All We Have to Do is Close Our Eyes and Then Open Them:” A Conversation with Daniel Berrigan

Father Daniel Berrigan is a legendary Jesuit priest, poet and peacemaker. The author of over 50 books, he first attracted international fame when he and his brother Philip burned draft files with homemade napalm in the Catonsville Nine action of May 1968. He spent over two years in prison for that action. Later, he hammered on a nuclear weapon in the first Plowshares disarmament action in September 1980. He has been arrested over two hundred times in anti-war and anti-nuclear demonstrations.
A frequent nominee of the Nobel Peace Prize, Father Daniel Berrigan has traveled the world, given thousands of lectures and retreats, and inspired millions of people to pursue the life of Gospel nonviolence. John Dear has edited several of Daniel Berrigan’s books, including “And the Risen Bread: An Anthology of Poems, 1957-1997” (Fordham University Press, 1999) and “Testimony: The Word Made Flesh” (Orbis Books, 2004).
John Dear first met Daniel Berrigan in January 1984 at the Kirkridge Retreat Center. After John moved to New York City, he interviewed Daniel Berrigan in January 1986 for Pax Christi magazine. This is an excerpt from that interview.
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John Dear: What’s been happening recently concerning the sentences of the Plowshares Eight and the possibility of imprisonment?
Daniel Berrigan: We were all supposed to turn ourselves in on January 2, 1986, and that was turned back by the lawyers who kept insisting that the judge had no jurisdiction because he had been excluded from the case by the Appellate court. So he backed off and we’re still at large. Everybody’s uncertain about the future. The lawyers are saying now that it could go for weeks, or months, or years.
Dear: Can you describe how you and your community and the people here in New York will respond if you are arrested?
Berrigan: Well, the discussions are going on about whether or not it’s a good idea just to submit before unjust laws and unjust sentences. I think these discussions have been very good for my community, for the Jesuits of the New York Province, and for other Catholics. There’s a great attitude of listening and being very serious about it. So that’s wonderful.
Dear: There are over twenty people in jail right now for Plowshares Actions. Why are there so many prisoners of conscience? What is your reaction to all this?
Berrigan: Well, I think one of the heartening things is that it is the religious community that is responding to all this, to the point where I think the Church is the only structure left that is able to discern the times and make a public response. There are certainly more Catholics in jail now than in my lifetime and the sentences are the harshest of my lifetime, and that’s really saying a great deal about the developing conscience in the Church and the recognition by the state that we are the adversary.
Of course, that’s being played out in Tucson, too, with this trail of the Sanctuary Movement people, who are sheltering Central American refugees and facing criminal charges. I think these are very painful and important developments, probably the most exciting that I can remember.
Dear: Why do you feel you need to witness in such a way that it leads you to prison?
Berrigan: I think it has to do with trying to read the Gospel. It’s really quite as simple as that. Nobody wants to go to prison, but people want to be recognizable to themselves and to the Christ and to the Gospel they read. It all depends on where your life is, how you’re seeing the times.
I think that most people are neutralized or normalized by the times, if they’re making it. If they’re not making it, most people are desperate. But, I think it’s only in the churches that there’s some sense that we’ve got to do something about it. That’s very good.
Going to jail is only one way and I don’t want to say it’s the most important way, but one way among many. People are doing many things.
Dear: When does the time come to cross the line from what’s legal to what’s illegal? What suggestions do you have for discerning civil disobedience?
Berrigan: I think it’s a question of what people are doing normally with their lives. If we’re coming from some genuine place, we will be led further. That’s why we believe in the Holy Spirit. I don’t think one can be any more specific than that.
The main point is that one’s life makes some sense in light of the Gospel. Then, one will be led further.
Dear: What general reflections do you have about Central America since your visit there, a year and a half ago? What’s the connection between the work for peace in Central America and for nuclear disarmament?
Berrigan: Well, one heartening thing was the general realization I found down there, among the Jesuits especially, that our work is connected with theirs and they recognized it. Nukes and contras are two symptoms of a very deep addiction to violence up here.
None of these things can be neglected, whether or not we feel immediately under the guns or whether we’re feeling the pressure of conscience required of us these days. I feel very deeply in touch with people like that.
Dear: One of the things that Pax Christi is doing is encouraging the bishops to make a new assessment of their peace pastoral, The Challenge of Peace. What do you think the bishops need to say now?
Berrigan: I wish it wouldn’t take them so long. It does seem to me that it’s a little overdue that we say that deterrence is not identifiable with the Gospel. The condition they attached to deterrence about serious steps toward disarmament has never been fulfilled and is not being fulfilled now. They’re hell bent in the other direction.
So what are the bishops waiting for? Maybe they’re waiting for us and maybe we have to offer a more striking example of people who just won’t consent to this business.
Dear: In the past few months, hundreds of Pax Christi members have been committing themselves to Gospel nonviolence by professing a vow of nonviolence. What do you think about this commitment, or better, what suggestions do you have for those, like myself, who are just beginning, trying to go deeper into nonviolence?
Berrigan: A vow like that, if it’s taken seriously, is indeed, a very, very serious matter. I hope that people are already quite mature and don’t take that vow as a verbal matter. If we see those who have lived it in our lifetime, like Gandhi and Dr. King, it leads to very dire results. One can’t take all that into account, but one can be serious.
Dear: In the midst of the times as they are, what signs of hope are you seeing these days?
Berrigan: I just think we’re back where we started. In other words, it’s the beauty of the sisters and brothers in the Plowshares movement, and across the board in the peace movement, in the Sanctuary movement, in those working with the poor, and in all these things. There’s plenty of hope!
All we have to do is close our eyes and then open them. I mean, close our eyes to our culture and open them to our friends.
We’ve got enough to go on. We don’t have a right to the luxury of despair. We don’t have any right to it.