Forty years of fearing for the world

 

As a civil activist Father Daniel Berrigan has long been a thorn in the sideof right-wing America. Now he's coming to Dublin to spread the word, writes Kathryn Holmquist

Before September 11th, Father Daniel Berrigan, SJ, was a 1960s icon and the benevolent face in a TV ad for Ben & Jerry's ice cream. Best known for burning draftcards in Catonsville, Maryland, in 1968 in protest against the Vietnam War, he had settled down to counselling those dying of AIDS, while continuing to write, teach and promote the work of Catholic Worker, an organisation founded by Dorothy Day in 1933.

Now, Berrigan finds himself taking centre-stage again. On September 11th, his brother Father Philip Berrigan was transferred suddenly into solitary confinement in the maximum security prison where he was serving a sentence - one of the more than 1,500 such cases that have challenged civil liberties in the US since the World Trade Center bombing. Philip Berrigan's crime: conducting bible classes on September 11th. He has spent a third of his life in prison, a direct consequence of his particular brand of civil protest. For the Berrigans, the word of the prophets is an instrument of revolution.

Since September 11th, attendances at Daniel Berrigan's bible classes on Manhattan's West Side have doubled. On Saturday afternoons, crowds gather for his political information meetings in the Village. A generation of people for whom Vietnam is a history lesson are living through their own history and are hungry for people who can help them to figure it out.

They won't find words of solace from "Dan", as the 81-year-old Jesuit priest is known to his friends.

"If you want to follow Jesus," he says, "you'd better look good on wood". Walk the walk, in other words.

Berrigan's declaration that Babylon reaped the terror of its own ill-doing on September 11th has made him a hate figure for the US right-wing.

Yet Berrigan has remained safe, and this is because, he believes, many Americans know that their exploitative culture of promoting violence and abandoning the poor has drawn punishment upon itself. Berrigan believes in retribution - not that of the Bush administration, but of God. The Gulf War is the inevitable punishment for Americans' betrayal of God, in his view.

Speaking to me from his apartment in a Catholic Worker enclave in New York City, Berrigan said: "this is the most dangerous time of my long life. You fear not just for America, but for the world. We are at the mercy of maniacs who are functionally insane and who think they can get away with whatever they want no matter what the cost.

"What is happening now is utterly dangerous. What we have is government by fiat that sees public opinion as irrelevant. The US is bringing terror upon itself. And the media are part of the hype. The media is just an arm of a military-industrial complex that's all about keeping people in line."

Our own Government will not be spared Berrigan's tongue when he visits us, on an 80th-birthday trip offered as a gift by actor Martin Sheen.

Sheen has famously said of his friend: "Mother Teresa drove me back to Catholicism, but Daniel Berrigan keeps me there". Berrigan, whose roots are in Tipperary, believes the Irish Government's hospitality towards the US military, which it allows to refuel at Shannon Airport on its way to Afghanistan, is "a wicked move". The Irish are merely "cowtowing to the British" by cementing US allegiances in this way, Berrigan believes.

He thinks the Irish should resist the Government's intention to try to push through the Treaty of Nice, as it would threaten our neutrality. And he condemns the welcoming of Raytheon, a weapons manufacturer, to Co Derry as part of the peace process.

As for the official Catholic Church - Berrigan sees it as a dessicated shell lacking leadership and peopled by functionaries who have lost the message of Jesus. The US bishops have "blood on their hands" as a result of their approval of violent retaliation by the Bush administration in Afghanistan, Berrigan believes.

Berrigan will speak in Dublin next week on the subject War is Terror is War at a meeting organised by Afri and the Dublin branch of Catholic Worker.

Berrigan, who has spent his life interpreting the Bible through non-violent civil protest and community work, has earned his stripes as a prophet, considering that ostracism and martyrdom are part of the job description.

Berrigan was expelled to South America by the US Catholic hierarchy for a time and spent two years in prison where he nearly died from a novocaine overdose during routine dental treatment. He was targeted by J. Edgar Hoover on a trumped-up allegation that he and his brother Philip had conspired to kidnap Henry Kissinger.

He continues to hold bible classes with prisoners, including those in Northern Ireland. Over the past 25 years, he has visited Northern Ireland many times.

Berrigan uses gestures rather than bombs to make headlines. For four decades, he has taken the words of Isaiah to heart, symbolically beating swords into ploughshares by entering weapons facilities, hammering on missiles and pouring baby bottles of donated human blood over them. He has inspired more than 50 such "ploughshares" actions around the world.

As a teacher, Berrigan has invited his students on field trips to weapons installations for practical lessons in non-violent civil disobedience. His actions have been attacked by Catholic Church leaders, other Jesuits, journalists, politicians and the FBI.

History has sanitised the bitterness he feels about the Vietnam War, and more than 30 years later, many have forgotten whose side they were on. When Robert McNamara, the US secretary of defence during the Vietnam War, stated 40 years later that America should have pulled out of the war in 1962, Berrigan got the irony.

Berrigan recalls McNamara's hawkish position in 1965, when he met him, as the war raged, at a dinner party at Bobby and Joan Kennedy's home. This was shortly after Berrigan was allowed back in the country after being sent to South America by Cardinal Spellman and the others for protesting against the war.

After dinner, one of the Kennedys introduced an unexpected party piece: "We'll have coffee in the other room now, and we would like it if Secretary McNamara and Father Berrigan would address the war. Berrigan said: "I wish Mr McNamara would stop the war tonight, since he didn't do it last night." McNamara responded: "I'll put it this way to Father Berrigan. Vietnam is like Mississippi - if they won't obey the law, you send the troops in."

CHALLENGING "the law" continues to be a passion for Berrigan, who has been known to mischievously remind court judges that Daniel means "God is my judge". The octogenarian recently won $5,000 in damages from New York City, after he was arrested and imprisoned with no food or water as a result of his protest against the mooring in New York harbour of the SS Intrepid, which he describes as a floating war machine.

The Jesuit firebrand entered the public consciousness in 1968, when, with his brother Philip Berrigan and six others, he burnt draft records in Catonsville, Maryland, in protest against US involvement in Vietnam.

Berrigan's subsequent play, The Trial of the Catonsville 9, won an Obie Award on Broadway. A prolific writer, he is principally a poet and bible interpreter. In 1957 - long before he became involved in non-violent civil disobedience, he won the Lamont Poetry Award and was nominated for National Book Award for his first book of poetry, Time Without Number.

Forty-four years later, Berrigan remains humble. The real heroes, he says, are the Jesuits and others who spend their lives unacknowledged, working with the dying and the poor. Does this mean that Berrigan feels that he too will be appreciated only after death? "I hope not," he laughs. "I just want to let go."

Father Daniel Berrigan will speak at the Royal Dublin Hotel, O'Connell Street, Dublin on Wednesday at 8 p.m.