Daniel Berrigan's Ethic of Resurrection | Sojourners

Daniel Berrigan's Ethic of Resurrection

"The No to state uttered by the unarmed Christ is vindicated in His resurrection. Of this, the world can never be a witness… This is our glory. From Peter and Paul to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Romero. Christians have known something which the "nations" as such can never know or teach—how to live and how to die. We are witnesses to the resurrection. We practice resurrection. We risk resurrection." —Daniel Berrigan (Testimony: The Word Made Fresh)

April 30 marks the second anniversary of the death of Daniel Berrigan, SJ, the renowned prophetic priest, peacemaker, writer, and poet. Dan was an important friend and mentor to me and countless others. His spirit lives on in the hearts of all he touched throughout his 94 years. And his writings and poems continue to instruct and challenge.

During this holy season of Easter, I have been pondering Dan's words in his profound and deeply challenging essay, "An Ethic of Resurrection," from Testimony. How do we understand resurrection in a time of pervasive systemic racism, violence, oppression, inequality, perpetual war, rampant political instability and corporate domination, and the ever-present threats of nuclear extinction and climate chaos?

When I read Dan's words, this is how I interpret them and apply it to our present context: To be witnesses to the resurrection, we must utter our 'no' to state-sanctioned violence, racism, oppression, injustice, and all that endangers life and creation. We must utter an unequivocal 'no' to all that divides, demeans, and destroys. We must act in the hope of the resurrection — a hope that is rooted in the conviction that Jesus has forever overcome the forces of sin and death. Our 'yes' to this belief compels us to resist the forces of death and evil in our world, to risk the cross and to practice resurrection!

Dan Berrigan showed us how to be a witness to the resurrection. Clearly, his "no" and "yes" were rooted in his faith in the crucified and risen Jesus. Dan's exemplary life witness is a powerful testimony to resurrection hope.

It is this hope that compelled him to risk traveling to a war zone in North Vietnam in 1968, and to be involved in two prophetic watershed peace actions: the Catonsville Nine action on May 17, 1968, and the Plowshares witness.

Dan, along with his brother Phil and six other peacemakers, carried out the first of what have come to be known as "Plowshares" actions on Sept. 9, 1980, at the General Electric Nuclear Re-entry Division in King of Prussia, Penn. The eight hammered on two nosecones of the Mark 12 A nuclear warhead, poured blood on documents, and offered prayers for peace. They were arrested and initially charged with more than ten felony and misdemeanor counts.

In their action statement, the Plowshares Eight declared:

"In confronting GE we choose to obey God's law of life, rather than a corporate summons to death. Our beating of swords into plowshares is a way to enflesh this biblical call. In our action, we draw on a deep-rooted faith in Christ, who changed the course of human history through his willingness to suffer rather than to kill. We are filled with hope for our world and for our children as we join this act of resistance."

They were convicted by a jury of burglary, conspiracy, and criminal mischief and sentenced to prison terms of eighteen months to ten years. This sentence was appealed and in litigation until 1990, when they were resentenced and paroled for up to 23 months in consideration of time already served in prison.

The Plowshares Eight action has inspired more than 100 similar actions to date — two of which, in 1982 and 1989, both directed at the Trident ballistic missile submarine, I was honored to be a part of. 

The most recent of these occurred on April 4, 2018, when seven Catholic peacemakers entered the Kings Bay Naval Base in St. Mary, Georgia. The base opened in 1979 as the Navy's Atlantic Ocean port for six Trident submarines, which have the capacity to cause devastation of up to 3,600 Hiroshima-scale attacks. The seven — Elizabeth McAlister (78), Jonah House, Baltimore; Steve Kelly, SJ (69), Bay Area, Calif.; Carmen Trotta (55), Catholic Worker, N.Y.; Clare Grady (59), Ithaca Catholic Worker (NY); Martha Hennessy (granddaughter of Dorothy Day), 62, Catholic Worker, N.Y.; Mark Colville (55), Amistad Catholic Worker, New Haven, Conn.; and Patrick O’Neill (61), Fr. Charlie Mulholland Catholic Worker, Garner, N.C. — chose to act on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who devoted his life to addressing the giant triplets of militarism, racism, and materialism. Carrying hammers and small baby bottles containing their own blood, they sought to disarm weapons of mass destruction.

In their action statement, the Kings Bay Plowshares declared: "We come to Kings Bay to answer the call of the prophet Isaiah (2:4) to 'beat swords into plowshares' by disarming the world’s deadliest nuclear weapon, the Trident submarine… Nuclear weapons eviscerate the rule of law, enforce white supremacy, perpetuate endless war and environmental destruction and ensure impunity for all manner of crimes against humanity… A just and peaceful world is possible when we join prayers with action. Swords into Plowshares!"

All of the participants knew Dan. One is his sister-in-law, Liz McAlister. And the other, a brother Jesuit, Steve Kelly. During his homily at Dan's funeral, Kelly recommended that Dan, and his brother Phil, be granted the title "Doctors of the Church."

The seven are currently being charged with two felony counts and a misdemeanor and are being held without bond at the Camden County jail. 

I have no doubt how Dan would view the Kings Bay Plowshares witness. In Testimony, he writes:

We have yet to experience resurrection, which I translate: the hope that hopes on… A blasphemy against this hope is named deterrence, or Trident submarines, or star wars, or preemptive strike, or simply, any nuclear weapon… That is why we speak again and again of 1980, and all the Plowshares actions since — how some continue to labor to break the demonic clutch on our souls of the ethic of Mars, of wars and rumors of wars, inevitable wars, just wars, necessary wars, victorious wars, and say our no in acts of hope. For us, all of these repeated arrests, the interminable jailings, the life of our small communities, the discipline of nonviolence, these have embodied an ethic of resurrection.

I am deeply moved by the courageous action of the Kings Bay Plowshares, who are friends to me and to many others who will celebrate their action. Their prophetic witness is a clear testament to the truth of the gospel and the hope of Easter.

Let us do all we can to support the Kings Bay Plowshares, and their families and communities, as they continue their hope-filled witness in jail and as they face the courts. Like Dan, they believe that the powers and principalities and the forces of death will never have the last word.

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