by Art Laffin
Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace

In Come Out My People: God’s Call Out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond, Wes Howard Brook writes:  

“The Risen Jesus provides the only reliable hermeneutical key to Christian interpretation of the bible….Jesus was raised from the dead by the power of God and continues to live in and through the community of his followers. Any attempt to make sense of Jesus and the New Testament apart from a deep abiding trust in the truth of this statement is doomed to fail…The further one walks on the discipleship path into Christ the clearer the Word becomes…It is not too late to become the Church Jesus died and rose to bring into being. Empire is already fallen and condemned. May we, this day, hear God’s call to “Come out of empire” and to move ever more completely into the abundant life given as gift by the Creator of us all.”

On March 27, 2022, Pope Francis stated: “Before the danger of self-destruction, may humanity understand that the moment has come to abolish war, to erase it from human history before it erases human history!” 

And on the night before his martyrdom, Martin Luther King, Jr. declared: “It is no longer the choice between violence and nonviolence in this world…it’s nonviolence or nonexistence.” 

During this Holy Season as we commemorate the Feast of the Resurrection of Jesus, and in light of these admonitions by Wes Howard Brook, Pope Francis and Dr. King, what does it mean to follow the crucified and risen Jesus, his Gospel mandate of nonviolence, and to live in the hope of his resurrection at this perilous time? I have found rich spiritual insight to this question in Daniel Berrigan’s writings on Jesus’ resurrection and what it means for his followers today. What follows are excerpts from his book Testimony: The Word Made Fresh, found in the chapter titled“An Ethic of Resurrection”.  

Daniel writes:

One thing seems reasonably certain. Our ethic is a gift from the God who rolled the stone back, who beat death at its own game. If that be true, something would seem to follow. The death game is not our game. We are called to undergo death, rather than inflict death. And is so acting, to cherish life. And the vocation is no less urgent or valid in our stalled and death-ridden culture. A calling to the works of solace and rescue.

We are not to ignore the fierce “reversal of fortune” in the drama of Jesus, as history misses His point, and yet stages His story again and again. The script has been seized on, bowdlerized and deformed. We have a new script, different stage directions, and up to the bloody present, a far different outcome. Which is to say, the prevailing and victory of the Hero of life has been everywhere and at all times denied, proven absurd, shunted aside. His nonviolence, patience, reconciling love–these are deemed unworkable, impractical, unrealistic…

Thus briefly, Friday to Sunday, the Lord of life is thrust offstage. We have a new and darker hero, icon, model. Death is our great protagonist. The power of death is the motor mundi, the driving force and fuel of event. This is what the world and its amortized religion have made of the drama. It is the legend stitched on the flag of every nation and principality, the Tao of death, the ethic of death, the ideology of death, the victory of prevailing death. An infection at the heart of things. 

By and large, one must conclude in shame and confusion of spirit, we Christians intervene in the death game (if at all), with a sparse understanding, grudgingly, with a foggy maybe on our lips, with a “just war theory.” The clear words of the Gospel, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” “Love your enemies, do good to those who do ill to you,” “Peter, put up your sword,” “This the cup of My blood, given for you–such words are among the first casualties of war. War is declared. We are suddenly inducted along with everyone else. We cannot utter a forthright, unmistakable no.

I propose that we reflect on the implications of that no in virtue of a larger yes, that we undertake an ethic of resurrection, and live according to the slight edge of life over death.

–The “just war theory” is in fact a cruel oxymoron. War, no matter its provocation or justification, is of its essence and nature supremely unjust. The injustice of war implies a blasphemous inflation of human authority, that humans are allowed to decree who shall live and who shall die, to dispose of human differences by disposing of humans. We are done with that theory forever.

–Imperial ideologies always reduce themselves to this–the vindication, indeed the honoring of death as a social method. 

–The ethic of Jesus is distrustful of any theory or praxis of social change that does not exact risk and sacrifice of Christians. 

–Our faith confesses no debt to the law of the land, when that law is protective of the realm of death and its artifacts, its courts, jails, taxes, armed forces…

–As to law courts, Christians enter them under rigor of the law, as defendants and resisters. They enter in jeopardy, at the mercy of death’s servants…like the One they follow…

–The best time for Christians, the most enlightened time…is the time of the martyrs…We are to learn from, and follow, our martyred sisters and brothers.

