Book Review: Celebrant’s Flame: Daniel Berrigan in Memory and Reflection By Bill Wylie-Kellermann Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2021. Foreword by Frida Berrigan
Review by Rich Feldman
Rarely have I ever read a book that transcends more than 50 years of resistance, relationships, agape love, and mentorships. A creative biography that is both a personal journey of the writer and the subject. Bill Wylie Kellerman shares his personal journey of love, resistance, and relationships through his memories and reflections of a ‘true lover of life, a witness of peace, a soldier of resistance” —Daniel Berrigan. This book exemplifies the aspiration, the north star striving to reach the moral high ground, living within a moral center, based upon values of community, compassion, care. This aspiration is a foundation for so many of us who have been engaged as activists, thinkers, writers, and dreamers from the movements of the 20th & the 21st centuries.
This biography of Daniel Berrigan provides a critical foundation and challenge for today’s movements to create Communities without Police and defend police strategies and tactics. A dear comrade Wayne Curtis, who served “in-country” during the Vietnam war, an activist and member of the Black Panther Party, member of the Detroit Coalition Against Police Brutality, co-initiator of Peace Zones for Life, and for the past 10 years a partner and co-founder with Myrtle Thompson Curtis of Freedom Freedom Growers in Detroit, tagged their place, space, urban farm: “Grow a Garden Grow a community.” Many of us are grappling with giving meaning and substance through the practice of the words “spiritual needs & revolution”, “community”, as well as “healing & mending.”
Bill brings to today’s movement, the history of Phil and Dan Berrigan who acted as priests and Catholics in direct action. In this very personal account and relationship, Bill reminds us of an important thread of our foundations.
With the Catonsville action, they fused public protest/direct action/ nonviolent sabotage with prayer and liturgy. We see the equivalent being done by indigenous folk at Standing Rock and Line 3 Ceremony of drawing a sacred line, invoking the spirit.
Likewise in the Plowshares movement, they literalized and actualized Isaiah’s vision of nations beating swords into plowshares, and again making symbolic sabotage into poetic liturgy. Did this support and bless clericalism? Yes. It also implicated the church in the anti-war movement and raised questions about the theology of nonviolence only now being taken up fully in the church under Francis. In the wake of these, subsequent actions took meaning and moment from days and seasons of the liturgical year, deepening their political meanings.
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Between the “action communities’ discerning moments, and Dan’s closeness to the small communities of monasticism and the Catholic worker movement, his political vision put great emphasis on nonviolence and community, community as nonviolence. As we say in our visionary organizing and place-based organizing in Detroit—whether in the freedom schools, the urban farms, the emerging community land trusts, or community house movement—freedom, integrity, voice, and healing will only occur in the community and safe places.
As a Detroit community-labor activist and dreamer, I first met Bill Wylie Kellerman during the historic struggle and moment of resistance when General Motors, the City of Detroit, and the UAW joined together to remove more than 5000 people from the Poletown community to build an auto-plant. Another community was destroyed for “JOBS.” Dignity, family, and relationships were destroyed because our American Dream separates “Making a Living from Making a Life.”
Our social movements are a spiritual revolution in this epochal transition. Daniel Berrigan’s story is one of the most critical threads of society that we too often leave behind. Bill has made this come alive. Most readers will know some of the names but not the stories. Many readers have heard of Dorothy Day, A.J Muste, William Stringfellow, Thomas Merton, the Catholic Worker, and even Daniel and Philip Berrigan. Through poetry, letters, personal stories, family reflections, we learn the substance and courage of this stream. This thread has “broken the silence” through writing, creative non-violent actions, and lots of detailed planning. One of the sparks in the flame of our human and spiritual journey for meaning.
While I am not a great student of poetry, nor am I intricately linked to the religious worlds of either the Old or the New Testament, there is no doubt that as a parent I claimed my relationship to secular-humanism and Judaism. I have read Tikkun since the early days and my commitments, intellectually and spiritually have been deeply influenced by the actions of the draft resisters, the movement of non-violence nationally and internationally: From the Humanitarian Zones of Afro-Columbians to the Truth Toward Reconciliation Movements in South Africa or Greensboro, North Carolina and the boycott of the Palestinians against Israel and the continued occupation of Palestine.
