Dec. 08, 2010
National Catholic Reporter
Phil Berrigan’s Advent vision
by John Dear SJ
Every December 6th, my friends and I take time to remember Philip
Berrigan, the legendary anti-nuclear activist who died eight years
ago. This week five friends are taking Phil’s advent vision of peace
into court as they stand trial in
Plowshares disarmament action at the Trident Nuclear Submarine base in
The members of the “Disarm Now Plowshares” group -- Jesuit Fr. Bill
Bichsel, Susan Crane, Lynne Greenwald, Jesuit Fr. Steve Kelly, and
Society of the Sacred Heart Sr. Anne Montgomery -- all face charges of
“Conspiracy, Trespass, Destruction of Property on a Naval Installation
and Depredation of Government Property” and the possibility of many
years in prison.
“On Nov. 2, 2009, we remembered the words of the prophet Isaiah, who
had a vision of beating swords into plowshares, converting weapons of
war into something useful for human life,” co-defendant Susan Crane
said in a Dec. 2 pre-trial hearing at
“It is our firm understanding that these Trident nuclear weapons are
illegal under national and international law, as well as the teachings
of our faith, and general humanitarian law and conscience.”
The Trident submarine base at
is home to the largest single stockpile of nuclear warheads in the
U.S. arsenal, housing more than 2,300 nuclear warheads. The government
will probably not allow the defendants to offer a “necessity defense”
-- or even discuss the illegality and insanity of nuclear weapons --
so we expect our friends to be sent off to prison.
I’m sure the government and the military understand these actions all
too well and fear the power of the peace movement in general. They
vehemently suppress every outbreak of truth and discourage everyone
from working for disarmament. In order to maintain the unjust status
quo they have to.
The government’s secret concerns came to light this weekend in
documents leaked by WikiLeaks.
Part of the latest round of documents released by the international
organization was a lengthy cable from the U.S. Ambassador to
expressing his worries over the acquittal of five Plowshares activists
The activists had hammered on a
while it was refueling at
peace movement and hurt the government’s war effort. As Howard Zinn
movements which refuse to disappear.
Phil Berrigan would rejoice that good people continue to stand up for
nuclear disarmament and pay the price. As a member of the first
Plowshares group and five more afterwards, Phil spent over eleven
years of his life in prison. For those of us who knew him, Phil was
another John the Baptist -- a one man truth force, a source of grave
concern to governments and empires.
As we read in this week’s Advent readings, John the Baptist “prepared
the way” for the Christ and his reign of peace. Phil did his best to
carry on that mission. He too prepared the way -- by heralding a new
world without nuclear weapons or war.
“The disarmament of our nuclear weapons needs to be a priority for
us,” Phil told me when I formally interviewed him in 1992.
“Peacemaking needs to be our priority. Peacemaking is not only a
central characteristic of the Gospel; it is the greatest need of the
“We all have to take responsibility for the Bomb,” he continued. “The
fact that we are complicit in the presence of the Bomb, because we
help pay for it and allow its deployment and possible use -- and we
have threatened to use it at least 25 times unilaterally during the 47
years of the Cold War -- destroys us spiritually, morally,
psychologically, emotionally and humanly, in a broad general sense.”
“We have to continue resisting war and nuclear weapons as long as we
live,” Phil said.
can't maintain a superpower status unless you are armed to the teeth.
permanent war economy -- because to do otherwise is to change the
status quo and redistribute the wealth. The last people who want to do
that are the one/two-hundredth who control thirty-seven percent of
what the country produces. We need to keep resisting this business of
The trial of the “Disarm Now Plowshares” group in
17th anniversary of my own Plowshares disarmament action.
At 4 a.m., Dec. 7, 1993, Lynn Fredriksson, Bruce Friedrich, Phil
Berrigan and I walked onto the
nuclear-capable F-15 Eagle fighter jet to fulfill Isaiah’s vision.
