When a Hero Dies

Dan Berrigan is dead at 94. A Jesuit priest and poet whose defiant protests helped to shape the tactics of opposition to the Vietnam War and landed him in prison. Along with his brother Philip (also a priest) a defining point was the public burning of Selective Service draft records in Catonsville, Md. Their action inspired protests, marches, sit ins, the public burning of draft records and other acts of civil disobedience across the nation.

photo of Dan Berrigan

In 1980 Daniel Berrigan was again arrested for taking part in the Plowshares raid on a General Electric missile plant in King of Prussian, Pa. Here Daniel and Philip and others rained hammer blows on missile warheads. They then poured a vile of their blood on the nosecones and waited to be arrested. In 2006 Daniel was again arrested for blocking the entrance to another nuclear missile facility. This is but a sample of their willingness to pay a price for their beliefs.

The Berrigan brothers actions were rooted in the Hebrew prophets and the teachings of Jesus. They took to heart the words of Isaiah:

“God shall judge between the nations and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’

The witness of the Berrigan brothers fueled debates around kitchen tables and in houses of worship. My politically conservative Dad argued with our pastor, Fred Buker about the Vietnam War. Fred was a veteran who had become a critic. The witness of the Berrigan’s angered my Dad and inspired our pastor. Such is the work of a prophet.

Dan and Philip Berrigan’s activism was rooted in the pages of Scripture as it was for Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr. and obscure figures like my childhood pastor. The words of Scripture, when taken to heart, have the ability to transform the hearer. To take us from selfishness to selflessness, from war mongering to peace, from fear to hope.

Some years ago I went to hear Daniel Berrigan, then in his 70’s. He said: “Tonight you are going to love what I have to say. And, you are going to be pissed off by what I have to say. The words however won’t be mine. You will be both inspired and angered by the words of Jesus and the prophets. You will be equally inspired and discomforted by the places these words can take you.”

photo of Dan Berigan as old man

Daniel Berrigan inspired and offended many within and beyond his Roman Catholic tradition. He inspired and at times pissed us off. Such is the work of a prophet.

Heroes come and go. The words of faith remain. Who among us will give voice to these ancient words? Who will take up the mantle of a prophet?

5 thoughts on “When a Hero Dies

  1. Not many people have the courage to stand for their beliefs in the face of almost everyone else. Why can’t we find men like him, sans the cleric collar, to run for office? There must be someone else like him among us

    1. Courage is to be admired, even when one disagrees. There are courageous women and men out there every day doing their good work. How do we tell their story? What does it look like for you and me to be courageous?

  2. Well said, as usual. Unfortunately, there will also be false prophets among us whose greatest claim to injustice is an insipid cry of “unfair!” because divergent voices are allowed at the ecclesiastical table (a biblical idea in itself). Those ones will join in the strident opposition of prophets like Berrigan and be the first in line to promote a crucifixion. Sound familiar?

  3. I was talking with a friend who grew up in the Roman Catholic tradition, even went to seminary for a few years…and hadn’t heard of Daniel Berrigan. Prophets make us uneasy. (Thanks Rob, for your comment and wisdom)

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