He walked into prison like a modern-day Buddha, completely at peace. Daniel Berrigan, the priest-activist who has seen the inside of more jails than most career criminals, was returning to prison once again. But this time, he came at the invitation of his brothers in prison, not in chains.
I rushed to meet him at the front desk where all visitors must be identified and processed. He wore a plaid flannel shirt, jeans, and a stocking cap; at seventy he looked more frail than in the dust-jacket photos on his twenty-odd books or in the newspaper accounts of his sentencing to Danbury and Lewisburg in the 1970s.
After Berrigan and I shook hands and passed a few moments in conversation, the guard told him he needed an identification card with a photograph. Berrigan looked bewildered. “I don’t carry an ID,” he said. “You need some photo ID or you can’t get in,” the guard repeated. “Of course, you must recognize Father Berrigan,” I said. But the guard was twenty-one or twenty-two: represented here were not only two different ways of being in the world, but a generation gap as well.
I rushed upstairs to my cell and returned with a half-dozen books that showed Berrigan’s face on the covers. The guard did not dispute the likeness but reiterated that the photos had to be officially attached to an ID. Berrigan stared with mild amusement at a photo of himself taken in the early 1970s. He seemed undaunted by the guard’s repeated refusal to allow him in, as if he were oblivious to the whole process.
After I found a supervisor who finally approved his admittance, I turned to look for Berrigan and saw him leaning against the wall, totally detached from the surrounding chaos. When he learned he had been cleared for the visit, he nodded as though nothing had happened.
As we talked, I began to get a sense of the man behind the legend, of the fiery radical, the internationally renowned social activist, and the unyielding antiwar protester. Soft-spoken and meditative, Berrigan’s presence defies the cynics and attests to his deep Christian commitment.
When Berrigan joined the Jesuits in 1939 at the age of eighteen, he felt immediately at home in a community that would sustain his burning idealism yet temper his passion with discipline and thought. Recalling those early years in the order, Berrigan said, “I think they gave me a deep sense of the presence of God in the world, and especially in the human community. I fell immediately and incurably in love with the Jesuit style.”
Berrigan was ordained to the priesthood in 1952 and was assigned to do what he does best: teach. After eleven years in the classroom, he was granted a sabbatical from his post at Le Moyne University and traveled abroad. This trip marked a turning point in his life.
Traveling in eastern Europe, he met with members of beleaguered Christian communities in Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and the Soviet Union. “The impact of that trip on me is ineradicable. I was seeing firsthand the damage wrought to the human spirit in the West as a result of the Cold War. . . . I was also exposed to the full glare of Christian world opinion with regard to our part in the Vietnam War.”
After returning to the U.S. in 1964, Berrigan began to organize resistance to the war. He marched, picketed, fasted, and staged sit-ins with such tenacity that he soon found himself at odds with the Catholic Church, which officially supported the war. His brother Philip, his confidant and ally in the struggle, was expelled from the seminary where he taught.
When years of conventional protests failed to change the government’s course, the Berrigans planned bolder actions. As part of a group that came to be known as “The Catonsville Nine,” the Berrigans gained entry to a draft office, confiscated hundreds of 1-A files, and publicly burned them with homemade napalm in a nearby parking lot. A well-alerted press, including television news crews, captured the event. It caused a national furor, especially among Catholics. Daniel Berrigan’s response to those offended by his lack of respect for the law was challenging: “Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house. We could not help, so help us God, but do otherwise. For we are sick at heart, our hearts give us no rest from thinking of the Land of Burning Children.”
After a highly publicized trial attended by thousands of his supporters, Berrigan was sentenced to three and a half years in federal prison. In the wake of his sentencing, Berrigan decided not to report to prison, but to go underground while out on appeal. Berrigan chose this path because, he said, it was important to “show [the government] that they can no longer lock people up on their order, any more than they can induct people into military service on their order.”
During his four months as a fugitive, Berrigan showed up at peace rallies and churches and generated intense public attention for his cause. In August of 1970, he was apprehended and began serving his sentence at Danbury federal prison.