I spent eight months in a tiny cell with Phil before I was released.
Those were certainly the most painful -- and most blessed -- months of
my life. We never left our cell, never went outdoors, and rarely saw
anyone. We created a monastic routine -- up at 6 a.m. for a three hour
bible study, followed by reading the mail, lunch, writing articles,
nap time, reading, dinner, and letter writing.
I especially remember Christmas week 1993. During the first two months
of our imprisonment we weren’t allowed any books, not even a Bible, so
we just sat and talked for days on end.
One day, I asked Phil to tell us the story of his life. He talked for four days.
Bruce and I literally sat at his feet as he told story after story --
from his childhood as the youngest of six boys; his experience as a
soldier in World War II; his years at the College of the Holy Cross;
his entrance into the Josephites; his service as a priest in New
Orleans, Newburgh, and Baltimore; his failed attempt to join the
Freedom Riders; and his friendships with his brother Dan, Thomas
Merton, and others.
Phil told us the details of his part in the
October, 1967, he was arrested for pouring blood on draft records with
three others at the
Phil also told us of his part in the
1968, along with his brother Daniel and seven others, he entered the
U.S. recruiting center in Catonsville, Maryland, took out draft
records, walked to the parking lot, poured homemade napalm on them,
and burned them; and how he survived those initial years in prison.
I remember my amazement as he spoke of landing, ironically, in the
same cell group with Jimmy Hoffa, who threatened the others if any
harm came to Fr. Phil.
We also discussed the
others went on trial in
charges which claimed they were going to kidnap then-National Security
Advisor Henry Kissinger and bomb heating tunnels.
Phil discussed the long trial and eventual acquittal, one of the first
in an anti-war case.
When Phil first heard that he was now facing a penalty of life in
prison for the (false) charges, he told us he was devastated. But
after a few hours, he said he made peace with that prospect and
regained his composure.
Phil spoke of founding the Jonah House resistance community in
decades -- along with their great children Frida, Jerry and Kate and
their friends -- resisting war, organizing civil disobedience actions,
serving the local poor, and speaking out for disarmament. Later, Phil
wrote his autobiography, Fighting the Lamb’s War -- a book well worth reading.
Those were exhilarating hours. Bruce and I almost forgot we were in
prison. We felt energized, as if we were listening to John the Baptist
share his personal story. Phil told us his journey to peace and
encouraged us to stay faithful to our own journeys.
Phil was arrested again Dec. 19, 2000. He was part of Plowshares vs.
Depleted Uranium, a group of activists who hammered and poured blood
on two A-10 Warthog aircraft at a National Guard base in
When Phil was released from prison in early 2002 he limped from pain
in his hip. That spring, he had a hip replacement. It never quite
healed. Then, in October, we learned he had cancer.
During his last week with us, thirty relatives and friends kept vigil
near his bedside at Jonah House. That week was one of the most moving
and powerful experiences of our lives. In the midst of our grief, the
spirit of faith, hope and love that grew around Phil was the strongest
I have ever experienced. Until the end, Phil was teaching us how to make peace.
“We have to have peace,” he said. “And we don't have much of it yet.
We don't have a peaceful relationship with the environment or with one
another or with other nations and that means that we are really at war
with God. If we can't handle the exquisite creation that God has
entrusted to us in stewardship, if we can't have a peaceful and just
relationship with creation and with one another, how can we have a
solid relationship with God?”
As our friends stand trial in
this Advent, the voice of Philip Berrigan still cries out in the
American wilderness, urging us to do what we can to abolish war and nuclear weapons.
Pray, organize, speak out, take nonviolent risks, and stay faithful to
the peacemaking Christ and his reign of peace, he would say.
With the shining example of Philip Berrigan who lives on in our
hearts, we too can proclaim the Advent vision of John the Baptist.
nonviolence is at hand!”
Advent is a good time to recommit ourselves to that message, journey,
and vision of peace.