Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Daniel and Philip Berrigan and the Peace Movement

Philip and Daniel Berrigan were ushered into the national attention by their radical demonstrations against the Vietnam War.  They were Catholic priests with a powerful affinity to the issues of peace and social justice.  In response to a question as to the motivation for their actions, the answer was, "How could one live under "sane" leaders threatening violence on a grotesque and epic scale do otherwise."  They also stated that, "We resist because we believe and we believe because we resist."  For a time, the Berrigan brothers were listed as one of the FBI's Ten Most Wanted Fugitives.

In the 1890s Freda Fromhart grew up in the forests north of Lake Superior.  It was a harsh and hostile environment.  The forty acres of land that she and her parents lived on were secured under the Homestead Act.  Her family had emigrated from the Black Forest of Germany.  Freda met Tom Berrigan at a local dance.  They were married on June 21, 1911.  They were Catholics who were influenced by a Catholic priest who was an uncompromising advocate of tolerance.  The Berrigans emigrated from Ireland during the potato famine.  Between 1845 and 1849, some three million Irish came to the United States to flee horrific conditions in their homeland.  The Berrigans settled in South Onondaga, New York.  In 1879, Tom's father suffered a horrible death.  This experience took its toll on the son.

Daniel and Philip Berrigan, the sons of Tom and Freda, were born on May 9, 1921 and October 5, 1923, respectively, in Two Harbors, Minnesota.  Their father was given to fits of horrible rages, self-pity and confusing bursts of affection.

The family lived in the humblest of circumstances.  They lived in a tar-paper shack in a desolately cold and hostile climate.  Their father drove steam engines across Northern Minnesota; a job that took him away from home for weeks at a time.  The Berrigan brothers were two of six boys, of which Daniel, the fifth born, was the least robust; a reality that did not please his father, but gained his mother's protection. 

Daniel entered Catholic seminary at age 18.  The Church offered a kind of solace and order to his existence.  He entered St. Andrew's on the Hudson Seminary in Poughkeepsie, New York.  The seminary was run by the Society of Jesus – Jesuits.  Daniel had always demonstrated a love of books and poetry.  This proclivity was probably instrumental in his choice of the Jesuits on account of their reputation for serious achievement and academic excellence.  Daniel grew up in a working class environment and his professional choices were few; the priesthood, therefore, offered him away to pursue his academic interests. 

His mother, Freda was torn by son's leaving.  For the next fifteen years he was involved in what was referred to as "training."  He compared this experience to birth.  It was an austere and demanding life – profoundly satisfying to him.  It provided a strong sense of belonging.  While Daniel was in the seminary, his brother, Philip, was finishing high school.

When Fascism had begun to overwhelm Europe under the crazed leadership of German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, The Berrigans were your men.  Philip served in World War II as an artillery man during the Battle of the Bulge (1945).  He was profoundly influenced by the violence that he witnessed firsthand.  Daniel, for his part, was deeply concerned by the fact that the Church had not responded adequately to the challenge of fascism; it was docile and self-serving during Hitler's reign.  This further convinced him that he needed to become more directly involved in social issues.  His brother, Philip, was also deeply impacted by the racism that he experience directly from Army boot camps located in the American South.

In 1954, Daniel was called to serve in France. This experience exposed him to priests who were very active in their local communities and attracted him to the idea of the "worker-priest."  Philip went onto college; he enrolled in the small Catholic college of St. Michael's in Toronto.  He was drafted into the army in 1943 as was described previously.  On his return from the war, Philip came back as a changed man determined to address what he felt was the twin horrors of war and racism.  He was scarred by the war and profoundly influenced by plight of black Americans in the American South, who were forced to live under the oppressive conditions imposed by Jim Crow.  Using the benefits of the GI Bill that was enacted to offer assistance to those veterans returning from war, Philip entered Holy Cross College.  It was here that he began to consider moral action based on conscience.  He graduated in 1950 and joined the Josephite Seminary.  A Josephite is a member of the St. Joseph's Society of the Sacred Heart formed in 1871 in Baltimore, Maryland devoted to missionary work among black Americans.  In this role, he became intimately involved in the Civil Rights Movement.  In this capacity, he felt he could make a difference. 

Philip was an exciting, admired and a stimulating teacher at Loyola University in New Orleans, a Catholic university.  He was regarded as a charismatic leader determined to work for the common good.  He also had an outgoing and contagious personality.  In 1957, Archbishop Romell mandated the integration of the Catholic institutions of Archdiocese of New Orleans.  Philip's students asked how they could help.  In response, Philip suggested that they should go to the nearest Catholic Church to serve as a witness.  They attended an all-white church where they were cursed and threatened.  Sometime later some of the contingent were jumped and beaten by enraged whites with tire irons.

