Honouring the Prophets, Resurrected into Peacemaking: Phil Berrigan

Reprinted from The Common Good, no. 26, Advent 2002
by Philip Berrigan

Corrupsio optimi pessimo.

When the best go bad, they become the worst.

I have often thought of this Latin adage relative to the Christian addiction to modern war. That Christians of the West are addicted is beyond question, it seems to me. The trench slaughter of World War I; the Spanish Civil War; World War II with its blitzkrieg, tank warfare, heavy bombers, scorched earth, pulverised cities, nuclear weapons—in short, total war are attacking every facet of society—civilians, infrastructure, ecology, the unborn—were all Christian contributions to destruction and death. Of all religious persuasions, Christians, with their allegiance to private property and capitalism, are the most fierce and belligerent. The bloody 20th-century, with 200 million dead littering the planet and the earth itself shuddering from the tramp of war, witnessed the infusion of Christian genius, leadership, time, money, and sacrifice as crucial to war and war-making. We claimed fidelity to Him Who Chose the Cross rather than the sword, but our conduct exposed fidelity as betrayal.

It was in the context of World War II, that most cruel and terrible of all wars, that I grew up or down—whatever the view. A brash and impressionable Catholic teenager, the army conscripted me out of college in early 1943. Trained in field artillery in Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina, immensely swayed by three older brothers, all in the service, two of them overseas when I entered, I knew nothing fitting me for responsible human conduct. Rather, I vowed honour to God and country by efforts to “bag Hitler”.

Our Field Artillery Battalion went abroad to Wales some 60 days after the Allied invasion of Normandy four weeks, I travelled around United Kingdom, picking up supplies for our passage to the continent. In every major city I witnessed the destruction by German bombers, and by Hitler’s V-1 Buzz bombs — unpredictable terror weapons whose engines would cut off over a city, then circle, crash, and explode. I witnessed untold property damage and loss of life.

After firing missions in Normandy and Brittany against German submarine pens, we moved east across a shattered France, through the Low Countries, and into the Ruhr Valley of Germany. Around Christmas of 1944 and the “Bulge” happened—Van Runstedt punching through our lines with heavy armour, hoping to retake Brussels and Paris. When air power blunted that effort, I returned to Fontainebleu, France, for infantry training and a commission as a platoon leader. (Fort Benning could no longer replace casualties, mortality in combat for officers being two or three minutes before being hit or killed).

In May 1945, Germany surrendered and I joined the 13th Infantry Eighth Infantry Division near the Elbe River. After a few weeks’ training, the army ordered my Division back to the US for training at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri for the invasion of Japan. On August 6th and 9th we bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki with atomic weapons, thereby saving a multitude of American lives, as President Truman claimed. The rest was anti-climax—the Army and I parted company in May 1946 after roughly 3 and a half-years service and 15 months overseas.

The war and militarism left me confused, vacuous, and without a moral rudder. I was unthinking beyond the next beer bout with my friends, or the ogling and pickup of women. My parents and brothers pressured me to return to college; Holy Cross College in Worcester, Massachusetts, barely accepted by low marks.

The Jesuits of Holy Cross taught conventional Catholic morality and ethics, avoiding any critique of government or big business, and no moral appraisal of nuclear weapons and the most frightful war in history. I had one notable Shakespearean Professor, a Fr Brennan, who talked the tragedies with proper energy and histrionics. But only the poet’s rendering of sexual mores—nothing on Shakespeare’s appraisal of tyranny, murder and war. As far as the Jesuit’s Holy Cross were concerned, the bond between church and state remained secure and unchallenged. Four years of Holy Cross, however, did me one great service, restoration to the sacramental life of the church. Until senior year, daily Mass was mandatory. By senior year, it had become habitual.

Faced with graduation, a quandary confronted me – what to do next! Graduate school in English or the Seminary? My brother Jerry had left Holy Cross after one year to enter the Josephite Seminary. Dan was completing theology as a Jesuit. I thought, “Hell, why not try the Seminary”? My life was shockingly selfish and pleasure seeking. Maybe I could follow the “way” of Jesus, get out of myself, and help others.

