Berrigan Still Rails Against War
Published on Monday, November 25, 2002 by the Baltimore Sun
Berrigan Still Rails Against War
As anti-war activist Philip Berrigan approaches the end of his battle, his conscience remains as clear as his mission
by Carl Schoettler

Philip Berrigan uses a walker to hobble slowly to the lectern in the library at West Chester University in southeastern Pennsylvania. He seems frail, but perhaps that's because he's always been so robust.

He's lost weight and his hair is white and his voice soft and hollow when he begins to speak. Thinness has given his face a craggy, monumental look. His deep-set eyes are shadowed by the overhead lights in this elegant, wood-paneled library room. At 78, he has perhaps earned the face he deserves. He reads a bit haltingly from a paper on his unwavering opposition to war and nuclear weapons. But his talk flashes with the old fire and wit as he warms to his task, echoing the strength of the past.

"For a long time I've been astonished by the fact that the human family has not caught on, not caught on at all, to the bankruptcy of violence and killing," he says. "Violence is, was, always will be, bankrupt, anti-human, criminal - always!"

Philip Berrigan
Philip Berrigan, member of the Catonsville Nine, from the film, "Investigation of a Flame."
He's been preaching that sermon for nearly half a lifetime. He's the patriarch of the Catholic anti-war movement and he's paid for his right to speak with hard time in jail. He figures he's spent 11 of the last 35 or 40 years behind bars. His last stretch ended just about a year ago. He'd been inside since December 1999 after banging on some A-10 Warthog warplanes in an anti-war protest at the Middle River Air National Guard base. Jim Smith, the judge who sentenced him for the Middle River action, has just been elected Baltimore County executive.

"Poor man," Berrigan says, not without a certain irony. "Catholic judge of the year."

Berrigan's had increasingly bad health problems during this last year out of jail. He broke his arm in April, which postponed a hip replacement operation until mid-summer. Then his recovery from hip surgery was very slow.

"So I checked into Sinai for tests to find out what was wrong and they discovered this cancer of the liver."

He's scheduled for his first chemotherapy session at Johns Hopkins Hospital on the morning after his West Chester talk.

The audience, 150 or so people who have come out on a nasty, rainy night for the university's Activist Days, listen with reverent respect to Berrigan and his wife, Elizabeth McAlister, who gives her own tough speech. They're treated like village elders passing on hard-won wisdom. They autograph lots of books and posters before driving home to Baltimore.

A few days after the chemotherapy, Berrigan sits in the living room of Jonah House. Sun streams through the windows overlooking the old cemetery of St. Peter the Apostle Church. The buzz of lawn mowers filters in. McAlister and Susan Crane, another member of the community, are cutting the grass. St. Peter's, closed now, once served Irish and Italian communities in Southwest Baltimore. The graveyard was rundown and overrun with trees and underbrush before Jonah House took over its care in exchange for being able to live there.

"Well, I've had my first bout with chemotherapy," Berrigan says. "No nausea. No diarrhea. It didn't hit me hard at all."

No pain so far?

"Your liver is down there on the right side and I have a little twinge down there," he says.

Always in touch

"I was answering letters when you arrived," he tells a visitor. "Some days I get eight or 10. Not as many [as in jail], but a good number. Once they learn about this cancer, they say they're praying for me. They start talking about involvement, what they've been doing against [President] Bush's policies."

Berrigan, predictably enough, finds himself totally opposed to the Bush administration. He talks about the powerful with harsh hyperbole.

"Beginning with the stolen election in Florida," he says, "then the hardening of his campaign promises. And then adhering to a paper that was written about 10 years ago and was edited by his chief aides, like [Vice President Dick] Cheney and [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld and [Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul] Wolfowitz ... , which went beyond the war in Afghanistan - which, of course, was an enormous swindle in itself - to Iraq and the invasion there and the control of the Middle East and its oil. And to do this with military might and then to leapfrog around the planet ...

"And all of this is enforced by our military," he says. "We say to people, 'If you don't like it, what are you going to do about it?' They're talking about Pax Americana. The most flagrant type of imperialism."

Earlier in the day, John Pilger, a British journalist and filmmaker, sent Berrigan an e-mail about demonstrations spreading across America. Later on, Ramsey Clark, a former U.S. attorney general who is now an anti-war and human rights activist, calls with an extended conversation.

Berrigan answers all his calls and letters.

"That used to be a rule with Gandhi," he says. "Everyone who wrote him would get an answer. And he had many more letters to answer than I ever have."

He still writes inmates he met in jail. He's got a couple of letters in today's mail that he has to answer.

"They ask me for money," he says. "If I can spare any I send some on. I used to help a lot of guys. Because friends would send in a lot of money, I had a good healthy commissary account. I used to shop for them. You'd go to the commissary and you'd buy them cigarettes. You'd buy them coffee. You'd buy them a little candy every now and then, hard candy. Things like that. And it makes a hell of a difference in their lives. Some of them are flat broke."

