Review of Jim Forest, At Play In The Lion’s Den: A Biography and Memoir of Daniel Berrigan
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This book is the biography of an intellectual who moved from orthodoxy (right belief) to orthopraxis (right practice). There have been such changes before, notably that of Karl Marx, who remarked that hitherto, philosophers had sought to understand the world, but the time had come to change it. Daniel Berrigan, an American Jesuit priest, could not have agreed more.
His time was the Vietnam War. Estimates vary as to the size of the casualties of that war. Wikipedia puts the total death toll at about 3,000,000. The North Vietnamese Army reckoned it lost 1,100, 000. An estimated 85,000 children were killed. America then possessed more wealth than the rest of the world combined. Daniel Berrigan and his brother, Philip, also a Catholic priest, thought that the USA was crushing a tiny South East Asian country.
Daniel Berrigan was awakened from his dogmatic slumbers by Dorothy Day, a Gandhi like figure, who had been working with colleagues in American slums for decades. She lived as though the Gospels were true, wrote Berrigan. His former academic colleagues consisted of people who, he remarked, were experts on Christianity, but were not thorough-going Christians. Berrigan, influenced by Dorothy Day and the mystic Thomas Merton, had become a Christian revolutionary.
What gave high moral high ground to his position was that after the French defeat in Indo China, it had been part of the peace agreement that, after a year, an election would be held about the reunification of Vietnam. The Saigon Government, and its backers in the USA, refused to let that happen, since they were afraid that they might lose. The Government in the North then began to send troops to the South, which lost them some of the moral high ground.
American involvement in the war steadily escalated, which involved more and more bombing. Daniel Berrigan’s brother, Philip, who had been a soldier in World War II, had seen the bombed out cities in Europe, and had a fair idea of what was happening on the ground. There had been mass demonstrations in American cities, but they seemed to be ineffectual, so something else was deemed necessary. Daniel, his brother, plus seven other people, broke into a government office in Catonsville, near Baltimore, Maryland, seized draftee records, and burned them in the car park outside.
People in the peace movement were worried about the destruction of government property and that a protective clerk had to be manhandled out of the way. The court case became a national sensation. Daniel Berrigan, a poet, turned the courtroom into a theater, and the Berrigan brothers got onto the cover of Time magazine. They also got imprisoned for 6 years. However, Daniel’s health deteriorated in jail, and the authorities, afraid that he might die there, released him on health grounds after 18 months. His brother had to wait three and a half years for parole.
In the practice of civil disobedience, tactics are everything. One interesting idea was to make a citizen’s arrest of Henry Kissinger, since, it was alleged, he was complicit in crimes against humanity. The FBI got wind of the plan, and arrested the Berrigans and their associates on the charge of conspiracy. The judge dismissed the case, since there was no evidence that there had been a decision to go ahead with it.
Other things they did was hold a vigil in front of Henry Kissinger’s house, attempt to dig graves on the White House lawn, and, after the war, when they were protesting about nuclear weapons, plant trees around nuclear delivery sites. But it was the sheer weight of dissent, manifest in the continual street demonstrations, which tore at the nation’s heart.
On another point, Berrigan remarked of his long years in civil disobedience:
the plain fact is that our nation, along with its nuclear cronies, is quite prepared to thrust enormous numbers of humans into furnaces fiercely stacked. (p.287)
Those engaged in non-violent resistance were always heartened by their conviction that what they were doing was right. Despite Berrigan’s disclaimer, he did get results. It has been plausibly argued that he stopped the draft. And the antinuclear campaigns reinforced the American negotiators at the Pugwash conferences with the Soviets directed at the reduction of nuclear weapons. Forest, the author of the book, notes:
I have never been seriously interested in outcomes...The good is to be done, because it is good, not because it goes somewhere. (p. 309)
There are many partial democracies where nonviolent methods would be appropriate. Hong Kong is an obvious example, but there are other equally obvious ones in South East Asia. The world is still waiting for nonviolent Muslim revolutionaries. Remembering Thomas Merton’s role as a mentor of Daniel Berrigan, one wonders whether the Sufis might play some part in it.
Just months before Dan's heart stopped beating, the Vatican hosted a global meeting of peacemakers who proposed that it was time to bury the just war doctrine and focus instead on non-violent methods of conflict resolution and what makes for a just peace...Dan helped speed the day when Christians, whether Catholic or otherwise, could no longer attach the adjectives ‘just’ or ‘holy’ to the word ‘war.’ (p.301)
Berrigan’s biographer, Jim Forest, was a long-time close friend; hence, the book is also a memoir. Such friendship may have affected Forest’s objectivity, but, on the other hand, he was a witness at some of the most important events in Berrigan’s life. Given what Berrigan was doing, it would have been difficult to get everything right all the time. He makes mistakes, which Forest mentions.