Daniel Berrigan: Mentor and Inspiration

Dan Berrigan: Mentor and Inspiration by Steve Clemens, May 3, 2016

I don’t think I heard about the draft file burning at Catonsville, MD until a year or two later. After all, our high school baseball team was hoping to win its second straight Ivy Prep League title (we fell one game short with me in the on-deck circle with bases-loaded and two outs) and I was caught up in Senior Weekend and my up-coming graduation. Even Dr. King’s assassination the month before didn’t register in my sheltered life at an all-boys college prep school on Long Island. My life of privilege allowed me to virtually ignore the increasing carnage of the Vietnam War because it was assumed all 41 of our graduating class of 1968 would be attending college and receive “student deferments” as long as we maintained a decent grade-point average.

I do remember thinking that the destruction of property, coupled with the fact that most of the actors of the Catonsville 9 were Roman Catholic, was not an appropriate act of dissent when I became aware of it about a year after the May 17, 1968 occurrence. At the time of their trial, I was wrestling with the momentous decision of registering for the military draft. A month earlier I was issued a rifle and a uniform as part of my registration at Wheaton College; all male students were required to enroll in U.S. Army ROTC unless they had an honorable discharge from military service or a 4-F (physically or morally unfit for service) or 1-O (conscientious objector) status from their draft board. I was scheduled to register for Selective Service on October 16 when I turned 18 years old.

It was not an easy decision; my father had left his Mennonite heritage and entered the U.S. Army when drafted in World War II. He never talked to me (or to my brothers, I assumed) about his experience in France and Germany as a radioman in the infantry as his unit followed General George Patton’s soldiers. Only after his 80th birthday did he share any details with us about this period of his life and then mostly to say he wasn’t proud of the things he had done but he had “promised the Lord that if he got home safely”, he’d return to the church and “follow the Lord.” Even though the Mennonite Church my Dad helped found in 1950 never affiliated with any of the Mennonite conferences and did not stress the traditional “peace witness” expected of Mennonites, I was aware that some of my relatives were pacifist or conscientious objectors even if my parents weren’t.

After prayer, reading scripture, and talking with a Resident Assistant on my college dorm wing, I decided that I must register as a conscientious objector – to all wars, not just the current one in Vietnam. But it was a personal decision – a moral stand as an individual – rather than a social or political decision at that point. I couldn’t in good conscience take up a gun to kill the Vietnamese but I also wasn’t sitting in judgment on those who did go or my government’s “foreign policy”. I knew little about what was happening in “the far East” other than what my parent’s copies of US News and World Report stressed: those “godless Communists” were killing our “Christian missionaries” and wanted to force their atheism on all of southeast Asia.

So Father Daniel Berrigan, his brother Phil Berrigan and the other actors of the drama at the Draft Board office in Catonsville, Maryland didn’t register. A year after becoming a conscientious objector, I started participating in anti-war marches on the Wheaton, Illinois Draft Board, led by “Father Tom”, a Maryknoll order priest from nearby Glen Ellyn. Sometime that fall or early winter I came across Dan’s book about their trial, The Trial of The Catonsville Nine. I was struck by Dan’s poetic description of the draft files – they were cast as “hunting licenses for human beings.” That made me re-think what was really going on. As I spent more time with Father Tom and other “radical Catholics” at anti-war marches or taking courses at the Maryknoll Seminary where he taught, I was struck by their vibrant Christian faith and was jolted from my anti-Catholic upbringing.

That was a good thing as the books of Dan Berrigan fed my soul and spirit in a way that few others did. No Bars to Manhood, The Dark Night of Resistance, Night Flight to Hanoi, They Call Us Dead Men, The Raft is Not the Shore, America is Hard To Find, To Dwell In Peace, We Die Before We Live,  …. The list could go on and on, especially his commentaries on the Psalms (Uncommon Prayer), the Prophets, Lamentations, Exodus, … Again, insight, challenge, humor, conviction. I didn’t understand probably half of his poetry – but what I did understand, wow! Especially “No and Yes and the Whole Damned Thing” that was published in Sojourners Magazine in 1976.

