The Death Stops Here: The Death and Resurrection of Daniel Berrigan
Fidgety and a little bored in the crammed pews of the Church of St. Francis Xavier, my eight-year-old son waited with us for the service to begin. For distraction and readiness, he etched on his program, with his parents’ help: “Today we reflect on the life of Daniel Berrigan. He was a great priest, prophet, poet and peacemaker. He touched many lives with his actions and words. It is nice to be in such a beautiful church with so many people honoring a man they loved.” Simple and true, these words presaged a ceremony that edified and even transformed the two thousand or so people blessed to have been there.
The death on April 30 of the 94-year-old Fr. Dan Berrigan, S.J. at a Jesuit infirmary in New York City has been big news. Heartfelt obituaries have poured forth: from fellow priest and political troublemaker John Dear; from the rogue Washington Post columnist Coleman McCarthy, who for decades tried to explain radical pacifism to Beltway readers; from the New York Times, which ran an uncommonly long remembrance of Berrigan by the evening of his death; from Democracy Now, which devoted a full broadcast to his life and legacy; and from far-flung bloggers in the Catholic and peace and justice worlds.
Most tributes have focused on Berrigan’s admixture of deep religiosity and militant opposition to war. His raid of a Catonsville, Maryland draft board office in 1968 and resulting trial was the signal instance of this union. Seemingly overnight, the deeds of the Catonsville Nine — so named to include the nine defendants, among them Daniel’s late brother Philip — have been turned by obituary writers from a semi-obscure episode in the history of peace movements into an epic act of American dissent, with Dan at its heroic center. The morning of the May 6th funeral, the Times added an endearing, page one profile of Berrigan as a mendicant priest in our midst. He died with virtually no possessions after a life of writing, protest, and service to others.
The purpose of the funeral, however, was neither simply to wrap Daniel Berrigan in holiness nor to explain the importance of his life. It was also to affirm and enact many of the things he believed in, while pondering the special meaning a life takes on in death. Deeply Catholic in ritual and pedagogy, it radiated a transcendent universalism.
The Sacrament of the Street
A portion of the overflow crowd at St. Xavier had made a grand entrance. Before 8 am, 200 mourners stepped off from Maryhouse — the East Village headquarters of the Catholic Worker movement started in 1933 by Dorothy Day, a great mentor to Berrigan. The Rude Mechanical Orchestra, a motley, anarchic marching band, livened the soggy “Peace March” as it pushed through rain to the West Village church.[*] It was “the sacrament of the street,” explained Frida Berrigan, Dan’s beloved niece, to an NPR reporter. Just as Dan would have wanted it.
A sing-a-long erupted at the church’s mouth. “We’re gonna lay down our swords and shields, down by the riverside. . . We’re gonna study war no more!” Torn from the biblical injunction to beat swords into plowshares, the song was the perfect anthem for the day. Dan, his brother, and a small circle of Catholics had drawn from the same verse in Isaiah in conceiving their high-risk protests of nuclear and other weapons in the 1980s and early 90s, named “Plowshares actions.” In the first such action in 1980, the “Plowshares Eight” damaged a nuclear warhead nose cone and poured blood on documents at a General Electric facility near Philadelphia. Plowshares protests, and their stiff prison sentences, occur to this day, taken up by successors to the Berrigan flock.
A festival of vintage banners danced above the boisterous throng. (“Love Your Enemies – Jesus; Kill Your Enemies – Uncle Sam” was my son’s favorite). “We’re gonna walk with Dan Ber-ri-gan!” offered one celebrant to close the song. The peacemakers blessed themselves, as they filed in to bless brother Dan.
The Sacrament of Resistance
Inside the church, a fleet of clergy, a sparkling choir, and a bishop sympathetic to the Berrigans made sure that no splendor was spared this grand farewell. But as with all things Berrigan, the service proved a challenge to much of the liturgical practice and broader outlook of the very religious order to which the militant peacemaker had staked a claim.[†]
The homily was lead by Berrigan’s longtime friend and associate Fr. Stephen Kelly, S.J. Kelly has himself participated in Plowshares actions. He is thus a six-year veteran of federal prison, much of it spent in solitary confinement. He also accompanied Witness Against Torture in 2005 to Cuba to protest, as its inaugural act, the US torture prison at Guantánamo Bay. (Violating the US ban on travel to Cuba, the trip held considerable legal risk.) It is through my decade-long immersion in the group, of which Frida Berrigan was an early leader, that I have participated most directly in the Berrigan legacy and the Catholic Worker culture he powerfully shaped. Perhaps hundreds at the funeral had similar affiliations, with greater or lesser proximity to the man himself. Call us disciples, sharing in Berrigan’s convictions, if mostly lacking in his courage.[‡]
The “sacrament of resistance” that Berrigan lived was the insistent theme of Kelly’s homily. Humor led the tribute. After thanking the medical staff that cared for Berrigan during his extended convalescence, Kelly welcomed the FBI detail that may as well have been in the church. “Dan Berrigan. Funeral. Resurrection. Now you can close your file!” In this levity was a coy message to the Jesuit establishment, whether present or watching the simulcast on a prominent Jesuit website. Berrigan’s true church could only be an outlaw church.
