Father Daniel Berrigan, who has died at age 94, was a beautiful man with a beautiful vision that he made real by engaging in radical acts of conscience that sought not merely to end wars but to achieve the justice that has always been essential to peacemaking. Born on the Minnesota Iron Range into a family of trade unionists, he and his brother Philip (who died in 2002) brought to the slowly opening national discourse of the 1960s a deep understanding of the linkages between militarism and imperialism abroad and racism and poverty at home. As they came to prominence as fierce opponents of the Vietnam War, the Berrigan brothers taught generations of Americans to identify intersections of injustice and to get clear of them.
Berrigan served 18 months for burning draft records in 1968 as one of the celebrated Catonsville Nine. In his essay on those protests, he wrote: “America fights a stupid and genocidal war in Indochina, mostly because we don’t know how to turn off the bloody spigot we have opened. That is to say, we are powerless to inquire why it is easier to continue to slaughter than to stop it, why the historical cult of violence has become the mainstay of policy—both foreign and domestic, or why our economy so requires warmaking that perpetual war has united with expanding profits as the chief national purpose.”
The book Father Berrigan partially penned during his time in prison, America Is Hard to Find, remains to this day one of the most remarkable statements of this country’s turbulent 1960s and early ’70s. It was, to be sure, an anti–Vietnam War statement. But it was, as well, an expression of a whole vision that speaks as well to our times as it did to the early-1970s moment in which he wrote.
Father Berrigan saw the crisis of his time and ours, warning that “To remain prosperous, America defaces its countryside, fouls its air and water, makes its cities unlivable.” And he pointed a finger of blame at the elites that permitted poverty amid plenty.
“Our institutions and the rule governing them no longer promote the best interests of anyone, including those who keep them stagnant for personal gain,” he explained, as one of the nation’s most prominent Catholic priests. “Churches and synagogues fear the Scriptures, and fear living them; universities undertake war-related research, even as they refuse to lead the young; business puts profit over human life and welfare, while legislatures are filled with those who, for the most part, are vote-getters, rather than critics of war policy and servants of human welfare.”
Father Berrigan was a great thinker and philosopher with regard to power relationships. He outlined a vision for challenging injustice that was rooted in solidarity. And he practiced that solidarity, writing of his own prison experience: “As we face you through these words, a critical question occupies us, a question public enough to occupy you as well. Why are we in jail, and why are there with us, Panthers and Chicanos, draft resisters and draft-file burners, plus poor men who have broken the law as an only way of asserting their right to exist? Because, we would suggest, we acted sanely in an insane society, because we felt the futility of peaceful words without peaceful deeds, because we rejected complicity with a culture and a power structure which idolizes power and privilege, and degrades human life.”