dan were alive right now, I have no doubt he would be proclaiming the same message that I, and so many others, heard him declare repeatedly: Love one another! Know where you stand and stand there! Pray with your feet! Resist Empire! Create community! No more war! No more killing and torture! No more weapons! Beat all swords into plowshares! Reach out and show compassion to all who are marginalized!
And so we must do the same.
On the Feast of the Massacre of the Holy Innocents, Dec. 28, some 60 people from the Atlantic and Southern Life Communities held their annual peace witness at the Pentagon to remember the innocents killed by U.S. war making — past and present — and all victims of violence. During this gathering, we remembered in a special way Dan, who was arrested at the Pentagon on numerous occasions. Holding life-size cut-outs of him, along with a banner with a quotation from his writing, 16 people were arrested as they stood on the sidewalk where hundreds of workers were entering the building. We read aloud an excerpt of a statement that Dan wrote for the Catonsville Nine action on May 17, 1968:
We have chosen to say, with the gift of our liberty, if necessary our lives: the violence stops here, the death stops here, the suppression of the truth stops here, this war stops here… Redeem the times! The times are inexpressibly evil. Christians pay conscious, indeed religious tribute, to Caesar; by the approval of overkill tactics, by brinkmanship, by nuclear liturgies, by racism, by support of genocide. They embrace their society with all their heart, and abandon the cross. They pay lip service to Christ and military service to the powers of death. And yet, and yet, the times are inexhaustibly good, solaced by the courage and hope of many. The truth rules, Christ is not forsaken.
And we followed with an appeal of our own meant for today:
The violence, racism, massacres and disregard for the truth and human life stops here today at the Pentagon. Now is the time for personal and societal transformation as we resolve to renounce all killing, beat swords into plowshares, abolish torture and war, and celebrate God’s creation with joy. As we move in to a new year, we invite you to join us as we strive to create the beloved community and a nonviolent world.
During this Easter season, Jesus calls us anew to be filled with hope and to practice resurrection. In a chapter titled “An Ethic of Resurrection,” taken from his book Testimony: The Word Made Fresh, Dan reflected on what it means to live in the hope of the resurrection:
My teachers are non-ideologues… Incomparably the greatest of these is Jesus, who for His part took bread, broke it and said, “This is My body, given for you.” Then He took the cup and said, “This is My blood, given for you.” The ethic of the body given, of the blood outpoured! The act led straight to the scaffold and to that ‘beyond’ we name for want of a better word, resurrection.
We have not, in this century or any other, improved on this. More, being equally fearful of living and dying, we have yet to experience resurrection, which I translate, “the hope that hopes on….”
A blasphemy against this hope is named deterrence, or Trident submarines, or star wars, or preemptive strike, or simply, any nuclear weapon. These are in direct violation of the commandment of Jesus: Your ancestors said, “An eye for an eye,” but I say to you, offer no violent resistance to evil. Love your enemies.
That is why we speak again and again of 1980 and all the plowshares actions since, how some of us continue to labor to break the demonic clutch on our souls of the ethic of Mars, or wars and rumors of wars, inevitable wars, just wars, necessary wars, victorious wars, and say no in acts of hope. For us, all these repeated arrests, the interminable jailings, the life of our small communities, the discipline of nonviolence, these have embodied an ethic of resurrection. Simply put, we long to taste that event, its thunders and quakes, its great yes. We want to test the resurrection in our bones. To see if we might live in hope, instead of in the silva oscura, the thicket of cultural despair, nuclear despair, a world of perpetual war. We want to taste the resurrection. May I say we have not been disappointed.
A steadfast witness to Jesus’ way of the cross, Dan inspired me and countless others to persevere in following the crucified and risen Jesus. For nearly 40 years, I treasured Dan’s friendship. I watched him lovingly care for the dying. His prayers and words of consolation when I was grieving the loss of loved ones renewed my spirit. His rich biblical insights and Eucharistic celebrations transformed my faith. Being arrested with him for acts of nonviolent resistance were truly joyful occasions. Visits and meals shared with him were moments of grace. He was always encouraging and supportive of my ministry, my family and our extended communities. Colleen McCarthy and I am forever grateful to Dan for leaving his dying brother’s bedside and presiding at our wedding.
Along with hundreds of his friends and his dear family, I attended Dan’s funeral, which was a remarkable celebration of his life and the countless lives and communities he influenced. During the wake the night before, I was among a number of Dan’s friends invited to offer brief remarks. I shared how Dan’s exemplary life of Gospel fidelity and friendship was a gift beyond measure. I also conveyed how Dan powerfully taught us the connection between the altar and the Pentagon, and how to make the Word flesh. I ended my short reflection by standing next to Dan’s coffin and leading the congregation in singing the song that Dan lived so well, a song inspired by the prophets Isaiah and Micah, “Vine and Fig Tree.”
On the morning of his funeral, despite heavy rains and strong winds, there was an unforgettable march by several hundred that began at the Maryhouse Catholic Worker and ended at St. Francis Xavier Church. There was a marching band and everyone had a quote or photo of Dan. Needless to say, the rain did not dampen anyone’s spirits! Dan’s spirit lives on in the hearts of countless people he touched, and in our Catholic Worker communities and communities of faith and resistance! And it lives on anew in the “Dan Berrigan Center for Art and Activism” that was blessed and dedicated at the Benincasa Community in New York City on April 8.
Dan Berrigan, friend, mentor, teacher, servant of peace and prophet of nonviolence — Presente!
[Art Laffin is a member of the Dorothy Day Catholic Worker in Washington, D.C.]