“Our beatnik priest,” as Kelly dubbed the departed, was a “visionary” who “saw all that was possible in hope, community, and resistance.”[§] Berrigan lived that vision as a “total commitment, not a partial desire.” He and his brother Philip (1923-2002), to whom much of the homily was also directed, served as “doctors of the Church.” They sought to heal it by the turn “from orthodoxy to orthopraxis.” Berrigan’s ultimate religious gift was to offer the “conscientious objector as imitating the life of Christ.” “I leave it to your assessment,” Kelly concluded, “of his holiness.”
The most theologically demanding portion of the homily was Kelly’s meditation on resurrection and how the ancient concept — which stands at the center of the Catholic funeral rite — was given new meaning by the Berrigans. Herein Daniel Berrigan transcends his stature as an “activist priest” who breathed full-throated life into Christian values like love, peace, and mercy. Far more than that, he reinscribed the deepest meanings of the Gospel.
Christianity is at once a protest of, reconciliation to, and overcoming of death. The great wager of Catholic faith is to believe in the resurrection — to believe in the divine, in the promise of everlasting life, and in life itself in the face of, and despite, death. In this message, the story of Lazarus, which dominated Kelly’s exegesis, takes on its ultimate significance. Letting Lazarus die so as to raise him from the dead, Jesus chooses cunning means to demonstrate that he is the son of God. But it was also his test of faith to a community embarrassed by the stench of death and fearful of its dismal finality. It is here that Jesus first proclaims that, “he who believes in me will live, even as he dies.” Performing this subversive miracle on Lazarus, Jesus hastens his own imminent martyrdom that will repeat the drama of resurrection. “In hell they say,” Berrigan once wrote, “heaven is a great lie.”
The Berrigans by their acts against militarism and war rose up against death, but not of the inexorable kind. Their concern was murder by earthly conflict and the sorrows of persecution. In that sense, they ignored or even rejected the idea of theodicy. They were vastly more interested in the evil that men and women do to one another than whatever evil God may apparently permit. Humanity had made a mess of free will. Their mission was to turn the world toward peace, in defense of life itself. Human beings cannot raise the dead. But they can stop the killing. Thus, in works of resistance — not faith — the resurrection finds its truest home and Christianity its essential teaching. Still vital, faith seemed to Dan Berrigan the hope that in some times and places lives can actually be saved. On that hope he staked his life.
Our Apologies Good Friends for the Fracture of Good Order
Liz McAlister is herself a veteran of peace actions and a hero of the Catholic left. The wife of the late Phillip Berrigan, she was also among those closest to Dan. Her three splendid children, given Dan’s allegiance to his priestly vows, seem more than nieces and nephews and something closer to his own as well.
McAlister had the task of asserting the absolute inseparability of the sacred and political for Berrigan in more worldly terms than Kelly’s cosmic homily. She referenced all that challenges the hope of the peacemakers, whatever their era. “It never seems to get better, and we walk in that reality.” Dan brought his militancy, she explained, into his numerous university appointments. “While other professors would rail against apathy and indifference, Dan would offer the insights of the consequence of being out in the streets,” arrests included. She implored, “There is no sense to hold Dan as an icon, especially in ways that exempt us from responsibility.” At this, the congregants rose in thunderous recognition of Berrigan’s life as an example, with implications for their own.
But the full catharsis came when she recited the words that Dan Berrigan wrote in preparation for the burning of draft files in Catonsville and later spoke to the trial judge:
Our apologies good friends / for the fracture of good order the burning of paper / instead of children . . . / We could not so help us God do otherwise . . . / We say: killing is disorder / life and gentleness and community and usefulness / is the only order we recognize . . . / How many indeed must die before our voices are heard / how many must be tortured dislocated / starved maddened? . . . / We have chosen to say with the gift of liberty / if necessary our lives: the violence stops here / the death stops here / the suppression of the truth stops here / this war stops here [**]
With these words the church, two thousand strong, again rose — in honor and resistance — with wild applause. My dear friend Matt Daloisio, a leader in Witness Against Torture and great student of the Berrigan example, described the ovation as “one of the most profound moments in my entire life.” This epiphany bathed the vast hall.
With both religious and political significance, McAlister definitively marked the Catonsville lines, famous to most in attendance, as the essential text of the Berrigan prophecy. Holy in their own right, they extend the wisdom of Isaiah, while pronouncing the sin of modern war. “The times are inexpressibly evil,” Berrigan continued in court in 1969. We all knew what he meant, for our own times also. “And yet,” he added (as Liz reminded us) “the times are inexhaustibly good / solaced by the courage and hope of many.” For an instant in the church, that hope felt vastly greater than all it protests.
