Search results for 'Daniel Berrigan'

Celebrating the Life and Legacy of Daniel Berrigan

10 May

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.

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Beyond Words: Poet’s Lament

5 Aug

Poetry at its finest stretches the expressiveness of language beyond its prior limits, not necessarily by its choice of words, but through the magical invocation of feelings embedded deeply within consciousness. Yes even poetry has its own frontiers that if crossed lead to a word-less terrain littered with corpses of atrocity, what Thomas Merton and James Douglass have soulfully identified for us as the realm of ‘the unspeakable,’ and then are brave enough to explore forbidden terrain. When we do not respect the unspeakable by our silence we domesticate the criminality of the horror that human beings are capable of inflicting on one another, and give way to the eventual emergence of normalcy as has happened with nuclear weapons detached from the happenings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I came across an utterance by one of my heroes, the Jesuit priest/poet, Daniel Berrigan, while on trial for pouring blood on draft cards during the Vietnam War: “I was in danger of verbalizing my moral impulses out of existence.” These words appear at the start of a haunting poem by another one of my heroes, the recently dead poet, Adrienne Rich; the poem’s title is “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children” and I recommend it not only as a stunning poetic achievement but also as a text for meditation.

Such thoughts seem far from the recent controversies on this blog about

the competing justice and victimization claims of Israelis and Palestinians, and the sort of language that seems historically validated for some to discuss such matters of life and death, while being hateful to others. It made me appreciate anew that there are some rivers of divergence that are too wide to cross, and that the attempt, first generates anger and frustration, but eventually brings despair, even sadness. Of course, the blogosphere is a new kind of undefended public space that can be entered by anyone with good will or ill. To appoint myself as a kind of censor, given the capacity to exclude or include comments, was neither

congenial nor tenable as a role, and I have decided to give it up except in relation to hate speech or defamatory material, although even here I acknowledge that some degree of subjectivity will always be present, at least unconsciously.

I am of course aware that the Israel/Palestine conflict is almost impossible to approach in a spirit of moderation, and I realize that many of the hostile comments are directed at my particular understanding and way of presenting the issues. Indeed, my posts have been scrutinized by pro-Israeli zealots so as to find some turn of language or alleged opinion that can be used to discredit me in other settings, especially in relation to my role as Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine on behalf of the UN Human Rights Council. Unlike comments that can be excluded, the posts are in the public domain, source material for those who seek to mount a personal attack, and there are no rules of the game to ensure that allegations are at least fair and reasonable. I have tried my best not to be intimidated or hurt by such concerted efforts to harm my reputation and destroy my self-esteem, but have not always succeeded.

As the person who dares to continue to write a blog under such circumstances, I have tried to devise for myself a code of responsible behavior for my own benefit, and to establish an atmosphere of trust and respect. I have selected two main principles as guidelines: (1) sustain integrity, especially whenever the suffering of others is involved, especially if it is unpopular to complain about what is happening, or worse, to mount sharp criticism of the perpetrators; in effect, talk truth to power, acknowledging, as I do, in the process that for Gandhi a dedication to truthfulness should never be separated from a dedication to nonviolence. (2) Admit mistakes, and explain their occurrence as honestly and helpfully as possible. In addition, I would add a couple further principles to this informal code, which like the Japanese game of Go has never put its rules in the form of an authoritative written text: (3) use the blog space to challenge whenever possible the ‘politics of invisibility’ that shields from our awareness structures of suffering, abuse, and exploitation; I attempted to do this, for instance, by calling attention to the extraordinary Palestinian hunger strikes that were almost totally ignored by the mainstream media in North America while giving daily coverage to Chinese human rights activists who were enduring far less. (4) use the blog space from time to time to consider a complementary aspect of the way reality is so often obscured and twisted by media, government, special interests, a pattern I label ‘the politics of deflection,’ that is, diverting attention from the message to the messenger, or condemning the auspices under which allegations were made while ignoring their substance; this is happening all the time, perhaps most damagingly by convincing much of the public for decades that the menace of nuclear weaponry has to do mostly with its proliferation rather than with its possession, deployment, threat, and possible use; more controversially, to obscure the violence of energy geopolitics behind a protective screen of counter-terrorism as in fashioning a rationale for attacking Iraq in 2003.

