Convicted by Grace

To read Fighting the Lamb’s War is to hear the Phil Berrigan whom we know in real life: introspective, judging himself by the standards he sets for everyone. Yet examples of his learning to temper with tolerance his expectations of stumbling human beings are also evident.

In this book, I hear Phil’s voice in the straightforward simplicity of style, almost poetic in his homily on his mother: Her gentleness is an inheritance her son must painfully acquire as he grows from the patriotic "highly skilled young killer" to uncompromising warrior for peace, only gradually learning the way of the Lamb who forgives as well as calls to self-sacrifice. Her peace-filled death reminds him of the risen Jesus: "Peace be to you! And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his side." Berrigan explains, "I began to understand the old biblical axiom that there is no reconciliation without bloodshed—no reconciliation without an offering for others."

The teacher speaks too, sharing the in-depth research that always informed his choices and public witness. Because Berrigan could not talk simply about himself, he also analyzes, in running commentary and selections from his writings, the evils of imperialism, the idolatry of the bomb, the injustices against minorities, and the need for revolutionary and nonviolent resistance to them all. Judgment is unsparing but so is gratitude for any evidence of decency and integrity on the part of religious superiors, politicians, judges, or prison guards.

I hear Berrigan most of all in his enfleshment of the Word of Divine Obedience, of creative nonviolence. If allowed to in the Vietnam War resisters’ Harrisburg trial, he would have described the growing understanding that led to changes in tactics from dialogue with politicians, bishops, and intellectuals to active resistance.

I have often asked myself, as Berrigan has, what Gandhi would have done in a time, situation, and tradition different from his own. Critics tend to judge all tactics against Gandhi’s, as though his were set in stone rather than changing with his own growth from army stretcher-bearer to faster and prisoner.

Berrigan sees what is fundamental: development of faith-based, nonviolent communities in preparation for any serious act of resistance; means consistent with ends; symbols that communicate hope; acceptance of consequences. Even his going underground after the Catonsville sentence (for burning draft board records in this Maryland town) was an effort to make "a larger point," to reject "totally and unequivocally the ‘justice system’" in courts supporting genocide. "As Christians, and as peace activists, we needed a new vision in which to ground our action."

And 10 years later the anti-nuclear activists known as the Plowshares Eight rediscovered the ever-new vision of Isaiah and Micah. "Gandhi said that everyone needs a scripture...a text against which to measure life. If we deeply believe in our scripture, hope is generated and offered to others."

THAT HOPE IS HARD-WON in communities growing toward fidelity to the Word. Just as in the years after World War II Phil "looked into the mirror" of his own violence, so he now reflects on the tendencies and mistakes that sometimes damaged relationships. His marriage with Liz McAlister united their mutual commitment to the threatened communities of the world, to the most fundamental principles of faith and nonviolence. Children Frida, Jerry, and Kate are living witnesses to the new life that has emerged from the hard and joyful work of the resulting community—not just cross but also resurrection.

Over the years men and women "with diversity of background, experience, and conscience" joined and subsequently left the Jonah House community. Berrigan sees "bearing with community life" as directly related to the cross. The choice of words suggests his difficulty with not only varying political viewpoints but also with ordinary human differences and weaknesses.

But "after 23 years of living within community, I’m a good deal mellower. I’ve discovered something about forgiveness, mercy, and tolerance." The tendency to drive himself "and everyone around me to greater commitment and sacrifice" is the almost irresistible temptation of one for whom to see the truth is to do it.

Phil’s life is a commentary on the shadow side of the American empire but also a sign of hope. Finding hope in prison, Gandhi’s "bridechamber," is countercultural, but also Christian. For Phil jail is the desert from which change can come because there we are in solidarity with the poor and can witness as did Christ from the underside of society. "Nonviolent revolution will come out of the wilderness as it always has," especially for Phil, "a Catholic striving to be a Christian."

Berrigan here reiterates his fidelity to Catholicism "even as we sorrow over Christian myopia, hardness of heart, and even cowardice" in the face of war, "because the church has given me far more than I’ve given the church: the sacraments and the scriptures." He "will be a witness for, and sometimes against, the church." It is scripture that describes God’s order "which reductively exists for the children." Such an order not only protects the weak but in doing so also rejects the violent means of the powerful.

ANNE MONTGOMERY, a sister of the Sacred Heart, is a member of a Christian Peacemaker Team in Hebron. With Berrigan, she was a defendant in the Plowshares Eight trial in 1981.

Fighting the Lamb's War: Skirmishes With the American Empire. Philip Berrigan, with Fred A. Wilcox. Common Courage Press, 1996.

Have Something to Say?

Add or Read Comments on
"Convicted by Grace"
Launch Comments
By commenting here, I agree to abide by the Sojourners Comment Community Covenant guidelines