How Daniel Berrigan Helped Save My Faith | Sojourners

How Daniel Berrigan Helped Save My Faith

Peacemaking is biblical, theological, and political. Sojourners has certainly learned that over the years. But peacemaking is also personal — and a personal commitment at the heart of the gospel.

When we lose a Christian peacemaker like Daniel Berrigan, it gets very personal for many of us. To our readers from a generation who may not know of him, I implore you to read some of the best historical accounts of Daniel Berrigan’s life as a Jesuit priest, renowned poet, incredibly prolific author, and continual offender as a peacemaker.

My colleague Rose Berger, in the accompanying Sojourners piece today, shares her story as a Catholic peacemaker and how Daniel Berrigan influenced her life. Berrigan shaped and motivated a Catholic peace movement that became a fundamental and foundational influence on Sojourners — and one of the core constituencies of our work from the earliest days.

As you know, I was raised not Catholic, but evangelical. Here is how Daniel Berrigan shaped me.

My Eisenhower Republican, evangelical family was certainly influenced, as was the whole nation, by World War II, where my father served as a Navy officer. Virtually all of my family and church friends had dads who came home from the war to start their new families, and support for the war was universally assumed.

Then came my generation — and Vietnam.

Some of you know my personal story of how I was pushed out of my white evangelical church by the issue of race in my hometown of Detroit. After leaving my home church and childhood faith, I joined the civil rights and student movements of my time. As students, we went deeply into the history of Indochina and the facts of the war in Vietnam and found our nation’s policies to be based on lies. The government stopped sending their people to debate on college campuses because they lost all the debates. We organized — and at Michigan State University, where I went, we could bring 10,000 people into the streets in a few hours.

I had left my church and faith behind, and didn’t even know any Christians were against the war. Friends were drafted, others feared they would be next, and the war consumed the attention of an entire generation. But then I heard one name: Berrigan. Daniel and Philip Berrigan — and the small group of Christian protestors they were inciting — were the only Christians I could see or hear about who were against the war in Vietnam.

The name Berrigan helped keep the possibility of coming back to my Christian faith alive. Just like the black churches that took me in, here were some Christians who were saying and doing what I thought the gospel said that nobody in my white evangelical world was. I believe the witness of the Berrigans literally helped keep my hope for faith from dying altogether.

African-American Christians fighting for justice and that Berrigan handful of Christians fighting for peace paved the way for my return to faith out of the student movements of my generation. When Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came out against the war in Vietnam at his famous Riverside Church address in 1967, linking racism, militarism, and materialism (the “giant triplets”) — it all came together for me. Ironically, the black scholar and activist who helped Dr. King write that speech was Dr. Vincent Harding, who later became a primary mentor for me and Sojourners. If Vincent were still with us today he would be mourning the death of Daniel Berrigan and celebrating his life among us.

When our rag-tag group of seminarians at Trinity Evangelical Seminary put together the first issue of our tabloid publication The Post-American, which later became Sojourners, our opposition to the war in Vietnam leapt off almost every page — with our call to Christians to be peacemakers after the clear gospel instruction of Jesus, “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God.” One of the first calls we got was from one of the few evangelicals against the war — Oregon Sen. Mark Hatfield. He said please come to Washington; I need some friends! That led to our first trip to Washington, D.C.

I remember our very first speaking engagement to a national conference of evangelical student leaders from across the country, held that year at Oral Roberts University. I had been asked to speak but had little idea what the gathering would be like. I vividly remember walking into the auditorium during the speech of a national evangelical leader who spoke strongly in support of the war in Vietnam. I remember asking myself what I had got myself into but decided I need to strongly address the Vietnam War and call evangelical Christians back to the gospel of peacemaking. I did the next day, and got a standing ovation from a new generation of evangelical leaders who talked constantly to me over the next two days. It was a defining moment for our work: to speak prophetically for peace to the church, as Daniel Berrigan had done.

Another one of those moments came when a group of us from our early Chicago days went down to Dallas for a Campus Crusade for Christ event at the Cotton Bowl. During their Flag Day military salute to the war, a little group of us peacemakers held a banner high at the top of the huge stadium that read “Cross or Flag” and chanted “Stop the War!” I had never before been booed by 100,000 people. And I still remember Dan Berrigan’s smile when I told him about it. He knew the feeling well. The headline on the front page of the Dallas Evening Times the next day read “War Vs. Peace at Explo '72.

Daniel and Phillip Berrigan rose to national prominence after they and seven others burned 378 personal draft files with homemade napalm at a draft board in Catonsville, Md., on May 17, 1968. What followed was jail time for the Berrigan brothers and the group, and eventually books and a play about the “Catonsville Nine” that I recommend people see again now as a celebration of Dan’s life.

One of the most famous stories about Daniel Berrigan, which prompted wide news coverage at the time and a LIFE magazine feature, was when he was arrested on Block Island, while hiding at the home of his friend William Stringfellow, after being sentenced to prison for Catonsville.

