It is one of the most striking photographs of the Vietnam War era, and it happened
because of Philip Berrigan.
On the ground, wire baskets stuffed with draft notices are on fire, the flames
appearing to lick the knees of a pair of Catholic priests who stand behind them.
It is May 1968 and the priests are the brothers Philip and Daniel Berrigan. They
wear black with Roman collars and stand in a pose of benediction.
They have taken the files from an office of the Selective Service board that is
sending young men to fight in Southeast Asia. They have soaked the papers in homemade
napalm, which burns well. With seven others, they came to Catonsville, Md., to
perform this act of civil disobedience: the first mass burning of draft files.
The Catonsville 9
The group conducted its business in plain sight. The photo, taken by a news
photographer who was tipped off beforehand, appeared on front pages around the
Some saw the act as a stroke of moral boldness, an authoritative rebuke to
an unjust war and the draft that made it possible. Others criticized it as the
nihilistic politics of guilt and martyrdom.
Certainly, we have had reason of late to fear those who would place their
religious beliefs above the prerogatives of the state. But there is an instructive
difference between what Philip Berrigan did in 1968, and continued to do until
shortly before his death from cancer last week, and the fanatical acts of those
who would claim to be agents of God's will.
Philip Berrigan, very simply, shunned violence. This is not as easy as it
sounds. Many radicals, from the abolitionist John Brown to anti-abortion assassins,
have used violence as a means to achieving their version of righteous ends. As
a pacifist, Berrigan never did. He survived a Depression era boyhood, served as
an artilleryman and officer in World War II, then followed his brother Daniel
into the priesthood.
He spoke out early against segregation in the South from pulpits in Washington,
D.C., and Louisiana, protested the Vietnam War before many could find that country
on a map and raised a long and persistent alarm against nuclear weapons.
In 1980, after he had left the priesthood, he devised another new form of
protest. With seven others, he entered a nuclear weapons facility and hammered
and threw blood on missile parts. He called such protests "Plowshares actions,"
after the biblical injunction to turn swords into plowshares. He committed six
of these actions himself and inspired dozens of others around the country.
He spent 11 of the last 31 years of his life in prison. But he could take
the weight, as longtime inmates say.
In the tradition of Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., he believed that suffering
for one's beliefs was the best way to disarm enemies. This is extremely idealistic
but disciplined, too — a discipline formed by faith even though he could be critical
of the church. A student once asked him why he was still a Catholic. He replied:
"Where else can I go? My roots are in the church, in Thomas à Becket, the Christian
martyrs of Rome, Thomas More."
A few years ago, he admitted that "even sympathizers thought Plowshares actions
look ridiculous now, a sermon to the converted, ignored by government and the
media, the public no longer listening."
All true. On the other hand, Philip Berrigan has left an unusual legacy of
a radical who kept absolute faith with nonviolence. It's there in the photo. And
in the life.
Murray Polner and Jim O'Grady are authors of ``Disarmed and Dangerous:
The Radical Lives and Times of Daniel and Philip Berrigan.''
Copyright The New York Times Company