The Legacy of Philip Berrigan
By Ellen M. O'Shea
On December 6th Philip Berrigan died in Baltimore, Maryland
surrounded by family and friends.
I write this piece knowing that it is an auspicious moment in
history. Philip Berrigan has died at the moment that the corporate empire has handed power back to Henry Kissinger.
Two old men come into our collective view, both warriors, one a man of peace and nonviolent resistance, the other an evil man, a war criminal and mass murderer. Phil Berrigan was once charged with trying to kidnap Henry Kissinger, a trumped up charge by those afraid of the growing leadership of the Berrigan brothers in the anti-war movement.
Two powerful warriors: one for peace and one for death. Phil's death is auspicious in that it gives us a chance to tell the story of a life-long resistance fighter at the very time that the corporate media is glorifying war and death. The coverage of Phil Berrigans life will hopefully teach us to live our lives with courage during these dark days.
I was a young person when I first saw Phillip and Daniel Berrigan speak. I was a student at Oregon State University. It was the late 60's. The Vietnam War blazing and the U.S. military was bringing back 40,000 young U.S. men a year in body bags. Thousands of people were dying in Southeast Asia. I had lost several high school mates in one year. One young man was shot down over Vietnam (he was a 20
year old fighter pilot) and is still missing in action.
Students had many questions about what was happening. The corporate media was slinging the same old 'we have to save Vietnam from Godless communism" propaganda at us. Truth was hard to find even in the classroom. OSU administrators immediately "removed" any professor who would teach us the truthful history of SE Asia. The Berrigans came to the campus to talk to us. We asked how could we learn if the admini- stration of the college would not allow it? Phil said that we should stop giving our power to authorities. He told us that on campuses all over the US and Europe students were organizing "teach-ins". The Berrigan Brothers told us to organize ourselves, to teach ourselves. And so it began. At first OSU professors and staff members were afraid to help us. History teachers were the first to be removed.
The student antiwar movement began to grow. We were not allowed to use OSU buildings. We used buildings on the parameters of the campus (mostly churches and coffee shops). English teachers and Math teachers came forward to give us materials to read. They even had the audacity to pass these materials out in their classes and many lost their jobs.
I had one other encounter with Phil Berrigan. In 1969 or 70...I happened to visit some friends in very rural Oregon. In this cabin sat Phil on the lam...sentenced to prison for destroying draft records. He was not running away from his sentence. It was an important part of spiritual practice to accept the sentence, as a witness for peace and resistance. He was instead buying time to put his affairs in order. I was a young person and did not listen well. I did not understand who this person was. I did understand that
under no circumstances would I talk about his presence in that cabin. He was to be protected at all cost by a diverse and eclectic resistance movement. Only later did I begin to read his words and understand my own place in the movement.
This is the legacy of Phil and Dan Berrigan. Authoritarian
oppressive structures and laws - organizations, buildings, weapons, were never an insurmountable obstacle to them. They spoke and lived lives of peaceful resistance against evil. We in the movement to end the world dominance of the bush regime could learn some things from these two peace warriors. We argue amongst ourselves about what it
means to stand up against oppression. About whether destroying buildings or machines, blocking streets and roads, tying ourselves to old trees, and moving blockades and barriers are an act of violence or an act of resistance.
In an interview by Father John Dear called "The Life of Resistance, a conversation with Phil Berrigan" he explains the meaning of nonviolent resistance and asks each of us to access thoughtfully, carefully, and with discipline what we will do to stop the growing worldwide oppression.
Before you read his words, some context: Berrigan was a Christian - a peace-loving follower of Jesus Christ. His words are flowered with references to the Bible and to Christian peaceful doctrine. He does however understand fully that anti-Christians have taken over the "church" to spread war, greed and hatred. One of the primary goals of
the Berrigan brothers was to stir the conscience of their fellow religionists, their church and even the U.S. government and attempting to shift church and state from a death-driven to a life-affirming course.
The words of Phil Berrigan 1993:
"Nonviolence in the best sense is a strict and definitive social justice. It means putting into practice the one law isolated by Paul in the letter to the Romans. He said, "you will have fulfilled the law if you bear the burdens of one another." We are expected to do good, to do justice in our lives and we're expected to resist evil. The scriptures, especially the New Testament, make it very clear that
evil has to do with systemic evil, with major institutions, which are the habitat of the principalities and powers. And the state is the main power and principality, especially an imperial state, our own government."
Phillip Berrigan believed that if a law were immoral that it was the work of a true Christian to break it and to stand in witness to the true law of God: to love one another and love one's enemy's by standing against injustice. Again, in an interview with Father John Dear (1993), Phil defines the difference between moral and spiritual law and moral obligation to resist.
"One way to look at our responsibility is from the angle of law. We don't know anything about this law that we have. People purport to be Christians don't know anything about the biblical treatment of law and the fact that human law is always under the judgement of God because it's a sign of rebellion against God.
Nuclear weapons are legal, right across the board, from making and processing them to running them through Pantex down in Amarillo, Texas and deploying them. It's all legal, every step of the way. What does this say about law? What does it say that we legalize every measure that could destroy the world? What does it mean that it is legal to destroy the world through toxic poisoning?
It says something about law. It's like the law under which Christ was crucified. The rulers said, "We have a law and under this law, he has to die." He was executed, legally."
