Dec 8, 2013
America’s Street Priest
Posted on Jun 10, 2012
By Chris Hedges
In a culture that lacks many authentic heroes, that continues to preach that military service is the highest good, Berrigan is a potent reminder of what we must seek to become. His is a life of constant agitation, constant defiance, constant disobedience to systems of power, a life of radical obedience to God. His embrace of what has been called “Christian anarchism,” because of its persistent alienation and hostility to all forms of power, is the most effective form of resistance. And it is the clearest expression of the Christian Gospel. Berrigan has been arrested numerous times—“I don’t waste time counting,” he told me—for also protesting American intervention in Central America and the first Gulf War, as well as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has demonstrated against the death penalty, in support of LGBT rights and against abortion. And even in his 90s he is not finished.
“If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal,” he said to me, quoting Emma Goldman. He added his brother Phil’s reminder that “if enough Christians follow the Gospel, they can bring any state to its knees.”
“Some people today argue that equanimity achieved through inner spiritual work is a necessary condition for sustaining one’s ethical and political commitments,” Berrigan writes. “But to the prophets of the Bible, this would have been an absolutely foreign language and a foreign view of the human. The notion that one has to achieve peace of mind before stretching out one’s hand to one’s neighbor is a distortion of our human experience, and ultimately a dodge of our responsibility. Life is a rollercoaster, and one had better buckle one’s belt and take the trip. This focus on equanimity is actually a narrow-minded, selfish approach to reality dressed up within the language of spirituality.”
“I know that the prophetic vision is not popular today in some spiritual circles,” he goes on. “But our task is not to be popular or to be seen as having an impact, but to speak the deepest truths that we know. We need to live our lives in accord with the deepest truths we know, even if doing so does not produce immediate results in the world.”
“They are not absent,” he said in our conversation. “Their presence is not erased. Their presence is purer and stronger. And their presence is victory over death. It is love. And in their presence I find strength.”
“But what of the price of peace?” Berrigan writes in his book “No Bars to Manhood.” “I think of the good, decent, peace-loving people I have known by the thousands, and I wonder. How many of them are so afflicted with the wasting disease of normalcy that, even as they declare for peace, their hands reach out with an instinctive spasm in the direction of their loved ones, in the direction of their comforts, their home, their security, their income, their future, their plans—that twenty-year plan of family growth and unity, that fifty-year plan of decent life and honorable natural demise. ‘Of course, let us have the peace,’ we cry, but at the same time let us have normalcy, let us lose nothing, let our lives stand intact, let us know neither prison nor ill repute nor disruption of ties.’ ”
Contrast Daniel Berrigan, who lives in a single room with a half dozen other retired priests in a parish house in lower Manhattan, with the imperious rector of Trinity Church, the Rev. Dr. James Cooper. Cooper earns $1.3 million a year, lives in a $5.5 million SoHo townhouse, receives a church allowance to maintain his Florida condo, dips into church funds to take his family on African safaris and oversees the church’s $1 billion in Manhattan real estate holdings from which the church receives as much as $30 million a year. He spent $5 million on a public relations campaign, nearly double the $2.7 million the church gave out in grants, in one year. Ten of the church’s 22-member vestry—its board of directors—have quit over Cooper’s authoritarianism and extravagance.
Cooper, like Berrigan, attended seminary and studied the Gospel, but he has modeled his life after Herod rather than Jesus. He has turned Trinity Church into a temple to greed. He is an appropriate priest for Wall Street. And on Monday, when activists appear in court because he and the other leaders of Trinity Church are determined to prosecute them, Cooper should consider removing the Christian cross from the sanctuary and replacing it with the true symbol he appears to worship—the dollar sign.
“All we have is one another to sustain us,” Berrigan told me. “Community is not magical. It means people are willing to be human beings together. And it means they are willing to pay the price for being human.”
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