Within weeks the Berrigan brothers were making front-page headlines all over the country. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover named the Berrigans as leaders of a radical group — the East Coast Conspiracy To Save Lives — that he said was plotting to blow up power lines in Washington and to kidnap a high-ranking White House official in return for the cessation of all bombing raids in Southeast Asia.
The Berrigans, grateful for this chance to further publicize their cause, ridiculed the government’s attempt to frame them. “We are happy to agree that such a conspiracy of conscience does exist,” they said in a public statement, “but it is far more extensive than Mr. Hoover recognizes. There is, in fact, a worldwide conspiracy to save lives and ‘to demand an end to U.S. bombing operations in Southeast Asia.’ But, unlike our accuser, the government of the United States of America, we have not advocated or engaged in violence against human beings.”
The charges clearly showed a concerted government effort to harass, slander, and intimidate the Berrigans. The charges were dismissed and the Berrigans were vindicated.
When Daniel Berrigan was released from prison in 1972, the war was ending. He emerged as a symbolic leader of the activist wing of the Catholic Church and spent the next two decades fighting the death penalty, abortion, and nuclear proliferation. In 1980, he felt it necessary once again to break the law to draw attention to the dangers of nuclear proliferation. He and six others entered a General Electric armament factory and poured blood on the tip of a nuclear missile. Berrigan explains the act as a ritual. “We were acting in accord with the prophecy of Isaiah, ‘They shall beat their (nuclear) swords into plowshares.’ ”
Thus began the famous decade-long trial of the Plowshare Seven. In 1990, they were found guilty of breaking the law, but the court chose not to send Berrigan back to prison.
Berrigan spends his time these days working in the trenches in the battle against AIDS (where the voice of the Catholic Church is barely audible) because it is, he says, where Christ would want his priests to be.
— Luke Janusz
Janusz: You have been labeled a radical, a revolutionary, even a criminal. Do these labels reflect a tradition of Christian activism?
Berrigan: Words like “radical, revolutionary, criminal” go right past my left ear. They’re only futile attempts to tag someone, as one would tag a consumer product, perhaps with the warning, “The FBI and Justice Department have determined that Daniel Berrigan is dangerous to your health.”
Janusz: Do you recall the moment you made the decision to violate society’s laws in order to fulfill your higher commitment as a Christian?
Berrigan: There wasn’t a decisive moment. It was a gradual process helped along by hints and directions from friends and by the examples of the saints. Eventually, I came to see what I was so clearly summoned to do.
Janusz: There were perhaps many times that you might have chosen to leave the priesthood. Why didn’t you?
Berrigan: Well, it was the best act in town. (Laughs.) No, when things got very tough in the early sixties, I did what I thought was right and let the chips fall. It wasn’t heroic; it was just a deep understanding that any move to dissociate me from the church would have to be on their part. Now that’s a moot question because everything we fought for is accepted. All the Catholic bishops yelling about the Gulf War was something new. The bishops said nothing for twelve years of war in Vietnam. Absolutely nothing. We were all alone. Now most of them have become educated.
Janusz: Was there more social commitment in the sixties, or is that just a romantic notion?
Berrigan: It’s a little bit of both. Traveling the country today, I see a lot of people doing work that has absolutely no remuneration or media attention. They are just working with the people at the bottom. It may be providing housing or feeding the poor or anti-nuclear work. It’s amazing. The media wants to persuade us that nothing like this is happening. But when people break through the awful smog, they find that there are good people doing things everywhere.
The triumph of media hype was during the Gulf War. Wherever I went — Nevada to Norfolk to New York — very few people knew that thousands of people were in the streets everywhere, in massive demonstrations we haven’t seen for twenty years. The media isolated everybody by carrying only the smallest protests. After the war, people from all over the country gathered at a Nevada nuclear test site, and they were very disoriented, wounded, emotionally spent because the media had tried to persuade them that nearly every reasonable person had supported the war.
Janusz: There was so little concern about the quarter of a million dead Iraqis. How can the horror of war be presented so that it is really felt by the American people?
Berrigan: Perhaps if Christians undertook to obey the plain command of Christ to love our enemies, the noble infection might spread, heart to heart. Americans don’t generally think of the consequences of war. We have grown calloused souls, with the help of a duplicitous leadership, an inert Congress, a morally cloudy church, and the jingoistic media. Add to this our historically embedded racism and you have a poisonous brew indeed, hardening hearts against thought or concern for the slaughtered innocents of Iraq.
