On The Passing of Daniel Berrigan

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Imam Zaid Shakir


Posted Posted on 2016-05-06

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April 30, 2016 witnessed the passing of Daniel Berrigan. Daniel Berrigan, along with his brother, Philip, both ordained priests, are among the most recognizable names in the history of protest against American military imperialism. One of the distinctions of the Berrigan Brothers was the strong spiritual basis of their activism. They had a “staying power” that is rare among many who wade into the murky waters of dissent and civil disobedience. The source of that staying power is clear in the following statement, spoken by Daniel Berrigan: “The short fuse of the American left is typical of the highs and lows of American emotional life. It is very rare to sustain a movement in recognizable form without a spiritual base.” It was his dedication to the life of the spirit that sustained a lifetime of activism.

In 1964, the Berrigan Brothers formed the Catholic Peace Fellowship, inspired by French activists who had been working against the French occupation of Indo China.  This was the beginning of their anti-war activism. They were instrumental in shaping the American anti-war movement, which at that time, was focused on ending the Viet Nam War, and they were directly involved in one of the movement’s iconic moments, the burning of 378 military draft files with homemade napalm outside a military administrative building in Catonsville, Maryland, May 17, 1968. That action catalyzed the movement and marked a turning point in the creation of a critical mass that would eventually make the war too unpopular to continue to prosecute. 

Daniel Berrigan’s anti-war activism did not end with the close of the war in Viet Nam. In 1980, the Berrigan Brothers, along with others, founded the Plowshares Movement to work towards the elimination of nuclear weapons. One of the most widely publicized actions undertaken by members of the movement was their breaking into a nuclear weapons production facility in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, destroying several nuclear bomb nose-cones and pouring blood onto records and files. They were literally “beating swords into plowshares.”

At this critical time of insecurity and transition, both of which feed the escalating militarization of our country and culture, it is absolutely imperative that we take up the anti-war work so nobly embraced by Daniel Berrigan. It is easy to criticize the likes of ISIS or Boko Haram for their barbarity, but what about the barbaric depravity of our own country? That barbarity is prominently displayed in the illegal invasions and occupations we have undertaken, the extrajudicial assassinations, the collateral damage, which euphemistically hides the thousands of innocent civilians murdered by our bombs and drones, the extraordinary renditions, and, finally, the torture, which our presidential candidates so flippantly promise to increase.

Yes, as American Muslims, we are challenged to do everything in our power to beat back the threat of criminals who perpetrate heinous crimes in the name of Islam. Similarly, members of other religious communities are challenged to stop the crimes being committed by our country, if not directly in the name of Christianity or Judaism, then certainly in the name of the civic religion. Daniel Berrigan, perhaps more than any other figure in the recent history of this country, possessed both the courage and moral authority to raise this issue when he said, “We confront the Roman Catholic Church, and other Christian bodies, and the synagogues of America with their silence and cowardice in the face of our country’s crimes.” As those crimes are increasingly ignored or callously rationalized, we are reminded of just how much the voice of Daniel Berrigan will be missed.


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