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Dispatches From The Lamb’s War
Philip Berrigan

        In early spring of 1968, I was out on bail, awaiting sentencing for the Custom House raid, in which I had poured blood on draft files. My brother Daniel was teaching at Cornell University and working with others to form Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam. Dan and I strolled about the Cornell campus, laughing and talking and stopping to gaze at Cayuga Lake, a chameleon body of water stretching into the horizon like a fjord, changing colors as the day wore on.

        I had come to ask Dan to join me and other conspirators in yet another draft-board action. We talked our way through the night, and through a bottle of whiskey. Would the action we proposed offend the Church? Of course. Might it alienate us from some of our fellow peace activists? Most definitely. Would it end the war? Certainly not. Was it consistent with the spirit of Christ, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mohandas Gandhi? We believed that it was.

        Our efforts to communicate with the high-ranking masterminds of mass murder had been futile. We had attended nonviolent demonstrations, written letters to government leaders, and met with government officials, pleading with them to end this genocidal campaign against the Vietnamese people. Nothing worked. No one listened. We were trying to argue with the Mad Hatter; we were attempting to reform Big Brother. Words had lost all meaning. Euphemisms and bureaucratese abounded: “We must destroy the village in order to save it.” “We must prolong the war in order to bring about peace.” “We must support dictators if we wish to promote democracy.”

        When officials insist on using Newspeak, how should the people respond? We tried to speak truthfully and without guile, but our attempts at honest communication with the warmakers sank in Machiavellian waters. We were speaking to the powerful, who considered us powerless and, therefore, not worth listening to. Vietnam, we discovered, was not only a war on people. It was a war on the very meaning of human communication. Manipulating language was just one more means to achieve their nefarious end. Words were merely rhetorical devices, as expendable as eighteen-year-old American boys, as destructible as the Vietnamese people.

        The war in Southeast Asia was not a mistake; not a misunderstanding. It was our country’s paranoia and racism metastasized into genocidal madness; a campaign to exterminate, not liberate, the Vietnamese. Vietnam was the Puritans hacking their Native American benefactors to pieces. Vietnam was the Christian Church sanctioning the slave trade. Vietnam was dropping the atomic bomb on a country already on its knees.

        Dan might have stayed at Cornell, holding worship services, counseling students, and teaching a course now and then. He might have built a comfortable niche there, writing poetry, going for tenure, living out his life in genteel, wine-and-cheese obscurity. Instead, he stepped out on a limb, knowing that it would break, sending him, and all of us, to prison.

        On May 17, 1968, my brother and I, along with seven others, walked into the draft board at Catonsville, Maryland. We carried file drawers into the parking lot and poured our own blood over them. We burned the files, prayed, and waited to be arrested.

        We knew that we were moving even deeper into new religious and ethical territory: escalating our opposition to the war; trying to startle the doves from the hawk’s nest of the Catholic Church; acting out the Christian mandate to resist evil. We were burning draft records to protest our government’s burning of children in Vietnam, and we knew that our actions would shock, anger, and alienate not only our critics, but some of our closest supporters, and certainly many Catholics as well.

        The Catonsville Nine, as we would become known, sat together, waiting for the FBI, who soon arrived, irritated by our insouciance and anxious to make us pay for breaking the law. When he saw me, their leader flushed with anger. “Him again!” he shouted, pointing one large fist at my head. “Good God, I’m changing my religion.”

        I thought that perhaps he should instead discover, or re-discover his religion. In many ways, though he would never acknowledge it, he was a prisoner of the system he so ardently supported. The state makes the laws; therefore, the state is the law. If the state becomes a polluter, a drug pusher, or a war machine, citizens still must obey it.

        But if one accepts this autocratic logic, what happens to the possibility that human beings will experience justice and love and real freedom? Those who truly believe in nonviolence, in justice, have no choice but to break unjust laws. The state will retaliate. It will charge you. It will convict you almost by rote. And it will send you to jail. We are all prisoners of an unrepresentative government, and we are prisoners of the means that this government uses to stay in power — thousands of nuclear warheads, CIA assassinations and coup d’états, financial support for death squads, training for foreign military personnel who commit atrocities in their own countries.

        Everything the Catonsville Nine had done, and everything we intended to say in court, challenged this contract between church and state. Calling for obligatory military service, Cardinal Spellman had declared that “individuals cannot refuse their obedience to the state.” The Catonsville Nine turned that statement upside down by arguing that when a government is committing genocide, citizens have not only a right but an obligation to disobey the state. We also tried to tell the court that the Declaration of Independence is an expression of the gospels, which forbid us from waging war on anyone. Thus, our action at Catonsville was an expression of much that is good about the United States, rather than a violation of the country’s most cherished values.

        The court disagreed.

