Not As The World Gives: gratitude for the peacemaking life of Daniel Berrigan

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you.”
–John 14:27

On the first Sunday in May, I woke early for prayer and final preparation of a dialogue sermon on peace. The text was to be John 14:23-29, with particular attention to verse 27. Jesus gifts his disciples with peace in the midst of the most frightening and dangerous of times. He bestows his peace in a way and with a substance radically different than the “peace” purportedly offered by the world.

Upon rising I received the news that Daniel Berrigan had died that Saturday, just short of his 95th birthday. I realized that Dan’s life was an extraordinary exposition of the peace of Jesus, lived out; a peace given “not as the world gives.” For Dan, peace was not just a goal or a tactic; it was “a way of living and being and expressing the truth of your soul in the world.” Dan manifested “the peace of Christ” wherever he was.

“A cherished teacher,” I wrote on my Facebook page. That he was, and a timely friend for me as well. More about that later.

Daniel Berrigan was born in rural Minnesota in 1921, the fifth of six sons. A member of the Society of Jesus for more than three-quarters of a century, he entered the order when he was but 18 years old. Dan was a pastor. He was a prophet. A theologian. The author of over 50 books. A remarkable teacher. An unreformed jailbird. An accompanier. A beater of swords into plowshares. An anti-nuclear activist. A truth-teller. A confronter of death. A builder of community. A lover of God’s people.

For many, Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J., became visible in the 1960’s in his public opposition to the Vietnam War. His behavior was a scandal to the church, and he was banished briefly to Latin America as punishment. The people there only deepened his resolve. In 1968, he and Howard Zinn traveled to Hanoi to retrieve American POW’s from North Vietnam, cowering under fierce American bombing and witnessing its massive destruction. Later that year, Dan, his brother Philip, and seven others confronted the madness of the war directly, removing hundreds of Selective Service records from the Catonsville, MD, Draft Board, and burning them in the parking lot with homemade napalm as they prayed. “Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house,” Daniel wrote; “We could not, so help us God, do otherwise.” Theirs was a radical act of freedom in Christ, born of God’s saving and revealing love, making visible the victims whose humble lives were being routinely extinguished, and breaking the coerced connection between young Americans drafted to take life and those whose lives were enjoined to theirs in God’s realm. It was the kind of faithful action that would be repeated often.

I first met Daniel Berrigan thirty years ago at the Peacemaker’s Reflection Center in Philadelphia, where I was part of a small community in which our peacemaking vocations were nurtured. I had recently returned from a short-term stint as a Witness for Peace volunteer in Nicaragua. As I recall, Dan came to offer an evening of poetry, inspiration, and encouragement.

But it was in the coming years, on the mountaintop at Kirkridge in northeastern Pennsylvania, that I participated actively in retreats led by Dan, his brother Philip, and sister-in-law Elizabeth McAlister. The Servant Songs of Isaiah; Mark’s Jesus bringing the power of God’s love into direct engagement with the power of death wielded by the titans of the world; the fledgling Christian community in Acts returning to the scene of love’s crime again and again, their lives given as testimony: each text came alive in new ways that revealed the God of peace. And so did I. My Duct Tape Bible is scrawled with numerous reflections, quotes, and insights from those gatherings. They have continued to nourish me over three decades, and to cast bright light on my path.

Returning to Kirkridge last week to honor Dan’s memory, I could see him in my mind’s eye: offering reflections on the text from carefully prepared notes, then inviting deep, dynamic explorations with room for the contributions of all who would dare, prompted by careful questions and an occasional (always rich) story. As I peeked into the meeting room, I recalled how we would reconfigure the space for worship and the sharing of the eucharist to close our time together. And our weekends would always include an evening of storytelling, song, and celebration. Dan loved to have a good time.

Dan is rightly recognized as a prophet for our times. He was just as much a pastor. In Dan, there was no separation between the two. His incredible book, We Die Before We Live: talking with the very ill, was my constant companion when I served as a chaplain in a cancer hospital. A later book, Sorrow Built a Bridge: friendship and AIDS, is likewise a treasure.

A compassionate and skilled listener, when Dan was caring for you, you were attended to, affirmed, and unfailingly challenged. He invited and encouraged deeper exploration of your vocation as human being, peacemaker, and companion of Jesus. And with each new venture he was embarking on came another invitation: “Join us!”

Not as the world gives do I give (my peace) to you. In the world we have been born into, everything must be “earned.” There are no real gifts. Your identity and worth are worked out in an imperial framework of servitude. “Peace” is purportedly achieved when foes are vanquished or eliminated. Solidarity is understood as uniting against someone, even lethally. The world’s distortions of “peace” are constantly enforced through violence and coercion. Violence is perversely seen as an agent of peace, rather than the subject of peace-making.

But Jesus says there is a far more authentic peace to be experienced, and a very different way to live ones life. This way of living and being is constantly in the service of God’s shalom. Self and others are experienced as divine gift, and the value of each is non-negotiable. Nobel Peace laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire saw this life incarnate in Dan: “Father Dan was a man of great courage, whose life touched millions, not only through his writings but especially by his actions. His message was delivered with great clarity and based on his passionate belief in the power of the Gospel of Nonviolence and Jesus’ message of no killing and love of enemies.”

One of the most striking qualities of Dan’s practice of peace was his constant and searing fidelity to the truth.
As much as anyone I have known, Dan understood that without such truth there is no peace. He named the sin of war. He called out the idolatry of nuclear weapons. He recognized and embraced the whole people of God.

