An extraordinary new biography and memoir of Daniel Berrigan, At Play in the Lions’ Den, by fellow peace activist and close friend, Jim Forest (recipient of the TMC Merton Award) is an intimate picture of this courageous peacemaker, Jesuit priest, poet, and jailbird.
In 1967 the war was raging in Vietnam. The North Vietnamese regime, in a peace gesture, agreed to release three U.S. bomber pilots. Howard Zinn and Dan agreed to go to Hanoi to bring them home.
That experience led him in 1968 to join his brother Philip and seven others, the Catonsville Nine, to remove files from a draft board and burn them with napalm. During the trial, Dan testified, “I went to Hanoi, and then to Catonsville, and that is why I’m here.”
Sentenced to three years in prison, Dan and the others went into hiding. Dan led the FBI on a “Robin Hood-like chase for four months.” He kept popping up, despite being on the FBI Ten Most Wanted list.
He appeared at a festival at Cornell. Agents were near the stage. The Bread and Puppet Theater were on stage. One gave Dan a costume of burlap sacking with papier-mache head and Dan disappeared.
Next, from a church pulpit he asked, “How do we translate in our lives the bombing of helpless cities…How do we translate the 50,000 children napalmed?…How do we translate into our lives the 50,000 Americans dead? I believe we are in such times as make it increasingly impossible for Christians to obey the law of the land and to remain true to Christ?”
He also met with friends and had a dialogue with child psychiatric Robert Coles. It was taped, and was later published as a book, The Geography of Faith.
Having embarrassed FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, he was finally caught and jailed.
“Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise. “ — The Trial of the Catonsville Nine.
Despite health problems that made imprisonments very difficult, as a deeply spiritual Jesuit priest, he continued to follow his conscience despite the disapproval of superiors.
“My life, as I am often informed, is disruptive.” —Ten Commandments for the Long Haul
In 1980 he was one of the Plowshares 8, who hammered on Mark 12-A warheads at a GE plant in King of Prussia. The Judge refused to allow expert witness testimony that building nuclear weapons violates international law.
Again he was sentenced, but the eight appealed. After ten years, the U.S. Supreme Court sent the case back to Superior Court for re-sentencing. The judge’s decision: time served. This chapter was over.
He continued to write: “Love your enemies? The Word of God in our midst? But we were at war! The moment war was launched, we all became realists. The Word of God might apply elsewhere (or elsewhen) or to simpler times or to one-on-one conflict or to pacifists and religious (whoever these latter might be; for the most part they are mum as the others.)… The time is short. Reject the errant history, the pseudo-tradition. There can be no just war. There never was one.” — Testimony
His deep faith sustained him and kept him going.
He continued to protest. “Every time I face arrest, my heart turns over. The fear is so strong at times as to be a matter of physical illness, nausea…My cowardly heart longs in every fiber to have done with this charade…”
It was his deep faith that governed his life. He began to volunteer at a hospice for destitute cancer patients.
“He listened, talked, shared silences, made beds, cleaned, prayed and met relatives and friends of those being cared for…”
‘It keeps me sane, he said.”
After the AIDS crisis hit he began in 1984 to volunteer a day each week at St. Vincent’s Hospital. For twelve years he walked the wards talking with AIDS patients and getting to know them. He kept an eye out for those without family or friends to visit them.
There was much more to Dan. He was a joy to be with. His humor was both self-deprecating and infectious. He loved a glass of Scotch with his conversations.
Around 2009 his health began to fail. Jim writes of his next-to-last visit in 2011, that “he was delighted to welcome us, eager to talk, full of questions about health, family, children, grandchildren…Though physically something of a scarecrow, his memory was razor sharp, his sense of humor undiminished.”
Jim gave Dan a copy of his latest children’s book, St. George and the Dragon. “It’s never too late to battle dragons,” Dan quipped.
Dan died on April 30, 2016, just short of his 95th birthday. A joyful procession led by a brass band, in a driving rain, walked to a packed St. Francis Xavier Church. Do read this book. We all need to find some inspiration these days.
by Molly Rush, co-founder of the Thomas Merton Center and member of the NewPeople Editorial Collective