Tribute to Daniel Berrigan

My eyes are flowers for your tomb. T. Merton

My eyes are flowers for your tomb. T. Merton

Daniel Berrigan, priest, poet, protestor, died yesterday at the age of 94. Along with his brother, Phillip, and his sister-in-law, Liz McAllister, Daniel was a stalwart leader in the American peace movement. Liz and his protégé, John Dear, will continue to be prophets of peace and justice.

We had the privilege of attending a retreat led by Dan and Liz in 2007. A portion of Dan’s reflection on the first Servant Song in Isaiah is copied below. A previous retreat with John Dear had opened my heart to the peace and justice message in the Gospels. Dan’s and Liz’s reflections on Isaiah and the servant songs further opened my heart. Most of all, I came away from the retreat knowing that Dan was such a peaceful and gentle man.

Thomas Merton is my anam cara. He was the voice of the American peace movement in the Vietnam era. Within the walls of the Monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemani, Merton spoke for justice in the face of war, violence, and racism. So much so that his Cistercian superiors once silenced his prophetic voice. One of my favorite photographs of Merton is one where he is gathered with Dan and Phil on the monastery grounds to discuss the peace movement.

At one point I was inclined to nominate Dan for the Presidential Medal for Freedom, our nation’s highest award for civilians. I contacted Liz and she said you has better check with Dan. I did. Dan replied and thanked me but said that, if he were selected, he would have to be “on stage with war criminals,” namely government officials waging war.

Dan we will miss you. You were a gentle giant among us. Your legacy will live on in our hearts and actions. I think the recent Vatican conference on peace is the result of the persistent efforts of Dan and many others to open our eyes to Gospel values. Reports indicate that the church maybe abandoning the just war theory, a theory it never followed in practice.

I will now let Dan speak for himself. As he reflects on Isaiah 42. This portion of his retreat talks is vintage Daniel Berrigan.

Let the servant be born, summoned. Let him stand there, speak the truth, face the murderous music.

Thus our text is like a holy manual of instruction on the vocation of the servant, upon whom the spirit of God dwells. ‘Justice. To the nations.’ Announce, so live in hope, “don’t get tired!” (Phil)

Meantime – live in the meantime. So that, here and now, and despite all, in face of opposition and terror, there exists a trace, a hint, a foreshadowing, of that most unlikely, defamed, dreaded realm – justice; the justice of God.

And simultaneously (and justly), – the abolition of the sword. An end to war. And end to playing God, the prevailing crime of the powers. That human institutions would claim life and death power over the living. And in the name of that power, wield the sword, from Babylon to here and now.

No more war, no more incursions, no more invasions. No more armed forces on the prowl, on the ready, on the trigger. No more nukes. No more “nuclear capable” bombers over Iraq, Afghanistan. No more horrible weapons research, and the savage experimentation on flesh and bone of the living. No second Iraqi war. No second Vietnam War.

Which is to say quite simply, no more injustice. Domestically, no more ‘justice system’, mocking true justice, delaying the realm of justice, masking the totalized, imbedded injustice. No more war, nor power to wage war; and all that follows.

erything starts there. The end of warmaking would signal at once the ‘spirit of God’ dwelling in the nations, and the coming of the Realm. No more death. Nor more nukes. Nor more abortion. No more capital punishment. No more Euthanasia. And then the other ‘abolitions’, of no less import. No more hunger and homelessness, rich and poor, expendable and high and mighty.

‘My spirit upon that one’ is thus to be understood as the spirit of life, justice, peacemaking. Practical and to the point; piercing the cover of crime in high places, the denial and caricature and scorn offered to the spirit. Injustice, the hallmark of the nations, the coin of the realm, the flag, the motto, the myth.

hus the justice of God is in a most radical sense, an import to ‘the nations’. And yet, justice is the vocation of the nations. In spite of all, in spite of themselves. They know nothing of it, it withers in their soil. (Should it appear there, in the person of the servant or a community, these must be cut down.

‘The works of the hands’ are entirely other; commonly, idolatrous forms of injustice.

Therefore bring justice, bear the burden, import it. A lonely vocation. A lonely spirit, this spirit of God, most often wandering in desert places, far from the ‘centers’ of power and recognition. A spirit often defamed, derided, dealt with in utmost harshness. As it was in the beginning, in the ‘case’ of Isaiah, slain by one of his own, and later, in the justice systems that seized on servant Jesus.