You're never conned?

"Oh, yeah. All the time," he says, matter-of-factly. "You are conned. And you better accept that. Oh, sure."

He laughs.

"You can't tell and you're not going to do a lot of detective work. What's the difference. But not always. Very often there's real need. The only thing that irritates me is they'll [get] stuff from me and then they'll trade it with other prisoners and make a little profit sometimes."

Berrigan seemed to use a lot of Biblical references in his West Chester talk. Does he think he's more or less religious these days?

"You know you learn all the time," he says. "We get up in the morning here and we go through the day's scripture. Now in the Catholic church they have different scriptural readings from the Old and New Testament every day. So we read two of them and then we meditate and discuss those readings and their contemporary application. ... Then we do a lot of prayer on our own the rest of the day. All of us do."

So you find justification in the Bible for your activism?

"Oh, very definitely," he says. "I don't think I'd be anywhere as an activist if I didn't get authority from the Bible. No, I wouldn't be doing it."

He claims Biblical authority even for such things as his action in disabling aircraft at Middle River.

"Oh, sure," he says. "I was going over the prophecy of Isaiah, in the second chapter. ... He speaks of beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. That's the word of God spoken to us. He says the time of peace will come where the nations, everybody, will be doing this, destroying the implements of war and we won't train for war again.

"That's your authority. We're bringing that to pass right now because those planes - once you've disarmed them, they can't fly until they repair them. So we're bringing that to pass ... and that's what we're commanded to do."

How long have you been doing this kind of stuff?

"Since 1966," he says. He was arrested for pouring blood on draft files at the U.S. Customs House in a protest against the war in Vietnam. And, of course, he was one of the Catonsville Nine who burned files at a draft board in one of the more famous actions of that era. "Well, before that I was breaking the law in the civil rights struggle. I was arrested down in Selma, Ala., and that would be 1962 or 1963."

He was ordained as a Josephite priest in 1955. Josephites have a special mission to serve African-Americans. He was assigned to teach in New Orleans, where he got caught up in the civil rights movement.

"Then Martin Luther King began to evolve his own philosophy of resistance [from] Jesus and Gandhi. He was a Gandhian. I used to attend all those sessions and I joined all those folks and they had a considerable influence on me because they taught me something I didn't know at all and that was non-violence.

"And then I saw it practiced down there. ... There were the Freedom Riders. People were killed. People were going to jail. That [had] a tremendous influence on me."

Wartime experience

So did his service in World War II.

"I was an infantry platoon officer," he says. "I know how to handle small arms. I was an experienced marksman, all of that. See, I'm a violent person. I came out of that war a good killer. I was an accomplished killer."

He went overseas as a noncommissioned officer in an artillery battalion that started out in Normandy and Brittany and crossed France into Belgium and the Netherlands. He crossed into Germany as an infantry officer. During the Battle of the Bulge he was sent to infantry officers training school at Fontainebleau, near Paris.

"So I saw normal action as an artillery man, but not too much as an infantry platoon officer. God spared me from that. That's a rough way to go."

New second lieutenants had a high mortality rate, which is why the Army set up the school at Fontainebleau, he says. The infantry school at Fort Benning in Georgia couldn't supply them fast enough.

"You were out there living with the men," he says. "Your life expectancy in combat was about two minutes before you were knocked out, either wounded or else killed."

When he came home from the war he finished up work he needed for his degree at Holy Cross College. Then he entered the Josephite seminary in Washington.

"I attended the seminary with a lot of black seminarians from our missions in the South. They were black Southerners and they taught me a lot."

He says he moved step by step to nonviolence.

You don't ever get discouraged?

"No," he says, quietly. "One of the strengths of community is that you have around you people who fight discouragement just like you do. And if we start to feel sorry for ourselves there is always another person to help with that and give reasons why we shouldn't be sorry for ourselves."

So what has been the effect of these 40 years of resistance?

"I don't know. It's had all sorts of effect for me, that's for sure."

Long stretches in jail, for example.

"Then, too, I think I have helped quite a number of people, both abroad in Western Europe and in Australia and here, to see what's coming down. Modestly I can say that. You can't make any great claims. I've helped a great deal with this Plowshares disarmament thing. I've done a lot of work on that."

And he has a full schedule of work yet to do.

"I have to go to the University of Missouri at Columbia soon. I have to go to Kentucky in January to conduct an activist retreat and I have two places in California to go to in the spring. Yeah, they keep me running."

But he recently had to cancel an engagement in Milwaukee.

"I just wasn't up it."

The buzz of the lawn mowers stops and McAlister and Crane come in for lunch. Willa Bickham and Brendan Walsh have brought a big pan of eggplant lasagna from their Viva House Catholic Worker center and everybody sits down to eat.

After lunch McAlister helps her husband down the back steps to the cemetery. He climbs laboriously onto a power mower seat and he sets off to do his part for the Jonah House community by cutting his share of the grass on the old burial ground.

Copyright © 2002 The Baltimore Sun