Daniel Berrigan: No Regrets


It’s the rare octogenarian who, when asked about any residual regrets, gives a shrug of the shoulders and doubles down on the way things turned out.

But that’s exactly how Fr. Daniel Berrigan responded when queried in 2009 if he harbored any misgivings about a life of scorched-earth protesting. His simple reply: “I could have done sooner the things I did…”

The 94-year-old Berrigan died late in April, one of the last living ties to the pacifist wing of Vietnam-era activism – a peace loving but nonetheless demonstrative segment of the movement known for sit-ins, marches and public acts of dissidence.

Born in Minnesota and raised on a farm in Upstate New York, Berrigan was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1952. It was during a post-seminary trip to France when he became acquainted with the “worker-priests” who so identified with Europe’s labor class they assumed factory jobs rather than serve a parish.

A contemporary of antiwar activists Howard Zinn, A.J. Muste, William Sloane Coffin and his brother Phillip, Berrigan was a prolific theologian, author, poet and educator arrested on hundreds of occasions, and imprisoned for two years resulting from his most publicized act of civil disobedience.

Berrigan took as his model for the priesthood a prophetic hermeneutics, fixing his life’s work in a liberation gospel that would ultimately unsettle both church and country.

Berrigan’s entry into the ranks of the antiwar effort came in 1964 following Lyndon Johnson’s decision to ratchet up the US presence in South Vietnam. His would soon become one of the foremost voices against the buildup – in part due to a junket to Hanoi with fellow activist Tom Hayden that further alienated hawks while endearing him to the loyal opposition.

Berrigan’s prophetic outrage reached its zenith in May 1968 when brother Phillip and seven others entered the Selective Service office in Catonsville, Maryland, gathered up three hundred 1-A draft files, burned them in a nearby parking and calmly waited to be arrested.

Those who participated in the protest were dubbed the “Catonsville Nine” and received a range of punishments for the crime. The Berrigan brothers were singled out as the main conspirators, each receiving two-year sentences for their parts in the act.

But prison did little to tamp down either brother’s passion or dedication. Upon release they resumed their roles as peacemakers and rabble-rousers – Phil as a married layman, Dan still within the Jesuit fold.

Together and separately they would oppose war and militarism for the next four-plus decades, securing their place in the American pacifist narrative.

Our bloodied experience tells us that getting out of wars is often a hell of a lot more complex than starting them: The urge to tout the victory and claim the spoils is not easily dispatched no matter the carnage.

In the case of the Vietnam war, there can be no definitive point at which the nation gave up on victory and spoils. Maybe it was Tet. Maybe it was Kent State. Maybe it was the day Cronkite told us what we knew but wouldn’t admit.

Whatever the most credible way to explain the long overdue withdrawal of forces, we should not forget the influence of a no-regrets cleric, writing poetry and letters from a prison cell, counting the days until he can once again rage against the war machine that helped put him there.

Don Rollins is a Unitarian Universalist minister and substance abuse counselor living in Jackson, Ohio. Email donaldlrollins@gmail.com.

From The Progressive Populist, June 1, 2016


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