The work of poetry is poetry, but there are times when poets do produce lines here and there that illuminate the human predicament in unforgettable ways. Of course, the recognition of such an illumination is highly personal, and should never be defended. For me the following lines from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Fragment of an Elegy had this kind of explosive impact upon my imagination:

Once poets resounded over the battlefield, what voice

can outshout the rattle of this metallic age

that is struggling on toward its careening future?

Although composed almost a hundred years ago, this image of triumphal militarism illuminates current conditions and obliquely addresses our worst fears. We need to be thankful for these poems that make the outer limits of the speakable more accessible, especially in dark times of torment, great risk, and confusion.

The Nuclear Challenge 70 Years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki (7): Nuclear Civil Disobedience

4 Sep

 

In the years after World War II there was a widespread belief that rational minds would prevail, and that nuclear weapons would not be further developed, and their possession as well as their threat or use prohibited. The onset of the Cold War, the Soviet acquisition of the bomb, and the Eisenhower threat to use nuclear weapons if necessary to end the Korean War basically extinguished any real prospect of nuclear disarmament. Of course, the diplomacy of peace advocacy and of nuclear nonproliferation made it expedient to continue to affirm nuclear disarmament as a goal of foreign policy. And indeed up through the 1960s both Washington and Moscow tabled disarmament proposals with some fanfare, yet clearly lacked the political will to confront what had already become the powerful nuclear establishment that was a principal component of the military-industrial-complex that was so memorably depicted in Eisenhower’s still relevant Farewell Address.

 

It is against this background that it became increasingly clear that nuclear weapons would remain part of the geopolitical scene so long as their role was left to governments and normal statecraft. Before long all five permanent members of the UN Security Council opted for possession of nuclear weapons, which as a result seemed to connect great power status on a global level with entry into the nuclear club. Its expansion beyond this circle of World War II victors was more problematic as the further spread of the weaponry collided with the geopolitical priority of nonproliferation and with the oligopolistic mentality that was shared by the nuclear weapons states, and belied the central claim of the West that nuclear weapons were needed and effective in a deterrent posture, keeping the peace by discouraging attacks and provocative international initiatives. The strategic rationale for nuclear weaponry relied upon by the United States and Europe stressed the need to offset Soviet superiority in conventional weaponry and territorial access from their base in the Asian landmass.

 

Ever since the 1980s peace activists, especially those with deep religious convictions, have mounted civil society campaigns centered on the immorality of threatening or using nuclear weapons, and even on possessing and contemplating possible use. Those activists with the deepest convictions have repeatedly resorted to nonviolence civil disobedience, sometimes in provocative forms (spilling their own blood at nuclear facilities, damaging warheads, blocking trains carrying missiles), to communicate the depth of their opposition, and their own willingness to accept prison sentences to get their message better heard. I was deeply moved and influenced by the purity of several of the leading personalities who followed this line of thought and action, and participated in a supportive role by being an expert witness in several high profile legal cases. Among those I came to know through this contact, and particularly admired, were the Berrigan brothers, Daniel and Philip, Elizabeth McAlister, and James Douglass. They were and remain for me among the most charismatic and inspirational figures in my life experience, not only for their anti-nuclear clarity (accompanied by strong earlier stands against the Vietnam War and wider commitments of service to the poor), but for the ways they connected such strong spiritual identities with their daily life styles and citizen engagements that harmoniously fused religious values with deeply felt and reflected upon moral/political understanding of how to live in the world.

 

I was particularly drawn to the work and outlook of the Ground Zero Center for Nonviolent Protest founded by James and Shelley Douglass in Bangor, Washington and reaching out to many in the greater Seattle area with their uncompromising and sustained opposition to nuclearism, with a focus on so-called first-strike weapons. There worldview combined their embrace of pre-Constantine Christianity, the early pacifist Christian communities that were persecuted and yet adhered to their beliefs and practices, and Gandhi whose life, work, and thought established the radical transformative potentiality of militant nonviolence. I was impressed during my years of contact with the people of Ground Zero by their deep belief that the point of confrontation is always conversion to truth and right action, and not passing judgment as to evil. By virtue of such efforts they managed to generate widespread sympathy with their work, eventually persuading the formerly apolitical Archbishop of Seattle, Raymond Hunthausen, to join them in nonviolent civil disobedience and gaining the respect and even the support of some local prosecutors.

