Acts of Faith:
Philip Berrigan On The Necessity Of Nonviolent Resistance
Rachel J. Elliott
I grew up
attending antiwar demonstrations with my father, a Presbyterian
minister and outspoken activist who often protested outside a
nuclear-weapons facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Although he’s been
arrested numerous times for acts of civil disobedience, it wasn’t
until July 2002 that he was sentenced to a prison term — six months
for trespassing on federal property in an act of nonviolent
resistance. When I heard the news, it made me proud that he had
acted so boldly, and angry that our government locks up people for
crossing a line and kneeling to pray.
like a good time to talk with someone whom I have long admired for
his willingness to be imprisoned for nonviolent resistance: Catholic
priest and disarmament activist Philip Berrigan. In the sixties, he
and his older brother Daniel, a Jesuit priest, became celebrities of
the antiwar movement. Although Daniel went on to become the more
recognized of the two, writing prolificly and rarely shying away
from the spotlight, Philip, in his own steady, passionate way,
remained a man of action, planning and committing acts of civil
disobedience right up until his death in December 2002.
with Philip Berrigan several months before he died. At that point,
he had resisted war and the U.S. nuclear buildup for more than forty
years. He was a veteran of World War II, and his belief that nuclear
weapons shouldn’t exist had made him a veteran of the penal system
as well; all told, he spent eleven years in prison. He was the first
Catholic priest in American history to be imprisoned for a political
crime: burning draft files with homemade napalm. In the eighties and
nineties, Berrigan poured his own blood on the Pentagon and hammered
on cruise missiles. His steadfast insistence on the appropriateness
of these tactics alienated some peace activists and inspired many
part of Berrigan’s legacy is the Plowshares disarmament movement,
which takes its name from the second chapter of Isaiah: “They shall
beat their swords into plowshares. . . . Nation shall not lift up
sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.”
Since Berrigan helped to found Plowshares in 1980, the movement has
become international, spreading to the U.K., the Netherlands,
Germany, Sweden, and Australia.
addition to protesting nuclear warheads, Plowshares has decried the
use of shells containing depleted uranium, a byproduct of the
uranium-enrichment process used to make nuclear fuel and weapons.
Depleted-uranium shells, which release radioactive particles on
impact, have been used in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the former
Yugoslavia. Although the Defense Department claims that the uranium
residue poses no significant health risk, the UN says that the “sale
and use of such weapons are incompatible with international human
rights and humanitarian law,” and Plowshares has called the military
use of depleted uranium a form of nuclear warfare.
to by a judge at one of his trials as “a moral giant” and “the
conscience of a generation,” Berrigan authored several books,
including Prison Journals
of a Priest Revolutionary (Henry Holt & Company) and Fighting
The Lamb’s War: Skirmishes with the American Empire (Common
Courage Press). He was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize six
married activist nun Elizabeth McAlister in 1969, and the two were
later excommunicated because of their union. They had three
children, and together helped start Jonah House, an intentional
community of nonviolent resisters and social activists in Baltimore,
Maryland. When I met with Berrigan at Jonah House in August 2002, he
was recovering from hip surgery. He remained seated when I arrived,
but greeted me warmly. At seventy-nine, he had stark white hair and
a disarming smile. Neither of us knew then that he had cancer, which
would kill him just a few months later.
deathbed, his convictions were as strong as ever. He dictated these
final thoughts to his wife: “I die with the conviction, held since
1968 . . . that nuclear weapons are the scourge of the earth. To
mine for them, manufacture them, and deploy them is a curse against
God, the human family, and the earth itself.”
House is located right next to a cemetery, tucked behind dilapidated
row houses in a downtown Baltimore neighborhood full of abandoned
buildings and liquor stores. The Jonah House residents built their
cedar home themselves, and the light-filled rooms and large
vegetable garden made me feel as if I had stumbled upon an oasis. A
police helicopter circling overhead brought me back to reality.
