The Common Good
March 2010

Passing the Peace

by Jenn Svetlik | March 2010

A veteran activist speaks with a new generation of Christian justice workers.

Jesuit Daniel Berrigan is no ordinary Catholic priest. In 1970, he was one of the FBI’s 10 most wanted. (He’d gone into hiding after he and eight others—the Catonsville Nine—protested the Vietnam War by torching draft files with homemade napalm outside a Maryland draft board office.) Ten years later, he hammered on nuclear missile nose cones at a General Electric manufacturing plant—a symbolic act of “beating swords into plowshares” that eventually earned him a two-year prison sentence.

These weren’t just youthful acts of rebellion; Berrigan’s faith-based nonviolent demonstrations have continued into his “retirement years.” As an 80-something, the Jesuit priest was handcuffed for protesting the U.S. detention prison at Guantanamo Bay. In the periods between nonviolent civil disobedience and prison sentences, Berrigan has explored the deep faith that fuels his peace efforts in more than 50 books, including several collections of poetry. He has also taught university students, led spiritual retreats, and volunteered with AIDS and cancer patients.

Last year, Sojourners interns traveled to New York to meet with the legendary activist, now 88, who now lives in the Kairos peace community in Manhattan. The interns, who live together as an intentional community during their year of service, asked Father Berrigan to share his reflections on community, activism, and art with Sojourners intern Jenn Svetlik.


Sojourners: It’s been more than 20 years since you wrote your autobiography, To Dwell in Peace. What might you add to it if you were to write it today?

Daniel Berrigan: Well, I wouldn’t afflict the public twice with that tale, so I can only speculate. The fact is, if I’ve learned anything in the past 20 years, it had to do with a great deal of listening and a great deal of appreciation of the gifts of others. I have come to believe more and more in the healing power of the community itself—psychically and spiritually. And the ability to find a meaningful place in the world through the community, as has happened to us here on the Upper West Side at the Kairos community. There’s something, it seems to me, about this life together that’s very beautiful and very life-giving.
 
Has life in community been a learning ground for you, a source of wisdom?
The quest for wisdom is a beautiful idea. Isaiah says that we are all in this together. We acknowledge that we don’t know wisdom as we would want to, and that the culture is helpless to give us wisdom. But with one another we are not helpless, and we can do great things together.
We just had an infusion of younger people who heard about us and decided to join our Bible study, and it’s really been enriching for all of us. We’re opening the book and seeing what happens. And people have been going to the troubled spots of the world—the West Bank, Gaza, Baghdad, Chiapas in Mexico, Colombia—and coming back and reporting to us and enriching our discussion. This sort of conversation is a good discipline that will keep people moving across generational lines and faith traditions.
 
How does your community translate discussions into action? What’s the next step?
The question in my mind has never been, “What do we do next?” That’s not the real question. The real questions are, “Are we working at community? Are we working at listening? Are we serious about the world? And how is that showing itself? What is our sense of one another in the larger circle of suffering in the city and in our world?”
But not to start with, “What are we to do?” You’ll know if you open the book. The occasion will come and we will know what is to be done. In other words, action follows from the quality of the community, not vice versa.
And you know, what I’ve learned from Dr. King and Dorothy Day is modesty—one does what one can and lets the results go. I’ve also learned a lot about that from the Buddhists. I lived in a Buddhist community in Paris in exile for almost a year, and I still remember the saying of the master of the community: The good was to be done because it’s good, not because it goes somewhere. I believe if that’s the attitude, it will go somewhere, but I won’t know it. And I think that’s in our Bible, too—the closer we are to biblical wisdom, the less consumed we will be about proving ourselves and about ego and celebrity. The less we will know about the outcome in our lives. And that’s very helpful—you don’t have to know, just do it. Sounds simple, eh?
 
Your peace efforts were often controversial, such as when you served time in prison for burning draft files in protest of the Vietnam War. What have been some of the challenges of acting out your beliefs?
It’s been very rewarding, but it’s never been easy. I think the whole supposition in the Catholic community is that priests and nuns don’t get in trouble. Stepping over the line on questions of conscience and breaking the law—that was unheard of, you know. Even though the Jesuits have been in trouble all over the world and many have been killed even in my lifetime, it was very new here in America when we burned the draft files in ’68, for instance.
 
Your various titles—American, priest, peace activist—don’t seem compatible. How do you explain your identity?
The sense of who we are in the world is always being tested. For a person of faith who is also a citizen of the empire, what’s the relationship between those two realities—citizenship and faith? I would say I understand myself in the world as a Christian who happens to be an American. But the empire is always trying to turn that around and say, “I’m an American who happens to be a Christian.”

What promising work do you see happening in the United States these days?
There is the old connection to the Catholic Worker here in New York City, and there are people from all over the country gathering in D.C. It’s not getting media attention but it’s very good and powerful. A lot of very unusual young people are keeping tabs on the system and the misuse of creation. We must continue, it seems, to say that the deepest misery is caused because the creation is misused in the service of killing. But the good news is that people are not giving in or giving up. Human pressure, I’m convinced, is urging a decent future for people forgotten or left out or ignored. Speaking on their behalf can only be a blessing.
 
What insight or experience would you share with young activists seeking to engage in today’s peace and justice initiatives?
I can only trust the movement that is producing art, whether it’s poetry, or visual art, or dance, or music—it doesn’t make any difference. But there has to be that overflow that says, “We are on the move. We have enough to give and we’re going to give it. We have more than enough and we can give it.” So when my turn came for me and my friends to go to jail, we still wrote poetry and recited it to one another. We would meet on Sunday morning in the yard, and we said a poem we had memorized or written that week. We had Bible study going too. I don’t know where all that came from. As I look back, it was a very important and beautiful period together. It said, in effect, “They don’t own us. We’re not here on their terms. We have enough to give this to one another.” And that’s what we did.
You can really trust the movement that is producing that kind of overflow of the vessel—it’s getting tipped and there’s enough for everybody. And we call it art. We call it joy. The joy can’t be mandated, it’s just there or it isn’t there. And if the community is growing and deepening, it will be there. I’m convinced, it will be there.
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