Father Daniel Berrigan was a lion of American protest, one of the most stubborn and eloquent radicals this country has ever produced. His death on Saturday at age 94 has set loose a mini-cascade of remembrance, featuring praise for Berrigan’s skill at honing the rationale for civil disobedience into something like a knife edge. Exhibit A comes from the height of the Vietnam War and his statement after he and eight others grabbed draft records from a Selective Service office in Catonsville, Maryland, doused them with napalm, and then, with cameras clicking and the police closing in, set them ablaze:
Apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children.… our hearts give us no rest for thinking of the Land of Burning Children.
The phrase ended up on banners and placards and posters as the war dragged on for seven more long years before ending in 1975. Often it was Daniel Berrigan’s brother and fellow priest, Phil, who came up with actions designed to shock the conscience over the horrors of war and the madness of nuclear weapons. (The brothers were also early supporters of the civil rights movement.) But it was Dan who colored those actions with his distinctive moral needling.
He left no one off the hook, including allies on the anti-war left.
“Because we want peace with half a heart and half a life and will, the war, of course, continues,” he wrote in his 1969 bestseller, No Bars to Manhood. “Because the waging of war, by its nature, is total—but the waging of peace, by our own cowardice, is partial.”
Curiously, Dan Berrigan’s life began in crippled muteness.
Picture a cabin under snow in the winter wilderness of the Iron Range of northern Minnesota. It’s 1925, when America still holds pockets of frontier existence. Inside, a 4-year-old boy sits splay-legged on the floor. That’s Dan, the fifth of six brothers. He’s the one with the house-pale arms, weak ankles, and a button nose pinched by awkward metal eyeglasses—the fragile exception to a broad-chested brood. Dan’s mother Freda crouches over him, strapping his feet into prescription shoes: exotic-looking contraptions made of whalebone struts encased in heavy leather.
The shadow filling the doorway is his father, Tom Berrigan. He’s a railroad man and would-be poet who has versified on the need for parents to “do away with maudlin kindness” in favor of “the kindness of the rod.” And in case that’s not tragicomically tyrannical enough, Dan Berrigan would later write that it was at these moments, when the child was vulnerable on the floor, that the father would turn “Superman’s frosty eye” on him and find him wanting.
“Mama’s boy,” Dan autobiographically recalled of a common paternal observation. “Little four-eyes!”
Of course Dan, being 4, didn’t have the words or the prerogative to reply. So his mother would speak for him. “Leave ’im alone—he’s fine!” she’d yell in her German accent at her Irish-American husband. Tom Berrigan would then stalk out into the snow, or off to his job as a railroad engineer, which could take him away from the family for weeks at a time.