Thursday, October 20, 2011

In Praise of Daniel Berrigan

Daniel Berrigan, the anti-war Jesuit priest who turned 90 in May of this year, has been a fervent advocate of peace for decades. As I have been thinking about him recently, I am writing this as another posting of my “in praise of” series. (Click on “praise” in the label column on the right to see others postings in this series.)
Especially you who are 60 or older doubtlessly know something about Berrigan, who first became widely known in the late 1960s. He and his brother Philip (1923-2002) became highly visible anti-war/peace activists during the Vietnam War. After that war ended, they continued to oppose nuclear weapons.
Some of you may harbor a fairly negative image of Daniel and Philip Berrigan. For several years up to the end of the war in Vietnam they were greatly criticized by the media as well as by many within the Catholic Church. (Like his older brother, Philip was also a priest.)
The Berrigan brothers, with a few others, engaged in numerous acts of civil disobedience to protest what they believed to be an unjust war. They were two of the “Catonville Nine,” nine people who in May 1968 went to the draft board in a Baltimore suburb, took 378 draft files, brought them to the parking lot in wire baskets, dumped them out, poured homemade napalm over them, and set them on fire.
They were arrested, of course, and after a few months as a fugitive, Daniel was in prison from August 1970 to February1972. Earlier, in 1967, he had been the first priest in U.S. history to be arrested for a protest against war. He was in jail only five days that time.
Then in September 1980 the Berrigan brothers and a few others began the Plowshares Movement. They illegally trespassed onto a nuclear missile facility in Pennsylvania, where they damaged nuclear warhead nosecones and poured their own blood onto documents and files.
Earlier this month I finished reading Daniel’s autobiography, To Dwell in Peace (1987), and I was much impressed by his life story and especially by his dedication to peace and justice. (I was also impressed by the splendid prose in which the book is written.)
In the book,  says that when the church yields “before the politics of the virtuous versus the ‘kingdom of evil,’ we become, willy-nilly, the spiritual arm of ever-renewed violence” (p. 156). Unfortunately, that seems to have been the case often, and is seen in the U.S. wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
I am now reading Daniel Berrigan: Essential Writings (2009), selected with an introduction by John Dear, who was mentored by Berrigan. Dear (b. 1959) is also a Jesuit priest and an avid anti-war/peace activist; he has been arrested more than 75 times.
Dear writes that Berrigan “remains a beacon of hope to peace-loving people everywhere” (p. 24). For that reason I am happy to post these few words in praise of Daniel Berrigan, who for far more than half his ninety years has been an extraordinary prophet and peacemaker.


  1. Daniel was in Kansas City several time in the early 80s and I was gifted to hear him speak and hold several conversations with him. Rarely have I witnessed a human being who so modeled the Gospel of Christ in the modern world of war and injustice. I will also hold him up for praise, but more important I will seek to receive his spirit and live now in the way we will all one day live .... in peace between nations, allowing no one to be treated unfairly, sharing the resources of the planet. Thanks Leroy for calling our attention to another living saint.
    David Nelson

  2. Thanks for your comments, David. I regret that I never had the opportunity to hear Father Berrigan speak, let alone talk with him personally.

  3. A few minutes ago I received an e-mail from a Thinking Friend who reported that Dr. Henlee Barnette, who long taught Christian Ethics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, invited Philip Berrigan to speak there in the 1980s.

    After that visit was reported in "The Courier-Journal" (the Louisville newspaper) the next day, the seminary president was reportedly quite upset.

    My TF, though, said it was a "lovely talk."

  4. The story about the Louisville seminary reminds me of the time when I was in seminary (not in Louisville or Southern Baptist) and active in the anti-war movement which was at its apogee. As I recall, at the time, the Southern Baptist Convention couldn't even pass a resolution that the Vietnam War was "morally ambiguous." It was an indication, I thought, of how much conservative Protestantism in the U.S. was tied up with American nationalism.

  5. Wound Dresser, thank you for the correction, which I have now made in the above posting.

    I apologize to all who read the original posting with the wrong information.

    Daniel Berrigan was, in fact, born in Minnesota on May 9, 1921.