On the Frontlines of Peace: the Life of Daniel Berrigan

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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.

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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.

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