Daniel Berrigan: America’s Street Priest
The Rev. Daniel Berrigan, undaunted at 92 and full of the fire that makes him one of this nation’s most courageous voices for justice, stands in New York City’s Zuccotti Park. He is there, along with other clergy, to ask Trinity Church, which is the third-largest landowner in Manhattan, to drop charges against Occupy activists, including retired Episcopal Bishop George Packard, for occupying its empty lot on 6th Avenue and Canal Street on Dec. 17. The protesters, slated to go to court Monday, June 11, hoped to establish a new Liberty Square on the lot after being evicted by New York City police from Zuccotti in November. But Trinity had the demonstrators arrested. It chose to act like a real estate company, or the corporation it has become, rather than a church. And its steadfast refusal to drop the charges means that many of those arrested, including Packard, could spend as long as three months in jail.
“This is the only way to bring faith to the public and the public to the faith,” Berrigan said softly as we spoke before the demonstration in the park that was once the epicenter of Occupy Wall Street. “If faith does not touch the lives of others it has no point. Faith always starts with oneself. It means an overriding sense of responsibility for the universe, making sure that universe is left in good hands and the belief that things will finally turn out right if we remain faithful. But I underscore the word ‘faithful.’ This faith was embodied in the Occupy movement from the first day. The official churches remained slow. It is up to us to take the initiative and hope the churches catch up.”
There is one place, Berrigan says, where those who care about justice need to be—in the streets. The folly of electoral politics, the colossal waste of energy invested in the charade of the Wisconsin recall, which once again funneled hopes and passion back into a dead political system and a bankrupt Democratic Party, the failure by large numbers of citizens to carry out mass acts of civil disobedience, will only ensure that we remain hostages to corporate power.
Berrigan believes, as did Martin Luther King, that “the evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and the evils of racism.” And he has dedicated his life to fighting these evils. It is a life worth emulating.
Berrigan, a Jesuit priest, was ordained 70 years ago. He was a professor at Le Moyne College, Cornel University and Fordham University. His book of poems, “Time Without Number,” won the Lamont Poetry Prize. But it is as a religious radical that he gained national prominence, as well as numerous enemies within the Roman Catholic hierarchy. He and his brother Philip Berrigan, a Josephite priest and World War II combat veteran, along with the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, led some of the first protests against the Vietnam War. In 1967 Philip Berrigan was arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience and was sentenced to six years in prison. Philip’s sentence spurred Daniel to greater activism. He traveled to Hanoi with the historian Howard Zinn to bring back three American prisoners of war. And then he and eight other Catholic priests concocted homemade napalm and on May 17, 1968, used it to burn 378 draft files in the parking lot of the Catonsville, Md., draft board.
“Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children,” Berrigan wrote at the time of the destruction of draft files. “How many must die before our voices are heard, how many must be tortured, dislocated, starved, maddened? When, at what point, will you say no to this war?”
Berrigan was a fugitive for four months after being sentenced. He was apprehended by the FBI in the home of the writer William Stringfellow, whose decision to live and write out of Harlem in the 1950s and whose books “Dissenter in a Great Society” and “My People Is the Enemy” were instrumental in prompting me as a seminarian to live and work in Boston’s inner city, in the Roxbury neighborhood. Berrigan was sentenced to three years and released from the federal prison in Danbury, Conn., in 1972. But he did not stop. In 1980 he and Philip, along with six other protesters, illegally entered the General Electric nuclear missile facility in King of Prussia, Pa. They damaged nuclear warhead cones and poured blood onto documents. He was again sentenced and then paroled for time already served in prison. Philip, by the time he died in 2002, had spent more than a decade in prison for acts of civil disobedience. Philip Berrigan, Zinn said in eulogizing him, was “one of the great Americans of our time.”
In a culture that lacks many authentic heroes, that continues to preach that military service is the highest good, Berrigan is a potent reminder of what we must seek to become. His is a life of constant agitation, constant defiance, constant disobedience to systems of power, a life of radical obedience to God. His embrace of what has been called “Christian anarchism,” because of its persistent alienation and hostility to all forms of power, is the most effective form of resistance. And it is the clearest expression of the Christian Gospel. Berrigan has been arrested numerous times—“I don’t waste time counting,” he told me—for also protesting American intervention in Central America and the first Gulf War, as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has demonstrated against the death penalty, in support of LGBT rights and against abortion. And even in his 90s he is not finished.
“If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal,” he said to me, quoting Emma Goldman. He added his brother Phil’s reminder that “if enough Christians follow the Gospel, they can bring any state to its knees.”
“Some people today argue that equanimity achieved through inner spiritual work is a necessary condition for sustaining one’s ethical and political commitments,” Berrigan 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.”
“I know that the prophetic vision is not popular today in some spiritual circles,” he goes on. “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.”
Berrigan says he is sustained by his “invisible witnesses”: those he loves, such as the Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton and his brother Philip, who, although all deceased, give him the power and the strength to continue to resist.
“They are not absent,” he said in our conversation. “Their presence is not erased. Their presence is purer and stronger. And their presence is victory over death. It is love. And in their presence I find strength.”
“But what of the price of peace?” Berrigan writes in his book “No Bars to Manhood.” “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 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.’ ”
Contrast Daniel Berrigan, who lives in a single room with a half dozen other retired priests in a parish house in lower Manhattan, with the imperious rector of Trinity Church, the Rev. Dr. James Cooper. Cooper earns $1.3 million a year, lives in a $5.5 million SoHo townhouse, receives a church allowance to maintain his Florida condo, dips into church funds to take his family on African safaris and oversees the church’s $1 billion in Manhattan real estate holdings from which the church receives as much as $30 million a year. He spent $5 million on a public relations campaign, nearly double the $2.7 million the church gave out in grants, in one year. Ten of the church’s 22-member vestry—its board of directors—have quit over Cooper’s authoritarianism and extravagance.
Cooper, like Berrigan, attended seminary and studied the Gospel, but he has modeled his life after Herod rather than Jesus. He has turned Trinity Church into a temple to greed. He is an appropriate priest for Wall Street. And on Monday, when activists appear in court because he and the other leaders of Trinity Church are determined to prosecute them, Cooper should consider removing the Christian cross from the sanctuary and replacing it with the true symbol he appears to worship—the dollar sign.
“All we have is one another to sustain us,” Berrigan told me. “Community is not magical. It means people are willing to be human beings together. And it means they are willing to pay the price for being human.”
Copyright © 2012 Truthdig, L.L.C.