Dispatches From The Lamb’s War
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.
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.”
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
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.
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.”
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.