Remembering Daniel Berrigan
I was privileged to know Daniel Berrigan in the last stages of the Vietnam War, not well, but well enough to appreciate his quality of moral radiance and to admire the spiritual dedication that he exhibited in opposing the Vietnam War, and later nuclearism. I also knew Dan’s brother, Phil, who shared these remarkable qualities, although Phil exuded an earthy embrace of life while Dan seem to keep his distance from quotidian pursuits by living a meditative life as a poet and devoted member of the Jesuit order, as well as being inspirational anti-war activist. In contrast, Phil gave up the priesthood to marry Elizabeth McAlister, herself a former nun and a deeply committed lifelong partner with respect to social and political engagement. Together they established Jonah House (community nonviolence center) in Baltimore that continues to serve the poor and stand for peace and justice in our society and in the world. Despite leaving the Church in a formal sense, Phil never departed from his religious vocation and Christian commitment, to help the poor and struggle against abuses of state power. As I recall when I was in contact with them, because of their parental and community responsibilities, Phil and Liz took turns engaging in the kind of political actions likely to land them in prison, both exhibiting this extraordinary willingness to sacrifice their freedom to exhibit the seriousness and depth of their engagement in the struggle against injustice and evil.
Actually, I knew Liz socially before she and Phil were publically together, finding her an astonishingly lively, warmly challenging, and playfully serious personality; Eqbal Ahmed was our close common cherished friend responsible for our initial meetings, and Eqbal and Liz were both Harrisburg defendants being accused of dreaming up the kidnapping caper, which was a fanciful caper that was taken seriously only by our paranoid government security services that had planted an informer in Phil’s prison cell and then proceeded to act as if phantasy was plot. At the same time, it was not so fanciful if international law was taken as seriously as it deserves to be, and the dangers of allowing Henry Kissinger to remain at large were as understood as they ought to be.
It is perverse how our government continues to prosecute as criminals those who are its most loyal patriots (for instance, Edward Snowden, Chelsea Manning) and rewards with the highest offices of the land and the greatest honors those who degrade the nation by rampant militarism responsible for massive suffering in distant lands.
My contact with Dan, Phil, and Liz, as well as other Catholic anti-war activists, resulted from my participation in several criminal trials, acting on their behalf as an expert witness. Two trials stand out in my mind—the Harrisburg 7 trial in 1971 held in Harrisburg Pennsylvania of seven defendants, including Phil and Liz (Dan was noted in the government complaint as an unindicted co-conspirator); and the Plowshares 8 case in the early 1980s that resulted from an action damaging the nose cones of the Mark 12A missile and pouring blood on documents while trespassing on the General Electric Nuclear Re-entry Division, located at King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. My main contribution was to visit Ramsey Clark in his Washington office, shortly after he had resigned at Attorney General, and persuade him to represent the Harrisburg defendants, which he did in an effective and deeply committed manner that changed him forever.
I also testified in both trials. My line of testimony was along two major lines: first, that it was reasonable to believe that the conduct of the Vietnam War and the development of nuclear weapons were contrary to international law; and secondly, since the Nuremberg Judgment against surviving Nazi leaders after World War II it was reasonable for individuals to believe that they had a right, and possibly, a duty, to act nonviolently in an effort to oppose internationally unlawful behavior on the part of the government.
It was apparent to me that the motivation for the actions undertaken by the Berrigans derived from their profound devotion to pre-Constantine Christian ethics, and was coupled with an ambivalence toward institutionalized Christianity. At the same time I felt that both Dan and Phil, in their separate styles, welcomed the legal reinforcement that my testimony attempted to provide. It overcame the widely voiced liberal objection that such disruptive behavior as burning draft cards or damaging potential nuclear weapons was unacceptable in a democratic society as it claimed the right to take the law into one’s own hands, and thus warranted indictment, prosecution, and punishment, and at best, represented ‘civil disobedience’ in the Thoreau sense of exposing the immorality of the law on the books but at the same time backing the governmental responsibility to uphold the law as it existed.
Reliance on international law and what I called ‘the Nuremberg obligation’ offered an objective platform upon which to rest such symbolic challenges to lawlessness on the part of the state. In effect, the defense rested on the necessity of such exceptional acts of obstruction as part of a wider effort to halt this lawlessness in view of the failure of governmental institutions to uphold what they believed the law required with respect to war and peace. In this regard, what the Berrigans did was more radical than civil obedience, contending that the government and political leaders were engaged in criminal activities that needed to be stopped by all possible nonviolent means. In this fundamental sense, what the Berrigans di should not be confused with the challenge to the morality of law mounted by Thoreau. The Nuremberg tradition provides a normative foundation for engaged citizenship, and claims that the sovereign state is itself constrained by law, which if it disobeys in matters of war and peace should politically empower citizens to act as enforcers of this higher law.
In a manner similar to whistleblowing, these kinds of anti-war actions undertaken by citizens should be appreciated as a populist check on war making and criminality by the state. We the people should support such defiance with gratitude and celebrate its occurrence as signs of democratic vitality and vigilance. This post-modern supplement to republican constitutionalism, distinguished by its reliance on checks and balances, seems currently more necessary than ever given the failure of Congress to fulfill its constitutional responsibility to agree upon a declaration of war as a prerequisite to lawful war making and even more so, given the regulation of recourse to war that is part of contemporary international law and is the core undertaking of the UN Charter, an international treaty, that by virtue of Article VI of the US Constitution is ‘the supreme law of the land.’ In this respect, what Dan and Phil believed with their whole being was the sacred importance of repudiating aggressive war making and reliance on weapons of mass destruction, and holding the state and its representatives, including in relation to their own country, fully accountable if they fail to uphold and respect obligations under international law. This is their moral, political, and legal legacy that should be reminding all of us that passivity in a constitutional democracy should be condemned as a form of lethal complicity in the nuclear age. That such a message seems ‘radical’ is itself a sign of democratic entropy and fatigue. The degree to which the citizenry of this country has been pacified at the very moment when it desperately needs to be awake and vigilant should alarm us all.
In these respects, honoring our remembrance of Daniel Berrigan, including being attentive to his poetry that was an organic dimension of his moral and spiritual witnessing, is both a gift and a challenge. What I find most enduring about the lives of the Berrigan brothers is its call to all of us to act as engaged citizens if we want to save our planet from depravities of war, injustice, and avoidable ecological collapse.
By highlighting the significance of Dan’s personal resistance to abuses of state power, I would not want to leave the impression that this signified all that made him special. Even aside from such public contributions, it was apparent to all whom Dan touched in the course of his long life that he was an exceptional human being, transparent in moral and spiritual coherence, mindful in his attentiveness to the suffering and wellbeing of others, a powerful and unforgettably vivid and loving presence, a challenge to our daily complacency. In the end, I will keep remembering Dan and Phil as an inspiration and as a challenge, as well as appreciating Liz for all that she continues to achieve by way of spiritual community.