Janusz: How can we educate our children about peace when the government spent millions to entertain them with parades that glorify war?
Berrigan: The trouble, and the opportunity, begins long before the parades get underway — which is to say, the atmosphere that permeates the home. I mean a climate of love or alienation, of compassion or indifference, of altruism or greed.
Janusz: Do you see a connection between the rise of violence in America’s streets and America’s role in international violence?
Berrigan: What goes around comes around. There is an exact, all-but-mathematical connection here. It is ultimately an example of what the Bible calls judgment.
Janusz: Our criminal justice system is violent, too. Having been there, what do you think of our courts and prisons?
Berrigan: Prison is a strictly regimented, childish, picayune, unpredictable, often brutal and brutalizing, depressing, snooping, macho, futile, criminalizing environment. It is all of that and overtly racist and sexist as well. This applies to the vast majority of prison guards, and judges and prosecutors as well.
Janusz: In your book The Raft Is Not The Shore, you said you never met a prison chaplain for whom you had respect.
Berrigan: I want to restrict that awful statement to the chaplains in the federal system. I’ve met chaplains in state prison systems who are wonderful women and men, very devoted to the prison mission. They have a difficult time with the system. In the federal system where I was, the chaplains were corrupted in the same way that the officers were; they just used religious language to cover it up. Like military chaplains, they do everything but wear the uniform: they are in the same pecking order as the officers, they take tainted salaries, many of them carry jangling sets of keys. After awhile they click and cluck and frown and wag fingers, just like their counterparts. Everything in their condition separates them from the prisoners and joins them to the system.
Janusz: Can spirituality ever survive in such a system?
Berrigan: It can actually thrive. When Philip and I were in prison, the system didn’t know what to do with priests. They prevented us from saying Mass for the prisoners, so we said fine, and we went with the other prisoners to a Mass said by the chaplains. But they didn’t realize that we were both teachers and we loved books. So we began getting publishers to send thousands of books to this very deprived prison, and we quietly held classes to discuss them. We also started a small group to study the New Testament. Out of that group came Mitch Snyder, who became the country’s greatest advocate for the homeless. Several people turned their lives around.
What developed was a community of resistance. We were never without people who were resisting the Vietnam War. We did everything together — work stoppages and strikes, a Christmas Day fast. We learned that minority prisoners were doing slave labor in the prison factory, making bomb fuses that were being dropped on the poor in Vietnam. We got them to strike, because the poor shouldn’t be bombing the poor.
Today we have many communities of resistance in this country. One of them is where my brother and sister live at Jonah House in Baltimore. For twelve years now they have been welcoming people into a spiritual and political discipline that involves everything from feeding the poor to getting arrested at the Pentagon to raising children to having food in common to learning skills to challenging gender roles — so that the men will help raise the children and the women will sometimes paint houses. It is an attempt to lead a very full human life in the midst of very inhuman times in ways that are constantly challenging cultural arrangements about violence, war, sexism, and racism. In New York, for about fifteen years, we’ve had a prayer group that meets every two weeks to study scripture and to discuss our political responsibility, especially regarding the arms race. Every Thanksgiving for twelve years we’ve met at this nuclear think tank in New York. We don’t live together; we come together, and we are arrested together on a regular basis. The people who stay with this kind of work over the years are people who are willing to get arrested, who are invariably religious in one sense or another and are working with the poor. They see the connection between misery and the arms race.
Janusz: The Eucharist is the sacramental center of Christianity. If there are no priests available, as, perhaps, in prison, how do you see lay people involved in this sacrament?
Berrigan: I was in Kansas City recently and met with a group that hadn’t had a priest in two years, but was celebrating the Eucharist by taking turns initiating or leading. Their priest had died but they said, “We’re going on.” This is happening all over the country. Women are doing it, lay groups are doing it. The role of the priest is being questioned by gays, by minorities, who are saying, “Move over, I want room.”
