FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

On the Frontlines of Peace: the Life of Daniel Berrigan

Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 9.48.11 PM

Photograph by Thomas Good, distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

 

Certain events in one’s life often determine the choices made later in that same life. These crucial events can be of a personal nature–a romance, a family death, the birth of a child, or something less universal–or they can be events that take place in the public sphere. One such event of the latter category in my life occurred May 17, 1968. That was when nine Catholic antiwar activists poured homemade napalm on hundreds of Selective Service (military draft) records and set them on fire. Still imbued in the Catholic faith I was raised in, my thirteen year old soul was trying to reconcile my father’s recent news that he was going to Vietnam later in 1968 and the fifth commandment his Catholic life was supposed to abide by. For those out of the loop, that commandment is “Thou shalt not kill.” The rationales emanating from the parish priests on this topic were ringing more and more hollow. My dad’s attempts to explain the differences between murder and the slaughter of the Vietnamese to me were failing miserably. Thomas Aquinas and his just war theory just didn’t make the grade.

So, when I read about the protest in Catonsville by this group of Catholics as I delivered my paper route the day after the action, I found a way to rationalize my continued adherence to the faith. Although other elements of doctrine would eventually cause me to turn away from Rome, the continued powerful and symbolic activism of radical Catholics would inspire me. Indeed, it still does.

One of the priests involved in the Catonsville action was Dan Berrigan. Another was his brother Philip. Dan was also a philosopher, poet, and playwright. After his conviction on the Catonsville charges, he went underground. While underground, he occasionally appeared at church services where he would give the sermon and political rallies where he would speak, disappearing quickly into the reasonably vast underground that existed among war resisters, revolutionaries, and their sympathizers at the time. He also wrote a play about the trial of the Catonsville Nine, as the participants in the aforementioned action became known. That play, written in free verse, is a powerful and radical work. I saw a performance put on by German university students in 1972.

Not long afterwards, a film was made that was produced by Gregory Peck and shotDaydream-cover-thumb by the great Haskell Wexler. There is a line near the end of the play–right before the defendants are to be sentenced–where Dan, responding to the Court’s attempt to frame the actions of the Nine as a mere disagreement among people who all want the best for the world, says: “Our intention in appearing here after Catonsville was to be useful to the poor of the world, to the Black people of the world and of our country, and to the people in the prisons who have no voice. We do not wish that primary blade of intention to be honed down to no edge at all by a gentleman’s agreement, whereby you agree with us and we agree with you. We do not agree with you, and we thank you.”

While he was on the run, the SDS faction called the Weatherman/Weather Underground Organization began their campaign of bombings in the United States. Dan wrote a letter to the group that was published in numerous underground and left wing Catholic publications. Discussing the morality of the decision by WUO to launch an a bombing offensive designed to damage the war machine in the context of the genocidal campaign of murder undertaken by that machine in Vietnam, Dan wrote in part: “Do only that which you cannot not do.” This advice acknowledged both the desperation of the WUO’s decision and their sense of its necessity, recognizing the implacability of the murderous and criminal Pentagon and its political and corporate backers.

Dan Berrigan continued his antiwar activities well into his late life. He also continued to write and publish poetry and essays. He came under attack by some for his uncompromising opposition to abortion–a stance centered in his absolute belief in the absolute sanctity of human life. His opposition to the culture of war and the economics which drive humanity to the mass murder of war remains an inspiration to me. His sense of justice demanded his opposition to the modern state of capital and war. May he rest in peace.

More articles by:

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. His latest offering is a pamphlet titled Capitalism: Is the Problem.  He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com.

Weekend Edition
September 21, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Laquan McDonald is Being Tried for His Own Racist Murder
Brad Evans
What Does It Mean to Celebrate International Peace Day?
Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond
Hurricane Florence and 9.7 Million Pigs
Nick Pemberton
With or Without Kavanaugh, The United States Is Anti-Choice
Andrew Levine
Israel’s Anti-Semitism Smear Campaign
Jim Kavanagh
“Taxpayer Money” Threatens Medicare-for-All (And Every Other Social Program)
Jonathan Cook
Palestine: The Testbed for Trump’s Plan to Tear up the Rules-Based International Order
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: the Chickenhawks Have Finally Come Back Home to Roost!
David Rosen
As the Capitalist World Turns: From Empire to Imperialism to Globalization?
Jonah Raskin
Green Capitalism Rears Its Head at Global Climate Action Summit
James Munson
On Climate, the Centrists are the Deplorables
Robert Hunziker
Is Paris 2015 Already Underwater?
Arshad Khan
Will Their Ever be Justice for Rohingya Muslims?
Jill Richardson
Why Women Don’t Report Sexual Assault
Dave Clennon
A Victory for Historical Accuracy and the Peace Movement: Not One Emmy for Ken Burns and “The Vietnam War”
W. T. Whitney
US Harasses Cuba Amid Mysterious Circumstances
Nathan Kalman-Lamb
Things That Make Sports Fans Uncomfortable
George Capaccio
Iran: “Snapping Back” Sanctions and the Threat of War
Kenneth Surin
Brexit is Coming, But Which Will It Be?
Louis Proyect
Moore’s “Fahrenheit 11/9”: Entertaining Film, Crappy Politics
Ramzy Baroud
Why Israel Demolishes: Khan Al-Ahmar as Representation of Greater Genocide
Ben Dangl
The Zapatistas’ Dignified Rage: Revolutionary Theories and Anticapitalist Dreams of Subcommandante Marcos
Ron Jacobs
Faith, Madness, or Death
Bill Glahn
Crime Comes Knocking
Terry Heaton
Pat Robertson’s Hurricane “Miracle”
Dave Lindorff
In Montgomery County PA, It’s Often a Jury of White People
Louis Yako
From Citizens to Customers: the Corporate Customer Service Culture in America 
William Boardman
The Shame of Dianne Feinstein, the Courage of Christine Blasey Ford 
Ernie Niemi
Logging and Climate Change: Oregon is Appalachia and Timber is Our Coal
Jessicah Pierre
Nike Says “Believe in Something,” But Can It Sacrifice Something, Too?
Paul Fitzgerald - Elizabeth Gould
Weaponized Dreams? The Curious Case of Robert Moss
Olivia Alperstein
An Environmental 9/11: the EPA’s Gutting of Methane Regulations
Ted Rall
Why Christine Ford vs. Brett Kavanaugh is a Train Wreck You Can’t Look Away From
Lauren Regan
The Day the Valves Turned: Defending the Pipeline Protesters
Ralph Nader
Questions, Questions Where are the Answers?
Binoy Kampmark
Deplatforming Germaine Greer
Raouf Halaby
It Should Not Be A He Said She Said Verdict
Robert Koehler
The Accusation That Wouldn’t Go Away
Jim Hightower
Amazon is Making Workers Tweet About How Great It is to Work There
Robby Sherwin
Rabbi, Rabbi, Where For Art Thou Rabbi?
Vern Loomis
Has Something Evil This Way Come?
Steve Baggarly
Disarm Trident Walk Ends in Georgia
Graham Peebles
Priorities of the Time: Peace
Michael Doliner
The Department of Demonization
David Yearsley
Bollocks to Brexit: the Plumber Sings
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail