Dan Berrigan, Prophet of Peace… and More
Dan Berrigan may have acquired his fame as a peace activist, but I first heard of him as an inspiring high school teacher and budding poet?but that was in 1956 long before most Americans knew where Vietnam was. A couple of my new friends, teenagers who had entered the Jesuits just as I had, boasted about Dan as their teacher at Brooklyn Prep.
I didn?t meet him or hear him speak until 1967 when he was invited to Woodstock College to speak to those who were doing theological studies in preparation for ordination. I remember walking out of the hall offended at his disdain for those of us who couldn?t bring ourselves to accept his pacifism. He might have had a legitimate complaint about the evils of napalm, but what about the terror Ho Chi Min was inflicting on the villages he took in the south?
I had just returned from my regency in the islands in 1966?with images of JFK and Henry Luce still flipping through my imagination and the folk songs of that hootenanny era ringing in my ears. We were simple souls, I suppose you could say. We all grew up in a church and in a time that could make neat distinctions between good and evil.
All that soon changed for me. Maybe it was the cultural confusion I had to go through as I returned to the islands and tried to figure out what was really going on. Perhaps the message behind all those Graham Greene novels that I had read years before started kicking in: if you think that sorting out the sheep and the goats is easy, then you are sadly mistaken. Dan Berrigan eventually had the same effect on me that Greene?s novels had?both showed me how little I really knew about life.
Even before Dan Berrigan passed away, many called him a prophet of peace. That he surely was, but the mark he left on me went just a bit deeper than that. At bottom, I think the man was a genuine universalist?someone who believed that we are all brothers and sisters, no matter what kind of uniform we wear. If that?s the case, then what sense does it make for us to go to war with one another, no matter how much damage it does to us. The universalism that underlay Dan?s pacifism caught fire with many of us, even those who might have thought he was a bit naive about North Vietnam.
We are brothers and sister, aren?t we? If so, then why haven?t we learned the old lesson of Cain and Abel?the tragedy that is sure to follow when siblings go to battle?