Faith In Social Action – Remembering Daniel Berrigan


Religion, including our own UU faith, may be seen, as Rev. Carly Gaylor told us two weeks ago, as offering time out from the usual business of life by coming to a sanctuary Sunday morning and ‘finding ourselves’ within a community offering both continuity and change. It can also mean, as Calogero Cumbo suggested last week, acting on these values in the everyday world, such as respecting the inherent worth and dignity of every person (our 1st UU Principle).

This morning, I want to recall the radical commitment of one man, a respected poet and a lifelong member of the society of Jesus, to living the message of Jesus to ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’ and to recalling to his country, the United States, the commandment ‘thou shall not kill.’ His name was Daniel Berrigan. He became very well-known during the Vietnam war era as a passionate and eloquent anti-war resister, ready to break the law to denounce what he saw as a culture of death, where the supposed living, nominal Christians many of them, have died to the uncompromising appeal of Jesus to a life of love and justice and sharing.

Berrigan, who I knew quite superficially when he was a chaplain at Cornell University in 1967-68, died earlier this year at the age of 94. Before drawing a portrait of his life and social action, I, being a child of the Cold War, conscious that the Sixties of my college days is a remote historical period for many here, I would like to set the scene first.

Attending high school in the early sixties, my generation goes through the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis where Soviet Russia and the USA threaten the world with nuclear war in a dispute over ballistic missiles placed by the Soviets in Cuba. The following year, President John F. Kennedy is assassinated. When I go to Cornell University in the mid-sixties, the United States is becoming ever more troubled by violent racial tensions and an expanding, but unpopular war in Southeast Asia.

Male college students in the US are lucky, compared to other young men, in that we are not subject to the military draft, to conscription while we are still students. But hanging over our heads is the question, how to avoid the army after college: graduate study, the Coast Guard, simulated ill-health, or even exile to Canada. In my case, I return to my country of origin, Scotland. But huge numbers of working class black, white and Latino young men have none of these choices and are conscripted to fight in what is essentially a colonial war in Vietnam. Eventually, civil rights leaders, such as Dr. Martin Luther King, turn against the war due to the disproportionate suffering it places on the black community.

But in the wider community, refusing the war is widely seen as a non-starter, a profoundly anti-patriotic, selfish or subversive position, a stab in the back of the boys already serving in Vietnam. So how do you find the courage, the firmness to stand up and say ‘No’ when your whole society and culture seems hell-bent on war?

What gives you the critical distance from the conformity that belonging to a national community seems to require? How can you resist taking the wide and easy path of practicality, of realism, of committing the so-called ‘lesser evils’ for the greater good, but to proclaim, on the contrary, than no cause is good enough to justify the taking of human life?


So it might be useful for us to remember the path taken by Daniel Berrigan, both poet and activist, who combined spiritual depth and literary creativity, on one hand, with a ministry to the world, on the other hand, that led him to defy the laws of his government in order to oppose the injustice of drafting young men to fight a colonial war in Asia.

Daniel Berrigan was one of several children born into a working class family. his younger brother Philip, who he much admired, also became a priest and an anti-war activist. They grew up in the Twenties and Thirties. Berrigan, at 18, knowing little about them beforehand, entered the Jesuits in 1939 and there discovered, in his words, ‘the presence of God in the human community’ and admittedly a great love of the austere ‘Jesuit style.’

While developing as an academic and writer, his thinking is strongly influenced by the U.S. journalist Dorothy Day and her progressive Catholic Worker movement. (Here in Montréal, the shelter for the homeless Maison Benoît Labre is contemporary off-shoot of that movement.)

In 1953-54, Berrigan spends a year living in a Jesuit community near Lyon in France. There, his mind expands, he discovers another cultural universe and also a community suffering from two major blows: a conservative pope disbands the worker priest movement and a Third World peasant army defeats France decisively at Dienbienphu in northern Vietnam.


Berrigan returns to the United States and pursues an academic and literary path, publishing his first collection of poetry, Time without Number, winning the Lamont Poetry Award in 1957. Returning to France in 1963-64, he visits Eastern Europe and co-founds the Catholic Peace Fellowship. Back in the States, he realizes that the US is reliving with the Vietnam war the same ‘already bankrupt experience’ that France had gone through in the 1950s in Vietnam.

For his progressive and anti-war stances, the Church hierarchy exiles him briefly, in 1965, to Latin America, which is quite extraordinary as it is a bit like trying to extinguish a burning rag by throwing it into a pail of gasoline, given the then progressive ferment in parts of the Church there. In 1967, Berrigan takes up a relatively sheltered chaplaincy position at Cornell and then becomes the first priest in US history to be arrested during an anti-war protest.

Early the following year, he flies to Hanoi to bring back three US airmen and, several months on, gets arrested again with his brother Philip and seven other Catholics, for raiding a Draft Board office in Catonsville, MD, and burning draft records with home-made napalm.

Convicted, he does not go meekly into prison, but goes on the run from the FBI for five months, hidden and sheltered by friends, popping up in a church unexpectedly to give a sermon, and addressing an open letter to the ‘violent antiwar’ Weather Underground. He writes to them: ‘No principle is worth the sacrifice of a single human being. … When madness is an acceptable public state of mind, we are all in danger, for madness is an infection in the air. … A revolution is interesting insofar as it avoids like the plague the plague it promised to heal.’ His letter helps turn this group away from the path of armed resistence.

Paroled after two years in prison, Berrigan goes off to Paris in 1974 and spends a year with the popular Zen Buddhist thinker Thich Nhat Hanh, and publishes Lights On in the House of the Dead: A Prison Diary, reflections from his time in prison. From 1976 onward, he becomes a permanent member of the West Side Jesuit Community in Manhattan and, for the rest of his life, continues to teach, as an invited lecturer, in various colleges around the United States, to lead retreats, to protest, to get arrested, and, of course, to continue publishing books of parables, poetry and essays.

