On the side of God, peace and the poor

Before you get serious about Jesus, first consider how good you’re going to look on wood! Daniel Berrigan wrote those words and they express a lot about who he was and what he believed in. He died at the weekend aged 94. 

No short tribute can do justice to Dan Berrigan. He defies quick definition and facile description. He was, at once, the single-minded, obsessed activist, even as he was one of the most complex spiritual figures of our generation. He exhibited both the fierceness of John the Baptist and the gentleness of Jesus. 

An internationally-known social justice advocate, an anti-war priest, a poet, a first-rate  spiritual writer, a maverick Jesuit, he, along with his close friend, Dorothy Day, was one of our generation’s foremost advocates for non-violence.  Like Dorothy Day, he believed that all violence, no matter how merited it seems in a given situation, always begets further violence. 

For him, violence can never justify itself by claiming moral superiority over the violence it is trying to stop. Non-violence, he uncompromisingly advocated, is the only road to peace. Like Dorothy Day, he couldn’t imagine Jesus with a gun.

He lived by the principle of non-violence and spent his life trying to convince others of its truth. This got him into a lot of trouble, both in society at large and in the Church. It also landed him to prison. 

In 1968, along with his brother, Philip, he entered a federal building in Catonsville, Maryland, removed a number of draft records and burned them in garbage cans. For this, he was given three-and-a-half years in prison. But this also indelibly stamped him into the consciousness of a whole generation. He was forever after known as a member of the Catonsville Nine and once appeared on the cover of Time magazine.    

I was in the seminary during those tumultuous years in the late 1960s, when anti-war protests in the US were drawing such huge crowds and Daniel Berrigan was one of their poster boys. Moreover, I was in a seminary where most everything in our ethos was asking us to distrust Berrigan and the anti-war movement. In our view at that time, this was not what a Catholic priest was supposed to be doing. I wasn’t a fan of his then. I’m a late convert.


That conversion began when, as a graduate student, I began to read Berrigan’s books. I was gripped by three things: First, by the gospel challenge he was spelling out so clearly; next, by his spiritual depth; and, finally, not least, by the brilliance and poetry of his language. He was, flat-out, a very good writer and a very challenging Christian. 

I envied his vocabulary, his turn of phrase, his intelligence, his wit, his depth and his radical commitment. I began to read everything he’d written and he began to have a growing influence on my life and ministry. I had never before seen how non-negotiable is Jesus’ challenge to act not just with charity but also with justice. 

Fr Larry Rosebaugh, an Oblate colleague who also went to prison for anti-war protests and who was later shot to death in Guatemala, shares in his autobiography how, the night before he performed his first act of civil disobedience that landed him in prison, he spent the entire night in prayer with Daniel Berrigan. Berrigan’s advice to him then was this: If you can’t do this without becoming bitter and angry at those who arrest you, don’t do it! Prophecy is about making a vow of love, not of alienation. There’s a thin line here, one that’s too often crossed when we are trying to be prophetic.

Ironically, for all his critical counsel on this, Berrigan, by his own admission, struggled mightily with exactly this, namely, to have his protest issue forth from a centre of love and not from a centre of anger. At age 62, he wrote an autobiography, To Dwell in Peace, within which he candidly shared that he had never enjoyed a healthy relationship with his own father and that his father had never blessed him or his brother, Philip. Rather his father was always more threatened by his sons’ energies and talents than proud of them. 

With this admission, Berrigan went on to ask whether it was any wonder that he, Daniel, had forever been a thorn in the side of every authority-figure he ever encountered: presidents, popes, bishops, religious superiors, politicians, policemen. It took him 60 years to make peace with the absence of his father’s blessing; but God writes straight with crooked lines, and the radicalness this fired in him helped challenge a generation.


In his later years, Berrigan began to work in a hospice, finding among the dying a depth that grounded him against what he so feared in our culture, shallowness. 

His own generation will give him a mixed judgment: loved by some, hated by others. But history will speak well of him. He was always on the side of God, peace and the poor. 

Daniel Berrigan RIP.