Daniel Berrigan: A Life Sentence



written by: Byron Plumley is a retired professor of Peace and Justice Studies at Regis University

daniel-berrigan-bootsDan Berrigan lived as hope in the midst of a culture of violence, present among the sick and poor, and at institutions promoting war. He never missed an opportunity to encourage followers of Jesus to “believe and resist.” Those of us who claim to be peacemakers will carry Dan with us in our actions and ongoing work for justice. For me, Dan was witness to a consistent ethic of life, unwavering in his commitment that all life is sacred.

In 1967 Dan read his poetry in a burned-out house at the corner of 36th and Marion St. in Denver. That was the first time I heard of Dan Berrigan, but my real introduction was in 1970 when I read No Bars to Manhood. There I listened to the commitment of a man who knew that the only way to live the gospel of Jesus was to put one’s life on the line for justice. He challenged us to confront unjust laws and to take a stand. As he often said, “Don’t just do something, stand there.” Yes, stand in the face of violence and resist the culture of death.

Peace: Willing to Pay a Significant Price

I heard him challenge American life and call out the violence of the U.S. empire. At 23 years old this was my first experience of questioning the U.S. culture. Through his life and words I heard Dan say that to be a peacemaker we have to be willing to pay a significant price . . . “because waging of war is total, and waging peace by our own cowardice is partial.”

In November 2002 the Muskogee County jail incarcerated several of us after “crossing the line” at Ft. Benning, in Columbus, Georgia. I joined five Regis University students along with 85 others in calling for the closing of the School of the Americas. Dan phoned into the jail and talked with a young college student who was in his class at Fordham University. It was very personal support for Patrick, and Dan was present for all of us.

Experiences with Daniel Berrigan

For this reflection I have asked friends to join me in sharing their experiences of Dan. Pat McCormick, SL, recalls that in the Fall of 1965, she was studying in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Dan Berrigan had been exiled by New York Cardinal Francis Spellman, who pressured the Jesuit Superiors, because of Dan’s public opposition to the U.S. Vietnam War. Pat was impressed by Dan’s determination to make the best of the situation, in spite of the injustice imposed upon him. During his three-month exile, Dan learned that U.S. foreign policy supported most Latin American military dictatorships causing human rights violations and extreme poverty in the majority of the Latin American population.

Meeting Dan, and the six years as an educator in Bolivia, changed the direction of Pat’s life. For fifty years, she and Dan corresponded, resisted war/nuclear weapon production, and embraced nonviolence. Dan was/is a lifetime mentor for Pat.

Al Zook was always impressed by Dan’s gentle spirit. Dan said and acted on his beliefs in all of life, but did not push anyone to do what he did. He called us to work for peace, protest war, and at the same time be engaged in local issues. Dan’s ministry included cancer and AIDS patients as he served low-income people in the hospitals. Al remembers the exchange between Ernesto Cardinal, S.J., and Dan over taking up weapons in the face of the Contra war in Nicaragua. While Dan held firm to nonviolence, he did not condemn those who felt compelled to take up the gun. He did not tell others what they should do.

Shirley Whiteside remembers the dedication of the Thomas Merton Center for Creative Exchange initiated in Denver by Mary Luke Tobin, SL, in 1980. Dan was invited to speak at the dedication held at St. Mary’s Academy. Standing between two flags (church and U.S.) he said, “I feel like Jesus between two thieves.” His humor had an edge with a purpose. Shirley has a Facebook page for the Denver War Tax Boycott and posted Dan’s poem, “The Trouble With Our State.”

The trouble with our state
was not civil disobedience
which in any case was hesitant and rare.

Civil disobedience was rare as kidney stone
No, rarer; it was disappearing like immigrant’s disease.

You’ve heard of a war on cancer?
There is no war like the plague of media
There is no war like routine
There is no war like 3 square meals
There is no war like a prevailing wind.

It flows softly; whispers
don’t rock the boat!
The sails obey, the ship of state rolls on.

The trouble with our state
— we learned only afterward
when the dead resembled the living who resembled the dead
and civil virtue shone like paint on tin
and tin citizens and tin soldiers marched to the common whip

— our trouble
the trouble with our state
with our state of soul
our state of siege–

Life is Sacred in Every Way

Dan demonstrated the belief that life is sacred in every way. He not only was arrested for civil disobedience challenging war, he was arrested challenging abortion. In 1980 the Sojourners community prayed and discussed the connection between nuclear war and abortion. Several peace activists weighed into the conversation and were quoted in the magazine. Dan said, “I come to the abortion question by way of a long, long experience with the military and the mainline violence of the culture expressed in war . . . but abortion is exceptional. It is so personally maiming. . . . Maybe that will be our salvation, that in abortion we have some inkling of a life being snuffed out. Other forms of killing have become so institutionalized that torturers, generals, wardens of death houses find it mechanical.”

One summer Dan offered a course on Isaiah at the Iliff School of Theology in Denver. For me the prophet came alive in the context of Dan’s wisdom and witness. Hammering swords into plowshares was lived experience as Dan helped us feel the power of that challenge. He gave us another message of transformation and hope, if we acted on it.

Among the cloud of witnesses Dan will call us to stand for the consistent ethic of life. That is our sentence just as it was Dan’s.

Byron Plumley

Byron Plumley is a retired professor of Peace and Justice Studies at Regis University, co-member of the Loretto Community, and volunteer at St. Francis Center (day shelter). He lives in Denver, CO. with his partner Shirley Whiteside.

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