Father Daniel Berrigan died a few days ago. He and his brother burned selective service records in a Maryland parking lot in 1968. They rejected the notion that the moral thing to do when you commit a crime is to serve your time, and they took it on the lam. They were soon caught and served three years. It wasn’t to be the last time for either of them. Daniel Berrigan protested against injustice as he saw it until the day he died, at 94. Like Martin Luther King, he called us to moral arms.
Berrigan was a Jesuit priest. King was a Baptist minister. Berrigan’s church wasn’t fully supportive of his radicalism, but he kept the collar, and he kept fighting. Reading his obituary made me think that maybe I’m wrong about religion. Maybe it shouldn’t be eradicated like a pest infestation.
These days not much good is coming out of pulpits. Pope Francis is an exception, in his words if not his institutional reforms. But radical jihad is doing nothing for the image of Islam (and who is, I might ask?). The hard right shift of American Protestantism, and American Catholic dogmatism, threatens pluralism and free expression.
The thing about being a priest, or equivalent in other religions, is that it gives you (literally) a pulpit. People are predisposed, indeed conditioned, to listen to what you have to say, to consider it thoughtfully. You don’t (not right away) get ignored as a kook. You are Father Berrigan. We are taught to honor our fathers.
The other thing about religious training (the responsible kind, anyway) is that for the most part it teaches moral behavior. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Help the poor. Visit the sick. Have mercy. If you internalize those messages, and if you aren’t corrupted by the inside game of the church hierarchy, it is hard to look away from injustice. You preach against it. You march against it. You go to jail in protest.
Maybe we will develop a class of secular (Atheist) moralists. Maybe they will gain a following. Bernie Sanders comes close. He hasn’t put his life on the line, though. He hasn’t gone to jail. When you get down to it, he’s just a politician. His ideas are noble, but he has no more hope of passing single payer health care than Father Berrigan did of stopping the Vietnam War. Actually, that’s not true. Sanders probably has less hope. The protests Berrigan started ultimately did lead to the end of the war. A big reason for that was that Berrigan (and King for civil rights) was willing to go all in—personally all in—for what he believed. We saw that, and we followed him.
Father Berrigan believed that one must keep trying to do the right thing regardless of the near certainty that it will make no difference. That is a heavy burden. One that his faith helped him bear. Can we match his resolve without his faith? Or in the absence of faith, in the absence of a belief in a higher order and purpose, does making a difference seem too pointless?
At the end of his obituary, The New York Times published one of Father Berrigan’s poems. As so often, the poet tells the truth beautifully:
My brother and I stand like the fences
of abandoned farms, changed times
too loosely webbed against
A really powerful blow
would bring us down like scarecrows.
Nature, knowing this, finding us mildly useful
her backhanded love of freakishnessallows us to stand.