We Have to Do is Close Our Eyes and Then Open Them:”
A Conversation with Daniel Berrigan
BY JOHN DEAR
Father Daniel Berrigan is a legendary Jesuit priest, poet and peacemaker.
The author of over 50 books, he first attracted international fame when
he and his brother Philip burned draft files with homemade napalm in the
Catonsville Nine action of May 1968. He spent over two years in prison
for that action. Later, he hammered on a nuclear weapon in the first Plowshares
disarmament action in September 1980. He has been arrested over two hundred
times in anti-war and anti-nuclear demonstrations.
A frequent nominee of the Nobel Peace Prize, Father Daniel Berrigan has
traveled the world, given thousands of lectures and retreats, and inspired
millions of people to pursue the life of Gospel nonviolence. John Dear
has edited several of Daniel Berrigan’s books, including “And
the Risen Bread: An Anthology of Poems, 1957-1997” (Fordham University
Press, 1999) and “Testimony: The Word Made Flesh” (Orbis Books,
John Dear first met Daniel Berrigan in January 1984 at the Kirkridge
Retreat Center. After John moved to New York City, he interviewed Daniel
Berrigan in January 1986 for Pax Christi magazine. This is an excerpt
from that interview.
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John Dear: What’s been happening recently concerning the sentences
of the Plowshares Eight and the possibility of imprisonment?
Daniel Berrigan: We were all supposed to turn ourselves in on January
2, 1986, and that was turned back by the lawyers who kept insisting that
the judge had no jurisdiction because he had been excluded from the case
by the Appellate court. So he backed off and we’re still at large.
Everybody’s uncertain about the future. The lawyers are saying now
that it could go for weeks, or months, or years.
Dear: Can you describe how you and your community and the people here
in New York will respond if you are arrested?
Berrigan: Well, the discussions are going on about whether or not it’s
a good idea just to submit before unjust laws and unjust sentences. I
think these discussions have been very good for my community, for the
Jesuits of the New York Province, and for other Catholics. There’s
a great attitude of listening and being very serious about it. So that’s
Dear: There are over twenty people in jail right now for Plowshares Actions.
Why are there so many prisoners of conscience? What is your reaction to
Berrigan: Well, I think one of the heartening things is that it is the
religious community that is responding to all this, to the point where
I think the Church is the only structure left that is able to discern
the times and make a public response. There are certainly more Catholics
in jail now than in my lifetime and the sentences are the harshest of
my lifetime, and that’s really saying a great deal about the developing
conscience in the Church and the recognition by the state that we are
Of course, that’s being played out in Tucson, too, with this trail
of the Sanctuary Movement people, who are sheltering Central American
refugees and facing criminal charges. I think these are very painful and
important developments, probably the most exciting that I can remember.
Dear: Why do you feel you need to witness in such a way that it leads
you to prison?
Berrigan: I think it has to do with trying to read the Gospel. It’s
really quite as simple as that. Nobody wants to go to prison, but people
want to be recognizable to themselves and to the Christ and to the Gospel
they read. It all depends on where your life is, how you’re seeing
I think that most people are neutralized or normalized by the times,
if they’re making it. If they’re not making it, most people
are desperate. But, I think it’s only in the churches that there’s
some sense that we’ve got to do something about it. That’s
Going to jail is only one way and I don’t want to say it’s
the most important way, but one way among many. People are doing many
Dear: When does the time come to cross the line from what’s legal
to what’s illegal? What suggestions do you have for discerning civil
Berrigan: I think it’s a question of what people are doing normally
with their lives. If we’re coming from some genuine place, we will
be led further. That’s why we believe in the Holy Spirit. I don’t
think one can be any more specific than that.
The main point is that one’s life makes some sense in light of
the Gospel. Then, one will be led further.
Dear: What general reflections do you have about Central America since
your visit there, a year and a half ago? What’s the connection between
the work for peace in Central America and for nuclear disarmament?
Berrigan: Well, one heartening thing was the general realization I found
down there, among the Jesuits especially, that our work is connected with
theirs and they recognized it. Nukes and contras are two symptoms of a
very deep addiction to violence up here.
None of these things can be neglected, whether or not we feel immediately
under the guns or whether we’re feeling the pressure of conscience
required of us these days. I feel very deeply in touch with people like
Dear: One of the things that Pax Christi is doing is encouraging the
bishops to make a new assessment of their peace pastoral, The Challenge
of Peace. What do you think the bishops need to say now?
Berrigan: I wish it wouldn’t take them so long. It does seem to
me that it’s a little overdue that we say that deterrence is not
identifiable with the Gospel. The condition they attached to deterrence
about serious steps toward disarmament has never been fulfilled and is
not being fulfilled now. They’re hell bent in the other direction.
So what are the bishops waiting for? Maybe they’re waiting for
us and maybe we have to offer a more striking example of people who just
won’t consent to this business.
Dear: In the past few months, hundreds of Pax Christi members have been
committing themselves to Gospel nonviolence by professing a vow of nonviolence.
What do you think about this commitment, or better, what suggestions do
you have for those, like myself, who are just beginning, trying to go
deeper into nonviolence?
Berrigan: A vow like that, if it’s taken seriously, is indeed,
a very, very serious matter. I hope that people are already quite mature
and don’t take that vow as a verbal matter. If we see those who
have lived it in our lifetime, like Gandhi and Dr. King, it leads to very
dire results. One can’t take all that into account, but one can
Dear: In the midst of the times as they are, what signs of hope are you
seeing these days?
Berrigan: I just think we’re back where we started. In other words,
it’s the beauty of the sisters and brothers in the Plowshares movement,
and across the board in the peace movement, in the Sanctuary movement,
in those working with the poor, and in all these things. There’s
plenty of hope!
All we have to do is close our eyes and then open them. I mean, close
our eyes to our culture and open them to our friends.
We’ve got enough to go on. We don’t have a right to the luxury
of despair. We don’t have any right to it.
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