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.
Dan Berrigan learned to walk on his own around the age of 5. It doesn’t take a psychologist to note that he went on to devote his life to battling men he defined as tyrants, and to rhetorically skewering those who would defend and practice violence, a group that included his father.
After the Catonsville draft board raid, Berrigan found a new authoritarian foil in J. Edgar Hoover. Or it might be more accurate to say that Hoover found him. But first J. Edgar Hoover had to look long and hard: Berrigan decided to go underground following the convictions of the so-called Catonsville Nine defendants. (Berrigan turned a transcript of their trial into a play that has been produced hundreds of times around the world and turned into a movie by Gregory Peck.) He simply didn’t report for his prison term.
Berrigan later told an interviewer, “I wanted to give J. Edgar Hoover a headache.” He then smirked at the camera and added, “And a backache.” To another interviewer, he explained, “I wasn’t avoiding punishment, just prolonging it and protesting the war.”
And creating a sensation. FBI agents hunted Berrigan up and down the East Coast in the spring and summer of 1970, always a step behind the fugitive priest when he’d pop up in a pulpit to give a sermon on peacemaking themes. Then vanish. His taunting of the bureau went on for months, like a flame beneath the pot of Hoover’s anger, which, anyway, was never far from boiling. Friends told Berrigan that on the opening night of his Catonsville play in Los Angeles, the theater played a taped message from the playwright. At the sound of Berrigan’s voice, several non-descript ticketholders leapt to their feet… then subsided into their chairs when they realized their quarry was not present to be captured.
Berrigan was eventually caught and did a one-year stretch in Danbury Federal Prison. On the day of his release, a dozen protesters stood on a wall and greeted him with a sign that read:
Apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order
Of course Dan Berrigan’s activism long outlived the Vietnam era. He and his brother Phil went on to the lead the Plowshares movement—more than a hundred actions during which protesters have thrown blood and rained down hammer blows on nuclear weapons and components. The movement is named after the Biblical injunction to “beat swords into plowshares.” Most of its participants have done serious prison time, several of them more than once.
I knew Dan Berrigan a bit and once asked him if it was tiring to constantly work on the fringes—of the Catholic church, of American politics, of polite discourse. He referred me to his old friend Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker, a volunteer community devoted to pacifism and serving the poor. “She’s always thought of herself and her work as residing at the center of the Gospels,” Berrigan said. “It was up to everyone else to move toward her.”
To a certain extent, the center has moved toward Day, at least in Pope Francis’ call to make serving the poor a priority of Christian life. But in Day and Berrigan’s call for nonviolent action in resistance to war and militarism, not so much. Berrigan said that, after a lifetime of impassioned writing and speaking and public protest, the world had only grown worse. “But I’m at peace,” he said toward the end of his life. “We walk our hope and that’s the only way of keeping it going. We’ve got faith. We’ve got one another. We’ve got religious discipline.”
I also once accompanied Berrigan to a police precinct after his arrest at a sit-in outside the offices of a defense contractor in Midtown Manhattan. The action capped a public enactment of the Catholic rite known as the Stations of the Cross, which occurs on Good Friday. A couple of dozen of his fellow protesters were processed without a problem and cleared to go. But there was a holdup with Berrigan’s case—presumably related to the multiple priors on his record at any given time. After some delay and much milling by the protesters in the desultory patrol room, the police informed the recidivist reverend that he, too, could go home. He turned to his co-arrestees and declared, “I’m free!” And then his impish grin grew even wider. “I’m wearing an Easter smile on Good Friday!”