Dec. 1, 2009
Daniel Berrigan: Essential Writings
By John Dear
This week, Orbis Books published my new book, Daniel Berrigan: Essential Writings, a great collection of Dan’s best writing from over fifty years. It features some of his best poems, autobiographical reflections, and journals from South Africa, Vietnam, El Salvador, the D.C. Jail and Danbury prison, as well as accounts of his Catonsville Nine and Plowshares Eight actions. Along with reflections on Franz Jagerstatter, the Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador and Thich Nhat Hanh, it includes excerpts from the fifteen scripture commentaries on the Hebrew Bible that he has published over the past twenty years.
At 88, Dan is still at it, funny, sharp, and extremely critical of the Obama warmaking regime. As Obama announces our latest imperial, military maneuvers, it’s sobering to read Dan’s writings and realize how little we have learned from the Vietnam War. Last month, Dan published a new commentary on the book of Deuteronomy, No Gods But One. He continues to keep the Word and speak the truth.
This summer, Wipf and Stock publishers completed another mammoth project of mine. They republished fifteen of Dan’s classic works in a beautiful new series that I edited and supervised. I urge people to check out this new series and get some of these great works, such as his autobiography, To Dwell In Peace; Ten Commandments for the Long Haul; Whereon To Stand; Minor Prophets, Major Themes; Portraits of Those I Love; No Bars to Manhood and The Dark Night of Resistance. (See: www.wipfandstock.com)
“Some people today argue that equanimity achieved through inner spiritual work is a necessary condition for sustaining one’s ethical and political commitments,” Dan writes. “But to the prophets of the Bible, this would have been an absolutely foreign language and a foreign view of the human. The notion that one has to achieve peace of mind before stretching out one’s hand to one’s neighbor is a distortion of our human experience, and ultimately a dodge of our responsibility. Life is a rollercoaster, and one had better buckle one’s belt and take the trip. This focus on equanimity is actually a narrow-minded, selfish approach to reality dressed up within the language of spirituality.”
With such insights, Dan continues to shock and wake us up. “I know that the prophetic vision is not popular today in some spiritual circles,” he continues. “But our task is not to be popular or to be seen as having an impact, but to speak the deepest truths that we know. We need to live our lives in accord with the deepest truths we know, even if doing so does not produce immediate results in the world.”
“Open the book of Jeremiah and you do not find a person looking for inner peace,” Dan comments. “I draw from the prophets a very strong bias in favor of the victim and a very strong sense of judgment of evil structures and those who run them. [They] talk about the God who stands at the bottom with the victims and with the ‘widows and orphans’ and witnesses with them in the world, from that terrifying vantage point which is like the bottom of the dry well that Jeremiah was thrown in. That vantage point defines the crime and sin; that point of view of the victim indicts the unjust, the oppressor, the killer, the warmaker. And the message is very clear. It’s a very clear indictment of every superpower from Babylon to Washington.”
“Peacemaking is tough, unfinished, blood-ridden,” he told one interviewer recently. “Everything is worse now than when I started, but I’m at peace. We walk our hope and that’s the only way of keeping it going. We’ve got faith, we’ve got one another, we’ve got religious discipline and we’ve got some access that goes beyond the official wall.”
This week, I offer a few excerpts from Daniel Berrigan: Essential Writings to offer a sampling of his message. I urge friends to get the book for Advent reading, and to give copies at Christmastime. I promise it will inspire and reenergize everyone.
Next week nine of us will, if all goes well (ill?) take our religious bodies during this week to a draft enter near Baltimore. There we shall, of purpose and forethought, remove the A-1 files, sprinkle them in the public street with homemade napalm and se them afire. For which act we shall, beyond doubt, be placed behind bars for some portion of our natural lives, in consequence of our inability to live and die content in the plagued city, to say peace peace when there is no peace, to keep the poor poor, the homeless homeless, the thirsty and hungry thirsty and hungry.
Our apologies, good friends, for the facture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise.
We say killing is disorder. Life and gentleness and community and unselfishness is the only order we recognize. For the sake of that order, we risk our liberty, our good name. The time is past when good people can remain silent, when obedience can segregate people from public risk, when the poor can die without defense.
We ask our fellow Christians to consider in their hearts a question that has tortured us, night and day, since the war began: How many 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?
[from 1968, “Night Flight to Hanoi”]
We have assumed the name of peacemakers, but we have been, by and large, unwilling to pay any significant price. And because we want the peace with half a heart and half a life and will, the war, of course, continues, because the waging of war, by its nature, is total--but the waging of peace, by our own cowardice, is partial. So a whole will and a whole heart and a whole national life bent toward war prevail over the velleities of peace. In every national war since the founding of the republic we have taken for granted that war shall exact the most rigorous cost, and that the cost shall be paid with cheerful heart. We take it for granted that in wartime families will be separated for long periods, that men will be imprisoned, wounded, driven insane, killed on foreign shores. In favor of such wars, we declare a moratorium on every normal human hope--for marriage, for community, for friendship, for moral conduct toward strangers and the innocent. We are instructed that deprivation and discipline, private grief and public obedience are to be our lot. And we obey. And we bear with it--because bear we must--because war is war, and good war or bad, we are stuck with it and its cost.
But what of the price of peace? I think of the good, decent, peace-loving people I have known by the thousands, and I wonder. How many of them are so afflicted with the wasting disease of normalcy that, even as they declare for the peace, their hands reach out with an instinctive spasm in the direction of their loved ones, in the direction of their comforts, their home, their security, their income, their future, their plans--that twenty-year plan of family growth and unity, that fifty-year plan of decent life and honorable natural demise.