 

An important element in their dedicated lives was the strong belief in living up to the Nuremberg ethos, including respect for the UN Charter and for international law generally. It was my role to show that their beliefs in what I called ‘the Nuremberg obligation’ created a civic, if not a legal, duty to oppose within reasonable bounds policies and behavior by a government if it directly violated international law, and the more so, if the context involved warmaking. I also gave my opinion that it was reasonable for individuals to believe that all activities associated with nuclear weapons involved or were leading to the commission of the most severe of war crimes, and that these persons being prosecuted did so believe.

 

From a somewhat more secular point of view, Daniel Ellsberg, followed in these footsteps, taking a journey that has led him from the pinnacles of state power in Washington as a top level strategic advisor to his brave and precedent-setting decision to release the Pentagon Papers that divulged the secrets wrongly withheld from the American public, a shocking documentary record of the policies and conduct of the U.S. Government in relation to the Vietnam War.

I have known Ellsberg since we were both students at Harvard in the 1950s, and were originally at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Dan was a starstudent of Cold War strategy within the reigning realist paradigm and I was an obscure and alienated critic, but we managed to keep some contact in subsequent years, and I was one of those who Dan entrusted with the cache of top secret documents that constituted the Pentagon Papers, and was later called to testify before the Boston Grand Jury (convened to investigate the criminality of the release) and later as an expert in the criminal trial that the government started and lost with respect to Ellsberg and the NY Times.

 

Ellsberg also has worked while at the Pentagon on nuclear war plans, the secret of secrets, irresponsibly sharable over the years with such reckless military adventurers as Curtis LeMay and Dick Cheney, and their less extremist colleagues. It is a wonder that with this kind of incubated knowledge of the most deadly reality the human species has ever confronted, that species endangering catastrophes have not yet darkened the horizon.

 

Ellsberg’s perseverance with respect to nuclear weaponry has become iconic. Besides, lucidly lecturing throughout the world he has committed civil disobedience about 100 times, engaged in long vigils and fasts devoted to dramatizing the failures of the UN and U.S. Government to achieve nuclear disarmament. Most recently, at an event on August 7th observing the 70th anniversary of the nuclear attacks, Ellsberg joined with 50 other protesters in a ‘die-in,’ outside of Lawrence Livermore Labs where nuclear warheads have for decades being continuously developed to attain ever higher levels of annihilating perfection. It is worth observing that the Livermore Labs are located in Livermore, California, which is in the Bay Area, and that the large budget for work on weapons, often more than $1 billion is federally funded by Department of Energy, and the operation is carried on as a partnership between the University of California and several large corporations, an alliance suggestive of the bondings between the government, universities, and the private sector. Ellsberg’s words at Livermore deserve contemplating and heeding as best we can however we are situated:

 

“The killing at Hiroshima was mass murder.… In the target plans that I worked on, and ones I worked on in Russia, the smoke will go into the stratosphere as it did in Hiroshima by higher firestorm. But simultaneously, thousands of cities, with pillars of smoke, will join around the globe blotting out the sunlight sufficiently to kill harvests around the world, and condemn nearly the entire population of the world to death. It’s the Doomsday Machine, The End. We’ve known that, not at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, but for the last twenty-five years, and yet these threats go on; the threats go on. They are threats of ending nearly all life. It’s never a good day to die, but it is a good day to get arrested.”

 

It is a somber message, but an informed recognition of where we are as a nation, and what this portends for species vulnerability, but also what it means culturally when national security is unethically conflated with a latent threat to commit a massive genocide, even omnicide.

 

70 years after Hiroshima and Nagasaki it is lamentable that more than ever it is the voices in the wilderness that speak most clearly to those who are the global managers of security for the peoples of the world. We can be thankful for those who have put their bodies on the line in this unbroken tradition of anti-nuclear civil obedience. An aspect of the problem has followed from the fact that the media puts almost all of its weight on the side of the nuclear militarists, and refuses to give attention or space to those who for decades selflessly seek to awaken us from this lengthy, hazardous, and immoral ‘nuclear sleep.’