On The Road to Peace
Monthly Newsletter from Fr. John
Peace be with you! On April 30th, my great friend and teacher died at age 94-Fr. Daniel Berrigan. He was one of the greatest peacemakers and saints of modern times.
Last year, I took Dan up to Syracuse for Easter, and we had morning Mass together with his brother Jerry and Carol and their daughter Carla, and we heard the Easter text about Jesus standing by the Sea of Galilee. Even though he was so frail and sick, Dan said a beautiful thing: "Look at that beach by the Sea of Galilee. Look at that Easter breakfast with the risen Jesus. There are no bombs, no nuclear weapons, no guns, no tears, no violence, no death. It's perfect peace, with the risen Jesus and he makes breakfast for us in perfect peace."
That was one of a million extraordinary moments I shared with Dan, and a typical moment as well which sums up Dan's life and life message: that as people of resurrection, we have nothing to do with death and the culture of death; that from now on we are followers of the nonviolent risen Jesus, and so we are not afraid, we go forth, we speak out, we take action for peace and we live as people of resurrection peace and nonviolence.
I heard that almost every day throughout my 35 year friendship with Dan. In my first visit to his Jesuit community long ago, we stayed up late talking. I was about 22, and I wanted to ask Dan the meaning of life, and blurted out, "Dan, what's the point of all this again?" And without missing a beat, he said, "All you have to do is make your story fit into Jesus' story, and then just close your eyes to the culture of death and open your eyes to your friends."
That's one way to look at Dan's extraordinary life-growing up in Syracuse with five brothers and his parents; entering the Jesuits with Jack St. George at 17, in 1939, just two weeks before World War II started; becoming a great teacher at Brooklyn prep; writing poetry on the side and then getting discovered by Marianne Moore and having his first book win the great poetry award; going on to publish over fifty books of poetry, essays, journals, and scripture commentaries; traveling in the early sixties to Paris; Czechoslovakia; Russia; South Africa; going to Selma; then with Phil, beginning to speak out on the Vietnam war, and all the while, staying close to his teachers and friends Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.
Then the tumultuous events that put him on the world stage---getting arrested in October 1967 at the big protest at the Pentagon, making Dan the first priest in U.S. history to be arrested for protesting war; going to Hanoi with Howard Zinn and staying in the shelter as the U.S. dropped bombs over them; going to Catonsville with Phil and the others and burning draft files with homemade napalm and capturing the imagination of the nation and the world; going through that extraordinary trial and turning the transcript into a play that would be performed around the world; not turning himself in but going underground, and turning up here and there to give talks; going to prison in Danbury for nearly two years and nearly dying there; going to France to live with Thich Nhat Hanh to begin the journey of healing. And all that followed, the hundreds and hundreds of arrests against war; the thousands of retreats and talks and interviews; the formation of a great community, the 98th Street Jesuit community; and of course, the first plowshares action in 1980, with Phil and friends, where they walked into the nuclear weapons plant and hammered on an unarmed nuclear nosecone, and thus fulfilling the scripture from Isaiah that some day, people will beat their swords into plowshares and study war no more.
At Catonsville, he wrote one of the most powerful anti-war statements in history: "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."
At the Plowshares Trial, he put it this way: "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. 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 things that I would love to say. 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."
Knowing Dan so well, for me, it all comes back to the nonviolent Jesus and his resurrection. Here's what Dan wrote about Jesus: "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--dead men stay dead. The word from Big Brother is--A criminal, once disposed of, stays disposed! Not at all. Along come these crazies shouting in public, 'Our guy's not dead, He's risen!' Now I submit you can't have such a word going around, and still run the state. The first nonviolent revolution was, of course, the Resurrection. That 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." That's classic Dan---putting the story of Jesus in a whole new way, and inspiring millions in the process.
In a talk at Fordham, in the early 1980s, he said, "All these repeated arrests, the interminable jailings, the life of our small communities, the discipline of nonviolence, they 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 cultural despair, nuclear despair, a world of perpetual war. We want to taste the resurrection. May I say we have not been disappointed."
Dan's life and death are a call, a summons, an invitation, to become people of resurrection peace and nonviolence like him; to resist the culture of death and live life to the full; to practice nonviolence and work for the abolition of war, poverty, nuclear weapons and environmental destruction; to make our story fit into Jesus' story; to recognize that with the risen Jesus there are no more bombs, no more war, no more nuclear weapons, so that, like Dan, from now on, we go forth proclaiming peace near and far, and herald the coming of a new world of nonviolence, the kingdom of God at hand. Thank you Dan.