Philip Berrigan, 1923-2002 | Front Porch | Indy Week

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Philip Berrigan, 1923-2002


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On Dec. 7, 1993, longtime peace activist Philip Berrigan, John Dear (my brother), Bruce Friedrich and Lynn Fredriksson risked 20 years' imprisonment (not to mention getting shot) by entering Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro and hammering on and pouring blood on two F-15E war planes. U.S. District Judge Terrence Boyle declared them "a danger to the community" and gave them prison sentences ranging from eight to 15 months.

Local supporters and unindicted co-conspirators of that "Plowshares" action continue to feel the deep impact of that single act upon their lives. For Philip Berrigan, who died Friday of cancer on the eve of the ninth anniversary of the action, it was just one among more than 100 acts of nonviolent civil disobedience that led him to serve 11 years in prison over the course of his 79 years.

A self-described "killing machine" as an infantry second lieutenant during some of the heaviest fighting in World War II, Berrigan later worked as an inner-city priest and civil rights activist. In 1965, Stokely Carmichael called him "one of the rare white people who really knows what is going on." Two years later, Berrigan and others poured blood on Baltimore draft files, and soon thereafter he and his Jesuit priest brother, Daniel Berrigan, and seven others used homemade napalm to burn 600 more draft files in Catonsville, Md., inspiring a generation of activists.

On rare occasions, honest judges paid homage to Philip Berrigan. "I know you are a moral giant, the conscience of a generation... Set that man free," declared a federal judge in the 1980s.

Grounded in the Jonah House community he founded with his wife, Elizabeth McAlister, among the poorest neighborhoods of Baltimore, Berrigan called people of conscience to "turn away from the violence in our lives and take responsibility for the violence of the state." Though known for his courage and steadfastness, he also was unparalleled in his humility. Once, I watched in horror as Philadelphia police officers threw Phil's body against a cinder block wall. His reply was a gentle, "Hey fellas, it's all right. Nothing personal."

I was 18 when I first attended a Jonah House-organized "faith and resistance retreat" in Washington, D.C., 20 years ago, a kind of "retreat" where more blood is likely to be poured on the Pentagon than coffee into mugs. (There's nothing like a little civil disobedience to start your day.) Though through the years I have often been little more than a bystander at such actions, I was transformed by experiences Philip, Elizabeth, and their community have led. On those occasions when I did participate in civil disobedience, I was turned inside out--a spiritual enema, Daniel Berrigan calls getting arrested. Sharing in experiences such as having Pentagon soldiers and workers step over me and on my hands while I was blocking the entrance with others gave me courage and strength I did not know I had.

Like one of his friends said, we know from Phil the power in us. He could, another friend said, see the saint that God originally intended each of us to be. "It was an extraordinary grace."

At his brother's funeral on Monday, Daniel Berrigan said, "From 1967 to the day of his death, Philip learned patience--a harsh, grating, unattractive, so-called virtue. He learned patience through bolts and bars, through stopped clocks, and time served at the icy hands of judges and guards and wardens. He learned through the warmaking state and the complicit church, through 35 years of American war and scarcely a week of genuine peace. Patience was an iron yoke placed on his shoulders."

"He showed us all what it meant to be free," said his daughter, Kate Berrigan.

As more than 400 admirers left his wake they started singing a musical staple of Philip Berrigan's life that summarizes his prophetic message for us:

And everyone beneath their vine and fig tree
Shall live in peace and unafraid
And into plowshares turn their swords
Nations shall learn war no more.


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