Imagine a man who has been arrested hundreds of times and who was on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list for illegal actions against the Vietnam War. Imagine this man being nominated – twice – for the Nobel Peace Prize. Imagine that he was a Roman Catholic Priest of the Jesuit order, but that he was later excommunicated for marrying and breaking his vow of celibacy.
You have just imagined Daniel Berrigan, peace activist and former associate director for Cornell United Religious Work (CURW) in 1970.
“The time that Berrigan worked for Cornell was a terribly dramatic and important and iconic moment in Cornell’s history,” said Gurdon Brewster, Cornell’s former Episcopal chaplain and who served as assistant minister to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Sr. in 1961 and again in 1966 before coming to Cornell. “I knew Berrigan well. When he was brought to Cornell by the late Rev. Jack Lewis, who served as Director of CURW from 1965 to 1981, everyone knew the trustees [of the University] were not smiling when they heard Berrigan was coming. He was a controversial character, but Vietnam was a horrendous war and only people without a conscience would disagree.”
In 1997, Mairead Maguire, Northern Ireland’s 1976 Nobel Peace Laureate, described Daniel and his activist brother Philip as “the most prominent faith-based voices for peace and nonviolence in the United States.”
Berrigan began his non-violent protesting career as a member of the Catonsville Nine. In 1969, Berrigan and eight other peace activists walked into the draft board of Catonsville, Md., and removed over 375 Vietnam draft files which they burned with homemade napalm concocted by a local high school physics teacher; all nine then waited for the police to arrive and arrest them. The Catonsville Nine, who were all Catholic, issued this statement at the time: “We confront the 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.”
Berrigan was sentenced to three years in prison for his involvement with the Catonsville Nine, but he did not turn himself into authorities and refused to serve his time. Instead, Berrigan went into hiding, and much to the chagrin of the FBI he was not apprehended for over a year, during which Berrigan made impromptu appearances at public events and rallies. The most famous of these appearances occurred mere weeks after Berrigan failed to report for imprisonment.
On Monday, April 20, 1970, The Cornell Daily Sun reported that Berrigan appeared the previous Friday before a crowd of 15,000 at Barton Hall during the Freedom Seder, “a radical adaptation of the traditional Passover service” written and led by Rabbi Arthur I. Waskow. Amid music, speeches and the burning of draft cards, Berrigan mounted the stage to tumultuous reactions and several standing ovations.
“There had been a rumor going around for a while that Daniel would make an appearance at the Seder,” Brewster said. “Both the Police and the FBI were in the crowd, but they didn’t want to nab him while he was up on the stage, giving his talk, so they waited. It turned out they waited too long.”
According to The Sun, the FBI “did not attempt to arrest Berrigan during his two hour stay on the stage, and failed to capture him after he slipped out of Barton Hall around 10:30 p.m.”
The Sun also describes a performance by the Bread and Puppet Theater, a group of “towering, ghostlike puppets” that snaked their way through the crowd and eventually ended up on stage.
“The puppets were 20 feet tall, had these huge heads and were making fun of the political issues of the day,” Brewster said. “After their show was over they slinked off the stage and, lo and behold, Berrigan was gone. Everybody knew that Berrigan had snuck out under one of the puppets – everybody except for the FBI, that is,” Brewster added.
After slipping past the FBI at the Freedom Seder, it appears that Berrigan left Ithaca for good. He was scheduled to appear at an event later that same weekend, but instead he sent along a statement to be read in his place. The statement, a radical and powerful farewell with shades of Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” explains why Berrigan did not stay longer at Cornell.
“-I had to face a decision. Was it better to remain in Barton Hall, awaiting the moment when the hunters, equipped with open season licenses [draft cards], could take aim and bring me down? I could not. I chose once again to disappear, to guard my honorable status of ‘fugitive from injustice.'”
Berrigan continues: “Dear friends, in a criminal time, the innocent man must choose to be a criminal. When authority has betrayed us, the patriot must bear the stigma of traitor. I choose to be a criminal precisely because I will have no part in my country’s crimes. I choose to be called a traitor to a land which day after day betrays the best hopes of man.”
During his appearance at Barton Hall Berrigan spoke with The Sun, saying that he “was in the best of hands” since April 9, when he was supposed to report for incarceration. He had been “just reading and walking and meditating, just really enjoying everything.”
Very confident words for someone on the run from the FBI.
Berrigan was rumored to be staying with his friend William Stringfellow, a theologian and lawyer. “We think he spent time hiding out on Block Island, Rhode Island, with an Episcopal layperson Bill Stringfellow, who counseled him on his legal options,” Brewster said.
Berrigan was eventually apprehended by the FBI and served two years in prison. He was released in 1972.
As the Vietnam War came to a close Berrigan and his brother Philip directed their nonviolent protests in a different direction, this time against the manufacture of nuclear weapon components, which the Berrigans considered preparation for war.
On Sept. 9, 1980, the brothers, along with six friends, broke in to the General Electric Nuclear Missile Re-entry Division in King of Prussia, Penn., where nose cones for nuclear missiles were made. The eight protesters hammered on the nose cones and poured blood over documents in imitation of the Bible, where in the book of Isaiah people are told to “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.” This verse has been used by activists for peace all over the world. The Plowshares Eight, as they were later dubbed, sparked a nationwide Plowshares movement that Berrigan continued to be involved in.
Since his Vietnam War protests, Berrigan has continued to speak out on many issues. He has been an outspoken critic of the first Gulf War, the Kosovo War of 1991, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the most recent invasion of Iraq.
Though his time in Ithaca was short-lived, Berrigan has been back to Cornell on many occasions to speak and protest. Most recently he spoke at Barnes Hall in 2003 at a tribute to the late Rev. Jack Lewis, the man who brought Berrigan to Cornell. Berrigan also gave a sermon at Sage Chapel later that year.
Born in 1921, Berrigan will be 84 years old this year. He has lived in the same Jesuit community apartment complex on 98th Street in Manhattan for the past 30 years. He has written over 50 books of prose and poetry, including a play called The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, which ran on Broadway and was later made into a movie, and his 1987 autobiography To Dwell in Peace.
Berrigan suffered the loss of his brother Philip to liver and kidney cancer in 2002, what he describes as the “lowest of lows” in his lifetime, according to an interview with Jonah House, a Jesuit community that Philip founded in 1973. His brother’s death hasn’t stopped Berrigan’s quest for peace, though, as he was last arrested at the age of 82 in an anti-war protest at the USS Intrepid War Museum in New York City.
Berrigan himself is perhaps best suited to sum up his motivations and his life’s work. The farewell paragraph of the statement Be
rrigan released on that Freedom Seder weekend of April 1970 reads: “I shall resist the enslavers of men as long as I possibly can. But inevitably, I will be imprisoned, perhaps even soon. Until then, I am proud to force the authorities to treat me as for so long they have treated their enemies – whether Vietnamese or Black Panthers. And whether at large or in prison, I hope with all my heart that you will live your lives as we of Catonsville are trying to live ours – responsibly before the community of man, in resistance to the enemies of man’s peace.”
Archived article by Dennis Dunegan
Sun Staff Writer