Do you think the military has any legitimate role in modern society?
No. War is never justified. Christian resister Ben Salmon put it
succinctly: “Either Jesus was a liar, or war is never necessary.” It
was Leo Tolstoy’s view that any military is intended first for use
against its own people. I agree. If we were sane and just, we’d
dismantle our military today.
How did the Plowshares movement begin?
In the late seventies, disarmament activists began singling out
General Electric in their protests, because GE was — and is — a big
weapons manufacturer. GE was making missile nose cones — re-entry
vehicles for the Minutemen III missiles— at a plant in King of
Prussia, Pennsylvania. One of our number walked into the front
vestibule of the plant, located an in-house telephone book, and
ripped out a page that had a rough floor plan of the plant. Then we
walked around the perimeter of the plant and saw these huge tractor
trailers backed up to a ramp. We figured that the nose cones would
be moving to that shipping point.
9, 1980, eight of us went into the back of the plant, where the
workers entered, to try to locate the missile nose cones. Our
contingency plan, if we were stopped, was to drop to our knees, pour
some blood, and say some prayers. But God was with us. It took us
about ten seconds to locate the nose cones. And we began to belabor
them and pour our blood on classified blueprints. We damaged a lot
of the handmade tools they used in testing those things. That was
our first Plowhares action.
Faith is a
major component of Plowshares: You have to believe that hellish
weapons are not the will of God. You have to believe that, with
God’s help, you can get to these weapons. And, finally, you have to
believe that you can do both symbolic and real damage to it.
“Hellish weapons” means battleships that deploy Tomahawk cruise
missiles; it means Aegis destroyers, B-52 bombers, and B-1 bombers;
it means the whole array of nuclear first-strike weapons.
recent action I did was in east Baltimore. We disarmed A-10 Warthog
warplanes. They are nuclear weapons because they fire
depleted-uranium shells. At last count, I heard that a thousand
American GIs from Desert Storm have already died from
depleted-uranium poisoning. And such deaths are enormously painful
and protracted. Their immune systems shut down. Like AIDS victims,
they become pushovers for any disease that comes along. That’s what
these GIs have gone through, and that’s what the Pentagon
Isn’t the use of depleted uranium considered a war crime by
Yes, but we were not permitted to argue that in court. Ramsey Clark,
a former attorney general of the United States and a dear friend,
defended us in several trials. He’s an expert on international law,
which according to the U.S. Constitution supersedes federal law. But
anytime we tried to use that in our defense, the prosecutor would
shout, “Objection! Objection!” and the judge would defer to him.
You were also not allowed to use the necessity defense in the
Plowshares trials. Could you explain the necessity defense?
The simplest example of necessity is breaking down a door to save a
child from a burning building. You aren’t charged with breaking and
entering. You are commended for having saved a life.
been able to use the necessity defense because the government has
argued that we cannot prove that nuclear war is imminent. We explain
that nuclear war could happen at any time as long as the government
is designing, building, and deploying nuclear weapons; that the
government has poisoned our air, water, and food supply with
radioactive isotopes; and that atomic testing has already killed
millions of people worldwide.
In the documentary film King of Prussia, depicting the trial
of the Plowshares Eight, one of the jury members admits that he
didn’t know that the GE plant in his town was making parts for
nuclear missiles. How aware do you think most Americans are that our
country is still building nuclear weapons?
It’s not so much the unawareness of the American people that’s the
problem. Even when we are aware that the weapons are being built, we
don’t understand what this is doing to us. You’re looking at
fifty-eight years of nuclearism. You’re looking at 1,900 atmospheric
or underground nuclear tests. You’re looking at 103 nuclear power
plants in this country, all of which are emitting radiation. You’re
looking at 149 nuclear weapons factories in the U.S., 104 of which
the Department of Energy says are so toxic that we can’t clean them
up. Plus, we have fought four nuclear wars, in Japan, Iraq,
Yugoslavia, and Afghanistan — the last one perhaps the worst of all.
root out Al-Qaeda fighters in the Hindu Kush mountain range in
Afghanistan, we used huge rock-penetrating bombs made of depleted
uranium. And we left a fierce residue of depleted uranium in that
mountain range, which, when the snow melts, waters most of the
agricultural land in neighboring Pakistan. So we have the same
situation there that we have in southern Iraq — a saturation of air,
soil, water, and vegetation with nuclear material.
