Top Leaderboard, Site wide
Truthdig: Drilling Beneath the Headlines
July 24, 2017 Disclaimer: Please read.

Statements and opinions expressed in articles are those of the authors, not Truthdig. Truthdig takes no responsibility for such statements or opinions.

The Unwomanly Face of War
The Life of Caliph Washington

Truthdig Bazaar
The Yankee Years

The Yankee Years

By Joe Torre and Tom Verducci

The Story of Salt

The Story of Salt

Mark Kurlansky

more items

Email this item Print this item

Truthdigger of the Week: The Late Daniel Berrigan, Lifelong Activist for Peace

Posted on May 7, 2016

By Natasha Hakimi

Daniel Berrigan touched uncountable lives with his activism and literary works. (Mr. Fish)

Square, Story page, 2nd paragraph, mobile
Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not usually a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions are worth celebrating.

Reviewing the many obituaries extolling the late Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan, I cannot help but think that the words depict the passing of a saint. Berrigan, who died April 30, just days before his 95th birthday, would probably object to that title, just as he refused to be called a hero. And yet, a hero in every sense of the word he was, his friends and followers assure those of us who did not have the fortune to meet him during his long, momentous life.


A Jesuit priest from Minnesota, Berrigan was also “a poet, pacifist, educator, social activist, playwright and lifelong resister to what he called ‘American military imperialism’ ”—just some of the roles ascribed to him in the more than hourlong “Democracy Now!” special posted above.


Square, Site wide, Desktop


Square, Site wide, Mobile
I consider it a failing of my education as a poet that I did not read Berrigan’s work until recently, and I feel blessed (there is no more appropriate word in this case) to have eventually encountered his poetry. To read his free verse is to glimpse the inner workings of faith and heroism, as well as the pain that pacifists must often suffer to achieve their earthly goals. His literary works speak of God, the Trinity and the “risen bread” but also of war, atrocities and—most importantly—resistance. Although in skimming old copies of Poetry Magazine you will find his more spiritual work, he is perhaps better known for more politically charged poems such as “Some,” written in memory of his friend Michael Snyder, a longtime advocate for the homeless, recited by the late poet below.


And here is his poem about his trip to Vietnam with social activist Howard Zinn, on which the two traveled to Hanoi to retrieve three American prisoners of war from the Viet Cong in 1968, a journey that would forever leave its mark on Berrigan:

“Children in the Shelter.”

Imagine; three of them.

As though survival
were a rat’s word,
and a rat’s death
waited there at the end

and I must have
in the century’s boneyard
heft of flesh and bone in my arms

I picked up the littlest
a boy, his face
breaded with rice (his sister calmly feeding him
as we climbed down)

In my arms fathered
in a moment’s grace, the messiah
of all my tears. I bore, reborn

a Hiroshima child from hell.

While “Some” invokes a phrase his close friends quote him as saying often—“Don’t just do something. Stand there.”—and highlights with the repetition of “cause” the importance of protest, “Children in the Shelter” is a vulnerable account of the types of violence committed against innocents that were seared into the poet’s mind during the time he spent in Vietnam. The poem, like the poet, bears witness to horrors committed in America’s name by vividly depicting the moving image of the three children—God’s children and no doubt a symbol of the Holy Trinity. The “littlest,” with rice biblically “breaded” on his face, is miraculously “reborn,” like Christ himself, on the page only to morph from that line to the next into the hair-raising, infernal horror of “a Hiroshima child from hell,” the legacy of America’s sins in Japan repeating themselves mercilessly in Vietnam.

New and Improved Comments

If you have trouble leaving a comment, review this help page. Still having problems? Let us know. If you find yourself moderated, take a moment to review our comment policy.

Join the conversation

Load Comments
Right Top, Site wide - Care2
Right Skyscraper, Site Wide
Right Internal Skyscraper, Site wide

Like Truthdig on Facebook