In Catholic mass, “gifts” are brought to the altar in preparation for the sacrament of communion. In a funeral mass, the life is remembered, its loss mourned, and its resurrection before the face of God celebrated. The traditional “gifts” are bread and wine, ritually transformed into the body and blood of Christ.
At this funeral, the gifts included also objects dear to Dan and his family: banners held at life-altering protests, books he had authored, a hammer used to beat on weapons. By request of the Berrigan family, children carried the gifts, as is sometimes done. My son Arlo, raised in no faith like his father, had the privilege of bringing one of these to the altar as I strode beside him. It was a mottled, black and white picture of the Plowshares Eight. With the gifts received, the Lord’s Prayer, tears, and hugs of peace followed.
After the mass, performed with palpably solemn purpose, Dan’s nieces, nephews, and their cousins eulogized their uncle. Their remembrances were too tender, personal, and of the moment to favor recitation here. But Frida Berrigan, speaking last, spoke also of the power of community, and the community gathered before her. Dan was gone. All that was left was us and our love — for him and the things he loved. “It’s enough,” she proclaimed, with both assurance and desperation. “It’s enough, because it has to be.”
There Are Not Blades Enough
The union of vulnerability and defiance, frailty and resolve was fitting consummation to the ceremony. That union was Daniel Berrigan. It was Christ on the cross. It is all of us, in our own ways and traditions.
Perhaps Dan Berrigan himself provided for the service the most poignant expression of that union, while suggesting, as always, an ethic of resistance. It seems unfair that the deceased should have to have the last word on his own death. But Berrigan appeared at times to exist in another dimension, with special powers of reflection. “Its almost like he lived right in the heart of God and reported back to us,” his nephew Jerry Berrigan had said.
The “Call to Worship” beginning the entire ceremony was a poem of Berrigan’s, adapted and set to music. Printed in the program, it reads:
About trees: past is never tall enough,
Future too tall. Another spring will tell.
Tell another spring I will be there, and fairer.
I become myself, standing upon
that throat of swan
that striding giant I decree myself.
We love: in trees or men, how many die
forward on the blade.
I see men like forests
Striding, like swans, royally, always
Royally: though lowly afoot, striding unto death.
What we love: there are not blades enough.
Like others of his poems, this one is profound and quirky, part Beatitude and part Beatnik. In it there is a precious image of human beings: proud and a little vain, standing tall like tress, strutting like swans. There is also the inevitable succumbing of all of nature — humans included and no matter how regal — to the blade of mortality. Ashes to ashes, the eternity and naturalness of death.
But there is also in the poem the implied horror at human slaughter. Whole forests disappear to the scythe of industrial avarice. With habitat perish the swans. Humans die on the blades of hunger, war, terror, torture, and drone strikes; in holocausts, on slave ships, and in genocides. This death is never acceptable.
So much death, whether unavoidable or offensive, could easily overwhelm any faith in humanity, life, hope or even God. But here Berrigan provides the redemptive twist in declaring that the things we love — humanity, each other, trees and swans, plants and animals, peace and justice — are greater and more abundant than death, even as these may die. This possibility, this victory of life over death, lies also the heart of the resurrection. It was the guiding spirit of his godliness and acts of resistance.
We entered the funeral knowing that Dan Berrigan’s life had changed the world and our own lives. We left hoping that his death would change these as well.
Whether that happens is up to us.
[*] The march was a fascinating tour through the dense ecology of progressive and radical institutions in lower Manhattan. St. Xavier Church is just two blocks from a prominent building of the New School for Social Research, where I am a professor. The New School, by history and reputation, is European, secular, Jewish, and Marxist. The Berrigan ceremony, by intriguing complement, was deeply American, churched, Catholic, and redemptive. Worth noting is that the church also sits on the same block as YIVO, the great Institute for Jewish Research exiled from Vilna to New York City with the Nazis’ advance. It is very much an archival monument to a near-vanquished Eastern European Jewish civilization, felled by persecution and war (and with Catholic complicity).
[†] I thank Patrick Gilger, S.J. for clarifying for me aspects of Catholic ritual and belief.
[‡] I credit Waging Nonviolence editor Nathan Schneider and fine essay “Claiming Dan Berrigan” with inspiration for this line. Schneider’s sentence reads, “I share many of [Dan Berrigan’s] convictions but very little of his courage.” America — The National Catholic Review, May 6, 2016.
[§] The quotes from the service are based on notes I took while in attendance. My apologies for any small inaccuracies in my transcription.
[**] I render the lines based on their published version in Daniel Berrigan, The Trial of The Catonsville Nine, Fordham University Press, 2004. McAlister quoted slightly different portions in her address.