John DEAR, editor, Daniel Berrigan: Essential Writings. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2009. pp. 285. $20.00 pb. ISBN 978-1-57075-837-9.
Reviewed by John SNIEGOCKI, Xavier University, Cincinnati, OH 45207-4442

This volume provides an overview of the life of Daniel Berrigan and selections from some of his extensive writings. Multiple genres are represented, including poetry, plays, journals, essays, and scripture studies.

The book begins with a timeline of Berrigan’s life. Many of the writing selections fill in additional biographical details. Born in 1921 (and so at the time of this review 89 years old!), Berrigan entered the Jesuits at the age of 18. He was ordained a priest in 1952. In 1953 he traveled to France and encountered the worker priest movement, which influenced his growing social consciousness. In the 1950s and early 1960s Berrigan taught high school and college, wrote numerous books (mostly poetry), and traveled. His experiences in South Africa and Eastern Europe deeply impacted him, as did his later time in Latin America, Palestine, and Vietnam. Berrigan also participated in the civil rights movement, for example joining Martin Luther King, Jr. in the historic march from Montgomery to Selma in 1965. In the mid-1960s Berrigan became very involved in the movement against the Vietnam War and in 1968 he, along with his brother Philip and seven others, carried out the first burning of draft files at a selective service office in Catonsville, Maryland. Some of the most powerful writings in the book are reflections on the struggle against the Vietnam War:

“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. For we are sick at heart, our hearts give us no rest for thinking of the Land of Burning Children. And for thinking of that other Child, of whom the poet Luke speaks.” (p. 105)

From a letter of Berrigan to the Weathermen (an underground anti-war group that sometimes engaged in acts of violence): “No principle is worth the sacrifice of a single human life….[O]ur realization is that a movement has historic meaning only insofar as it puts itself on the side of human dignity and the protection of life, even of the lives most unworthy of such respect. A revolution is interesting insofar as it avoids like the plague the plague it promised to heal.” (p. 154-5)

Later excerpts in the book include reflection on the 1980 “Plowshares Eight” action, the first act of symbolic destruction of nuclear weapons components. Berrigan’s trial testimony (pp. 187-192) is an eloquent summary of his thought:

“I could not not break the law and remain human. That was what was in jeopardy: what I call my conscience, my humanity, that which is recognizable to children, to friends, to good people, when we say, ‘There is someone we can trust and love, someone who will not betray.’ We spent years within the law, trying to be that kind of person, a non-betrayer. Then we found we couldn’t. And if we kept forever on this side of the line, we would die within ourselves. We couldn’t look in the mirror, couldn’t face those we love, had no Christian message in the world, nothing to say if we went on that way….And I had to continue to ask myself at prayer, with my friends, with my family, with all kinds of people, with my own soul, ‘Do you have anything to say today?” I mean, beyond a lot of prattling religious talk….Do you have a word, a word of hope to offer, a Christian word?… I am quite certain that I had September 9, 1980, to say….We are not allowed to kill innocent people. We are not allowed to be complicit in murder. We are not allowed to be silent while preparations for mass murder proceed in our name.”

Another especially powerful excerpt is Berrigan’s piece commemorating Franz Jagerstatter (pp. 215-221), the German Catholic who was executed for refusing to serve in Hitler’s army, and whose refusal to serve was opposed by his pastor and other Catholic leaders: “The haunting thing is – Franz will not go away. He will not go away from the church that sent him on his way, alone. His way, which should have been the way of the church.”

To those who would challenge his pacifism, and speak of the need for an ‘interim ethic,’ Berrigan has this reply: “An ethic of the interim, as I understand it, would allow us to fill the gap between today and tomorrow with the bodies of all who must die, before we accept the word of Christ. On the contrary, I think the Sermon on the Mount concerns us here and now, or concerns us never.” (p. 274)

Overall, the selections chosen for this volume are uneven. Some are very powerful (like those quoted above), others less so. Another editor may have made some very different selections, for example including a fuller array of the themes that Berrigan’s writings cover. Nonetheless, any collection of Berrigan’s writings is to be welcomed. His prophetic voice needs to be heard, challenging us and the church to faithfulness and to resurrection hope:

“Our ethic is a gift of the God who rolled the stone back, who beat death at its own game. If that be true, something would seem to follow. The death game is not our game….For us, all these repeated arrests, the interminable jailings, the life of our small communities, the discipline of nonviolence – these have embodied an ethic of resurrection. Simply put, we long to taste that event, its thunders and quakes, its great Yes. We want to test the resurrection in our bones. To see if we might live in hope, instead of in the silva oscura, the thicket of cultural despair, nuclear despair, a world of perpetual war. We want to taste the resurrection. May I say we have not been disappointed.” (p. 276, 281)

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