I will share my reflections because I believe this book matters to many in this period of 21st-century movements. It comes at a time when the Movement for Black Lives has unleashed a global movement of more than 25 million people across the globe. A time when the Vietnam War has been followed by the drones, the war against the Palestinian people, and more than two decades of barbaric intervention by our government in Iraq, Yemen, and across the Middle East and North Africa. The war machine in the US is annually more than $721 billion.
Celebrant’s Flame: Daniel Berrigan in Memory and Reflection arrived in my house at a time when the potential of a truly multi-racial, multi-class, multi-generational movement continues to be emerging. While the book is much more than a history of our movement, it is a history uniting both the “big picture” of events with personal engagements because Daniel Berrigan made very personal choices at each stage in this journey. For those readers and for myself, that is what it means to be committed and engaged for a lifetime.
It is within this context that I uplift my mentors James and Grace Lee Boggs who often said, “We do not choose the world in which we live… we choose how we will respond to the world.” James Boggs reflected in Detroit’s Save our Sons and Daughter Newsletter, “What can we be that our Children can see?”
Bill has shared a history and a stream of one such value-based resistance which is both collective and individual. Bill shares with each of us a stream in the journey to creating a 21st-century river to reshape, rebuild, re-define, and reimagine our humanity, our relationships to each other and to the planet.
Daniel Berrigan did not fall from the sky. He chose his markers, his elders, his ancestors. There are numerous references to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the pastor & theologian who opposed, resisted the Nazi dictatorship and Hitler’s euthanasia programs, and the attempted genocide of the Jewish population. He was eventually arrested and hanged on April 9, 1945. From the references to the power of Bonhoeffer’s voice of resistance, we are reminded that one voice matters at both the moment of our struggle and as a stepping stone to our own moral courage, our own north star because our humanity is never separated from our relationships to each other, the past we uplift and the future upon which we roll or walk.
From posters to pictures of banners, some of us vaguely remember Catonsville Nine. Bill shares the planning, the purpose, paints the picture, and the reasons for this tactic and strategy to “break the silence,” create the theatre, to show that we are NOT powerless to respond to the violence, the barbarism of war. As an activist, Bill documents Daniel Berrigan’s deep, deep belief that his actions, his focus, his determination to express outrage and anger, is through “breaking the silence” as he and 8 others burned draft files to protest, resist the Vietnam War. They took 378 draft files, brought them to the parking lot in baskets, poured homemade napalm, and set them on fire. The trial and the prison time became opportunities for deepening commitment, and every place was a school for education and community building.
While Bill uplifts the struggle against the Vietnam War through the many actions, letters, gatherings and conversations of Daniel Berrigan, Bill shows that his work, his voice, through Dan’s journey is to make the connections, connect the dots: Why has it been so difficult for anti-Vietnam war activists to also side with and join the voices of the Palestinian people?
“No nation state is entitled to do anything more than skepticism. On the other hand, even people, considered just as people is an incredibly special case. Including the Palestinians, stuck in camps where wanton murder must surely recall special feeling… .Israelis are entitled to more compassion with every day that passes. Their leadership on the other hand— =- religious, military, or political—- is entitled to even more contempt. So are their American masters……”Celebrants Flame, 85
Bill shares little-known stories, writings, and letters throughout the book. He traces the evolution of Dan’s writings from the journey from Sharpeville to Selma (from his preaching in South Africa on Good Friday 1964) to “the content and context gathered together in “Spiritual Roots of Protest”— Daniel Berrigan and others from the Catholic left who were seeing no separation between the struggle against racism, and the struggle against colonialism. Retreats took place and others were initiated and not able to convene that included Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King, Bayard Rustin, Dorothy Day, Joan Baez, Vincent Harding, and Thich Naht Hanh. The Vietnam War escalated, the war against the Black Freedom movement intensified, King was assassinated in 1968 but not before MLK gave the speech: “Beyond Vietnam: Breaking the Silence”. A speech that in 2021 is to be finally read and heard in our country. Its roots go deep. The conversations go deep. Real people frame discussions and conversations. Thomas Merton brought folks together in 1964 to engage the question: “By what right do we protest?”
