John Dear’s Foreword to Daniel Berrigan’s new book, TESTIMONY

In September, Orbis Books is publishing an exciting new collection of writings by longtime peacemaker Daniel Berrigan called “TESTIMONY: The Word Made Fresh.” The book was edited by John Dear, and features Dan Berrigan’s unpublished writings about the Plowshares movement, his essays and homilies about Jesus, his reflections on Philip Berrigan, Thomas Merton, Dorothy Day, Dr. King and William Stringfellow, and his conclusions about Christian life and witness in these dark times of the American empire.
To order “Testimony,” call Orbis Books at 1-800-258-5838, or order it or your local bookstore.
Here is the Foreword by John Dear:
Around the time I entered the Jesuits in the early 1980s, the New York province of Jesuits organized a conference on nuclear weapons in New York which featured several generals, “just war experts” and Daniel Berrigan. This was the age of Reagan, who joked into what he thought was a “dead” microphone that “the bombing of Russia will begin in five minutes.” For a brief time, church leaders debated the “issue” of war and peace as the Catholic bishops prepared to publish a “balanced” letter upholding the just war theory and nuclear deterrence while tolerating some unknown philosophy called “Gospel nonviolence.”
The generals gave their speeches and the Jesuits applauded. The just war theorists outlined the conditions in which Christians could dismiss the Sermon on the Mount and support war, even the use of nuclear weapons–and the Jesuits applauded.
Then Daniel Berrigan spoke.
“The Christian response to imperial death-dealing is in effect a non-response,” he said. “We refuse the terms of the argument. To weigh the value of lives would imply that military or paramilitary solutions had been grotesquely validated by Christians. There is no cause, however noble, which justifies the taking of a single human life, much less millions of them.
“‘Witness of the resurrection’ was a title of honor, self-conferred by the twelve apostles,” he continued. “They were called to take their stand on behalf of life, to the point of undergoing death, as well as death’s analogies–scorn and rejection, floggings and jail. This is our glory. From Peter and Paul to Martin King and Oscar Romero, we are witnesses of the resurrection. We want to test the resurrection in our bones. To see if we might live in hope. We want to taste the resurrection. May I say we have not been disappointed.”
His words were like a bolt of lightning in the dark night of war. I remember reading them in the Jesuit newspaper a few weeks after I entered the novitiate. They struck me with the force of power, authority and truth. He seemed to make the Word of God fresh all over again. This is what Christianity is about, I realized, saying “No” to the crucifixion of humanity, and “Yes” to God’s way of nonviolent love. Here is a modern version of the ancient testimony of Peter and Paul.
Dan’s testimony left everyone at the conference dumbfounded. There was little applause. The Jesuits walked away, resentful that Dan had spoiled their military consultation by bringing up that small, impractical, irrelevant matter of–the Gospel.
The word “testimony” has a noble history in our Christian tradition. After that first Pentecost, the early apostles took to the streets and gave testimony to “what they had seen and heard.” They were “witnesses.” As witnesses, they were arrested, put on trial, hauled before judges and forced to testify to the reason for their illegal actions. Throughout Christian history, the saints and martyrs have been hauled in courts to give testimony to the truth. Testimony remains a basic requirement for Christian living in times of violence, war, and nuclear weapons.
Daniel Berrigan has spent his life offering testimony to the truth of Gospel nonviolence and witnessing to the resurrection. In courtrooms, jail cells, before the media and large audiences, on street corners and in retreat houses, to friends and opponents, from Catonsville to King of Prussia, from Sharpeville to Selma, from Vietnam to El Salvador, he has proclaimed the Word of God: “love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, blessed are the peacemakers, put down the sword.” His life fits into the Acts of the Apostles, one of his favorites, with its rhythm of arrests, jails, courtroom scenes and eloquent testimony.
In 1968, Dan shocked the world with his brother Philip and the Catonsville Nine, by burning draft files with homemade napalm in a dramatic act of nonviolent civil disobedience. Since then he has continued to be a lightning rod of truth, an apostle of peace, a prophetic sign of God’s judgment on our culture of war. In 1980, Dan, Phil and the Plowshares Eight hammered on an unarmed nuclear nosecone sparking the first act of nuclear disarmament, the first of over eighty such “Plowshares actions,” fulfilling Isaiah’s vision of “swords into plowshares.” Dan has published over fifty books, including an unprecedented series of scripture commentaries on the Hebrew Bible seen through the lens of Gospel nonviolence. Today, Dan continues to teach, lecture, lead retreats, write poetry, and offer his testimony to peace. With our friends in New York City, he risks arrest repeatedly against U.S. warmaking, especially at the notorious S.S. Intrepid, a museum displaying U.S. weapons of mass destruction in the New York Harbor.
This book offers a powerful, shining testament of peace and nonviolence to a world of war and violence, a strong and soothing word of hope to a world of despair, a bright spotlight in a world of darkness. Here Dan tells us, like those first disciples, what he has seen and heard. He stands as a modern day “witness to the resurrection.”
Encouraged by our friend and editor Robert Ellsberg, I read through many of Dan’s files–his talks, essays, poems, and reflections–and culled these testimonies, including excerpts from that 1982 Jesuit conference talk entitled, “An Ethic of Resurrection.” Most of these writings have never before been published. Together, they offer an eloquent appeal to the truth of Gospel nonviolence.
Dan’s testimony is as good as Gospel witness can be, ranking with the sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr., the Catholic Worker columns of Dorothy Day, the essays of Thomas Merton, the pastoral letters of Oscar Romero and the courtroom statements of his brother Philip Berrigan. They inspire us to give our own testimony, to take new risks for the Gospel, to cross the line in opposition to our imperial warmaking, to become “witnesses to the resurrection” ourselves. When I read his reflections on Isaiah or Jesus, his essays on Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, his analysis of the culture’s “normalizing” of death or the church’s violation of its vocation to resist evil, I feel “cut to the heart” as the crowds did when Peter first spoke about the resurrection. Like them, I ask, “What can I do? How can I take another step on the road of discipleship? What testimony can I give to this world of war and nuclear idolatry?”
Dan’s testimony comes at the perfect time. I hope every Christian across the land will read it, share it with others, take it to heart, and recognize here a modern translation of an old story. I hope we will all act on Dan’s testimony and become witnesses to the resurrection by dedicating our lives to the abolition of war, injustice, violence, poverty, the death penalty and nuclear weapons. Every Christian should welcome Dan’s testimony, share his hope, and risk the resurrection in their own lives. If we take Dan at his word, if we take the Word of God seriously as he has done, we too will become peacemakers, and be the blessed sons and daughters of God. We too will not only contribute to the disarmament of the world, but to God’s nonviolent transformation of the world.
Nothing could be more meaningful. Dan’s testimony pushes us to the great work at hand. It is a word we all need to hear. It may help save us.
Thank you, Dan, for your testimony, your life, your friendship. You make the Word of God believable.