The Catonsville Nine statement continued in this vein:
‘”For we are sick at heart; our hearts give us no rest for thinking of the Land of Burning Children and for thinking of that other Child of whom the poet Luke speaks. The infant was taken up in the arms of an old man whose tongue grew resonant and vatic at the touch of that beauty. And the old man spoke: this child is set for the fall and rise of many in Israel, a sign that is spoken against. Small consolation: a child born to make trouble and to die for it; the first Jew (not the last) to be subject to a “definitive solution.” And so we stretch out our hands to our brothers throughout the world, we who are priests to our fellow priests. All of us who act against the law turn to the poor of the world, to the Vietnamese, to the victims , to the soldiers who kill and die for the wrong reasons, for no reason at all, because they were so ordered of that public order which is in effect a massive institutionalized disorder. We say, “Killing is disorder; life and gentleness and community and unselfishness is the only order we recognize.”

It was in the wake of the initial Plowshares action at King of Prussia and those that closely followed, that I met first Dan and then Philip and Elizabeth. Acts of sanity and conscience; incarnate investment in a different future, where God’s dreams are realized. “We humans are not misbegotten progeny, children of the curse.  We need not rape and kill–one another, mother earth, earthly father, anyone.  Born as we are, helpless, vulnerable , weaponless, we need not become subjects of the new biology of violence; those who are sprung, fully sccoutred, warriors from dragon’s teeth, the “compleat humans.”  Out ikons are other.  We are the disarmed daughters and sons of a disarmed God, who in Christ, bares Himself, body and blood, to the deterrent powers of this world.  And so disarms death itself.”

I was ordained as a Pastor in January of 1991, not long after the birth of my daughter Corinne. It was a time of wonder and gladness, but shrouded in the dark clouds of the first Gulf War, “Desert Storm,” which began the same week. I had sent Dan an invitation to the ordination, not anticipating his physical presence but wanting to include him and appreciatively invoke the role he had played in my nurture. Shortly thereafter a handwritten note arrived, sent from Virginia where Dan was leading a retreat. Lamenting what he described as “the petrified forest of flags,” he wrote: “I thought of Corinne and of Scott’s ordination and took heart. Hell is pushed back and back by a gentle countering of love. For you all one gives heartfelt thanks.” Living water from one who truly believed the words of the apostle: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God’s purpose.”

Dan was also present for me during an anguished time in my life, when my marriage was collapsing and I was consumed with grief. He sent me a message of encouragement, reminding me of the gracious power even then at work in my life. ‘It will be enough,” he said.
In the corner of the page was one of his poems, “Domestic Weather Report:”

No great miracles for us
Not even small ones,
nothing of the sort.
(They’re incognita, lunar.)
Omega doesn’t walk here, even anonymous.)

From my brothers, my friends
I come upon a dark clue–
eyes that see,
ears taking note,
the heart heard from,
the tongue, a prisoner of conscience
learning truthful words, and
expedient, silence.

Thus (eventual!) the human, difficult, step by step, hard won

I have returned to this poem many times,  taking it to heart in significant ways.   I think one of Daniel’s greatest lessons to me (and I would include Philip and Elizabeth here) has been in teaching me to face and  enter willingly into the realm of death, infused with the power of God’s love, and knowing it to be–in my own experience and expression–the greatest power, the power for life; far greater than death’s power.  Not as the world gives. 

Peace means getting into the right kind of trouble.  That is something I have been teaching young people I pastor, to the best of my ability, for many years.  There is  still room for considerable improvement, I am  sure!  There are lives of fidelity to point the way, and a text whose wells do not run dry.

One spring I attended a retreat at Kirkridge with Dan leading solo. The Acts of the Apostles was our terrain.  Dan asserted that the 28th Chapter was not in any way the end of the story. “The book is still open,” he insisted, with new chapters of faithfulness being written each day in the lives of people such as those of us gathered on the mountaintop. This was a textured insight, deeply interwoven with the gospels and with the new community born of Jesus’ resurrection.  Into a world that believes death always has the last word, healing and new life rise in manifold ways, “breaking the box.”

I remember with great delight our examination of the apostles’ ministry, and their repeated jailings–by both religious and government authorities– for proclaiming the resurrection power of God in Christ and for engaging a resolute ministry of healing in his name.  Released the first time with threats of dire consequences if they continued, they of course did and were imprisoned again, the cell door firmly locked. That night, an angel of God came and opened the prison doors, bringing them out and instructing them to do it again: “Go and stand in the temple and speak to the people the words of Life!” And so they did.  Dan named their liberator “the angel of recidivism!”  Several chapters later, King Herod “laid violent hands” upon the church, killing the apostle James and arresting Peter.  Once again, the angel came to the closely guarded Peter,  freeing him from the chains that bound him, and reminding Peter of  Jesus’ commission of him on the Galilean seashore .  Peter put on his belt and allowed himself to be led.  The story continues. Could God’s angel, the “angel of recidivism,” be coming to us as well?

We, too, are to embrace the scandal of a love that knows no end, and each of us is to become a deep expression of that love.  Daniel Berrigan has been such an expression.

At Dan’s funeral, Elizabeth McAlister read and claimed Dan’s words from Catonsville: “We have chosen to say, with the gift of our liberty, if necessary, our lives:  the violence stops here, the death stops here, the suppression of truth stops here, the war stops here!”  Amen!  A commission to the Church of Jesus Christ in the 21st century.  And for every “No,” a life in community that sings “Yes” to God each and every day.