VOL 124 NO. 15
‘Whatsoever you do’
By Luke Eggleston/ SUN staff writer
SUN photo(s) Paul Finch
One brother speaks of his life and of his two brothers’ as activists
Christianity has always identified itself with spiritual liberation. Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection meant that death could no longer claim predominance over humanity and that the soul was free to ascend to heaven.
For Catholic activist Jerry Berrigan, however, spiritual change and social change have always been inextricably linked.
Berrigan, along with his brothers Dan and Phillip, has forged a decades-long activist career that still includes involvement in prison ministry as well as peaceful demonstration. He sees the principles of Catholicism as the fulcrum for social change.
“My motivation, as is my brother’s and literally hundreds of people with whom they’ve acted, is biblical rather than civil,” he said. “We believe that if the dictates of the Bible are obeyed, then there’s no problem with civil life. Civil life automatically stays where it should be. So our motivation is biblical.”
Berrigan is quick to cite the passage in Isaiah, which is celebrated by advocates of liberation theology of every stripe.
“‘They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks and they shall not make war any more.’ That’s biblical. And that’s the often-cited reason for doing what we did,” he said.
When the civil rights movement roared across the US in the late 1950’s and early 60’s, sweeping up students and other concerned people, Berrigan was hardly callow. He had attended a Josephite seminary before obtaining his doctorate in English literature from Syracuse University.
“By the time those questions came on with immediacy, I was already prepared,” he said.
The civil rights movement, as well as the influence of his brothers, catalyzed Berrigan’s career as an activist. In 1955 Berrigan ventured to Alabama with the now defunct Catholic Interracial Council, which was led by Father Charles Brady of Syracuse, to participate in the demonstrations surrounding the Montgomery bus boycott.
From his involvement in the civil rights movement, it was a logical step to become involved in the protest movement surrounding the Vietnam War.
“The Vietnam War was coming on and it seems to me now that it was a natural transition from concern about the rights of black people to live and to interact freely with whomever,” Berrigan said. “The natural transition between that and the rights of indigenous people of Southeast Asia, the Vietnamese people, to live and to interact freely without fear of death or violence which, of course, they were subject to from the American invasion.”
By that time, Berrigan and his wife had adopted four children and were in the process of rearing a family in Syracuse. Nevertheless, as the family grew, Berrigan was able to focus more and more on his activism as it manifested itself in civil disobedience. He sees that involvement as a foundational aspect of his faith.
“Catholicism has made a claim to be a religion founded by Jesus Christ: Christianity,” he said in a recent interview. “It claims Jesus Christ as its founder. Now if those Christians who call themselves Catholics were intent on living the mandate received from Christ then it would first of all be non-violent. That means that if the nation of which they happen to be a part were warlike, they would risk rejection and be unpatriotic by refusing to fight.”
Berrigan’s wife, Carol, estimates that her husband has been arrested 35 times over the years and has spent several stints in jail. Berrigan has long since lost count of the number of days and hours he has logged behind bars.
The number of terms in jail spent by his brothers Daniel, a Jesuit, and Philip, a former Josephite, number over 100 according to Carol.
Both were involved in the famous Catonsville Nine incident, in which nine activists broke into a Selective Service office in Catonsville, Md. and burned 500 draft files using homemade napalm. Philip Berrigan was also involved in the Baltimore Four incident, in which four men infiltrated an office and poured blood on several files and then awaited arrest.
Berrigan describes his brothers with tones that approach the reverential. Philip Berrigan died in 2002. Daniel Berrigan is still a prolific activist and writer.
“My brothers together are what you might call ‘resurrection men,’” he said. “The resurrection is all about Christ coming alive and rejecting death. That’s exactly who they are and how they live as advocates of life and rejecters of death. They were, in the case of Phil, and continue, in the case of Dan, truly worthy human beings. Worthy of the designation fully human beings and fully Christian men.”
Within the last three years, Berrigan, now 85, has been arrested twice, once for trespassing on an air force base and more recently when he joined 19 protesters who lined up across the entrance of the federal building in downtown Syracuse in protest of the current war in Iraq.
But Berrigan has familiarized himself with jails in circumstances that do not include the duress of arrest. Over the past several years, Berrigan has been involved with jail ministry.
“It’s a corporal work of mercy,” he said. “It’s one way of addressing the human needs of a person in need and trying to be helpful….Most frequently we discover that people behind bars have been abandoned by society, rejected, often times by family, friends, they are alone. Therefore they have a claim in justice on our attention and a claim in justice on our efforts to help them.”
Berrigan believes that social justice must become a fundamental element of Catholicism.
“The issue of social justice is dealt with in the Catholic Church in some fashion depending on who’s in charge,” he says. “Ideally, it should be basic to Catholic education in some kind of mandate that at every level students be exposed to the need in real fashion.”
He feels that social justice has not been pressed enough in the church.
“Social justice relates to everyone being treated fairly and equally,” he said. “Everyone is a creature of God. Therefore everyone is equally subject to his love, care, and providence.”