Lessons From the Catonsville Nine
Forty years ago tomorrow, nine committed followers of Christ entered the Selective Service Office in Catonsville. They moved past three surprised office workers, who questioned what they were doing but did not stop them. The nine quickly gathered 378 1-A draft files in wire baskets, then took them to the parking lot and immolated them with a homemade version of napalm. They prayed quietly over the burning papers until the police arrested them 15 minutes later.
So began one of the most celebrated -- or infamous -- acts of civil disobedience in the nation's history. What made it so significant was its disturbing resonance for millions of Catholics in the U.S.
War challenges every religious virtue; it tests the conflict between belief and civil act as nothing else can.
Now, four decades later, we are again in a war in a country we can barely identify, a country whose language, people, religion, history and culture we neither know nor understand. Interestingly, the Catonsville Nine anniversary is occurring during a debate over whether to establish a permanent ROTC site at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County campus in Catonsville, amid objections to the "militarization" of college life. These issues, so prominent during the Vietnam era, are still very much with us.
The Catonsville Nine took Christ's teachings seriously, particularly his lecture from the Sermon on the Mount, where resisting evil became the moral cornerstone of the Christian faith. For them, there was no separation between belief and action. One either lived the moral code of Christ, without exemption, or abandoned it. For those of religious integrity, they believed, one cannot call oneself Christian and then live as something else.
By 1968, the Vietnam War was ripping America apart. Our actions seemed insane, our rationales ever shifting, our goal never clear. The impact on Vietnamese society as well as on our troops was confusing, demoralizing and deadly. What was clear, however, was that we were dropping more than 9 million tons of bombs on Indochina's military and civilian populations. We were dropping 72 million liters of biochemical poisons on the land and its people. And, of course, there was hell's fire: napalm. We used 400,000 tons of it.
By May 1968, the Catonsville Nine had enough. They chose to directly confront the state, to protest where the nation's leaders had taken us.
The nine were not naive. One of them, the Rev. Philip Berrigan, thought their actions would probably be viewed as arrogant. Certainly they would invite scorn, punishment and perhaps the worst of responses: silence. He was wrong. For many, their actions were stunning. Many Americans fondly recall a group of people who would not be numbed by the killing.
Yet Mr. Berrigan's concern about silence lingers. When we are silent in the face of evil -- whether launched against a human fetus, a child subjected to "shock and awe" or a civilian whose death is defined as collateral damage -- we are all in some sense accomplices to that evil.
In a play written by another of the nine, the Rev. Daniel Berrigan, and based upon the trial transcripts of their conviction, his brother Philip argued: "Let lawmakers, judges and lawyers think less of the law, and more of justice; less of legal ritual, more of human rights. To our bishops and superiors, we say: Learn something about the gospel and something about illegitimate power. When you do, you will liquidate your investments, take a house in the slums, or even join us in jail."
The story of the Catonsville Nine should reignite our examination of why we find ourselves where we do. Most wars are less about ideology than money, less about providing security than maintaining power, less about faith than profit. Someone benefits, and it is never the soldier.
As we poured billions into Vietnam -- and are now in the process of pouring several trillion into avast and complex void called Iraq -- whose interests are served? The Catonsville Nine would say there is no escape from the question.
Ron Manuto writes on civil rights and legal issues from California. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org. Sean Patrick O'Rourke is chairman of the communication studies department at Furman University in Greenville, S.C. His e-mail is email@example.com.
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