“Of course, let us have the peace,” we cry, “but at the same time let us have normalcy, let us lose nothing, let our lives stand intact, let us know neither prison nor ill repute nor disruption of ties.” And because we must encompass this and protect that, and because at all costs--at all costs--our hopes must march on schedule, and because it is unheard of that in the name of peace a sword should fall, disjoining that fine and cunning web that our lives have woven, because it is unheard of that good men and women should suffer injustice or families be sundered or good repute be lost--because of this we cry peace, peace, and there is no peace. There is no peace because the making of peace is at least as costly as the making of war--at least as exigent, at least as disruptive, at least as liable to bring disgrace and prison and death in its wake.
[1969, No Bars to Manhood]
The only message I have to the world is: We are not allowed to kill innocent people. We are not allowed to be complicit in murder. We are not allowed to be silent while preparations for mass murder proceed in our name, with our money, secretly.
I have nothing else to say in the world. At other times one could talk about family life and divorce and birth control and abortion and many other questions. But this Mark 12A is here. And it renders all other questions null and void. Nothing, nothing can be settled until this is settled. Or this will settle us, once and for all.
It’s terrible for me to live in a time where I have nothing to say to human beings except, “Stop killing.” There are other beautiful thing that I would love to be saying to people. There are other projects I could be very helpful at. And I can’t do them. I cannot. Because everything is endangered. Everything is up for grabs. Ours is a kind of primitive situation, even though we would call ourselves sophisticated. Our plight Is very primitive from a Christian point of view. We are back where we started. Thou shall not kill. We are not allowed to kill.
(1981, court testimony during the trial of the Plowshares Eight)
I was in Europe some time ago, speaking on the nuclear question. I came in the wake of an internationally known moral theologian. He said, “The Berrigans are off base. They are talking about the Sermon on the Mount as though it were realizable now. What we really need is an ethic of the interim.” An ethic of the interim as I understand it, would allow us to fill the gap between today and tomorrow with the bodies of all who must die, before we accept the word of Christ. On the contrary, I think the Sermon on the Mount concerns us here and now, or concerns us never. In whatever modest and clumsy a way, we are called to honor the preference of Christ for suffering rather than inflicting suffering, for dying rather than killing. In that sense, all “interim ethics” have been cast aside. The time to obey is now.
Once there was a dead man, a criminal, a subject of capital punishment. And lo! He refused to stay dead. He stood up. As the authorities shortly came to sense, this was an earthquake in nature; in the nature of law and order, in the nature of death, the nature of war. For in the nature of things, as defined by the nation state (a great one for deciding what the nature of things is)--dead men stay dead. The word from Big Brother, the word that gives him clout, inspires fear, is--A criminal, once disposed of, stays disposed!
Not at all. Along come these crazies shouting in public, “Our man’s not dead, He’s risen!” Now I submit you can’t have such a word going around, and still run the state properly. The first nonviolent revolution was, of course, the Resurrection. The event had to include death as its first act. And also the command to Peter, “Put up your sword.” So that it might be clear, once and for all, that Christians suffer death rather than inflict it.
All worldly systems and arrangements are simply by-passed by the Resurrection, declared passe. If death has no hold over people, in the sense that they’ve exorcised their fear of death--then what’s left worth fearing, or worth hoping, from any worldly structure? They deserve, one and all, the feisty appellation conferred on them by a great modern Christian, Dorothy Day, “The filthy rotten system.” I take it she was referring to their main function, multiplying the metaphors and means of death. The end of such a world, as she realized, and regarded it, was not only near. The end has occurred.
* * * *
My teachers, among others, have been Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day, Gandhi, Thomas Merton, and my brother Philip, a continuity of nonviolence and non-ideology, stemming from the early church and the prophets, from Jesus himself.
My teachers are non-ideologues. They are attached to no self or special interest, including the self interest commonly considered most legitimate of all, their own lives. Simply put, they know how to live and how to die. They draw on the great earth‑time symbols that offer both “mimesis” and “praxis”--“the image” and “the movement.” Gandhi walked to the sea and took up the forbidden salt of the poor. King declared, “The church is the place you go from.“ He started in the church and went from there, breaking down segregation, economic injustice, and denouncing the Vietnam war.
Incomparably the greatest of these is Jesus, who for his part, took bread, broke it, and said, “This is my body, given for you.” Then he took a cup and said, “This is my blood, given for you.” The ethic of the body given, of the blood outpoured! The act led straight to the scaffold and to that “beyond” we name for want of a better word, resurrection.
We have not, in this century or any other, improved on this. More, being equally fearful of living and dying, we have yet to experience resurrection, which I translate, “the hope that hopes on.”
A blasphemy against this hope is named deterrence, or Trident submarine, or Star Wars, or preemptive strike, or simply, any nuclear weapon. These are in direct violation of the commandment of Jesus: “Your ancestors said, ‘An eye for an eye,’ but I say to you, offer no violent resistance to evil. Love your enemies.”
That is why we speak again and again of 1980 and all the Plowshares actions since, how some of us continue to labor to break the demonic clutch on our souls, of the ethic of Mars, of wars and rumor of wars, inevitable wars, just wars, necessary wars, victorious wars, and say our no in acts of hope. For us, all these repeated arrests, the interminable jailings, the life of our small communities, the discipline of nonviolence, these have embodied an ethic of resurrection.
Simply put, we long to taste that event, its thunders and quakes, its great Yes. We want to test the resurrection in our bones. To see if we might live in hope, instead of in the “silva oscura,” the thicket of cultural despair, nuclear despair, a world of perpetual war. We want to taste the resurrection. May I say we have not been disappointed.
Daniel Berrigan: Essential Writings; along with A Persistent Peace; Put Down the Sword, and Patricia Normile’s John Dear On Peace, are available from www.amazon.com.
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