Fr. Dan Berrigan,SJ, 5/9/1921-4/30/2016

Mary Magdala Community

Fr. Dan Berrigan, SJ, b. May 9, 1921, d. April 30, 2016

Word of Dan Berrigan’s death will resurrect much regarding his witness to peace and his action which he referred to as showing up to stand there.  Here is part of the testimony Dan gave at the trial of the Catonsville Nine as he cast it in his play of the same name.

To preface this, the Defense asks Dan what influences formed his decision to join the action of the Catonsville Nine.  With apologies to the playwright, formatting and punctuation have been added. What follows is part of his testimony:

DANIEL BERRIGAN.  “In January of 1968 an invitation came from the government of North Vietnam.  Professor Howard Zinn and myself were invited to Hanoi to bring home 3 captive American airmen.  For me to go to Hanoi was a very serious decision.  I believe, I have always believed, that the peace movement must not merely say no to the war.  It must also say yes to life, yes to the possibility of a human future.  We must go beyond frontiers, frontiers declared by our country or by the enemy.

So I thought it would be important to show Americans that we were ready to risk our lives to bring back American prisoners because we did not believe that in wartime anyone should be in prison or should suffer separation from families.  Simply, we did not believe in war.  And so we went.

(“What crime have I committed, I keep on asking?  The crime of being devoted to my people.”  Ho Chi Minh: Prison Diary)

In Hanoi I think we were the first Americans to undergo an American bombing attack.  When the burned draft files were brought into court yesterday as evidence I could not but recall that I had seen in Hanoi evidence of a very different nature.  I saw not boxes of burned papers.  I saw parts of human bodies preserved in alcohol, the bodies of children, the hearts and organs and limbs of women….


The boxes of paper ash

The size of infant caskets

Were rolled in on a dolly,

Heaped there like cord wood

Or children after a usual

Air strike on Hanoi.

I heard between heartbeats

Of Jesus and his hangman

The children’s mouths mewing

For the breasts of murdered women

The blackened hands beating

The box of death for breath.    DANIEL BERRIGAN]

…teachers, workers, peasants, bombed in fields and churches and schools and hospitals.  I examined our “improved weaponry.”  It was quite clear to me during three years of air war America had been experimenting upon the bodies of the innocent.  We had improved our weapons on their flesh.…..

I think as a result of the trip to Hanoi I understood the limits of what I had done before and the next step that must come.…

The time is past when good men may be silent, when obedience can segregate men from public risk, when the poor can die without defense.  How many indeed must die before our voices are heard?  How many must be tortured, dislocated, starved, maddened?  How long must the world’s resources be raped in the service of legalized murder?  When, at what point, will you say no to this war?

We have chosen to say with the gift of our liberty, if necessary with 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 Ceasar and Mars by the approval of overkill tactics, by brinksmanship, 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.  In a time of death some men, the resisters, those who work hardily for social change, those who preach and embrace the truth, such men overcome death.  Their lives are bathed in the light of the resurrection.  The truth has set them free.  In the jaws of death they proclaim their love of the brethren.  We think of such men in the world, in our nation, in the churches and the stone in our breasts is dissolved.  We take heart once more.”

In his No Bars to Manhood (1970), Dan Berrigan wrote this about conscience and its responsibility to both tradition and to truth.

“To go somewhere, a man must come from somewhere.  For myself, if my claim to Christian tradition is valid, it is so only because I am trying to embody that conception of citizenship and faith that runs from Jesus to Paul to Galileo to Newman to Teilhard to Pope John to myself.  In the same way, if one claims the Western legal tradition, it is because one embodies a spirit that runs from the Magna Carta through English common law on to Holmes and Frankfurter to oneself.

It perhaps goes without saying also that if one claims to be the inheritor of his tradition, he is required to cast off the enticements and lies that corrupt that tradition.  For the reverse of our proposition is also true:  A man can claim to have come from somewhere only if he is going somewhere.  Thus I must cast off the fury and incoherence of the Inquisition, and lawyers presumably are ridding themselves of the attitudes we inherit from slave laws.  I am trying to outgrow an inhuman priesthood – its mystification, and neglect of living men.  And men of the law, I would think, are casting off the enticements of big money, big names, ignorance of the social currents and passions of the day, neglect of those who run with man – the draft resisters, the black power students, those who are working their way through perplexity and inhumanity, to a possibly decent society.

All of this may of course be no more than empty rhetoric, in the light of our actual desires and motives.  For it takes enormous courage and discipline and patience to be a man of tradition in the sense we speak of, in whatever sphere of life.  One of the difficulties is that every discipline, every aspect of man’s public life tends today, of its own unchecked momentum, to claim man totally for itself.  Lawyers like to believe that man is the sum of his laws; sociologists, that man is the sum of societal phenomena; philosophers, that man is defined by his wisdom or logic; believers, that man is his religion; nationalists, that man owes his life and well-being to the state; generals, that man must march against other men, to someone’s tune.  But I dare to suggest, reporting on the fact of life, that in order to be a man, it is sometimes necessary to escape from these definitions; to free the ghetto, to disobey the law, to disavow the race, to surpass the religion.  In order to be a student it is necessary to disrupt Columbia.  In order to be a citizen it is necessary to march in the streets of Chicago.  In order to abide by law, it is necessary to confront the law.  Such at least are the possibilities that men feel impelled to explore.  Men disobey, disrupt, break laws.  Are they thereby criminals in fact?  Or is something deeper and more mysterious at work?  Can lawbreaking in certain cases be a function of conscience?

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