This is very tough for priests. You get ordained and you are told that you are a priest forever. If someone has accepted a powerful status very deeply and then they are “declassified” or that class has no prestige anymore, they are forced to ask, “Who am I?”
I went through this loss of role, this questioning, myself. There was nothing more powerful than being disgraced in the church, before the courts, before the guards, before everyone. There was nothing as powerful in my life to declassify me, to destroy my own rigid notion of who I was. I found myself at the bottom, in company with people at the bottom for years and ever since.
Janusz: You said you felt honored to be in prison, but that many chaplains couldn’t understand that.
Berrigan: They felt personally tainted by me, as though I had disgraced the priesthood. I said, “Exactly, the grace is the disgrace.” (Laughs.) Well, such a statement didn’t help. But I think it helped me be at peace with the change. I didn’t have to prove anything. I didn’t have to defend anything, except my version of the human.
Janusz: Why is the political movement in favor of the death penalty so popular today?
Berrigan: People accept the death penalty like they accept war. People are generally numbed to the fate of other people. It is now considered normal to restrict one’s compassion to one’s immediate family and to distance oneself from those who are different, whether in terms of gender or color or sexual preference or even religion. I look on the whole thing as a new version of the question, What is it to be human? To be inhuman is now human. That is, to be greedy, to be violent, to be promiscuous, to be murderous is to be human. And also to have no memories. To be the victim of sorrows at the day’s end with nothing to weigh them against — no memories of self, no memories of family. You can wage war one day and forget it the next. There’s a loss of traditional human understanding that includes breaking away from ties to ancestry, to present reality, to nature, to the unborn, and to God.
When I was visiting Colombia as a consultant to the movie The Mission, we used to go out to a beautiful natural park that was right on the ocean, an enormous expanse of untouched land near the jungle. At the entrance to the park there was a sign in Spanish that said, This land belongs to the Colombian people, some of whom are living, more of whom have died, and most of whom are unborn. It didn’t have to say, Don’t throw your garbage here.
Janusz: The church is a powerful voice when it wants to be. Why is it so vocal in its opposition to abortion, yet so reticent in its opposition to capital punishment?
Berrigan: The Catholic Church hasn’t been so quiet. For instance, when we tried to prevent the execution of Robert Sullivan in Florida, all eight or ten Catholic bishops intervened to save his life. Even the pope intervened, but they killed Sullivan anyway.
But as far as the official Vatican position goes, I guess you’re right. They have never renounced the “just-war theory” either. The only thing they have really been interested in is abortion. One might ask, “Why so vocal about abortion and so conniving with war-makers?” We have here the classic example of the unbalanced conscience presenting itself as the final, wisest word on matters of life and death.
Once, when staging a sit-in in an abortion ward in Rochester, New York, we were confronted by a woman from Catholics for Choice. She handed me a questionnaire, which asked how come this great church of Jesus Christ has a “just-war theory” but not a “just-abortion theory?” She said, “There seems to be a double standard about life, about women, about adult violence, and about your country. Why don’t we get together and treat all these questions equally?” I was sitting in, but I told her, “Thank you, that’s pretty good.”
Janusz: There seems to be much confusion in general about what constitutes violence and nonviolence.
Berrigan: This came up when I was training actors to play Jesuits in The Mission. I had great difficulty with the ending as written. It displayed a typically British misunderstanding about the nature of nonviolence. It was written that Father Gabriel, played by Jeremy Irons, took his flock into a chapel where they hid and prayed as fires were being set around them. I said, “That’s not nonviolence, that’s passivity.” Martin Luther King, Jr. said that the church is a place you go from. In Selma, we started at the church and we always went from there. Gandhi said, “Let’s get an assault march going.” I felt the Jesuits would not passively accept their fate, but confront it. They would challenge the adversary, and they would do so at risk of their lives. It is a better way to go than crouching in the corner of the church. During the filming, we had many days of heated discussion over this.
Janusz: Artists often consider such questions. In many countries, poetry is regarded as having great political and social import. Yet while poetry is often the preferred voice of the revolutionaries around the world, it is considered almost irrelevant in America today. Why is that?
