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By Judith Mahoney Pasternak
e once said he wanted “to die in the trenches, not on the beach.” He came closer than most do to getting his wish: Philip F. Berrigan, the former priest who helped originate the Plowshares movement against weapons of mass destruction, died December 6, less than a year since the end of his last prison term. He was 79.
The metaphor—“the trenches, not the beach”—was rather martial for a pacifist, but it fit the man. Philip Berrigan was among the most militant of U.S. peacemakers, an activist who spent some 11 years in prison for multiple acts of extreme nonviolent resistance committed over a span of 32 years. A radical’s radical, Berrigan defied not only the state, but the church, as undeterred by excommunication as he had been by prison; he then went on to challenge the conventions of the very movement he was part of.
Along with comrades including his brother, the equally radical poet-priest Daniel Berrigan, Philip Berrigan engaged in new forms of protest not once, but (at least) twice. During the Vietnam War, the Berrigan brothers were among the “Baltimore Four” and the “Catonsville Nine” who destroyed draft files instead of draft cards. More than a decade later, they and six others broke into a General Electric nuclear missile plant, dented nose cones with hammers and poured blood—their own—onto the deadly weapons in the service of fulfilling the Old Testament prophecy that one day humanity will “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.”
Resistance was bred in the Berrigans’ bones. Born in Two Harbors, MN, in 1923, Philip Berrigan was the last of the six sons of German immigrant Frida Fromhart Berrigan and railroad engineer, labor organizer and radical Thomas F. Berrigan. The family moved to Syracuse, NY, in Philip’s childhood, and he went to school there and played semiprofessional baseball before being drafted in 1943.
Basic training in Georgia honed his consciousness of racial injustice in his homeland; combat in Europe gave him his lifelong opposition to violence (although he came out of the war a second lieutenant). His older brother Daniel had joined the Jesuits at 21 and been ordained in 1952; some combination of those experiences led Philip to ordination as a Josephite priest in 1955.
From the beginning, his clerical career was turbulent. No matter where the church sent him—to the poverty-stricken Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, DC, to an all-Black high school in New Orleans, to another poor community in Baltimore—and over the hierarchy’s increasing objections, he inveighed against poverty, segregation and injustice: In 1962, he published the first of many books, The Catholic Church and the Negro.
He didn’t stop with criticizing social ills; he resisted them. He was arrested for the first time during a civil rights demonstration in Selma, AL, and as the decade wore on, he joined the growing opposition to the escalating war in Vietnam. In the mid-’60s he founded a Peace Mission in Baltimore, the city that had become his home and would be for the rest of his life. In 1966, he joined pickets in front of the homes of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk.
October 17, 1967, Phil and Dan and their friends Tom Lewis and Dave Eberhardt (the “Baltimore Four”) committed the first of what became a series of daring break-ins, entering the Baltimore Selective Service office and pouring their own blood on a number of draft files. Exactly seven months later, on May 17, 1968, the “Catonsville Nine”—Phil, Dan and Tom Lewis, along with their associates David Darst, Thomas Melville, Marjorie Melville, Mary Moylan, George Mische and John Hogan—walked into the Selective Service office in nearby Catonsville, MD, seized some files, carried them out into the parking lot and burned them with a home-made version of napalm, the jellied gasoline that was being used to such deadly effect in Vietnam. Phil, Dan and Tom were in the middle of their trial for the Baltimore action.
The Baltimore Four and the Catonsville Nine were convicted. Phil and Dan received concurrent three-and-a-half- and six-year prison sentences. But the system moved slowly; it was not until the spring of 1970 that the sentences were due to take effect, and by that time, Phil had published another book, A Punishment for Peace, and committed yet another kind of disobedience: He had fallen in love with, and secretly married, a nun, Elizabeth McAlister.
In the spring of 1970, the brothers decided not to cooperate with the sentences and went underground, but were soon captured—Phil in April, Dan in August. They had become famous as symbols of the nation’s opposition to the war; in 1971, they appeared on the cover of Time Magazine.