Are nuclear weapons the biggest threat we face today?
Yes. The near showdown between India and Pakistan over Kashmir
should highlight that. Furthermore, all those tests, wars, nuclear
power plants, and uranium mines have so saturated the planet with
radioactive rubbish that we have a global cancer epidemic on our
hands. We are all carrying questionable material in our bodies, and
it is going to kill some of us. The planet is so saturated that you
can’t escape it. And you never know you’ve contracted cancer until
it starts to kill you.
percentage of people are in denial about this. A friend of ours,
Carole Gallagher, wrote a notable book on the Nevada Test Site
titled, American Ground Zero: The Secret Nuclear War. One
interview she did sticks out in my memory: She walked into the room
of a dying man who had been a worker at the Nevada Test Site. At the
end of every workday, he had gone to a trough of radioactive water
and washed his face.
went to his sick room, this once two-hundred-pound man was down to
ninety-five pounds. She asked him if his illness was related to his
work at the Nevada Test Site, and from his deathbed, the old guy
began to roar and curse at her. She left at the request of the man’s
wife. But he carried his denial to the grave.
Elliott: There is disagreement within
the peace movement on the destruction of property as a tactic. Many
of the actions you have participated in involved hammering on
weapons of mass destruction and so forth. What kind of criticism
have you faced from within the peace movement and how do you justify
We haven’t received much criticism in our immediate circles, but
some people, including a lot of Quakers, say that destruction of
property is violent, that it’s vandalism. But for us it goes deeper
than property issues. These weapons don’t have a right to exist. And
at some point they’re going to have to be dismantled and returned to
their original forms.
Psalm says: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” Look at
the fabrication of a weapon. All these brilliant scientists and
skilled technicians are taking things that don’t belong to them.
They’re taking the materiality of this world and fabricating from it
a lethal weapon to use against other human beings. They’re saying
that, under certain circumstances, we will damn well use this
weapon. And we have used it. We are the only country in the world
that has used nuclear weapons on other human beings.
The making of
such a weapon is a wholesale act of robbery. We have to restore this
material, symbolically and in reality, to its original state. What
we’re doing through Plowshares is converting property back to that
which is proper to human life.
In 1996, six
of us climbed aboard a new Aegis destroyer at the Bath Iron Works in
Maine and worked our way to the navigational center of the ship. We
used hammers to dismantle the sophisticated navigational panel that
runs the length of the pilot house and poured our blood over
everything. Our actions said: This weapon doesn’t have any right to
exist. So we are disarming it — symbolically and in reality.
Elliott: I was interested to learn that
you served in the U.S. military during World War II.
I didn’t have a clue in those days. I was really a dim bulb. When I
came home from the service, my Jesuit brother Daniel was studying
theology at a seminary outside Baltimore, and I went directly to see
him. The atomic bomb had just been dropped, and they had a victory
parade, of all things, there at the seminary, because the Jesuits
didn’t know any more than I did. Since I was the only officer there,
I led the parade, carrying an American flag. It was a very bad
moment, a confession of my total ignorance.
President Truman when he said that we’d saved millions of American
lives by dropping those two bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But it
caught up with me, because I’d seen so much devastation and death in
northern Europe — especially in Germany. Eventually, I had to put
two and two together: If conventional bombing had done that, the
atomic bomb must have done much worse to Japan.
Elliott: What made you decide to leave
the military and become a priest?
