Dan Berrigan’s 100th Birthday/Mother’s Day

This was a message delivered on May 9, 2021, at Dayspring Church in Germantown, Maryland. You can also listen to the audio version. NOTE: Dayspring Church does not have a pastor but uses a shared leadership model in which anyone can sign up to be liturgist, offer a youth message, or preach on any given Sunday. -Bill Samuel

In thinking about possibly speaking this morning, I first looked at the lectionary readings for today. I saw material I could work with. But I didn’t make my decision until after I got an email letting me know that today would have been the 100th birthday of Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan, who died less than two weeks before his 95th birthday. And I’m also aware that this is Mother’s Day, which I’ll explain does tie into work for peace.

I’m going to focus a lot on quotes and the life of Dan Berrigan. I think it is helpful to look at the lives of those who, in the words of our Members’ Commitment, “unreservedly and with abandon” commit their lives and destiny to Christ.

I didn’t know Dan Berrigan personally. However, I was at the wedding of his brother Phil, which took place while Dan was on the FBI’s Most Wanted List. FBI agents lined the back wall of the church, hoping that Dan would show up for his brother’s wedding so they could arrest him. However, he didn’t. Dan did serve on the Advisory Board of the Consistent Life Network, on whose Board I have long served and which I served as President for 12 years.

Dan came to public attention as a member of the Catonsville Nine, nine Catholic activists who went to the draft board in Catonsville, Maryland on May 17, 1968, where they burned draft files. His famous quote after participating in that action was:

Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children. How many must die before our voices are heard, how many must be tortured, dislocated, starved, maddened? When, at what point, will you say no to this war?

While Berrigan went underground, he was captured by the FBI in 1970 and served time in federal prison until 1972. Later he was part of initiating the Plowshares Movement, which has involved more than 100 prophetic actions against nuclear weapons and the imprisonment of many participants, some of them multiple times. He was always a man of conviction.

Dan’s actions stemmed from his deep Christian commitment. He said, “The God of life summons us to life; more, to be lifegivers, especially toward those who lie under the heel of the powers.” Our Gospel reading this morning has Jesus saying, “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you.” Dan understood all to be his friends and sought to live out God’s call on his life.

Dan is famous for saying, “If you are going to follow Jesus, you better look good on wood.” He understood the risks of living a prophetic life.

Like Jesus, Dan was particularly drawn to the marginalized. He said:

Sometime in your life, hope that you might see one starved man, the look on his face when the bread finally arrives. Hope that you might have baked it or bought or even kneaded it yourself. For that look on his face, for your meeting his eyes across a piece of bread, you might be willing to lose a lot, or suffer a lot, or die a little, even.

He was willing to associate with those who were unpopular, and those others called immoral. He served as faculty adviser at his campus to one of the first organized gay student groups, an unusual position for a Catholic priest. My friend Carol Crossed, a long-time consistent life activist, tells of visiting his New York City apartment unannounced in 1988. He wasn’t home and she waited several hours for his return. He said he had been visiting AIDS patients at a hospital. Her visit was to ask him to lead a Faith and Resistance pilgrimage in Rochester, New York protesting a military center and an abortion center the same day. He readily agreed. At the sites visited, Dan spoke about the spirituality of geography and the need to be present where killing was occurring to absorb the evil.

He didn’t believe that those who have and abuse power and money would have the last word. And he saw as a whole the work against all forms of violence and oppression. He said,

For my part, I believe that the vain, glorious and the violent will not inherit the earth…. In pursuance of that faith my friends and I take the hands of the dying in our hands. And some of us travel to the Pentagon, and others live in the Bowery and serve there, and others speak unpopularly and plainly of the fate of the unborn and of convicted criminals. It is all one.

And he understood this involved the whole created world. The 2nd of his Ten Commandments was, “Don’t be afraid to be afraid or appalled to be appalled. How do you think the trees feel these days, or the whales, or, for that matter, most humans?”

His first commandment was “Call on Jesus when all else fails. Call on Him when all else succeeds (except that never happens).” And what did he say shows one’s faith?

Faith is rarely where your head is at. Nor is it where your heart is at. Faith is where your ass is at!

This reminds me of one of the favorite sayings of my mother, “The life I live is the prayer I pray.” Faith must be lived out in our lives.

I love that the Dayspring Members’ Commitment calls on us to live “in a manner which will end all war and violence, personal and public.” The commitment to nonviolence was central to Dan. He said that “One is called to live nonviolently, even if the change one works for seems impossible.” He also said, “No principle is worth the sacrifice of a single human being.”

What does this have to do with Mothers’ Day? In the United States, the origins of the official Mothers’ Day holiday go back to 1870, when abolitionist Julia Ward Howe worked to establish a Mother’s Peace Day. Howe dedicated the celebration to the eradication of war, and organized festivities in Boston for years. This was her original proclamation:

Arise, all women who have hearts, whether your baptism be that of water or of tears! Say firmly: “We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies, our husbands shall not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause.

“Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience. We women of one country will be too tender of those of another country to allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs.”

From the bosom of the devastated earth a voice goes up with our own. It says, “Disarm, disarm! The sword is not the balance of justice.” Blood does not wipe out dishonor nor violence indicate possession.

As men have often forsaken the plow and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel. Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead. Let them then solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means whereby the great human family can live in peace, each learning after his own time, the sacred impress, not of Caesar, but of God.

In the name of womanhood and of humanity, I earnestly ask that a general congress of women without limit of nationality may be appointed and held at some place deemed most convenient and at the earliest period consistent with its objects, to promote the alliance of the different nationalities, the amicable settlement of international questions, the great and general interests of peace.

Let us witness to that love to which today’s Gospel lesson calls us. God may call us to witness in any of a number of ways. We may be called to witness directly against the violence and oppression of the principalities and powers. We may be called to feed the hungry, provide shelter for the homeless, care for refugees, visit the ill and imprisoned, or to spend precious time with the lonely. May we be faithful to whatever call we hear.

And let us not fall into despair at the extent of evil in our world. Dan said, “The gift we can offer others is so simple a thing as hope.” Hope energizes our calls to witness against evil.

Following my words, Kip will play a music video of the song “Prayer of the Mothers” which was born as a result of an alliance made between singer-songwriter Yael Deckelbaum, and a group of courageous women leading the movement of “Women Wage Peace.” The movement arose in the summer of 2014 during the escalation of violence between Israel and the Palestinians, and the military operation “Tzuk Eitan.”

On October 4, 2016, Jewish and Arab women began with the joint “March of Hope” project. Thousands of women marched from the north of Israel to Jerusalem in a call for peace. This call reached its peak on October 19th in a march of at least 4,000 women, half of them Palestinian, and half Israeli, in Qasr el Yahud (on the northern Dead Sea), in a joint prayer for peace.

The very same evening 15,000 women protested in front of the prime minister’s house in Jerusalem. The marches were joined by Nobel Prize for Peace winner Leymah Gbowee, who organized women in Liberia in a movement which brought the end of the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003.

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