‘We Seek to Open the Eyes of Our Friends’: Daniel Berrigan in the Pages of Commonweal

The funeral Mass for Daniel Berrigan, SJ, will be celebrated Friday morning at St. Francis Xavier Church in New York. Over the course of several years in the 1960s and early '70s, Commonweal featured a number of pieces both by and about the noted peace activist and poet. Here we present a selection of articles from our archives, with excerpts.

From “How to Make a Difference,” by Daniel Berrigan, August 7, 1970:

What we seek, acting coolly, politically, out of the truth of our lives and tradition is to pull the mask of legitimacy from the inhuman and blind face of power. We seek at the same time, to open the eyes of more and more of our friends, to bring a larger community of resistance into being. We seek moreover to awaken to the facts of life, those Americans who continue to grasp at the straws of this or that political promise; and so put off, day after day, year after year, the saving act of resistance, allow innocent men to be imprisoned, guiltless men to be kicked out of America, good men to die.

But if even a few men say no, courageously, constantly, clear-sightedly, more men will be drawn to say no; fewer men likewise will continue to say yes, and so to lose their manhood, their soul, their brothers.

From “Selma and Sharpeville,” by Daniel Berrigan, April 9, 1965:

The Gospel of Saint John, in the Zulu tongue, so strange to American ears; sibilants and the clicking of tongues, with only the names Jesus, Mary, Peter, John, coming through. And about the third hour, they crucified Him . . . . A white priest, in the pulpit of the black church; my fellow Christians. He can hardly remember what he had to say to them. But at the end, the veneration of the Cross. A, great wave starts forward: mothers with children, young men, the very old. Three priests move among them, holding the crucifix to their lips.

And spontaneously, as is the way with Africans, the chant starts; first, as one voice, hardly rising above the sough of bare feet, that sound which above all sounds is like the sea, on a mild evening. The song is the Zulu dirge for a fallen warrior. They are bearing Him homeward to his village after battle. His name is Jesus, great King, black Warrior. Easily, with infinite delicacy and naturalness, the song breaks into harmony; two parts, then four, then eight, as a yolk divides, or a cell . . . Jesus, great Warrior, we mourn you. O the beauty, the youth, the empty place. Who shall plead for us, who shall lift our faces, who shall speak wisdom?

The Zulus have a saying: he who is behind must run faster than he who is in front. Even to the Cross. Even when the Cross is held in white hands. Shall the white man time us, even to the Cross? Does he any longer even know the way?

From “Notes from the Underground, or, I Was a Fugitive from the FBI,” by Daniel Berrigan, May 29, 1970:

May 7 marks exactly a month since I packed the small red bag I had bought in Hanoi, and set out from Cornell, looking for America. So far, it has been a tougher and longer voyage than the one which set me down in North Vietnam some two years before.

In the course of that month, I have changed domicile some six times; this in strict accord with a rule of the Jesuit Order, making us, at least in principle, vagabonds on mission; 'It is our vocation to travel to any place in the world where the greater glory of God and the need of the neighbor shall impel us.' Amen, brothers.

It may be time for a modest stock-taking. The gains sought by such felonious vagrancy as mine, are in the nature of things, modest to the point of imposing silence on the wise. The 'nature of things' being defined simply as: power. It is entirely possible that any hour of any day may bring an end to the game; the wrong chance meeting, a thoughtless word of a friend, a phone tip the possibilities are without end. But one takes this for granted, and goes on, knowing that practically all of us are powerless, that the line dividing the worth of one's work from inertia and discouragement is thin indeed. (What manner of man today exudes confidence, moral spleen, righteousness, sense of messiahship at once cocksure, and dead serious? God, who grants us very little these days, at least keeps us from that.)

From “My Brother the Witness,” by Daniel Berrigan, April 26, 1968:

[I]n general, the bishops have played the war straight American. And the war's end will probably find few of them in any way interiorly changed in their understanding of the Church, of the meaning of violence, or indeed of their own office.

Which is not to say that the Church has felt no tremors. It is only to suggest that in the Catholic instance, the power structure has followed the culture, its sedulous ape. Still, in an exciting and even unique way, the war has altered the face of the Church as no former American war has done. For the first time in our national history, significant numbers of Catholics, including a few priests, are in trouble.

The war has also seriously thrown into disarray the timetable of renewal which the Church had set for itself. That schedule included beyond doubt the building of strong, open and affectionate relationships between the bishops and their communities. Alas, alas. The war has deepened and widened a tragic cleavage which issues like birth control, school systems, speech and its freedoms and unfreedoms, control of properties and income, had already opened.

From “Taking Fr. Berrigan Seriously,” by the Editors, August 7, 1970:

There are various ways of not taking Daniel Berrigan seriously. The easiest is to dismiss him, his brother and the other destroyers of draft files at Baltimore, Catonsville, Milwaukee, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago, as "kooks" or "romantics" … There is, however, another, more sophisticated way of not taking Daniel Berrigan seriously. Which is to follow his exploits vicariously while avoiding one's own responsibilities, to nod admiringly at his words, and then to return him to that corner niche conveniently reserved for plaster saints. …

Father Berrigan is far too significant a figure to be dismissed in either of these ways without risking great loss. He, and his brother Philip, are calling for a moral revolution, a regeneration that is based on the personal conversion of individuals through acts which break them off from established powers of the world and which link them, through suffering and the fate of being outcast, with the poor and the oppressed. Now that message is not exactly "political," as we have come to understand politics in the age when ideologies are supposedly outdated. The Berrigans' message is sometimes mysterious, incomplete, paradoxical; and we confess to suffering something of a "metaphor gap" with Daniel Berrigan when he writes of future political change as putting on a "new garment," creating "a new mankind." Their message, to the scandalizing of some and the embarrassment of many, is however very much the message of the Gospel; and the problems they present, mystery and metaphors and all, are precisely the problems the Gospel presents.

We do not want to dismiss Daniel Berrigan, nor to canonize him, nor to co-opt him. We wish to respond to him from our own position, agreeing and disagreeing, hoping that the dialogue may prove useful to the antiwar movement and the church.... [continue reading here]

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