About Me

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Daniel Berrigan: in Memoriam

Daniel Berrigan has been around most of my adult life.  Sadly, I never met the guy, but he has been with me since college days.  My college days were the wild times of the 1960s.  Vietnam was in war and anti-war protesting.  It was a decade that saw the feminist movement become very public and, often, contentious.  And maybe more important than all, it was the amazing decade of Civil Rights---Martin Luther King, Jr. and all the rest.  Sometimes I wonder how I made it through college and on to seminary in those tumultuous times.
   
I was just a farm kid from Indiana.  I was not worldly, had never traveled very far and was more provincial that I ever could have imagined.  I was ecumenically naïve---after all, Vatican II had just concluded, so the Catholic Church was going through its own turmoil.  I was an illiterate when it came to the interfaith movement---I knew virtually nothing about Judaism, Buddhism, Hindusim or Islam.  By the end of high school I am not sure I had ever met someone from any of those four major religious traditions!
   
And yet, there was Daniel Berrigan.  And sometimes he was joined by his brother, Phillip.  Daniel probably was the more famous of the two.  I knew he was Catholic; he was a priest.  And he was a fervent anti-war figure who was willing to go to jail to make a point.  He was older than I was and his faith and witness were a real challenge to my still young spiritual journey.  I had grown up in the church, but only in college was I beginning to take things seriously and endeavor to live out of my faith. 
   
Daniel Berrigan recently died at the ripe old age of 94.  One writer describes Berrigan as a “priest, prophet, poet and prisoner.”  I was so aware of Berrigan because I was having to examine my own conscience as I decided what would be my stance on the Vietnam War.  Being a Quaker, I was very aware of our tradition of pacifism, but I also needed to live more deeply into my faith to be sure that was where I would take a stand.  Berrigan had already taken a stand.  His words and witness helped me clarify my own conscientious objection to what was going on. 
   
Berrigan is best remembered for his action with some friends at the Selective Service office in Catonsville, MD in the spring, 1968.  Using homemade napalm they set fire to draft files.  It was a vivid prophetic enactment of the anti-war slogan, “hell no, we won’t go.”  The Catonsville Nine, as they were dubbed, were arrested and went to jail.  They were willing to pay the price of their consciences.  In this sense I am sure they were no different than the countless young men and women serving in Vietnam---perhaps also just as clear in their consciences.  It was a confusing time.
   
A friend of Berrigan, John Dear, who lived with him and wrote about him, one time asked him, what’s the point.  Berrigan’s answer is classic.  He said, “All you have to do is to make your story fit into the story of Jesus.”  If we can grasp the simplicity and profundity of that statement, it becomes very clear.  Daniel Berrigan was living out the point of the story as well as he could possibly do it.
   
I find Berrigan’s life fascinating.  He became friends with MLK, Jr.  He was a buddy of the monk I like so much: Thomas Merton.  He defended the radical action of fellow Quaker, Norman Morrison, who set himself on fire on the grounds of the Pentagon in 1965 and died.  That extreme action was either pathetic or prophetic.  It showed me the lengths people were willing to go for their faith.  I was not even remotely that convinced in my own faith journey.
   
The thing I appreciated about Daniel Berrigan was the consistency of his faith across the board and for so many decades.  He was pro-life and against euthanasia because he was against taking life in any form for any reason.  Of course, that meant the political liberal took issue with him on this score.  He challenged me to get clear about my own faith and, then, act on those convictions.
   
I am still in process.  I suspect most of us are not as intensely connected and committed to the Living God.  It is easy to be respectably religious.  In my own case I know even religious doctrine, spirituality wisdom, etc. to be an expert, but to be a lightweight when it comes to truly being faithful.  I don’t think Berrigan would judge me.  But his life and his witness do challenge me.  And I am grateful for that.
   
In this he is doing nothing less than what I expect Jesus does.  I don’t think Jesus expected us to be gods.  But the faith does expect us to live as godly as we can.  I know I am not doing that too well yet.  Jesus was radical and so was Berrigan.  Most of us do not feel a call to radicality. 
   
I am not a failure so much as fearful.  I fear what taking the call to faithful witness seriously might actually mean.  It is easier to pontificate the faith than practice the faith.  I am grateful to Berrigan, his brother and his brothers and sisters of the 1960s and decades since to keep the vision of real, active faith in front of me.  I am still in process and trust that God is patient.

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