Tikkun Magazine, May/June 1998
Fighting for Disarmament
By Phillip Berrigan
If I sought a conviction for the last thirty years, it would be this - every one has a right to life. Equally, no one has the right to kill - no individual at home or on the street, no doctors in abortion clinics nor any Dr. Jack Kevorkian, no government through war or death row.
God alone reserves the right to kill. And then, never does. Everything connected with human meaning and integrity begins with the commandment: "You shall not kill!" Interhuman relationships, social justice and cohesion, geo-politics, the health of the planet - everything. There is even a cosmic dimension to the command, as the universe draws its unity from our love and justice towards one another.
I'm a World War II veteran. When I was in northern Europe for the fifteen months following the invasion of Normandy, I had no grasp of what I was doing. Later on, I learned of my complicity in the death of seventy million people and the devastation of two continents. What a savage irony that seventy million people had to die in order to "stop" Hitler! What a confession of subhumanity! That war, and its closure with atomic weapons, was the greatest argument for nonviolence in history.
The subject of government-sanctioned violence has been ostracized from national discourse. Politicians, preachers, educators, newscasters - all have been drawn into a vast, irrational conspiracy of silence. Why? As the prophet Jeremiah explains, because we do not know God (Jer. 22:15-16). How can we know God when we exclude the image of God in a needlessly suffering person? Why give a damn about justice in today's social muck if we know nothing of the source of love and justice in God? Why be accountable for the shocking state of the world?
In 1956, a year after I was ordained to the Catholic priesthood, I was sent to New Orleans to teach at a Catholic high school for African American youngsters. There began my education in nonviolence, a basic training in the civil rights movement which served me well when first the Cold War, and then the Vietnam War, heated up under President Kennedy.
During the terrible days of the Cuban Missile crisis in the fall of 1962, when the United States, the USSR, and the world came within a whisker of nuclear war, I pondered the incongruity and lunacy of the situation. Major cities of the deep south became paralyzed, thousands evacuated Florida, and everyone within range of the Soviet's intermediate ballistic missiles looked into a nuclear gun barrel. I felt betrayed-the three and a half years I had devoted to my country was for the war to end war, but our leaders had made a monstrous idol of the war in the form of the BOMB and were holding the world hostage. With the Soviet Union, we were signifying to the world a superpower axiom, that war is a necessary option.
That reality appalled and outraged me. Kennedy and Kruschev called no town hall meeting, consulted none of the people, yet they ruthlessly and insanely turned their nuclear guns on us. Who were they to play God with the lives of millions of innocents? (Even this question underscores their insanity-God would never commit such a colossal crime.)
An either/or faced me and millions of Americans and Soviets. Either I had to pretend anonymity and indifference toward October 1962, or I had to judge it as intolerable to faith and humanity and had to resolve to resist it. I chose the latter, since anything less was, in my view, moral slavery.
When I made this choice in 1962, I was thirty-nine years old, held two Masters degrees, was intensely trained in theology and scripture, a veteran of World War II, and had seven years civil rights experience. Yet, in an overall political sense, I was an infant, a cog in the imperial machinery, manipulatable and naive. October 1962 was a wake-up call. I began to read revisionist historians feverishly - Fleming, Williams, Kalko and others; and Thomas Merton for theology. And I learned from veterans of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and the American Friends Service Committee who had resisted nuclear testing and the first nuclear submarine at Groton, Connecticut.
My brother Dan once remarked that we learned the politics of resisting the government by first resisting the institutional church. In 1964 and 1965, my Superior repeatedly silenced me for speaking against the Vietnam war. Bowing to hierarchical pressure, he transferred me from teaching in our Seminary to an African American parish in Baltimore. Ever the obedient subject in those days, I ceased speaking against the war for nearly a year. Meanwhile, Dan was punished even more grievously, being exiled to South America. Only popular pressure returned him after four months.
