This an interview with peace activist Daniel Berrigan conducted by the German magazine schattenblick.de. Thanks to Riocard Ó Tiarnaigh, an editor at the magazine for translating it and sending it on.
Interview with Daniel Berrigan, August 26, 2013 in New York
Daniel Berrigan is a shining light of the American peace movement. For more than sixty years the Jesuit priest, theologian and poet, who was born in 1921, has spoken out loudly against poverty, oppression and war. Two incidents in 1968 made Berrigan famous. In January of that year he travelled in the company of the historian Howard Zinn to Hanoi for talks with the North Vietnamese leadership and to bring three U. S. air force prisoners-of-war home. In May he, his brother Philip, also a Catholic priest, and seven other peace activists entered the offices of the draft board in Catonville, Maryland, seized several hundred draft letters and set them on fire with home-made napalm on the parking lot in front of the building. This led to the sensational trial of the “Catonville Nine”. Upon being sentenced to three years in prison for trespassing and severe damage to property, Berrigan went into hiding. During his time on the run from the legal authorities, he was named as one the FBI’s “top ten most wanted” criminals. He was eventually arrested and later given early release, having served one and a half years of his sentence.
It would not be the last time, that Berrigan, whose political allegiance is to the Christian anarchist Catholic Worker Movement, came into conflict with the law. On the 9th of September, 1980, the Berrigan Brothers and six friends carried out a spectacular action, thereby founding the Plowshares Movement, which since then has gained admirers and imitators worldwide. They broke into the General Electric nuclear missile factory in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, vandalised a number of warhead cones and poured their own blood upon them. They then prayed at the crime scene until the police came and arrested them. At the end of a ten year legal battle Berrigan was sentenced in 1990 to 23 months prison on parole, the judge having taken time spent in detention awaiting trial into consideration. In total Berrigan has spent seven years behind bars as a consequence of his participation in various protests against America’s wars in Vietnam, Central America, Iraq, the former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan, as well as against CIA drone attacks and the torture of “terror suspects”. He assists among others AIDS sufferers spiritually and has a reputation as an unrelenting critic of social inequality in the USA. In 2011 he endorsed the Occupy Movement.
On the 26th of August the Schattenblick visited Daniel Berrigan at the the New York Jesuits’ infirmary for elderly priests on Fordham University’s Rose Hill campus in the Bronx. The ninety-two year old lives and works there as a teacher and poet. Occasionally he writes articles for the magazine Sojourner, which the Christian social movement Sojourners publishes on a monthly basis. In conversation Berrigan revealed himself to be quite critical of his own order, the Jesuits. In his opinion, while they do good charitable work in the slums, at the same time they help to maintain an unjust and inhuman social order through their educational establishments, which cater to the middle and upper classes in many strongly Christian influenced countries. In answer to the question, whether he expected fundamental reforms from the new pope Francis, a fellow Jesuit, he laughed and declared, he could not say, but was certainly praying for it.
Schattenblick: Shortly before his death in 2002 your colleague and
comrade-in-arms David Dellinger pronounced, that there was more evil in the world now than during the Vietnam War era. Would you agree with Dellinger’s conclusion?
DB: It seems to me, that we as Americans are involved in world affairs today in ways, that we weren’t before the Vietnam War. Since then it’s been one simple continuum of policy, with us supporting different forces, states or non-state groups, across the world, encouraging them in warmongering, supplying them to a large extent with our own money and weaponry, in order to make sure, that the arms are used – in the way,that we think is right. What we are seeing since the Vietnam War is sustained interference and warmongering abroad by the US, which has led to terrible atrocities. Anyone, who gets in our way, is disposed of, and that includes children and old people. It’s horrifying to see it unfold and continuously reproduce itself.
SB: Do you reject the Just War Theory, which the Catholic Church, among others, propounds and, if so, could you tell us why?
DB: Yes, of course I do. It doesn’t bother me, to be in the minority.
I think the term Just War should be removed from the Christian vocabulary. No modern war can be just, because it’s indiscriminate and because it’s launched against the people and the world. We should be getting back to the Gospels and Christ’s teaching on violence. On this point Jesus is unequivocal, when he criticises those with hatred in their hearts. Man is at war with the global ecosystem and with his fellow man, and I denounce it.
SB: The protests against the Vietnam War, in which you were heavily involved, have never in terms of the numbers taking part and perhaps even in the power of the arguments, been equalled since then. Why do think this is? Could it be a result of improved PR on the part of the Pentagon coupled with with a less critical, educated and informed populace?
DB: The war reporting of today is one of the aspects of the assault upon the community and the future of life. Modern war cannot be partial; it’s total. The focus has shifted from the enemy being the opposing soldier alone to the enemy being anyone in our way, which includes of course those in the peace movement.
SB: Could this explain the lack of attention, which the peace movement and antiwar sentiment in the US receive from the media?
DB: The media assault on right thinking and love towards one’s fellow man is ongoing and an integral part of modern warfare. Everytime one opens the papers, one finds that the same war is going on – and it never seems to end. It’s the same thing, if one watches the news on television. In this way people have been inured to the optics of war and have become used to seeing in it the modern equivalent of justice.
On top of this, many people also benefit materially from the warmongering process in terms of plunder or involvement in the arms industry. The media are ramming the ideology of militarism down people’s throats, making it harder and harder to find love of the earth, love of the community and love of one’s brothers and sisters.
SB: If we take it as given, that the majority of the population will reject the message of the prophet – a term used here not just in a metaphorical sense but also with reference to the antiwar activities, in which you and your brother Daniel were involved and which led to the setting up of the Plowshares Movement -, what is the point of such a person even engaging with other people and not becoming a recluse? Could it be, that the effort to reach out to his fellow man, by virtue of its very pointlessness, is the right thing for him to do, regardless of what others think or whether he reaches them with his message?
