“Finally Comes the Poet “
A Review of
Daniel Berrigan: Essential Writings.
Selected and Introduced by John Dear.
Reviewed by Stephen Lawson.
After the seas are all cross’d, (as they seem already cross’d,)
After the great captains and engineers have accomplish’d their work,
After the noble inventors, after the scientists, the chemist, the
Finally shall come the poet worthy that name,
The true son of God shall come singing his songs.
– Walt Whitman
Daniel Berrigan: Essential Writings.
Selected and Introduced by John Dear.
Paperback: Orbis Books, 2010.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
On May 17, 1968, in the midst of the Vietnam War, Daniel Berrigan, together with his brother Philip and seven others, walked into a draft office in Cantonsville, Maryland. They commandeered draft files, which contained the information for potential draftees, took them into the parking lot and burned them with homemade napalm. Daniel Berrigan issued an apology (read: defense) on behalf of the ‘Cantonsville Nine’ (as they came to be known): “Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise” (105).
This prophetic action cause national controversy. In the midst of an already highly controversial war, the Cantonsville Nine brought religion into the discussion. How could priests and other peaceable people disrupt the status quo of in such a stark way? This action saw the imprisonment of Christians, clergy and laity alike, for living out what they believed was their faith. This witness is a challenge to other Christians who have so often been complicit in war and violence.
In a world where words are so often cast carelessly about without regard for what kind of world they create, the witness and work of Daniel Berrigan stand as a refreshing challenge. Berrigan has stubbornly refused to allow the rhetoric of politicians, businessmen, and even clergy to set the standard. He has not submitted to the divisive language that demarcates differences to justify injustice and violence. Instead, he has presented glimpses of another world that is possible if only we commit ourselves to the work of peace. It is in this vision that the words and actions of Daniel Berrigan meld into one consistent witness to peace. His words undergird and shape his prophetic actions and his actions call for new words of reflection. In opposition to theologians whose words are often divorced from their lives and activists whose words are often not consistent with the peace they proclaim in their actions, Daniel Berrigan clings to both words and action to promote a true and holistic peace.
As a poet, Berrigan gained national recognition with the publication of Time Without Number in 1957, which was subsequently awarded the prestigious Lamont Poetry Award. His poetry utilizes stark imagery that demands a great deal of the reader. It presents intricate and concrete pictures of concepts that are too often abstracted to the point of meaninglessness: war, genocide, napalm, nuclear, peace, life, freedom, Christ. The reader leaves his poetry with new eyes and cannot help but to view the world as it is, loosed from the prison of abstraction. This is demonstrated in a poem entitled “Miracles”:
Were I God almighty, I would ordain
rain fall lightly where old men trod,
no death in childbirth, neither infant nor mother,
ditches firm fenced against the errant blind,
aircraft come to ground like any feather.
No mischance, malice, knives.
Tears dried. Would resolve all
flaw and blockage of mind
that makes us mad, sets lives awry.
So I pray, under
the sign of the world’s murder, the ruined son;
why are you silent?
Feverish as lions,
hear us in the world,
caged, devoid of hope.
Still, some redress and healing.
The hand of an old woman
turns the gospel page;
it flares up gently, the sudden tears of Christ.
These words demonstrate both an experiential knowledge of the pain of the world, as well as a sharp theological acumen that one has come to expect from the Jesuit order. Furthermore, Berrigan has embodied his own challenge to professed proponents of peace: “bodies belong/where words/lead” (162). In addition to the above cited action of burning draft files, Berrigan has: marched with Dr. King from Montgomery to Selma, protested Apartheid in South Africa, secured the release of American prisoners of war in North Vietnam (together with his friend Howard Zinn), and participated in a myriad of demonstrations and rallies for peace. Despite his gentle demeanor and refusal to ever approve of violence, the United States government saw his work as a dangerous subversion of their agenda. As a result, he has spent many nights in jail, served several prison sentences, and was on the FBI’s ten most wanted fugitives for a time. It is remarkable that this plain priest who simply follows the words of Jesus has not only encountered so much opposition (from churches as well as governments), but has also humbled these powerful bodies by demonstrating that words and witness cannot be silenced by rhetoric and propaganda.
Berrigan’s consistent witness to peace is a challenge, not only to American Christians who are all too often warmongering and violent, but also to professed pacifists and peacemakers. Berrigan insists that peacemakers put as much effort into making peace as war makers put into killing and maiming. Those of us who believe Jesus’ words about not repaying evil with evil and turning the other cheek, would do well to remember what Jesus’ words cost him (that is, death on the cross enacted by the powers that be).
“We have assumed the name of peacemakers, but we have been, by and large, unwilling to pay any significant price. And because we want peace with half a heart and half a life and will, the war, of course, continues, because the waging of war, by its nature is total–but the waging of peace, by our own cowardice, is partial” (112).
As a collection, this book is a terrific representative gathering of the multitudinous writings of Berrigan. Dear is careful to collect a wide type of writings: poetry, memoir, letters, sermons, even court transcripts. The result is a challenging collection that gives the reader a good understanding of the person of Daniel Berrigan and his development over the years.
There is a temptation when speaking of such polarizing peacemakers as Daniel Berrigan to relegate their perspective to the detached concepts of “war” and “racism.” When these topics come up, we can refer to people like Berrigan, but there are many other important topics that we should also concern ourselves with (such as divorce, abortion, family life, etc.). If only we had Daniel Berrigan’s thoughts on these matters! But he has refused to give them. He feels that they would detract from the word he has for the world. He explains this when he defends his action on September 9, 1980 (when he and seven others, calling themselves the Plowshares Eight, broke into a General Electric nuclear missile plant in Pennsylvania and hammered on two nose cones of a Mark 12A missiles):
More than that. Our act is all I have to say. The only message I have to the world is: We are not allowed to kill innocent people. We are not allowed to be silent while preparations for mass murder proceed in our name, with our money, secretly.
I have nothing else to say to the world. At other times one could talk about family life and divorce and birth control and abortion and many other questions. But this Mark 12A is here. And it renders all other questions null and void. Nothing, nothing can be settled until this is settled. Or this will settle us, once and for all.
It’s terrible for me to live in a time where I have nothing to say to human beings except, “Stop killing.” There are other beautiful things that I would love to be saying to people. There are other projects I could be very helpful at. And I can’t do them. I cannot. Because everything is endangered. Everything is up for grabs. Our is a kind of primitive situation, even though we would call ourselves sophisticated. Our plight is very primitive from a Christian point of view. We are back to where we started. Thou shall not kill. We are not allowed to kill. (192)