Berrigan's Dissent in the Midst of Silence

Phil Berrigan was 45, a Roman Catholic priest and fledgling anti-war activist on Nov. 8, 1968 when he and eight co-defendants were sentenced after their convictions for destroying draft board records in Catonsville, Md. Outside that federal courtroom, the guns of Vietnam could be heard in the distance. Inside, the defendants had been granted wide latitude to describe the divergent paths that brought them, together in this act of public protest -- the demands of conscience among TV images of burning babies within the mushroom cloud's shadow, disillusionment with a government that had violated its own most hallowed values, to say nothing of the word of God. At one point all parties to the trial stood to recite the Lord's Prayer in unison. The defendants, having made their points, were satisfied despite the inevitable guilty verdicts. Afterwards, Berrigan praised both the judge and prosecutors. The trial, he wrote later in prison, "meant hope to me ..."

Berrigan was 70, a husband, father, excommunicated Roman Catholic and veteran antiwar activist on July 6, 1994, when he and three co-defendants were sentenced after their convictions for damaging an F-15E warplane with hammers at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, N.C. Outside that federal courtroom the guns of Rwanda and Bosnia were too distant to be heard. Inside, the defendants were hamstrung by ground rules prohibiting any mention of nuclear weaponry, the US government, God or anything else beyond the act of vandalism itself. Their sincerity and morality were mocked by their adversaries, the judge enforcing silence with contempt citations. The defendants, prevented from making their points, were angry. After the inevitable guilty verdicts, Berrigan called the trial "a parody of justice" in which "scales fell from the eyes of us all."

I met Phil for the first time in May 1994 in the Chowan County Jail in Edenton, N.C., where he was a prisoner awaiting sentencing. What I hoped to do was get a handle on what possibly could impel a 70-year-old man to choose prison over freedom for the sake of a symbolic act to which few paid attention. The world had changed in 36 years since Catonsville, when a nationwide debate on the propriety of the Vietnam War all but tore America apart. This was 1994. With no Vietnam to catalyze dissent, no Soviet Union to evoke fear, scant public interest in isolated acts of protest, what could they accomplish?

"I think first," he said, "we'd better not get carried away with this change business. Yes, a lot has changed, but the things that really matter are under the surface, and they're pretty much the same. What hasn't changed is the American war machine, the deadly killing machine, the games we play, building these weapons, deploying them, selling them, pretending they won't be used or that it's not our responsibility if they are. And anyway, people years ago misread us. Vietnam was the symptom, not the problem. It's never any particular war, it's the system that makes all of them possible, even inevitable. I think dissent is most important when it happens in the midst of silence."

I was in touch with Phil sporadically, mostly by phone or mail, over the last eight years. Many of his comments -- in the America of George W. Bush and his friends, Democrats as well as Republicans -- seem especially cogent:

Christianity: "It's spelled out in Scripture, it could not possibly be more clear. It's spelled out in the wisdom of Isaiah, with its injunction to beat swords into plowshares and to learn war no more. To be acceptable to God, it says, we must forsake our weapons, destroy them, live as brothers and sisters in peace and love. Christians do not hate, Christians do not kill, Christians love their enemies. It's difficult, yes, and I don't always get too far with it myself -- I have a temper and I sometimes lose it. But I do know that being a Christian is about non-violence. It's about justice. It's about being outraged at the way we destroy each other. And I try. And that, because I'm imperfect and God is reasonable, surely is all he expects."

Civil Disobedience: "They call us arrogant. They say we're setting ourselves up above the law. If we don't agree with the way the system works, they say we should work to change it. Well, we've done that -- attended rallies, marched in the streets, gained audiences with people who could have but did not bring about change. But it's too corrupt -- what"s the point of voting for one politician over another because he's a little less so? It doesn't work, and finally you have to come to terms with it in a different way. Civil disobedience, as we all know, has a proud tradition in America, and you reach a point where you have to listen to your own conscience, do what you know to be right, and take responsibility for your own actions."

The Catholic Church: (In 1973, Berrigan was about to marry a nun and fellow activist, Elizabeth McAlister, and he duly informed his immediate church superior). "His response provided further proof, as if it were needed, of the duplicity, the corruption at the core. Keep the marriage secret, he advised, or better yet be satisfied with an affair. An affair, you see, is acceptable to God at least in the church's view, but marriage is not. This whole concept of mandatory celibacy is quite insane, and the church is reaping the fruits now of this repressed sexuality." The couple had three children, "and we used to sort of take turns going to jail because someone had to stay home with the kids."

