Sunday, June 17, 2012

Daniel Berrigan

A week ago, Chris Hedges wrote that he had encountered Daniel Berrigan, now 92, in New York City's Zucotti Park -- the place where the Occupy Wall Street protesters encamped until they were evicted. There was a time when Berrigan was compared to Guy Fawkes, another Jesuit radical.

Hedges recalled that Berrigan and his brother Philip,

a Josephite priest and World War II combat veteran, along with the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, led some of the first protests against the Vietnam War. In 1967 Philip Berrigan was arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience and was sentenced to six years in prison. Philip’s sentence spurred Daniel to greater activism. He traveled to Hanoi with the historian Howard Zinn to bring back three American prisoners of war. And then he and eight other Catholic priests concocted homemade napalm and on May 17, 1968, used it to burn 378 draft files in the parking lot of the Catonsville, Md., draft board. 

The Berrigans were imprisoned. But that experience did not dissuade them from practicing civil disobedience:

In 1980 he and Philip, along with six other protesters, illegally entered the General Electric nuclear missile facility in King of Prussia, Pa. They damaged nuclear warhead cones and poured blood onto documents. He was again sentenced and then paroled for time already served in prison. Philip, by the time he died in 2002, had spent more than a decade in prison for acts of civil disobedience. Philip Berrigan, Zinn said in eulogizing him, was “one of the great Americans of our time.” 

Controversy has followed Daniel Berrigan wherever he has gone. And these days he's back in the streets, protesting corporate power. Some say that the young will lead the revolution that is coming. I'm not so sure.


Anonymous said...

If by "the revolution that is coming", you mean a revolt against the corporate world, I would say the young are already in revolt, but as part of a larger protest against injustice in general.

In Tunisia, Libya,and Egypt, they demanded an end to dictatorships. On Wallstreet, they urged an end to excessive corporate profits and unfair tax breaks for the richest one percent of Americans. In Quebec, they're still demonstrating against increases in college tuitions and against capitalism in general. And with the exception of the "Occupy Wall Street" movement, which appears to have fizzled out, the young have been prepared to make important sacrifices for what they believe, including their physical well-being, their freedom, and even their lives.

Still, I suppose a consideration is whether what has already happened involves enough of the young to be considered a genuine revolt, or is merely the short-lived reaction of a few dissidents, nihilists, and "spoiled brats". But I think if we can say the young revolted against the war in Vietnam then we can argue we are seeing a revolt in progress.

Owen Gray said...

I believe, Anon, that we are seeing a revolt in progress. It took quite awhile for the revolt against Vietnam to gain traction.

The Berrigans were in the vanguard of that movement. Eventually people of all ages marched against the war.

If the revolt against the current Masters of the Universe is to be successful, it will also have to cut across generations.

Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

How I admire such old radicals that have stuck with their moral public battles over the years. I never met the Berrigans but I did perform the wedding ceremony for John Hogan, a former priest and one of the Catonville Nine. When he approached me he did not speak of his background (a third party told me who he was). I would have liked to have engaged him in political conversation but I said nothing in respect for his modesty and privacy.

There is a lot to criticize the Catholic Church over but the Catholic left is not part of it. I have long been an admirer of the clergy and lay people over the years from the Catholic Workers. Liberation Theolgians, Bishop Romero to the antiwar activist like the Berrigans et al. and currently Father John Dear. May the list go on. Such a faith with the seeds of religious radicalism can't be all bad.

My favourite old time radical of a previous generation was Willard Uphaus who I knew in New Haven. He was a Methodist minister who worked to bring ordinary Russians and Americans into conversations during the Cold War. He went to jail, under the Smith Act, for not telling who was a a meeting he arranged. He was a wonderful gentle man, compassionate and open to all. It was a privilege to know him and stand with him in his senior years protesting the Vietnam War.

Owen Gray said...

There are (or were) many on the Catholic left whose faith was a living document, Philip -- people like Dorothy Day and Michael Harrington.

They had their battles with the hierarchy; and some left the Church. But their legacies -- like those of the Berrigans -- live on.