In Memoriam: Philip Berrigan

Reprinted from The Common Good, no. 27, Easter 2003

Phil Berrigan is the yardstick by which many of us who knew and lived with him will continue to measure our own faithfulness to the promise of the Gospels. He died on December 6,2002 at about 9:30 pm, at Jonah House surrounded by family and friends. My own journey as a Catholic convert has been predominantly influenced by Phil Berrigan. I had the privilege to live with Phil Berrigan and the Jonah House community he co-founded, for one year while I was preparing (with three others) to disarm a B-52 bomber. During that time he was also part of our Plowshares (disarmament) community. Instrumental to every preparatory step undertaken was Phil’s 30-year experience of non-violent direct action – insights into the nature of the evil of the machinations of war and the redemptive power of disarmament.

Jonah House is a resistance community: Bible study, service to the poor and non-violent resistance to war are its identifiable features. Gandhi referred to community practice as a ‘programme of transformation of relationships’. Phil believed the personal could not be separated from the political. ‘We are not called to like one another’, he would say (with the experience of 35 years of community life behind him), ‘we are called to love one another’. Thus, community was not a personalized therapeutic practice for the benefit of the individual. Rather, the formation of community is an essential part of the non-talent revolution.

Neither did Phil and his wife Liz enter social and economic patterns of domination to take up positions that would offer prestige and influence despite their obvious leadership abilities and fine academic minds. The community painted houses for a living. Our painting crew was made up of those whose lives were dedicated to the practice of love in action. All were experienced veterans of non-violent direct action. Some had spent many years in prison. While we painted we discussed, debated, reflected, conspired. Worker satisfaction was always guaranteed.

Phil was an unremitting worker. Even though he was well into his 60s when I lived at Jonah House, he would insist on being the one who would climb the 40-foot ladder to paint those ‘hard to get to’ spots. A friend told a story of watching in horror as Phil fell off the ladder onto a picket fence, getting up despite serious injury, and laughingly say, ‘The angels cushioned that fall’. Phil was a man moulded by the Bible. He wrote, ‘Best of all, the gospel of Jesus Christ has adopted me, and I have adopted the gospel as my manifesto’. Sunday morning consisted of Mass and Bible study that would last at least two hours. During my year there we only got through a couple of chapters of John’s gospel, such was the depth of the study. Those attending were a mixture of scholars and lay people. The brunch after Bible study was legendary. Phil made the best pancakes. But you wouldn’t want to watch the cooking process – Phil often swatting flies with the pancake flipper! When I would catch him doing this he would chuckle, blue eyes sparkling, and say, ‘Protein!’

Phil had been arrested over 100 times and had spent 11 years of his life in prison. The Baltimore Four (blood poured over draft files) and Catonsville Nine (draft files burned with homemade napalm) – actions of the ‘60s – revolutionized non-violent resistance. But it was the beating of the weapons of mass destruction into tools of life that Phil committed the last 20 years of his life to. As well as his seven Plowshare actions, he would tirelessly support others in progress, including ours. He often reflected on our addiction to modern warfare as the ultimate betrayal of the one who chose the Cross rather than the sword. It was a clarity that did not dim even in the final moments of his life. His final statement included the words, ‘I die with the conviction, held since 1968 and Catonsville, that nuclear weapons are the scourge of the earth; to mine for them, manufacture them, deploy them, use them, is a curse against God, the human family, and the earth itself.’

May he rest in peace.

Moana Cole

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