DB: We have to reconcile ourselves to the idea, that the peace-making, antiwar cause is bound to be a minority project and is going to require the type of concerted action, which small groups are engaged in currently right across the world, be it through involvement in the protests against the illegal prisoner-of-war camp in Guantánamo Bay or against the planned construction of a new massive base for the South Korean navy on the island of Jeju. The Catholic church in South Korea is at the forefront of the latter protests and is doing very good work, for which I commend it. I’m not so sure, that humanity is entering an enlightened period, unfortunately. It seems to me, that too many people believe, what the media want us to believe, namely that violence is acceptable and that whenever the USA make use of it, it is only as a last resort. We should listen more to the minority voices, who oppose violence and war. It is a matter of integrity, that having taken this position, one then sticks to it, regardless of whether the goal, the ending of war, will be achieved during one’s own lifetime or not. In this way the mercy and the righteousness of the few will bring about the solution to the problem.
SB: Could it be, that it is the individual’s striving for material comfort, for security for himself and his progeny along with his fascination with the ephemeral world, which allows evil, destruction, militarism etc. to prevail?
DB: That’s exactly true. The evil of war continues unimpeded, because the Christian churches, to stay with my own religious tradition, have given up on their own heritage, their own love of life. The non-violence movement in history is the Lives of the Saints, who are invariably opposed to war and the machinations of the violent and powerful. So I don’t have any difficulty with the argument you made in your question, because it’s an old story. Every imperial state pronounces itself to be the last word in human evolution and the key to the future of humanity. Yet each one proves to be a deceit, a lie, and is overcome eventually. Those of us opposed to war have to work, as though the path of peace is the truth. We must proclaim, that it is the truth. We must insist, that it is the truth about human life. This truth is what our God looks like, is what Jesus looks like. This is what Jesus preached to his church. And if there are those in our church, who are unable to accept this, then they should walk away from it and stop purporting to be Jesus’ disciples.
SB: What do you think of the suggestion, that if the material needs of humanity were satisfied – if everyone had enough to eat, a roof over their heads and a secure environment -, that we would then find ourselves confronted with the more pressing dilemma of human existence? Conversely this idea implies, that by indulging in wars, militarism, strife, greed and cruelty, we are avoiding facing up to the truly existential questions of the human condition.
DB: I can see this truth in that suggestion: were non-violence to become the basis of honest intercourse, were people to throw away all their weapons, to meet, to talk with one another, to make cooperation the paramount of human ingenuity and divine will, that in itself would contain the clue to solving the other great problems of the human community. The solutions to the existential questions would be discovered through practice.
SB: The potential for nuclear annihilation of our species exists, and such a scenario could happen any time. During the Cold War the USA and the Soviet Union came very close to Mutually Assured Destruction on a number of occasions. Even to this day thousands of Russian and American nuclear weapons remain on hair-trigger alert. For years you and your brother Philip warned against this danger and carried out different actions to highlight it. This situation gives rise to an interesting hypothetical question. Were the human race to be wiped out in an atomic conflagration, what as a priest do think it would mean in theological terms? That the devil had prevailed? That the God’s plan and by implication He himself was imperfect?
DB: That really opens up all sort of terrible, terrible questions.
Because the possibility of a nuclear exchange, which could happen as much as by mistake as by design, exists, the number one task is to get rid of all these infernal weapons. Only then can a humane operation of the state be achieved. I agree, that nuclear annihilation is eminently possible, but it will never happen.
SB: You are a declared opponent of abortion. Might it perhaps not be better, in terms of preserving life, if the anti-abortion lobby were to abandon the absolutist position, which in theological terms is relatively new, dating from 1870, namely that human life begins with conception and that the fertilised egg has a soul, in order to work with like-minded liberal, left-wing and feminist activists in reducing the absolute number of abortions as well as of those which are carried out at a late stage?
DB: We are on difficult terrain, whenever we discuss the sexual sins, including abortion. Despite this, there seems to be some movement in this area. Only a couple of weeks ago I read in the magazine Commonweal a very intense and multifaceted discussion among a number of Catholic experts about abortion.  The gist of the discussion was such, that abortion is sometimes unavoidable and that the Catholic Church should face up to this fact and revise its position accordingly. The publication of such an article in Commonweal, which is highly respected, would have been unheard of a few months ago and is, in my opinion, a consequence of the accession of Pope Francis and his new approach.
SB: Does the moral imperative to protect life not also extend to animals, e. g. support for animal rights and vegetarianism, and perhaps even to plants?
DB: They are all God’s creations, all parts of the continuum of life, and we must do our utmost to protect and nurture them. The truth of animal rights is becoming ever more apparent in recent years. We should embrace it and act accordingly.
SB: Finally, as someone, who has lived a long politically and intellectually active life, what would would say is your greatest insight or the one message, you might like to share with the following generations?
DB: (laughs) I’ve never thought about that. I think the context, in which you have carried out this discussion, has been very enlightening to me; It is seldom, that one in a religious sense comes across this kind of circularity and beautiful unity of life. If I were to give any advice, I think I would say, that we have to be content with those friendships we have. I think that is a very important principle, one which we should seek to extend in our own lifetime in every direction.
It should include the plants and the animals – and ourselves. Because we either reflect the beauty of life or we destroy it. The choice is ours.
SB: Father Berrigan, thank you very much for this interview.
Originally published in German at schattenblick.de on October 24, 2013
Copyright 2013 by MA-Verlag
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