As a veteran of the 1960s social movements, I have often been asked the question: How do you keep so involved?. Bill Wylie Kellerman answers that question through the eyes, voice, actions, and love of his mentor, Daniel Berrigan. We surround ourselves with the spirit and love of our ancestors, and thus the foundations upon which we dream and work to turn violence and injustice into community, peace, relationships, dignity, and the Beloved Community.
Celebrant’s Flame nudges each of us searching for deeper answers for our own journey, whether part of the Catholic Left, the legacy and lineage of Daniel Berrigan matters to us all.
Review by Dean Hammer
Bill Wylie-Kellermann carries forward the Midrashic tradition passed down from Daniel Berrigan. The reader is invited to join the congregation gathered around The Celebrant’s Flame. This chronicle, a loving devotion from Bill, portrays the multifaceted ways Dan gifted so many people with his vibrancy, artistry, and wisdom. The shared reflections and memories require a personal level of engagement to reap their fruits. Bill’s transparency yields a fair warning: you (the reader) join the congregation at your own risk—this can be a life-changing experience. And be aware that this might lead you to a place you do not want to go (John 21:18).
After my first encounter with Dan in 1978 when he taught a poetry course at Yale University, we became traveling partners during the summer of 1980 for a “bible study” focused on Isaiah 2:4. The Celebrant’s Flame sets the table for a rich community dialogue that serves to illuminate a previously unformulated dimension of my relationship with Dan, Rabboni. The prophetic method (80) of Dan’s biblical scholarship and activism resonates deeply given the political resistance of my Hebrew namesake (Maccabee, the Hammer). Moreover, Dan identifies himself as a priest and as a Jew (90, 95) in his speech, “Covenant and Conquest”. Indeed, the narrative compiled in The Celebrant’s Flame exemplifies one who loved God with all his heart, soul, and strength. He lived the Shema and the Beatitudes, integrating contemplation and action, a key to engaging Dan’s hermeneutical form of midrash. Being touched by the Light of his life enflamed transformational experiences. The community gathered with this radical priest-rabbi led me to places unimaginable.
Bill’s artistry and acumen skillfully reflect Dan’s poetic prophecy and prophetic poetry. The testimony and memories create a mosaic—the poetry of Dan’s life embedded in his priesthood, his writing and speeches, and his public resistance to governmentally sanctioned violence. Often not an easy read, Dan summons the listener (159) to follow his example of integrating word and deed. When we confess as Bill does that Dan “moved our souls” (158), we will not receive the bounty of his wisdom until we also act on behalf of human decency and sane conduct (87). We are invited to join a community of resistance and service. Truly, Dan incarnated the Spirit that “quickens our imagination, and thereby our bodies and lives” (154). The Celebrant’s Flame profiles a life of moral courage and sacred service (28) and the community gathered in celebration of this beloved friend and mentor.
Dan’s Testimony: The Word Made Fresh (2004), a source of long-lasting embers, undergirds his life of exemplary witness and illuminates his ethic of resurrection. His unequivocal denunciation of killing gives us treasured clarity during these tumultuous and perplexing times: “There is no cause, however noble, which justifies the taking of a single human life, much less millions of them” (222). The poignant lessons from this wonderful rebbe impart critical guidance: “Courage is a verb: in other words, do it!” As we approach the seventy-sixth anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, may we follow Dan’s radical freedom and bring Isaiah’s oracle more fully into our present reality: “You shall beat swords into plowshares and study war no more.”
Berrigan, D. (2004). Testimony: The word made fresh. New York: Orbis Books.
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