“On an ominous morning in August, with a fierce nor’easter blowing up black clouds and spattering rain over the harbor, Daniel Berrigan lay asleep in a manger [a little shed outside the Stringfellow house] on Block Island, R.I.,” wrote Lee Lockwood in the May 21, 1971 edition of LIFE. “… Berrigan’s Block Island routine was to rise late and breakfast lightly on coffee and a piece of bread. Afterward, with books, paper and pen, and dressed ‘in some outlandish headgear,’ he would disappear below the crest of the Mohegan Bluffs until nightfall. Reappearing for then for drinks, dinner and conversation …”

On August 11, 1970, FBI agents, posing as birdwatchers on the island, found and apprehended Berrigan and took him off to a correctional facility in Danbury, Conn., where he had been sentenced for three years. When asked about his own potential prosecution for harboring a federal fugitive, Stringfellow said “I don’t fear persecution. I know we are in jeopardy, but everyone in this country is in jeopardy.”

When asked why he had taken in Berrigan, Stringfellow replied, “Where does a person in this situation turn, but to his friends?”

Bill Stringfellow, who also became a dear friend, elder, and primary mentor for me, decided to build a small cottage for his imprisoned companion on the back of his property overlooking the Atlantic Ocean on Berrigan’s beloved Mohegan Bluffs named after a local indigenous tribe — to give Dan a place to rest, retreat, and write after he returned from jail. The Stringfellow Spring Street House and Berrigan cottage were to become my primary retreat and only vacation destination in the years to follow, and the place where Dan and I had our most personal conversations — on long walks along the beach or paths around the island, or on his porch overlooking the Atlantic. I still clearly remember many a long meal with Bill and Dan, around Bill’s dining room table or at the cottage, for some of the best theological and political conversations of my life. Watching a presidential debate together, once, after food and drinks, became one of the most hilarious nights I can ever remember with likely the best moments of political and spiritual satire I’ve been part of.

Dan, members of his family, and personal friends came to that cottage for years after Bill died, and it became a sacred space for many of us. I even proposed to my wife, Joy Carroll, on Block Island, and we have taken our two boys there regularly for many years. On the cottage wall, Dan had inscribed this poem.

Where this house
at Land's End
and the sea
turns in sleep
ponderous menacing
and our spirit fails and runs
--landward seaward askelter--
we pray You
from the Law's
from the second death
from envy's tooth
from doom's great knell
who dwell here

Then he kindly listed some of our names at the end of the poem.

I was always very moved and grateful for the way Daniel Berrigan consistently made the connections between peace and justice. In his testimony at the Catonsville trial, for the public burning of draft records, he said:

“Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise…. We act against the law at a time of the Poor People's March, at a time moreover when the government is announcing ever more massive paramilitary means to confront disorder in the cities….The war in Vietnam is more and more literally brought home to us. Its inmost meaning strikes the American ghettos; in servitude to the affluent. We must resist and protest this crime….“The time is past when good men can remain silent, when obedience can segregate men from public risk, when the poor can die without defense.”

This is where the vocation of Daniel Berrigan becomes clear. His critics always accused him of disorderliness, disruption, creating drama, and causing discomfort — all of which were true. That’s because he was not only a priest and a poet — Daniel Berrigan was a prophet, in the biblical tradition of all those who caused such trouble on behalf of what they believed God was trying to say to us. It is in that prophetic tradition that Sojourners has tried to stand — and Daniel Berrigan, for all his controversy and confrontational style, has helped us to stand there. Whether we were Catholic or evangelical or anything else, Dan Berrigan always gave us comfort, encouragement, support, and courage. We loved Daniel Berrigan, and know he will always be with us.

Dan and Phil, along with their communities, took on the nuclear arms race early, as Sojourners did, with their Plowshares actions, named after the Isaiah injunction to beat swords into plowshares by actually pounding hammers on nuclear weapons. I remember sitting on the benches at the WWII museum with my father near the end of his life, when he told me the story of how his naval ship was one of the first to visit Hiroshima after the first atomic bomb had been dropped there. A 5-year-old girl had come out of the rubble and walked up to him, all alone, with nothing but rags falling off her body, and obviously soon to die of radiation. Fifty years later, in tears, my father told me. “She had nothing to do with the war; and meeting her turned me against war ever since.” Berrigan always told us to look at the faces of war.

I cannot help but end with one of Daniel Berrigan’s most prophetic challenges — even to those of us who believe we are called to be Christian peacemakers. It’s a quote I have always been most struck with from Berrigan’s best-selling book No Bars to Manhood. It is about the cost of peacemaking versus to the cost of war-making — and the problem that war-makers are usually willing to pay a higher cost for war than those of us peacemakers are willing to make for peace. The prophetic words of Berrigan will remain with us:

“We cry peace and cry peace, and there is no peace. There is no peace because there are no peacemakers. There are no makers of peace because the making of peace is at least as costly as the making of war – at least as exigent, at least as disruptive, at least as liable to bring disgrace and prison and death in its wake.”

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