        Lewisburg Penitentiary was a dark, brooding, and impenetrable fortress, a maximum-security prison where some of America’s toughest criminals did time. Smart, wily convicts continued to run their scams inside the walls, learn new skills, and teach younger cons a few tricks. When their time was up, they strolled out the gate and right back into the game. The majority were poor; many were black — men who began the race not only way behind the starting line, but with broken legs, club feet, and half blind. Uneducated, but not stupid. Beaten and abused at home. Assaulted and raped in reform school. Knocked to a pulp in the back rooms of police stations. Prison was simply a reflection of their past, present, and future. Even the most remedial inmate knew that Lewisburg prison was the reality behind Miss America’s charming smile.

        Tom Lewis and I arrived there in June 1968, chained together in the back seat of the federal marshals’ car. The marshals stopped for lunch but refused to remove our shackles, so we had to balance hamburgers and Cokes on our laps, spilling more than we put in our mouths. These guys weren’t brutes, just civil servants doing their job, putting in their time until retirement. Quite a few were Catholics, and as such they were pissed at me. After all, priests belonged behind the altar, not at antiwar demonstrations. I should have been blessing babies, hearing confessions, and conducting marriage ceremonies, not burning draft records, and definitely not embarrassing the church by going to jail. I frightened them, because I violated their sense of values and security. I had stepped out of their fold, become the black sheep of our family. I had broken some sacred trust, some inviolable agreement, and to make their point they refused to address me as “Father” Berrigan.

        Tom Lewis, my co-defendant in the Catonsville and Baltimore trials, had been cooped up with me in the Baltimore County Jail for a couple of months. We were too dangerous, said the government, to be let out on bail. Now we stood waiting just outside the house of the dead. The prison’s high brick walls were built by WPA labor, and I couldn’t help laughing at the irony. Could my own dad, that fiery champion of the working man, have helped build places like Lewisburg, great forbidding warehouses in which to store the bodies and destroy the spirits of our fellow human beings? I couldn’t blame Dad if he had laid a brick or two for a prison wall. Hunger drives people to all kinds of extremes.

        Tom and I were packed in tight, chained wrist to ankle, sweating and anxious to get the hell out of that car. The marshals talked to the guardhouse, and the guardhouse talked to “Control” inside the prison. We got out of the car and shuffled toward a gate. Prisoners were watching us from their cells, sizing us up, spreading the news. By the time we were inside, everyone in Lewisburg knew who we were. I was the first Catholic priest in American history to be tried and imprisoned for a political crime, and thus a bit of a celebrity in Lewisburg. But I neither expected, nor ever asked for, special treatment in that seething pit of human misery.

        The warden, J.J. Parker, was a Notre Dame man. An isolated figure, Parker was not particularly hated or feared by the prisoners. He was just a functionary who let subordinates run the prison while he was away attending football games. The warden lived outside the walls in a mansion built by Lewisburg inmates in the mid-thirties. Prisoners acted as servants for the warden and his family, doing the housework, mowing the grass, tending the flowers and the shrubbery. When he entertained, Parker ordered a suckling pig or a slab of veal from one of the farm camps and had it dressed and delivered to his convict chef.

        We were taken into a small room and ordered to strip. A guard stuck a flashlight into our mouths, probed orifices, gave us each a handful of lice-killing soap, and led us to the showers. Cons helped process us into Lewisburg; they were friendly enough, telling us, in a kind of subliminal mutter, whom to trust and whom to look out for. My clerical clothes, which I had been wearing since the Baltimore action, were taken away, and I was given prison togs: two sets of ill-fitting blue shirts and pants, prison shoes.

        I spent several months in Lewisburg before being released on bond close to Christmas 1968. A Jesuit attorney named Callahan managed to spring me on an appeal, and our lawyers took the Catonsville convictions all the way to the Supreme Court. But the good justices refused to hear our case. So it was back to jail for the nine of us. Three years for Daniel. Six years for me.

        My spirit was far from broken. Prison strengthened my commitment to peace and social justice. It made me more determined to live in a loving community, and more committed to resisting militarism, even if that would mean spending many years behind bars.

        Prison is designed to silence dissent. We savage people in order to make them better citizens. We torture men and women to make them kinder and more productive. We execute human beings in order to teach our children respect for human life.

        Today, in 1996, the United States has more than a million men and women in federal prisons, another half million in state, county, and local jails: more prisoners per capita than any country in the world, except Russia. The Supreme Court expedites the murder of death-row inmates. Politicians urge us to persecute the poor, defund our schools, despoil our environment, and reward the rich. We build more jail cells, construct more killing chambers, and speed up executions. Driven by fear, we shred the Constitution. I see little difference between the world inside prison gates and the world outside of them. The myth is that people on the outside are free, because those on the inside are not. But a million, million prisons can’t protect us, because the real dangers — militarism, greed, economic inequality, fascism, police brutality — lie outside, not inside, prison walls.

        The United States government initiated the arms race and led it for fifty years, and we continue to pay a terrible price for this folly. The Cold War is over, but we are not disarming. The government is still spending $262 billion per year on the military. [According to the Center for Defense Information, this number was $328.7 billion for 2002.] This money must be borrowed and financed, which means that the real costs are more like one half trillion dollars a year. This enormous outlay offers no security.

