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America’s Street Priest

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Posted on Jun 10, 2012
Illustration by Mr. Fish

By Chris Hedges

The Rev. Daniel Berrigan, undaunted at 92 and full of the fire that makes him one of this nation’s most courageous voices for justice, stands in New York City’s Zuccotti Park. He is there, along with other clergy, to ask Trinity Church, which is the third-largest landowner in Manhattan, to drop charges against Occupy activists, including retired Episcopal Bishop George Packard, for occupying its empty lot on 6th Avenue and Canal Street on Dec. 17. The protesters, slated to go to court Monday, June 11, hoped to establish a new Liberty Square on the lot after being evicted by New York City police from Zuccotti in November. But Trinity had the demonstrators arrested. It chose to act like a real estate company, or the corporation it has become, rather than a church. And its steadfast refusal to drop the charges means that many of those arrested, including Packard, could spend as long as three months in jail.

“This is the only way to bring faith to the public and the public to the faith,” Berrigan said softly as we spoke before the demonstration in the park that was once the epicenter of Occupy Wall Street. “If faith does not touch the lives of others it has no point. Faith always starts with oneself. It means an overriding sense of responsibility for the universe, making sure that universe is left in good hands and the belief that things will finally turn out right if we remain faithful. But I underscore the word ‘faithful.’ This faith was embodied in the Occupy movement from the first day. The official churches remained slow. It is up to us to take the initiative and hope the churches catch up.”

There is one place, Berrigan says, where those who care about justice need to be—in the streets. The folly of electoral politics, the colossal waste of energy invested in the charade of the Wisconsin recall, which once again funneled hopes and passion back into a dead political system and a bankrupt Democratic Party, the failure by large numbers of citizens to carry out mass acts of civil disobedience, will only ensure that we remain hostages to corporate power.

Berrigan believes, as did Martin Luther King, that “the evils of capitalism are as real as the evils of militarism and the evils of racism.” And he has dedicated his life to fighting these evils. It is a life worth emulating.

Berrigan, a Jesuit priest, was ordained 70 years ago. He was a professor at Le Moyne College, Cornel University and Fordham University. His book of poems, “Time Without Number,” won the Lamont Poetry Prize. But it is as a religious radical that he gained national prominence, as well as numerous enemies within the Roman Catholic hierarchy. He and his brother Philip Berrigan, a Josephite priest and World War II combat veteran, along with the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, led some of the first protests against the Vietnam War. In 1967 Philip Berrigan was arrested for nonviolent civil disobedience and was sentenced to six years in prison. Philip’s sentence spurred Daniel to greater activism. He traveled to Hanoi with the historian Howard Zinn to bring back three American prisoners of war. And then he and eight other Catholic priests concocted homemade napalm and on May 17, 1968, used it to burn 378 draft files in the parking lot of the Catonsville, Md., draft board.

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“Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children,” Berrigan wrote at the time of the destruction of draft files. “How many must die before our voices are heard, how many must be tortured, dislocated, starved, maddened? When, at what point, will you say no to this war?”

Berrigan was a fugitive for four months after being sentenced. He was apprehended by the FBI in the home of the writer William Stringfellow, whose decision to live and write out of Harlem in the 1950s and whose books “Dissenter in a Great Society” and “My People Is the Enemy” were instrumental in prompting me as a seminarian to live and work in Boston’s inner city, in the Roxbury neighborhood. Berrigan was sentenced to three years and released from the federal prison in Danbury, Conn., in 1972. But he did not stop. In 1980 he and Philip, along with six other protesters, illegally entered the General Electric nuclear missile facility in King of Prussia, Pa. They damaged nuclear warhead cones and poured blood onto documents. He was again sentenced and then paroled for time already served in prison. Philip, by the time he died in 2002, had spent more than a decade in prison for acts of civil disobedience. Philip Berrigan, Zinn said in eulogizing him, was “one of the great Americans of our time.”


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