Daniel Berrigan was an American Jesuit priest, an anti-war activist and a poet. He has been on the FBI’s most wanted list (the first priest ever to get there) and he has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. He is one of a number of American thinkers and activists who applied Christianity’s teachings to the social and political realities around them; the others being most notably Martin Luther King (Civil Rights movement), Dorothy Day (Catholic Worker movement), Thomas Merton (Trappist monk and writer), all of whom he knew, as well as his brother Philip Berrigan who joined him in many of his anti-war activities.
He started out as a teacher and lecturer. As the clouds of the Vietnam War gathered in the 1960s he was inspired by French priests he met to take a stand against it. In his words,
“We confront the Roman Catholic church and other Christian bodies and the synagogues of America with their silence and cowardice in the face of our country’s crime. We are convinced that the religious bureaucracy in this country is racist, is an accomplice in this war and is hostile to the poor.”
On 17 May 1968, he and his brother Philip and 7 others (the “Catonsville Nine”) entered a Maryland draft board office (responsible for drafting young men into the American military) and poured homemade napalm onto hundreds of draft files and destroyed them. Napalm is a liquid fuel that burns whatever it touches e.g. Vietnamese civilians. He was making the point of burning paper instead of burning babies.
This act of civil disobedience was in contrast to the street protest which were common on US campuses but which didn’t achieve that much. The Catonsville 9 made Berrigan famous and put him on the cover of Time magazine. Protesters started burning their draft cards. When sentenced to jail for this action he went on the run. In 1968 he visited Hanoi, the capital of communist North Vietnam, and had to take cover when an American bombing raid took place. What he saw on the ground radicalised him even further. He was able to bring some downed US pilots home with him.
In the words of Wikipedia, “His own particular form of militancy and radical spirituality in the service of political and social justice shaped the tactics of resistance to the Vietnam War.”
in 1980 Daniel and Philip Berrigan picked up hammers and entered a nuclear missile facility. This was the first Plowshares action ( known as Ploughshares in England). This direct action against nuclear weapons took its name from Isaiah who spoke of “turning swords into plowshares”. The 8 participants poured blood onto files and documents that they found. Daniel was arrested again. Some compared his stand against war to that of Bartolomé de las Casas who took a stand against the Spanish Empire 500 years earlier.His strong strain of philosophical anarchism caused him to rage against what he quite correctly called “American Military Imperialism”.
In his later years Daniel Berrigan helped Aids victims, wrote bible commentaries, campaigned against all of America’s wars, opposed capital punishment and supported the Occupy movement.
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