Fr. Daniel Berrigan Dies at 94
A Life of Courageous Resistance to the Crimes of the U.S. Empire

May 9, 2016 | Revolution Newspaper |


Daniel Berrigan is arrested for civil disobedience outside the U.S. Mission to the U.N. in 2006.
Daniel Berrigan is arrested for civil disobedience outside the U.S. Mission to the UN, 2006. Photo: Thomas Good / NLN

Catholic priest, author, poet, playwright, teacher, and courageous resister Father Daniel J. Berrigan died on Saturday, April 30, at the age of 94.

Dan Berrigan was a person of conscience who consistently opposed U.S. wars, what he called “American military imperialism,” and other forms of oppression, in word and deed, who stood by his principles at real personal cost, and who never capitulated to the empire.

Berrigan’s opposition to America’s crimes was rooted in his radical interpretation of Catholic doctrine and morality. This framework propelled him to stand with the people and oppose oppression on many fronts, even while it negatively influenced other positions, like his opposition to abortion.

Two actions in particular capture Berrigan’s defiance, courage, and radical spirit—qualities urgently needed today—and inspired many, many others to resist.

1968: The Catonsville Nine—Napalming Draft Files to Stop the War

On May 17, 1968, Dan Berrigan, his brother Philip (also at that time a Catholic priest, who died in 2002) and seven other Catholic activists entered the Catonsville, Maryland, draft board, grabbed over 300 files, took them outside, and burned them with homemade napalm. Their goal was to stop the draft, stop America’s widespread criminal use of napalm against the Vietnamese people, and stop the war. “Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children,” Dan Berrigan wrote in a statement from the group.

The action was inspired partly by Berrigan’s trip to North Vietnam where he spent nights in shelters “under the bombs of your own country.” And it was a direct moral challenge to the U.S. population and religious establishment: “We confront the Catholic Church, other Christian bodies and the synagogues of America with their silence and cowardice in the face of our country’s crimes.”

Berrigan became the poet/public voice of what became known as the Catonsville Nine, whose bold, defiant act helped inspire more than 100 similar anti-draft actions and broader, deeper resistance to the war. He also became one of the leaders of what the New York Times called the “Roman Catholic ‘new left,’ articulating a view that racism and poverty, militarism and capitalist greed were interconnected pieces of the same big problem: an unjust society.”

The Berrigan brothers were arrested and convicted in 1970. They turned their trial into an indictment of the Vietnam War and then refused to go to prison, instead going underground to spread the resistance (Dan Berrigan becoming the first Catholic priest on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list). They were later caught and imprisoned for over a year.

While Berrigan was a proponent of nonviolent resistance, during the height of the revolutionary upsurge of the 1960s he refused to equate the armed resistance and struggle of the Vietnamese people and the Black Panther Party with the violence of the oppressors:

I have a great fear of American violence, not only out there in the military and diplomacy, economics, in industry and advertising, but also in here, in me, close among us. On the other hand, I must say, I have very little fear, from first hand experience of the Vietcong or Panthers. (I hate to use the word violence), for their acts coming from the proximate threat of extinction, from being immediately put on the front lines.

1980: Plowshares—Hammering Nuclear “Hammers of Hell”

Dan Berrigan had nearly died in prison, and, according to his niece Frida Berrigan, could have rested on his “laurels” as one of the “heroes of the peace movement” or spent his life as a writer or teacher. Instead, he continued putting himself on the line to resist U.S. crimes.

In 1980, the Berrigan brothers and six other activists broke into a General Electric nuclear missile plant in Pennsylvania, took hammers to nose cones of nuclear warheads and soaked them in blood. They became known as the Plowshares Eight, helping launch the anti-nuclear weapons Plowshares movement.

Dan Berrigan and the Plowshares activists faced heavy charges—more than 10 different felonies and misdemeanors. Berrigan again used the trial to indict the U.S., calling its nukes “the hammers of hell ... that will break the world to bits,” and condemning the court for refusing to “call them by their right name, which is murder, death, genocide, the end of the world.” He demanded people in the U.S. not turn away but take responsibility to “disarm” these nukes.

Berrigan at 80: “The day after I’m embalmed, that’s when I’ll give it up”

Dan Berrigan never stopped resisting and was arrested many times. He protested the 1991 Persian Gulf War, the 1998 Kosovo War, the 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and 2003 invasion of Iraq. He denounced Israel for “militarism” and the “domestic repressions” of Palestinians. In 2011, he took part in Occupy Wall Street.

In 2007, Berrigan joined over 250 others, including prominent artists, intellectuals and activists, in signing the very important statement titled “Dangerous Times Demand Courageous Voices. Bob Avakian Is Such a Voice.” The statement, published by Engage! A Committee to Project and Protect the Voice of Bob Avakian in the New York Review of Books, read in part:

Bob Avakian combines an unsparing critique of the history and current direction of American society with a sweeping view of world history and the potential for humanity. He has brought forth a fresh, relevant and compelling approach to Marxism, deeply analyzing the history of the Communist movement and the socialist revolutions and upholds their achievements. At the same time, he honestly confronts and criticizes what he views as their shortcomings, opening up new paths of inquiry in the process and initiating dialogue with people who hold a wide range of views. He’s addressing the burning problems before society from a unique vantage point, and we consider his revolutionary analysis and solutions to be an important and necessary part of the ferment and discourse required in this society and the world in this dark time. While those of us signing this statement do not necessarily agree with all of his views, we have come away from encounters with Avakian provoked and enriched in our own thinking, and we invite others to hear and engage that voice....

Thus, in addition to calling on people to engage with the thoughts of Bob Avakian, and bring them into what needs to be a rich and diverse dialogue, we are also serving notice to this government that we intend to defend his right to freely advocate and organize for his views, and to engage broadly with people about those views.
(Full statement here.)

When he turned 80, Berrigan said he’d stop resisting “The day after I’m embalmed, that’s when I’ll give it up.” He remained true to those words until he died.

While revolutionary communists had differences with Father Berrigan over religion, patriarchy, and, most fundamentally, on the need for and road to human emancipation, we can nonetheless appreciate and uphold the life of conscience he lived and the important contributions he made. At this perilous hour for humanity, there is much that can be learned, including by the new generation, from Dan Berrigan’s life and example.



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