Anarchist priests and establishment Christians.

During the last few weeks, I’ve been studying the life of Fr. Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest who, somehow, has managed to hold together the in his own life the words “faithful” and “anarchy.”  Throughout the 1960’s, and still today, Father Berrigan has confronted the broken and awful possibilities of world destruction, first as a nonviolent protestor of the Vietnam war and then for all manner of causes related to universal peace, especially regarding nuclear arms.  He has done this through ultraresistance and nonviolent actions, by taking literally Isaiah’s prophesy of turning swords into ploughshares – taking mass arms and reshaping them into tools of peace – by spilling his own blood on weapons and the steps of the Pentagon, and most famously, by participating in the Catonsville 9 action in which he and 8 other faithful Catholics, lay and clergy, burned Selective Service files with homemade napalm.  But for him, poetry, the shaping of words into indictments and love-filled lamentations or hope, has been central to his calling.  In Vietnam, risking his own self to release American flyers in direct opposition to the order of his own superiors in the Church, Berrigan wrote this as he ducked into bunkers as American bombers straifed the area in which he was working:

I picked up the littlest/ a boy, his face/ breaded with rice (his sister calmly feeding him/ as we climbed down)/ In my arms fathered/ in a moment’s grace, the messiah/ of all my tears.  I bore, reborn/ a Hiroshima child from hell.

Aside from the stringent, stark beauty of the words, there is a heaviness of sensation, of presence, something that couldn’t have described in any other way the experience of that moment of huddling behind broken concrete with the whine and thud of bombers going over head, holding a child with the face of the savior.  The words do something no activism could have.  I have a weakness for people who are both poets and activists.  I think Jesus was a poet.  I think, too, of Thomas Merton, Teresa of Avila, Ammon Hennacy, Ani DiFranco, Dr. King, Toni Morrison, Allan Ginsberg… people with a sense of the spirit, a gift for ruthless beauty, and a challenging, hopeful voice ringing into the darkest corridors. The list is endless, certainly.  It seems like people who want to change the world, even in some small way, often wrestle with how to articulate that change, and the pain that comes before and during transformation, in words, symbols, and color.  The chaos of the real, lived, intense, immediate world seems like it can only be organized and captured, a snapshot, in poetry.  Timely, yet simultaneously timeless.  On one hand, this (like all art) creates emotion and connection in a way nothing else does.  Symbol is precious.  I experience the same intense magic (if I dare use that word here) in the offering the bread and cup during communion.  Simple juice, basic grain, but holding universes of meaning, worlds of transformation.  “This is my body… do this in remembrance of me…” These are not only words, but also performative.  They create even as they simply “are.”  Being and doing are simultaneous in them.  And yet, they are specific to an experience, universal but still meaningful to context, time, place, setting, circumstance.

This is what amazes me about people like Father Berrigan.  In a world where we ask all the time, “But what can we do?” he, and others like him, remind us to ask as well, what can we be?  The Catonsville 9 stated that their crime, for which they were imprisoned, was that they burned papers rather than children.  That simple, 15 minute action, during which they spread napalm on draft cards, lit a match, and then joined hands and prayed the Our Father, peacefully submitting themselves to arrest, wasn’t really doing anything.  They didn’t stop anything, start anything, change anything, do anything in the sense that we think of as being “productive.”  But the poetry of their action was a powerful catalyst for other people’s view of the Vietnam war.  They simply were: the Our Father was performed.  Your Kingdom come.  Your will be done.  On earth, as it is in heaven.  These things happened, the Will was done, simply by being stated.  When we say that prayer, when we live in that poetry, the Kingdom is here, despite the fact that it appears not to be the case.  We put hoped-for alongside with already-is.  And so with the 9.  By standing witness and putting things into juxtaposition that would otherwise never have been associated in that way (the definition of metaphor, I imagine, and the central tenet of Jesus’ parabolic teaching), they managed to alter the course of an entire government, one heart and mind at a time.  I know the Catonsville 9, and Daniel Berrigan in particular, are not soley responsible for changing how an entire country feels about a war, but I recognize in them the real power of living and acting poetically.  Perhaps when no one will listen to reason, art (performance, poetry, prayer) is the only weapon for peace that we really have.  To live and witness to truth and whole-ness with a sense of the poetic, the symbolic, the parabolic, perhaps that is what changes history.

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2 Comments »

  1. Chrissy Joy Said:

    Jules, I love you….. but I have to admit I often skim your blog due to brain fog, lack of attention, medication induced comas. But I love what you are saying from what I can read. Keep it up, and I hope to see you soon!

  2. Jay Said:

    Jules,
    This is exactly the lack of balance that led to my discontinuing my blog two years or so ago. I’m glad to have yours to read now. The balance issue, as you said, is something everyone deals with – some more effectively than others. Self-care is always among the first things to go, exercise, eating right (the nearest drive thru is ALWAYS so much easier, faster, and I can multi-task by eating in my car!). The first thought that came to my mind when you wrote of Jesus’ intentionality was that Jesus didn’t have to read five books a week, write two papers, do a small group project mostly by email and TRY to hang out with friends and family. But then, he DID have to save the world! I guess that counts.


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