Murray Polner and Jim O'Grady wrote a biography on the Berrigans entitled, "Disarmed and Dangerous: The Radical Life and Times of Daniel and Philip Berrigan." and documented how the Berrigans viewed resistance and the religious life.
"Their most celebrated and publicized action was probably the
Catonsville raid, which Dan immortalized in his play, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine. In May 1968, nine activists invaded a Maryland Selective Service Board, snatched up draft records, carried them outside in wire mesh baskets, and set them ablaze with homemade napalm. During the trial, Dan's lawyer Harrop Freeman, a Quaker professor of law at Cornell University (and WRL member and benefactor), asked if what Dan had done was carrying out the "philosophy of the Jesuit order." Dan replied, " ...If that is not accepted as a substantial part of my action, then the action is
eviscerated of all meaning; and I should be committed for insanity."
When the Jesuit and longtime pacifist Richard McSorley asked whether those who were jailed could "do more for peace in jail than being outside," Phil answered that Plowshares had done more than Gandhi. Polner and O'Grady comment, "Others might respond by saying that to Gandhi, civil disobedience was a last resort, to be attempted after all else had failed, and that rather than resort to clandestine plotting, Gandhi had sent advance warning to his adversaries."
Just before he passed over, Phillip Berrigan sent these words to those who would resist evil and the spread of world dominance at this time:
· that it is right and good to question our God, to plead for justice for all that inhabit the earth
· that it is urgent to feel this; injustice done to any is injustice done to all
· that we must never weary of exposing and resisting such injustice
· that what victories we see are smaller than the mustard seeds Jesus praised, and they need such tender nurture
· that it is vital to celebrate each victory - especially the victory of sisterhood and brotherhood embodied in loving, nonviolent community.
Chronology of Phillip Berrigans Life
from the Baltimore Indymedia website:
Philip Berrigan, 1923-2002
Born: October 5, 1923, Minnesota Iron Range, near Bemidji to Frieda Fromhart and Thomas Berrigan
1943-1945: Served in WWII, artillery officer, Europe.
1949: Graduated from Holy Cross College.
1955: Ordained a Catholic Priest in the Josephite Order, specializing in inner city ministry.
1956-1963: Taught at St. Augustine's high school, New Orleans, a segregated all black school.
1962 (or 3?): First priest to ride in a Civil Rights movement Freedom Ride.
1963-1965: Taught at a Josephite seminary, Newburgh, NY.
1966: Published first book, No More Strangers.
1966: Served at St. Peter Claver parish, Baltimore, MD.
October 27, 1967: Poured blood on draft files in Baltimore with 3 others. Known as the "Baltimore Four."
May 17, 1968: Burned draft files in Catonsville, MD with 8 others, including his brother, Fr. Daniel Berrigan. Action known as the "Catonsville Nine." Convicted of destruction of US property, destruction of Selective Service records, and interference with the Selective Service Act of 1967. Sentenced to prison.
1970: Married Elizabeth McAlister, an activist nun, Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary.
1970: Became a fugitive when appeals failed. Captured and returned to prison.
1971: Named co-conspirator by J. Edgar Hoover and Harrisburg grand jury while in prison. Charged with plotting to kidnap Henry Kissinger and blow up the utility tunnels of US Capitol buildings. Convicted only of violating prison rules for smuggling out letters.
1973: Co-founded Jonah House community of war resisters in Baltimore, MD.
April 1, 1974: Birth of Frida Berrigan at Jonah House.
April 17, 1975: Birth of Jerry Berrigan at Jonah House.
1975: End of Vietnam War and beginning of focus on weapons of mass destruction and changing U.S. nuclear policy. Actions included pouring of blood and digging of graves at the White House and Pentagon resulted in several jail terms ranging up to six months.
1975: Atlantic Life Community conceptualized as East Coast
counterpart to Pacific Life Community.
1976: First of summer community building sessions; led to triannual Faith & Resistance Retreats in DC.
September 9, 1980: Poured blood and hammered with 7 others on Mark 12A warheads at a GE nuclear missile plant, King of Prussia, PA. Charged with conspiracy, burglary, and criminal mischief; convicted and imprisoned. Action known as the "Plowshares Eight;" began the international Plowshares movement.
1980-1999: Participated in 5 more Plowshares actions, resulting in ~7 years of imprisonment.
November 5, 1981: Birth of Kate Berrigan at Jonah House.
1989: Published The Times' Discipline, on the Jonah House experience, with Elizabeth McAlister.
1996: Published autobiography, Fighting the Lamb's War.
December 14, 2001: Released from Elkton, OH prison after nearly a year of imprisonment for his final Plowshares action.
July 12, 2002: Underwent hip replacement surgery at Good Samaritan Hospital, Baltimore, MD.
October 8, 2002: Diagnosed with adenocarcinoma, cancer in the liver and kidney.
December 6, 2002: Died at home in Baltimore, surrounded by family and community.
Father John Dear (1993) The Life of Resistance: A Conversation with Phillip Berrigan, viewed on the internet December 7, 2002 at
Johnson, Becky "Philip Berrigan, Anti-war activist, dies at home in Baltimore". Viewed on the web on Dec. 6, 2002.
Polner, Murray & O'Grady, Jim (1998) Disarmed and Dangerous: The Radical Life and Times of Daniel and Philip Berrigan, Brothers in Religious Faith and Civil Disobedience, ISBN: 0813334497