Peace activist Daniel Berrigan dies at 94

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May 01, 2016 Peace activist Daniel Berrigan dies at 94

In April 1999, I joined my key peace teacher and friend Jun Yasuda and other peace marchers at the last day of a New York prison peace walk, for several hours across from the United Nations, praying and drumming for peace and holding banners for peace. There, I met a woman who told me about sometimes spending time at Jonah House, a peace community in Baltimore. I had heard of Jonah House, and had been interested in meeting the people there, including Philip Berrigan, who with his brother Dan led the 1968 Catonsville Nine burning of military draft records in the days before computers easily kept such information backed up in the cloud . She gave me their e-mail contact, and I got on Jonah House’s e-mailing list. By the end of that year, not only did I meet everyone at Jonah House, but I joined with lawyers Ramsey Clark and Anabel Dwyer to  defend at a multi-day Baltimore County jury trial four Plowshares activists for hammering on two warplanes, with two of the defendants living at Jonah House, those being Susan Crane and Philip Berrigan.

Phil passed away nearly three years after the trial, and at his well-attended wake, next to Phil’s open casket, I finally met his brother Father Daniel Berrigan — who passed away April 30 at 94 years old — receiving me and everyone else who approached as openly and warmly as if nobody had died. I was not sure whether Dan’s upbeat approach at the wake arose from non-dualism, a recognition that he was standing only next to Phil’s body from which his soul had already departed, a choice to focus on Phil’s continuing to live on through those who knew him and his deeds, a sense of duty or religious tradition at wakes (my having only attended three wakes), or a combination of the foregoing and other reasons. An article a dozen years later paints a different story: “When asked about the highs and lows of his life, [Dan’s] head turns reverently to the chair to describe the lowest of lows, the loss of his brother [Phil] to a sudden sickness a few years back.

Dan’s and Phil’s story was all the more captivating by their having been peace activist priests when so many of their colleagues remained safely at their pulpits, with the Berrigan brothers putting themselves repeatedly at risk of arrest and spending plenty of time in prison (see here also). Dan provided intellectual muscle behind his pacifist and other social justice activism. Phil’s own story was even more captivating when considering his metamorphosis from a World War II combat veteran to a hardcore peace activist, and his marriage begun in 1969 and legalized in 1973, when still a priest, to then-Catholic nun  Elizabeth McAlister, whom I also know. Also joining the brotherly practice of peace activism and arrests was older brother Jerry Berrigan, who himself started on the road towards priesthood, but ultimately changed paths before approaching any vow taking.

Although not a full pacifist, and certainly never compelled to pursue unlawful means of protest — although I was threatened with arrest in 1991 if I did not obtain a demonstration permit when the Senate debated authorizing George Bush I to launch Gulf War I — I am nevertheless inspired by Dan’s and Phil’s principled and single-minded devotion to peace and justice. I met my own key peace mentor Jun Yasuda when struggling internally over what I saw as a terribly premature Gulf War I, while the lawyer at the office next to mine had a yellow ribbon prominently displayed. So I joined the second weekend’s march for peace, viewing the first weekend’s as having too radical an agenda and message for me that extended beyond ending Gulf War I; and I frequently visited the peace activists at Lafayette Park during lunchtime, across from the White House and two blocks from my then office.

Whereas my teacher Jun Yasuda, who does not make efforts to get arrested, is focused on her commitment to peace rather than swaying large numbers, Dan’s New York Times obituary says he turned to his religious devotion when exclaiming “This is the worst time of my long life” with 2008’s diminished peace movement.

Dan’s family’s statement after his passing includes: “We see the future in [Dan] – his commitment to making the world a little more human, a little more truthful.”

Sending thanks and prayers to Dan and his family.


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