Daniel was teaching at Brooklyn Prep where he felt terribly stifled.  He was later hired as Assistant Professor of Dogmatic Theology.  There he encouraged his students to investigate the slum housing conditions that existed in Syracuse.  As a consequence, his students uncovered an uncomfortable relationship between the college and local landlords.  As a consequence, some called for his resignation.  Daniel got into further trouble for supporting a vocal pacifist and war resister.  He founded the International House off campus with the purpose of serving as a gathering place for students whose interests coincided with moral discussions, inner-city activism, social work and possible tours of duty in developing nations.

  Eventually, the passions and activism of the Berrigan brothers come together.  Between the years of 1960 through 1963, Daniel dispatched his students to his brother Philip to assist the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) in its civil rights campaigns.  In 1963, the brothers were invited to join with other clergy in an attempt to integrate the facilities at the Jackson, Mississippi airport.  There they were to meet with James Farmer of CORE to plan a strategy.  They realized that their involvement might result in physical beatings and jail time.  Bishop Jackson, who was Daniel's superior, fearing retaliation against the local churches, prohibited Daniel from going.  Daniel sought guidance from his mentor Thomas Merton, author of the famous theological and philosophical work, Seven Story Mountain.  Merton advised him to follow his superior's wishes, but to persist in his wider mission.  Daniel ultimately obeyed his superior.  His brother, Philip, as a Josephite, continued to confront Jim Crow in the South and got involved in the distribution of food and clothing.  Philip's continued activist and confrontational involvement both in the civil rights movement and as an outspoken critic in the 1960s resulted in his forced transfer from his community. He was also told to maintain public silence regarding the Vietnam War.  He did not maintain this silence for long.  He continued to draw parallels between war and racism.  He joined with SANE and CORE to speak out against the U.S. military intervention in Southeast Asia.

It was the Gulf of Tonkin affair that was the turning point in the U.S. involvement in Vietnam; President Lyndon Johnson used this spurious incident to justify the continuation and acceleration of the war.  This new reality solidified the Berrigan brothers' opposition to the conflict.  In addition, the attitude of African-Americans towards their continued oppression shifted to greater militancy as exemplified by the rise in influence of Malcolm X.  The Watts riots of 1965 further added to national uncertainty.  Catholic Workers, who represented the progressive wing of the Catholic Church founded in 1933 by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, became more involved in the anti-war activities with a number of their members burning themselves alive in protest much like their Buddhist counterparts in Vietnam.  One of these was Roger LaPorte.  Daniel did know LaPorte; as a consequence, Bishop Cardinal Spellman attempted to have Daniel expelled from the Archdiocese of New York.  As a compromise he was sent to Chile.  There, he did some significant soul searching. 

The following are some of the well-known involvements of the Berrigans in the anti-war effort. 

On October 27,1967, the Baltimore Four (Philip Berrigan, artist Tom Lewis, poet, teacher and writer David Eberhardt and United Church of Christ (UCC) pastor Rev. James L Mengel) poured blood on the selective service records in the Baltimore Customs House.  In their defense they stated that, "This sacrificial and constructive act is meant to protest the pitiful waste of American and Vietnamese blood in Indochina."  They were subsequently sentenced to six years in prison.

On May 17, 1968 nine Catholic men and women including the Berrigan brothers entered the Selective Services offices in Catonsville, Maryland.  They proceeded to remove hundreds of draft records and ceremonially burned them with homemade napalm in protest of the war.  In defense of their actions, they released the following statement, "We confront the Roman Catholic Church, other Christian bodies, and the synagogues of America with their silence and cowardice in the face of our country's crimes. 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 September 9, 1980, Berrigan, his brother Daniel, and six others (the "Plowshares Eight") began the Plowshares Movement when they entered the General Electric Nuclear Missile Re-entry Division in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania where nose cones for the Mark 12A warheads were made. They hammered on two nose cones, poured blood on documents and offered prayers for peace. They were arrested and initially charged with over ten different felony and misdemeanor counts. On April 10, 1990, after nearly ten years of trials and appeals, the Plowshares Eight were re-sentenced and paroled for up to 23 and 1/2 months in consideration of time already served in prison. A documentary was made about this action called "In the King of Prussia" by Emile D'Antonio.  Since this action over seventy Plowshares actions have taken place around the world against weapons of war, several involving Philip Berrigan himself.

Philip left the priesthood in 1973 and went on to marry Elizabeth McAlister.  Together they founded the Jonah House in Baltimore to support war resistors.  Their three children, Frida, Jerry and Kate all grew up to be anti-war activists.  He died on December 6, 2002.  His brother Daniel remains an ardent advocate of peace and social justice.  Daniel now resides in New York City, teaches at Fordham University and is its poet in residence.  These brothers have left behind a rich and often controversial legacy in regards to non-violent social action.  They certainly drew attention to the horrors of the Vietnam War in particular and the dangers inherent in the stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction.

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