Berrigan: About ten years ago, I gave a course at Yale called “Revolution In Poetry” [Berrigan won the Lamont Prize for poetry in 1957] and we studied ten poets from around the world who had been in prison for their poetry. We noticed that poetry was considered subversive in so many countries that the imprisoning of poets was taken for granted. We asked ourselves, “Why is it so different here?” Well, we decided, maybe we should get out of Yale. (Laughs.) Which I, by the way, was very happy to do. One semester was plenty.
A lot of it is the fault of the poets. If you are going to take womb-to-tomb security and bury yourself on some campus, I guess it does something to the poetry. Look at people like Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, a recluse and a wanderer. Both walked off the beaten path and found their vision outside lockstep. Both were extraordinary poets. I think in a sense Robert Frost continued that tradition. He wandered in and out of campuses, but he never really settled in any of those places. He was close to the land and close to people in his own way.
Janusz: Tell me about your relationship with Bobby Sands of the Irish Republican Army and about your experiences in Northern Ireland.
Berrigan: Bobby Sands sent a message to [former U.S. Attorney General] Ramsey Clark and myself, asking decent legal representation and spiritual solace. I did not know him personally, though by then his hunger strike in prison was well advanced and he was famous in and outside Ireland. We planned to just go to the Long Kesh Prison as foreigners of some note and be admitted. No such thing. We committed the indiscretion of meeting with the press and caused a huge outpouring of media from England, Dublin, Belfast, and all over Europe. We had denounced the English for their brutish ways among the Irish, including the military occupation, kangaroo courts, the use of plastic bullets, and other crimes. In consequence we were denounced, and ended up banging our heads against the invincible portals of Long Kesh Prison. No admittance! All we could do was hold a prayer service at the gates.
The resilience and steadfastness of the Belfast people stays with me, much like the Guatemalans or Nicaraguans or Salvadorans. The wives of the IRA prisoners were unbreakable. They set up wooden prison cells in the streets and took turns staying in them in solidarity with their husbands. There was a sense of rightness, solidarity, and good cheer in the air. One night we accompanied members of prisoners’ families to a pub and sang and drank good beer.
Janusz: What does the title of your book No Bars To Manhood mean?
Berrigan: Today the title seems redolent of sexism, but it was set down before women began to remind us that they were around, and that man or men didn’t by any means automatically include them!
The title means that nothing should be allowed to stand in the way of our humanity, and more specifically that jail itself, to a free spirit, has no bars.
Janusz: How do you see your role as a peacemaker today?
Berrigan: The whole world is changing, from South Africa to Russia, but the multicorporate giants are more firmly in possession than ever. The United States has no money, but it has all of the smart bombs. We are going to be the mercenaries of the world. We have a tremendous, expendable population among the poor, blacks, and Hispanics — so that will be our gift to the world. We’re going to be able to wage proxy wars with other countries from western Europe to Japan. We’ll send them the bill and we’ll supply the soldiers and the bombs. I thought that was perfectly illustrated in the Gulf War. We have overdeveloped the technical capability of waging a quick war anywhere in the world to protect the interests of Japan, western Europe, or the United States. But nothing has changed for the peace movement.
Janusz: If Christ lived today instead of 2,000 years ago, how do you think he would be regarded by the political establishment?
Berrigan: “If Christ lived today?” The question bewilders me. I thought he was living today. If not, can someone please tell me why so many — from the apostles to Archbishop Romero — have died to say he lives?
Janusz: Politics and religion have a long and tangled history. What does the Biblical command mean: “Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and render to God what belongs to God?”
Berrigan: Dorothy Day was asked the same question. She responded, “When you’ve rendered to God what is due God, there’s nothing left for Caesar!” I like that.
Luke Janusz is the editor and publisher of Odyssey: Creative Alternatives In Criminal Justice, a remarkably diverse and insightful prison journal that has thrived in spite of shut-down attempts by prison administrators. In its pages one may find articles on the philosophy of punishment, the reflections of a former prison guard, the hazards of prison medical care, drug-sentencing laws, forgiveness and healing, and poetry, art, and interviews. We’re grateful to Odyssey for permission to reprint this interview with Daniel Berrigan. (Odyssey is $16 a year, $5 for a single copy from P.O. Box 14, Dedham, MA 02027.)
— Cassandra Sitterly