A year of novitiate and four years of theology in Washington DC followed. The theology was Thomistic, devoid of social justice continent. I did, however, have the benefit of studying with African-American seminarians, most of them from Josephite parishes and missions in the Deep South. Later, nonetheless, I would question, “why were these young black man as domesticated as ourselves”? Were we Josephites insulating them by providing a separate but unequal system? Our work was “saving black souls!” — superiors told me that repeatedly.

In the fall of 1956 the order of sent me to New Orleans to teach at St Augustine High School. Archbishop Rummel integrated all Catholic facilities, the civil rights struggle mounted, and I began to learn my ABCs about American apartheid. King, Farmer, Rustin, et al taught me that the Bible and Gandhianism, as did my black friends. Dan and I went to Selma, endured “Bull” Connors, did our first civil disobedience outside of Brown’s Chapel.

In October 1962, the US came with another whisker of nuclear war with the Soviets over Russian missiles implanted in Cuba. As Meriton would advise: “make some connections!” — a mere 17 years from a terrible war and politicians poised to vaporise tens of millions was nuclear weapons. Kennedy and Kruschkev were not God, though their conduct suggested otherwise. There were more like two lunatic kids standing in a vat of gasoline daring one another to toss the first match in. Saying “No!” to these psychotics was the only course for sanity and, as I came to understand it, for faith.

As my “no!” Gathered momentum, outrage controlled me more than faith, as I received over these blind functionaries whose elective “jobs” were so narrow and confined as to invite assassination as a serious option for practitioners of social justice. A multitude of scales fell from my eyes. Increasingly I saw my country as an imperialist curse upon the world, with ambitions to dominate people as producers/consumers under the heel of military power. Their vision? The world as one vast and mall or supermarket!

The passage from descent to resistance was torturously slow, but by October 1967, following the massive “March on the Pentagon” against the Vietnam War, Tom Lewis, David Eberhardt, Jim Mengel and myself, poured our blood on 1A draft files at Baltimore’s Customs House. The following May, the Catonsville 9 burned draft files with homemade napalm; Lewis and I both repeating and receiving six-year sentences for our pains.

In November 1970 lives, myself and six others were indicted for the Harrisburg conspiracy to “kidnapper” Henry Kissinger (our translation: the citizens arrest) and to disrupt utilities in the subway system underlying government building in Washington DC. The first indictment punished conviction with life imprisonment. The Injustice Department, however, agreed it couldn’t make it stick, so it wrote a new one: kidnap Kissinger, disrupt the government tunnels, and destroy Selective Service in the Northeast. We had a blue-ribbon panel of lawyers — Ramsay Clark, Leonard Boudin, Paul O’Dwyer, Charles Glackin and others — the poor apart the informer and the prosecution. We rested the defence, Humber Jerry after interminable deliberations, and the government decided not to retry us. I was finally paroled at Christmas 1972.

In June 1973 we opened Jonah house with four friends, had our three children there – Frida, Jerry, and Kate — and began non-violent civil resistance at the Pentagon, White House, and assorted hellholes on the eastern seaboard. Jonah House has survived for nearly 30 years. All adult members are ploughshare’s veterans save one, and by definition, veterans of prison as well.

The second chapter of Isaiah’s prophecy lends authority and vision to ploughshare’s. Only a people who have outlawed war and beaten swords and to ploughshare’s can claim to be God’s people.

And so, the decades have passed as I played revolving door is between prison and “minimum-security”, (as we describe life in the great society). I’ve been blessed with participation in six ploughshare as witnesses, all against first strike nuclear weapons. I’ve been blessed with love and support from family, community, and a host of American and international friends. I have been blessed finally with God’s grace throughout 11 years of imprisonment, evidence enough of my differences with imperialist and warmongers. Ploughshares has spread from the US to Australia, the United Kingdom, Sweden, the Netherlands, and Germany, multiplying to nearly 80 witnesses to Christ’s resurrection and peace.

Best of all, the gospel of Jesus Christ has adopted me, and I have adopted the gospel as my manifesto. That will be my main claim for mercy from God. “Blessed that are those who build peace. They will be called children of God” (Matthew 5: 9).

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