In the 1990s, he writes a series of books on the major and minor prophets of the Old Testament. In 2002, a major light of his life, his brother Philip, dies. Berrigan continues his work well into the 21st century.

Before preparing this talk, my ideas about Berrigan had been formed largely by his book of parables, Love, Love at the End, which he wrote at Cornell, at that point in his life where he turns toward direct action. However, recently I read a large collection of his Essential Writings, and began to understand, at least, very partially the tradition of the prophets and the story of Jesus that nourished his life and action.

To realize that he lived a life where the love of the other, particularly the suffering: the poor, the black, the Vietnamese peasant, was framed by the constant struggle of life against death, of truth and justice against apathy, numbness and amnesia, in other words, against being dead to life.

To give you a little of the flavor of his engaged poetic work, here’s a short poem from his Night Flight To Hanoi:

Children in the shelter

Imagine; three of them.

As though survival

Were a rat’s word.

And a rat’s end

Waited there at the end

And I must have

In the century’s boneyard

Heft of flesh and bone in my arms

I picked up the littlest

A boy, his face

Breaded with rice (his sister calmly feeding him

As we climbed down)

In my arms fathered

In a moment’s grace, the messiah

Of all my tears. I bore, reborn

A Hiroshima child from hell.



He was a priest who had the audacity to say that the Sermon on the Mount was not just a nostalgic Sunday morning homily telling the story about the crucified ‘Son of God’ who sits up there with his Heavenly Father, but a message for the here and now, to be lived by every Christian, even if that resistence to violence will cost him or her their job, their good reputation, their freedom and maybe even their life. For authentic Christians, do not take life, they give life, their own life.

He is aware that draft board actions like that of the Catonsville Nine in 1968 profoundly shocked the American Catholic community, who had so mightly strived to be accepted as real 100% Americans within a nation whose Protestant identity was implicit since the founding of the Republic. Remember only eight years before, John F. Kennedy was elected as the first Catholic president, despite the anti-Catholic animus murmuring that a man answering to the Pope could not lead America.

So for Berrigan, American Catholics, also lacking the tradition of dissent, that you might find, say, among the Quakers or the Mennonites, have a harder time shaking off the mental shackles of normalcy, the prison of national culture. He is also aware that the vast majority of people, Catholic or not, have trouble imagining their life being different from how it is, with the normal responsibilities of job and family and friends.

He is quite aware of how radical his appeal to conscience, to social justice is. But he pleads for our understanding that resistance is not a choice for him and his fellow protesters. On the Catonsville draft record destruction, he writes: ‘Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture 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.’

Even after the end of the Vietnam war, he and his fellow peacemakers continue the struggle against the arms race and the risk of nuclear war. He writes: ‘The arms race is to be understood by Christians as a mystery of that evil we name death.’

The injustice of war implies a blasphemous inflation of human authority, that humans are allowed to decree who shall live and who shall die, to dispose of human differences by disposing of humans.

He defends individual conscience against the institutional power of the Nation-State and even at times the institution of the Church. However, conscience does not come out of nowhere. at the 1980 trial of Berrigan and seven other protesters for destroying ballistic missile re-entry nose cones, he states: ‘We would like to speak to you, each of us in a different way, about our communities; because, you see, it is our conviction that nobody in the world can form his or her conscience alone.’

Writing about his tradition and community of belief which lent him the strength to say ‘No’ to the insidious appeal to use violence for supposedly good ends, he notes: ‘Through the prophets, Yahweh strives mightily for a breakthrough on the human landscape of history, to bring light to our unenlightened human tribe, to speak the truth, unwelcome as it is, of who we are, of who we are called to become: friends, sisters, brothers of one another. … Jesus stands in this line of these hapless heroes. Willy-nilly, the afflictions of the prophets are his own.’

Berrigan calls us to the imitation of Christ: the message of love and non-violence, the gift of one’s own blood, of one’s life, rather than the shedding of the other’s blood, the taking of life, and, like Jesus, an acceptance of the death sentence the world imposes. Not at all an easy example to follow. For Berrigan, our capacity to love our neighbor, a being who, despite some surface dissimilarities, is really like ourself, is the ‘heart of the matter.’

Late in life, he admitted that the situation was worse than when he started his struggle for peace in the Vietnam era, but immediate results and efficiency are not required; the struggle for peace, truth and justice is for the long haul.

Today, when we wake up to the fact that most of us think it completely normal that extra-judicial killings are meted out around the world by drones flying in the sky, and while not normal, but perhaps inevitable, that thousands drown each year in the Mediterranean Sea and Indian Ocean, often fleeing from wars and chaos engendered by some leader’s foreign policy vanity project or by ethnic cleansing, do we not despair of the state of our world, of our humanity?

For Daniel Berrigan, ‘Love, Love at the End‘ is the hope that the path (or ‘the way’) of humanity will eventually reach ‘love thy neighbor as thyself’ in the fullness of time. Once asked the ‘meaning of life’ by a young priest, Berrigan replies: ‘If you want to be hopeful, you have to do hopeful things.’ As for his own life, I think he would want to be remembered as a man, as a Jesuit and as a peacemaker.

– Christopher Thomson, 2016-09-25



Prayer from a picket line (1968)

Bring the big guardian

Angels or devils in black

Jackets and whites casques

Into the act at last. Love, love at the end.

The landholders withholding

No more; the jails springing

Black and white easter men;

Truncheons like lilies, hoses

Gentle as baby pee. Love, love at the end.

Bishops down in the ranks

Mayors making it too.

Sheriff meek as a shorn lamb

Smelling like daisies, drinking dew.

Love, love at the end.

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