This ecclesiastical boot camp had a political counterpart. I knew several "doves" in Congress, including Senator Fulbright. Working with them slowly educated me to the futility of legal means.
In 1966 and 1967, I was arrested several times at Fort Meyers, Virginia, for trying to discuss the war with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, most of whom lived there. Then, at a Chicago meeting of the leadership of the Students for a Democratic Society, I learned about their concentration on the Selective Service. I returned to Baltimore and, with others, began planning the Baltimore Four raid against the Selective Service. We resolved to pour our blood onto 1A draft files, those hunting licenses which so often get the hunters killed.
While awaiting sentencing for the Baltimore Four witness, nine of us went to Catonsville on a similar task. A bloody society, perhaps, as Dr. King had said, the most violent in history, could not grasp blood as a symbol. So at Catonsville we switched to a Special Forces formula for homemade napalm and burned 1A files in a parking lot. We reasoned that it was better to burn the documents of war than children. The government rewarded my aspirations for peace with a six-year sentence, of which I served forty months.
In the 1970s, Washington rebounded from its defeat in Indochina with first strike technology-another leap forward in the doomsday race. By 1980, a wider community of resistance suggested we rediscover the prophecy of Isaiah (2:4), repeated by Micah - "and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and neither shall they learn war anymore." This prophecy, complemented by the injunction to "love thy enemies" in Matthew and Luke - offered us inspiration and authority for resisting first strike nuclear terror. In biblical texts like these, it becomes clear that a people faithful to God is a disarmed people. You can't love your enemies at the point of a gun. Just as clearly, we cannot be disarmed as long as such weapons exist.
In the last seventeen years, some fifty-seven Plowshares witnesses have underscored the necessity of disarmament - in Australia, Britain, Sweden, the Netherlands, Germany, and the U.S. (mostly in the U.S.). Invariably, the mass media ignores these events or under reports them. Plowshares people carry two main symbols: hammers (a universal tool symbolizing universal responsibility) and blood (the blood of the covenant of nonviolence and peace).
Disarmament is roughly synonymous with nonviolence - in fact, it adds a new dimension to nonviolence. God's people are a weaponless people, because the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus Christ is weaponless, loving us with a passion and tenacity beyond imagining.
The scripture calls Jesus the "image of the invisible God" (Col. 1:15), and the "word of God made flesh" (John 1:14). Christians desire the unarmed nature of God represented by the unarmed conduct of Jesus as he freely went to the cross. God is unarmed; we must disarm. Disarm our violent patterns of thought, our petulance and rancor; disarm our indifference, covetousness, and exploitation of our neighbor; disarm our consumerism, indulgence, and addictions; disarm our violence toward creation - the water we waste, the air we pollute, the garbage we generate. And so, by disarming and re-creating our relationships, we disarm ourselves before our God. "Be perfect as your heavenly parent is perfect" (Matt 5:48).
If and when I finish this prison sentence, I will have served nearly nine years in American dumpsters for my nonviolent resistance to nuclearism and war, about one-eighth of my life. Those nine years and the resistance behind them are purely a gratuity from God, for which I can claim no credit. My sustained resistance draws its sustenance from my key relationships - to God, to neighbor (enemy), to self, to creation. I have found, in unexamined fashion, that resistance to evil and injustice seems to define, condense, and illuminate the human. That certainly is true in the passion for justice and resistance to injustice we see dominant in the lives of the Hebrew prophets, Jesus, Gandhi, Day, and King.
We must learn, or re-learn, by a simultaneous rhythm, the Yes! to life and the No! to death: "Behold I set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, therefore, that you and your children might live" (Deut. 30:19).
Phillip Berrigan, 76, is currently serving a two-year sentence for defacing a Navy guided-missile destroyer. Berrigan was one of the Catonsville Nine, protesters who took draft records from a Maryland Selective Service Board and set them on fire with napalm.
Berrigan, Phillip. 1998. Fighting for Disarmament. Tikkun 13(3): 23.