In one of his commentaries on the prophets, Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan describes the question left lingering in their wake: “What price the human?” (246) That question sums up the question of Berrigan’s life: What price have the principalities and powers placed on the faceless, expendable victims of violence? What price are followers of Christ prepared to pay on their behalf to resist those powers? Berrigan’s longtime friend, Jesuit confrere, and fellow peace activist John Dear has made a valuable addition to the forty-odd volumes in Orbis Books’ “Modern Spiritual Masters” series with this very accessible introduction. This is not simply a catalog of Berrigan’s statements against war, as worthwhile as that would be: the selections range from poems and sermons to journal entries and transcriptions of statements given in court on behalf of his prophetic actions on behalf of peace, giving us a picture of a man driven at once by rage and joy, quaking at the prospect of another arrest, another trial, another prison stay, yet haunted by the demands of the reign of God, unable to do otherwise. “We would infinitely prefer to be free, about our Father’s business, in what one might call the ordinary errands of the Gospel: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless. Alas, the times are twisted.” (153) For all the passion for justice that we expect from Berrigan, his testimony in Norristown, PA reminds us of the price that he has paid through the decades: “I hate jail. I don’t do well there physically. But I cannot not go on, because I have learned that we must not kill if we are Christians.” (189) But Christians DO kill, and when the Church is not blessing warfare, its voice is too often muffled, so again and again he thunders against a Church that trades the cross for the sword in the name of respectability: “For the first time I put on the prison blue jeans and denim shirt, a clerical attire I highly recommend for a new church.” (82)
Ruminating on the men and women who have been inspirations in his life, many of whom he has known personally, Berrigan reminds us how rich a company he has kept through the decades: Howard Zinn, Franz Jaegerstaetter, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Thich Nhat Hanh, Oscar Romero, the Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador, and always, his brother Phil. All these and more stand tall in the company of the prophets, the “others” of God: Ezekiel’s absurd actions to a people on the verge of destruction, the fiery furnace of Daniel recalling the furnaces of our time, “stoked against the innocent,” (259) playing out the demonic pretensions to power of the empire. By their alleged absurdity of refusing to go along quietly, the whole myriad of voices that Berrigan cites make clear the death-dealing absurdity of the powers of the world.
Walter Brueggemann comments in the introduction that “Daniel Berrigan is evidently incapable of writing a prosaic statement,” (28) and indeed the poetic, prophetic imagination that Brueggemann himself champions overflows the bounds of every page. In his poem “On Trial With the Catonsville Nine,” Berrigan asks, “How can we survive as human beings/in a world/more and more officially given over/to violence and death”; (128) earlier in the same poem he proleptically indicates his hope for a new world while enduring this one: “Someday/these defendants may be summoned/to the Rose Garden and decorated/but not today”. (125) As expected, although Berrigan’s writings are as theologically well-grounded as they are literarily sophisticated, this is no systematically organized theology; it was written, not from behind stacks of dusty tomes, but from inside prison cells and courtrooms. The faith to which Berrigan witnesses is, in the words of Jacques Sommet, a French Jesuit who died in Dachau, “A new faith, the faith of the charnel house.” (238) As such, it provides a window into anguish and rage and commitment, the bearing witness to Berrigan’s question “What price the human?”, showing the price and the value of a life lived close to the God of peace.