        Critics of the Plowshares movement point out that although we’ve been arrested countless times, the United States refuses to disarm its arsenal of nuclear weapons. We’ve prayed and pleaded, poured our blood and pounded upon atomic weapons; and yet our government continues to kill people, here and abroad, in the name of peace and justice. Conclusion: our actions are useless. According to such critics, the outcome of conscientious activity must always be measurable and quantified: a cup of success; a spoonful of failure. There must be a scoreboard to determine who is winning.

        Yet it is impossible to measure results stemming from acts of integrity. We act because working in a nonviolent way for justice and peace is right, proper, and essential. Moreover, our actions do make a difference in people’s lives. How many lives, how much of a difference? I can hardly say. But it is clear from the many friendships we’ve formed over the years that some are influenced, perhaps even inspired, by our nonviolent witness. We leave it up to others to measure our success or failure.

        Nonviolent direct action carries the truth of justice and love into the marketplace, where it casts light against the darkness of the way we treat one another. Civil disobedience unmasks injustice and offers an alternative vision to it. Our choice is clear: We act to recreate the political order, or we solidify the old order of violence and death.

        Jesus Christ practiced direct action, as did the Jewish prophets and other nonviolent militants. Even before the American Revolution, colonists resorted to direct action in struggles against injustice. In a capitalist society, there are no other means for representation, redress, or justice. To vote is political window dressing. It makes not the slightest bit of difference. If it did, the American people would soon lose this “right.” The only means for fighting judicial corruption, corporate greed, worker exploitation, police brutality, and militarism is direct action. The Industrial Workers of the World — aka the “Wobblies” — were right: you don’t vote with the ballot, you vote with your feet and with your life.

        I’ve been asked how I would like to be remembered. I don’t think the question is especially important or critical. But perhaps I would like to be remembered as a Catholic who tried to be a Christian. As a person who tried to embody the nonviolence of God and attempted to stand up for those who needlessly suffer. As someone who endeavored to welcome and to understand the cross of Jesus Christ.

        The thirteenth chapter of the Book of Revelation tells of a sea beast, the Beast of Empire. The beast has a number of heads, one of which receives a fatal wound. Empires receive such wounds often, but they have incredible recuperative power; at times, they not only recover but grow stronger than before.

        In spite of its ability to recuperate from grievous wounds, the American empire cannot last. One of its near fatal wounds was the war in Vietnam. Another was the communist revolution in China in the late forties. Still another was the military stalemate in Korea. All three were serious blows to the empire.

        Becoming a debtor nation due to outrageous military expenditures was yet another blow to the empire. This happened around 1991, when the financial capital of the world shifted from New York City to Tokyo. Still another fatal blow, which the empire has by no means acknowledged, is our unwillingness to disarm. Our clinging to nuclear weapons is a sign of consummate weakness rather than of strength.

        In his study of ancient Israeli kings after Solomon, Jacques Ellul concluded that those who did not invest heavily in a powerful military, and thus sat on weak thrones, were just rulers. Sooner or later the United States will have to revert from an empire to the status of a nation state. And from that point, it must grow even weaker before it approaches the status of a just society.

        Until that happens, we citizens cannot escape the influence of the empire. It directs our thoughts and our behavior; we act out its violence, racism, warlike belligerence, and discrimination against women. And in this I confess the failures of myself and fellow resisters. We, too, cannot escape the empire. In many ways, we are the empire; our resistance hardly transforms us into angels.

        According to a University of South Carolina study, violence in America rose 42 percent during the Vietnam War. This is hardly surprising. Our leaders are lawless, so why not we? If the government threatens other countries with the bomb, why not threaten one another with handguns? If our leaders are raping the planet, why not rape our neighbors? Our leaders create a climate of fear and violence, yet they appear shocked when Americans kill, rob, and maim one another.

        When the bomb becomes an article of religious fervor, as it has in America, fundamentalism follows. Anyone who fails to meet the group’s standards becomes the enemy. Minorities, immigrants, homosexuals, single parents, welfare mothers — all are heretics. They must be denied jobs, refused public assistance, locked up in prisons. They must bow low to Lord Nuke or face terrible consequences.

        The Cold War has ended, yet the United States is secretly building new first-strike weapons and preparing to arm the heavens — to destroy the world in order to save it.

        A nonviolent revolution might save us, but it is hard to be optimistic. Our country has a rich tradition of nonviolence, yet we lack the vision and discipline to initiate a nonviolent revolution.

        Gandhi said that everyone needs a scripture. We activists must have our own sacred text. It could be Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist. It could be a philosophy of nonviolence. But everyone needs a text against which to measure life. If we deeply believe in our scripture, we generate hope and offer it to others, and we renounce self-pity, fear, hatred, and despair.