Thoughts on Prison: "'We are not mad or deranged. We simply do what we feel must be done because we know there are worse things than going to prison. A prison witness is a statement against an establishment hell-bent for destruction. Besides, prisons are filled with the kinds of people I identify with -- poor people, black people, mostly good people. Prison obviously is not what I would choose if conditions were different, but until that happens it seems preferable to the other choices."

On His Own Radicalization: (Ordained in 1955, Berrigan at age 37 became a teacher in a black high school in New Orleans). "I knew nothing at that time. Nothing. But I learned, I began to grow up. Friends helped, and books, they got my head screwed on right. I came to see what it means to be black and poor in America. I became aware of the weapons, the dangers, the affront to God in a system so tied to them economically and spiritually. I had a community of friends who never gave up on me, who held my hand in the dark until I stopped seeing ghosts and being afraid. They taught me real theology, about a God of compassion and justice. The only difference between most folks and myself is that I've had grace and community and they have not. I only wish I'd made a better return on what I've been given."

America: "You'll recall the profound confidence that men like Jefferson and Lincoln invested in the people -- confidence that was always verified. Americans have been brutalized by affluence, by racism and war, and by the devious machinations of empire. But they are, nonetheless, a great people. Eventually, they will see. And that belief explains why I still find more reason to hope than despair. You have to be hopeful to keep your sanity. You have to preserve hope as the equivalent of faith. If you're faithful, you'll be hopeful as well."

On His Faith: We choose to obey God's law of life rather than a corporate summons to death. We draw on a deep-rooted faith in Christ, who changed the course of history, through his willingness to suffer rather than kill. Faith of course is a two-way street, a gift from God, yes, but requiring an effort on our part. God will not give us cheap grace. But if we live faithfully, God will give us grace."

Sacrifice: "I get very tired of hearing people praise me for the supposed sacrifices I've made as a prisoner of conscience. The real sacrifices are made by the people who never had a chance, the ones these weapons kill and the poor or who pay for them in lost opportunity. For us the important thing is knowing your own capabilities. This, being in prison, is something I can do."

My last message from Phil arrived earlier this year and contained comments about the 9/11 attacks and their aftermath: "The attacks can't be justified, of course, but we should at least make an effort to see them in the right context. These were acts of counter-terrorism, a mad response to our own prior terrorism in Iran, Iraq, Libya, Sudan, Palestine, Indonesia, East Timor, as well as Central America. We are the terrorists, we are the rogue state, and going to war is exactly the wrong response. Does anyone really think that Iraq poses a threat to the United States? Does anyone really think that North Korea, if it really does have a nuclear bomb or two, is a legitimate threat because it won't submit to international controls? If the goal really is to get rid of weapons of mass destruction, why don't we start at home? The US has 20,000 nuclear warheads ready to go, and who controls them?"

Phil Berrigan, who was arrested more than 100 times and served a total of 11 years in prison for his adherence to a greater law than the ones he routinely violated, died Dec. 6 at age 79. But the country he loved and faithfully served, first as an artillery officer in World War II and later in his own very different way, was too caught up in the gleeful prospect of yet another war to even notice. "This time," he wrote in that last message, "the blood on our hands will be literal, not figurative."

But the comment I remember most came in a telephone conversation much earlier, and it pretty much provided an answer to my initial question. "I am not a vain fool," he said. "My whole point is that the United States should live up to its basic precepts of justice. It should not instigate, or support in any way the killing of innocent people. It should not dispense more arms to more countries than the rest of the world combined. Look, of course I wish people paid more attention to us. Of course Id like to persuade many more people than I have that we're right and the folks in Washington aren't. Of course I wish more of them were listening, but not enough to stop if they aren't. I do what I feel I have to do regardless."

There was also one much more personal contact.. My wife of more than 30 years had been stricken with cancer, and Phil promised to pray for her. Jane, who by then had lost most of her faith though she never stopped considering herself a Catholic, was thrilled. "If God will listen to anybody," she said, "he's the one."

But God, whose involvement in human affairs these days seems minimal and who had paid scant attention to Phil's entreaties on the major issues, ignored this minor one as well. I did not speak to Phil for several months, and finally he called to ask how Jane was doing. When I told him she had died, there was a long silence on the phone, then "Oh, my friend, I'm so sorry. All I can do now is love you and pray for you." And those words, though they meant nothing, managed at the same time to mean everything. They still do,

Where do we go from here? Nowhere good, I'm afraid. Our nation has suffered a grievous loss, and perhaps the sole hope now is that historians in the not-too-distant future -- assuming the warmakers allow there to be one -- in their quest for good sense at the turn of the 21st century, will find the proper place to look.

Joe Lersky is a retired newspaper editor who lives in Grove City, Ohio.

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