While in prison, Phil corresponded with Liz through an intermediary to elude the prison censors, but the ploy failed, and the letters were read. The authorities weren’t interested in his love life, but the political content resulted in yet another trial, this time for conspiracy to commit various acts of illegal resistance including kidnaping Henry Kissinger. That trial, in 1972, resulted in one of Phil’s few acquittals.
Upon Phil’s parole in 1973, he and Liz were married in a formal ceremony; the church responded by excommunicating both of them. They settled in Baltimore, founded the intentional community Jonah House and began constructing what was, for them, a normal domestic life: They wrote, organized and had children—Frida in 1974, Jerry in 1975 and Kate in 1981.
The Plowshares concept had critics within the peace movement as well as outside of it. There are pacifists who believe that the destruction of property—even such property as nuclear weapons—is not nonviolent. Plowshares activists, on the other hand, urge that such weapons ought not to exist in the first place. Over the two decades after the symbolic disarmament in King of Prussia, Phil Berrigan would engage in five more Plowshares actions and serve a total of 11 years in prison; Liz participated in one in 1983 and served 26 months.
Between prison sentences, they published more books, including Phil’s Whereupon to Stand: The Acts of the Apostles and Ourselves in 1993; his and Liz’ The Time’s Discipline: The Beatitudes and Nuclear Resistance the same year; Phil’s autobiography, Fighting the Lamb’s War, in 1996.
In 1999, Phil participated in the Plowshares vs. Depleted Uranium action in Middle River, MD. The next year, at the age of 76, he was convicted of malicious destruction of property and conspiracy to maliciously destroy property. He was sentenced to 30 months in prison.
It was his last Plowshares action. Four months after his final release from prison in December, 2001, he broke his left arm in a fall, and his health began to fail. In October of last year he was diagnosed with cancer of the liver. He died two months later, as he had lived: surrounded by friends, family and comrades, talking peace and politics to the last. His family rode to his funeral in the pickup truck that carried the casket, with hundreds of people carrying peace signs and flowers following on foot behind it. His daughters Frida and Kate delivered the eulogy. To date, some 175 people across the globe have committed about 80 Plowshares actions.
Longtime journalist and writer Judith Mahoney Pasternak is the editor of the Nonviolent Activist.
the Eulogy for Phil Berrigan
… One of the thoughts that resonated the most with us in the last days of Dad’s life was that he showed us all what it means to be free.
We have visited our dad in many prisons—Danbury, Allentown, Elkton, Lorton, Peterson, Hagerstown, Cumberland County, Baltimore County. We have spent time with him in all these dead spaces, spaces meant to intimidate, and cow and beat down
… But our dad never seemed touched by that weight. Even in prison … as in the outside world, his work and life were to resist violence and oppression, to understand and try to live by God’s word, to build community and help people learn to love one another. …
When he died, after a long week of struggle and pain and silence, he was completely free from discomfort and pain, free from a body that no longer worked, and free to live on in us, in all of you.
He is still very present to us, and the work we do (all of us), today and tomorrow and for the rest of our lives, will keep our dad close to us.
He is here with us every time a hammer strikes on killing metal, transforming it from a tool of death to a productive, life-giving, life-affirming implement.
He is here with us every time a member of the church communicates the central message of the gospel (thou shalt not kill) and acts to oppose killing, rather than providing the church seal of approval on war.
He is here whenever joy and irreverent laughter and kindness and hard work are present.
He is here every time we reach across color and class lines and embrace each other as brother and sister.
He is here every time we risk our freedom in an effort to secure justice and peace for all.
He is here whereever children are loved and respected and listened to, but not idolized, or sheltered from truth, or used as an excuse for not doing what is right.
He is here when we challenge comfort, silence, complicity, the easy way out.
He is here when we believe in every person’s potential for good, regardless of background or labels.
He is here when we unlearn the violence and greed we are inculcated with as Americans, and practice peacemaking and reconciliation. ….
Thanks, Dad, for lessons in freedom, inside and outside of prison. And thanks to all of you for struggling toward freedom and working to build a just and peaceful world. Our dad lives on in you.
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