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The Radical Faith of Philip Berrigan
Published on Wednesday, December 11, 2002 by the New York Times
The Radical Faith of Philip Berrigan
by Murray Polner and Jim O'Grady
 

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.

The Catonsville 9
The Catonsville 9
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 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 world.

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 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

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