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Daniel Joseph Berrigan, S.J. (May 9, 1921 – April 30, 2016), was an American Jesuit priest, anti-war activist, and poet.
Like many others during the 1960s, Berrigan’s active protest against the Vietnam War earned him both scorn and admiration, but it was his participation in the Catonsville Nine that made him famous. It also landed him on the FBI’s “most Wanted list” (the first-ever priest on the list), on the cover of TIME magazine, and in prison. His own particular form of militancy and radical spirituality in the service of social and political justice was significant enough, at that time, to “shape the tactics of resistance to the Vietnam War” in the United States.
For the rest of his life, Berrigan remained one of the US’s leading anti-war activists. In 1980, he founded the Plowshares Movement, an anti-nuclear protest group that put him back into the national spotlight. He was also an award-winning and prolific author of some 50 books, a teacher, and a university educator.
Berrigan was devoted to the Catholic Church throughout his youth. He joined the Jesuits directly out of high school in 1939 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1952.
Berrigan, his brother and Josephite priest Philip Berrigan, and Trappist monk Thomas Merton founded an interfaith coalition against the Vietnam War, and wrote letters to maj or newspapers arguing for an end to the war. In 1967, Berrigan witnessed the public outcry that followed from the arrest of his brother Philip, for pouring blood on draft records as part of the Baltimore Four. Phillip was sentenced to six years in prison for defacing government property. The fallout he had to endure from these many interventions, including his support for prisoners of war and, in 1968, seeing firsthand the conditions on the ground in Vietnam, further radicalized Berrigan, or at least strengthened his determination to resist American military imperialism. Berrigan traveled to Hanoi with Howard Zinn during the Tet Offensive in January 1968 to receive three American airmen, the first American POWs released by the North Vietnamese since the U.S. bombing of that nation had begun.
In 1968, he signed the Writers and Editors War Tax Protest pledge, vowing to refuse to make tax payments in protest of the Vietnam War. In the same year, he was interviewed in the anti- Vietnam War documentary film In the Year of the Pig, and later that year became involved in radical non-violent protest.
“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.”
Daniel Berrigan and his brother Philip, along with seven other Catholic protesters, used homemade napalm to destroy 378 draft files in the parking lot of the Catonsville, Maryland, draft board on May 17, 1968. This group, which came to be known as the Catonsville Nine, issued a statement after the incident: “We confront the Roman Catholic Church, other Christian bodies, and the synagogues of America with their silence and cowardice in the face of our country’s crimes. We are convinced that the religious bureaucracy in this country is racist, is an accomplice in this war, and is hostile to the poor.”
Berrigan was arrested and sentenced to three years in prison, but went into hiding with the help of fellow radicals prior to imprisonment. While on the run, Berrigan was interviewed for Lee Lockwood’s documentary The Holy Outlaw. The FBI apprehended him at the home of William Stringfellow and sent him to prison. He was released in 1972.
In retrospect, the trial of the Catonsville Nine was significant because it “altered resistance to the Vietnam War, moving activists from street protests to repeated acts of civil disobedience, including the burning of draft cards.” As The New York Times noted in its obituary: Berrigan’s actions helped “shape the tactics of opposition to the Vietnam War.”
On September 9, 1980, Berrigan, his brother Philip, and six others (the “Plowshares Eight”) began the Plowshares Movement. They trespassed onto the General Electric nuclear missile facility in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, where they damaged nuclear warhead nose cones and poured blood onto documents and files. They were arrested and charged with over ten different felony and misdemeanor counts. ()n April 10, 1990, after ten years of appeals, Berrigan’s group was re-sentenced and paroled for up to 23 and 1/2 months in consideration of time already served in prison. Their legal battle was re-created in Emile de Antonio’s 1982 film In the King of Prussia, which starred Martin Sheen and featured appearances by the Plowshares Eight as themselves.
Although much of his later work was devoted to assisting AIDS patients in New York City, Berrigan still held to his activist roots throughout his life. He maintained his opposition to
American interventions abroad, from Central America in the 1980s, through the Gulf War in 1991, the Kosovo War, the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, and the 2003 invasion of Iraq. He was also an anti-abortion activist and opponent of capital punishment, a contributing editor of Sojourners, and a supporter of the Occupy movement.