–The Christian response to imperial death-dealing is in effect a nonresponse. we refuse the terms of the argument. To weigh the value of lives would imply that military or paramilitary solutions had been grotesquely validated by Christians. There is no cause, however noble, that justifies the taking of a single life, much less millions of them…

–The no to the state, uttered by the unarmed Christ, is vindicated in the resurrection. Of this, the world can never be a witness. (The military, be it noted, were in attendance at the event. The soldiers were struck to earth, and subsequently entered in collusion with the authorities, to lie about the occurrence [Matt. 28: 11 ff.])

–In contrast, “witness of the resurrection” was a title of honor, self-conferred by the twelve (Acts 1: 21-22) The meaning of the phrase is simple. The apostles were called to take their stand on behalf of life, to the point of undergoing death, as well as death’s analogies–scorn and rejection, floggings and jail. 

–This is our glory. From Peter and Paul to Martin King and Romero, Christians have known something which the “nations” as such can never know or teach–how to live and how to die. We are witnesses of the resurrection. We practice resurrection. We risk resurrection…

My teachers, among others, have been Martin Luther King, Jr., Dorothy Day, Gandhi, Thomas Merton, and my brother Philip, a continuity of nonviolence and nonideology, stemming from the early church and the prophets, from Jesus Himself… 

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 a 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 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…

That is why we speak again and again of 1980 and all the Plowshares actions since, how some continue to labor to break the demonic clutch on our souls of the ethic of Mars, of wars and rumors of wars, inevitable wars, just wars, necessary wars, victorious wars, and say our no in acts of hope. For us, all of these repeated arrests, the interminable jailing’s, 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.

Today, April 30th, marks the sixth anniversary of Daniel Berrigan’s going home to God and May 9th will be his 101st birthday! He was an important friend and mentor to me and countless others. His spirit lives on in the hearts of many and the great gift of his writings continues to instruct and inspire. His exemplary Gospel witness embodied resurrection hope. His “Ethic of Resurrection” encourages us to live and act in this hope. The Acts of the Apostles continues throughout the world today as sisters and brothers are persecuted, imprisoned and even killed for their courageous Gospel witness. During this Holy Season and beyond let us pray for each other and for the people of God everywhere as we seek to be witnesses of Jesus’s resurrection and make God’s reign of justice, love and nonviolence a reality. 

Daniel Berrigan, Jesuit priest, prophet of peace, writer and poet–Presente!

Art Laffin is a Pax Christi USA Teacher of Peace. He encourages everyone to read an excellent new book about Daniel Berrigan written by Bill Wylie-Kellermann, Celebrant’s Flame: Daniel Berrigan in Memory and Reflection, Cascade Books, 2021. 

6 thoughts on “On the anniversary of his death, reflecting on Daniel Berrigan’s “Ethic of Resurrection”

  1. Art,

    You do such a beautiful job in connecting thoughts from different sources. And you (through Fr. Berrigan) make this Christian journey sound so simple. But as the drumbeat of war, hatred and division increases its crescendo, it hypnotically calls us to march in lockstep to its beat — in Ukraine, Afghanistan, Somalia, Cuba and against all enemies we are told/taught to hate. May Dan and your living examples and inspirational words teach us to do as I do – following Jesus to ignite the Christ-light of peace.

    Dan Berrigan! Presente!

  2. Beautifully expressed, a reminder of who we are and might be and do. Blessings. 💗

  3. Thanx from dave Baltimore 4 in Baltimore, home of HBO’s “We own this city”-some solutions therein- community policing and legalization of drugs- thanx to Art and Bill and Viva and Jonah House here in Balto-and all CW venues- my greatest extant hero- Steve Kelly- refinement of acts of resistance- to quote the 5th apostle Bach- “Bringt des hungrigen dein brot” – to Dan my fellow poet-C 9 members Mische and Melville and all other living Plowshares- share The Berrigan Letters and Frida’s It runs in the family- glad to send my Selection of anti war poems….

  4. Art, you continue to witness to gospel nonviolence with your gifted community. And you share so many helpful resources with all of us! Loved your photo and Dan’s ‘living presence’ on his B-Day at the Pentagon. They soon will begin to recognize his name and wonderful prophetic subversity! John Heagle

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