I only met Dan Berrigan a few times – the first being at my first arrest for civil disobedience a month before the Vietnam War ended. He was one of the 62 of us who refused to leave the grounds of the White House in March 1975, demanding that we meet with President Ford to reject the continued funding of the South Vietnamese military and in rejecting what we called his “punitive clemency” program for Vietnam War draft resisters. I was much closer to his brother Phil and his partner in resistance, Liz McAlister, having joined their Bible study group the year before. In 1980 I heard Dan speak at a national Fellowship of Reconciliation gathering at Berea College and then in the mid-1980s Dan came to our Georgia communities gathering at Koinonia Farm to lead a weekend Bible study on the book of Revelations. I saw him again briefly at larger gatherings or demonstrations but his inspiration and challenge to me was much greater than my personal contact with him.

What stands out most vividly was his claim that our [Christian] baptism is an embracing of the life and crucifixion of Jesus, and, when we are raised out of the water, our resurrection to new life means that there is nothing the state can do to threaten us if we’ve already chosen to “die with Christ”. The state has no power over us since it’s most harsh sanction, death, has already been embraced in our choosing to follow Jesus. The state can jail us – but we’ve already “died to Christ.” They Call Us Dead Men – if we can excuse the pre-feminist exclusionary language – was Dan’s call to me to act out of my faith rather than my fears. Dan didn’t just write about faith and resistance, he embodied it. He incarnated his faith by standing in the street, hammering warheads, ministering to other fellow prisoners, and sharing the Eucharist with all who gathered.

Dan, I love you, I thank you, I miss you. But I know your spirit is still with us every time we gather to say “No” and “Yes” – not too soon, not too quickly, not too easily, not too cheaply. Until our “No” is swallowed up in [Christ’s] “Yes”. We are called to continue on the path you trod for the past 50+ years.

No and yes and the whole damn thing … A poem by Daniel Berrigan. 1976

   What is the point in saying no,
What is the point in not saying no?
   The questions make sense as long as there is a point toward which the questions are moving.
   If I say no, and there is a point at distance, at which someone is saying yes, then it makes sense to say no; for my no is transfigured, hastening into that yes.
   If I do not say no, and there is a point at distance at which someone is saying yes, then my not saying no also makes sense, as long as I am attentive to that yes, and want my not naysaying to echo and be included in that yes.
   I may however say no in a void, just as I may refuse to say no, in a void. In which case my no saying and my non no saying are lost in a void.
   We look for land marks, we look for sea marks.
   “When we are seated in a moving vessel and our eyes are fixed upon an object on the same vessel, we do not notice that we are moving. But if we look further, upon something that is not moving along with us, for instance upon the coast, we notice immediately that we are moving. It is the same with life. When the whole world lives wrongly we fail to notice it, but should only one person awake spiritually, the life of all others becomes immediately apparent. And the others always persecute those who do not live like them.”
   We must come from somewhere if we are to go somewhere.
   We must go somewhere if we are to remember that we come from somewhere.
   There is only one word in all creation. ‘Jesus is the YES of God.’ (Paul)
   We however dwell on the other side of that yes; the grave side, the dark side, the death side, the underside.
   So it is important not to say yes too soon, too easily, too often, too cheaply. This would be to debase the currency of life itself which is not a money, but the blood of our brothers and sisters, the blood of Christ.
   Just as it is important not to say no in a void. This would be to join our voices to the despairing wail of the damned.
   It is important to say no in view of, in the direction of, a yes which is forever distant, forever nearing.
   Because we are hungry for fullness, for non death, for life, for non suffering.
   Because we cannot merely stand by  or bystand or spectate or grandstand or freeload or grimace.
   Because a because joins us, life to lifeline, to the cause of goodness, of love, of truth in deed.
   Because the distance between the no we insist on and the yes that insists on us, is constantly narrowing, reaching, almost touching.
   Therefore our word to all systems of this world, right, left, center, imperial, colonial, fascist, racist, capitalist, Marxist, maoist, castroist, reformist, is
   Not yet, not enough, not quite, not at all, not by a half, not by a long shot.
   Ours being an ethic of the promise, implying that we keep our promise; to say no until the day when our no is swallowed in His yes; until then we await and press forward and trust to His keeping of the promise which is to say a payment no power or form or arrangement of this world can estimate or hand over to mint or hoard or bribe us with
a war payment but more
a blood sacrifice and more
a livid stigma and more
   His payment coming due on His day; nothing less than the substance of his promise which is our rising from the ‘body of this death’
Life unimaginable
to the degree that our misery, our moral stagnation, our spiritual and corporal and social plague, is beyond healing
any healing but one; maranatha, come Lord Jesus.