Well, at first I wanted to stay in the military, because it was a
sure promotion to first lieutenant if I did, but my family prevailed
on me to leave. They realized how rotten things were. (I had three
brothers in the service at the same time.) And when I was honest
with myself, I knew they were right, because the military was rife
with womanizing, heavy drinking, and people going through the
motions regarding a career.
So my family
talked me into leaving the service. My brother Daniel started
pulling strings to get me into a prestigious Jesuit college called
Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. They barely accepted me. My
marks from high school were poor to indifferent — I hadn’t had any
interest in the junk they were teaching. But I went to Holy Cross
for four years. I thought of it this way: two of my brothers were
seminarians at that point, and they were both doing good things and
were decent and moral people. I was wasting my life because I was
still doing a lot of drinking. So I said I’d give it a try. And I
made it through and graduated into a Jesuit order that served
American blacks, mostly in the deep South.
The Catholic Church has consistently discouraged clergy from taking
a stand against war. How has this affected your view of the Church?
I try to understand what I call the Church’s institutional
priorities, which are mainly survival and a good relationship with
the government, because the Church is trying to avoid taxes. If the
Catholic Church ever had to pay property taxes, much of it would
just collapse. The Church has tens, maybe hundreds of billions of
dollars worth of property in the U.S., including its college and
university system, parish real estate, and so on. So the Church
maintains a relationship with Caesar. They are in and out of bed
with Caesar all the time. Major Church leaders’ shameful support for
the war in Afghanistan is an indication of that.
Episcopalians, too, are well tamed, perhaps even more so than most
Roman Catholics. For example, after September 11, the Episcopal
Church had a big hoedown at the Episcopal National Cathedral in
Washington, D.C. They went through a facsimile of a worship service
and then declared their allegiance to the government. Afterward some
church leaders tailed George W. Bush over to the White House at his
Plowshares people went into the cathedral during the service. They
really weren’t that disruptive, but some of them were dragged out.
They were trying to address the fact that this cathedral was the
site of a new declaration of allegiance to a criminal government.
In my own
experience, I spoke out against the Vietnam War and was silenced
three times by my superior general, who was simplistic and ignorant,
but a good man. He said to me, “This is not our work, so stop
talking about that war.” Nothing I could say could prevail against
his institutional logic. Finally, my conscience couldn’t tolerate it
any longer, and when I was moved to a Baltimore parish, I broke out.
Elliott: Yet you still consider
yourself to be part of the Church. Why?
My roots are there, and they go back generation after generation. My
parents and grandparents were devout, unquestioning Roman Catholics.
Furthermore, if I look at my checkered career and analyze it — the
pluses and minuses — I find that the Church has given me a hell of a
lot more than I’ve given the Church. It’s given me the Sacrament;
it’s given me the Scripture; it’s given me vital longterm
friendships; it’s given me community. The list goes on and on.
excommunicated in 1973 when my wife, Elizabeth McAlister, and I went
public with our marriage. But the Church hasn’t suspended me, ever.
And nothing has changed for me. I’m still doing the work I did
before I was excommunicated. I’m still trying to say something
decent and rational about nonviolence and about loving one’s
neighbor. I look upon myself as a married Catholic priest.
How did you arrive at the decision to commit your first act of civil
The first ones were in 1965 and 1966 at Fort Myers, Virginia, which
is a military post where all the Joint Chiefs of Staff live. My
brother Daniel and I used to write letters to the director of the
Joint Chiefs of Staff and request a word with him about the Vietnam
War. Of course, he wouldn’t condescend even to sniff at us, let
alone give us an interview. So we went on the base and demonstrated
at his house. The MPs threw us out. Then we escalated the conflict a
little. I didn’t know much about civil disobedience in those days.
It got a bit sticky. We drove right through a manned checkpoint on
the base and raced to the flagpole and knelt down and prayed for an
end to the war. They arrested us, but didn’t prosecute.
that motivated me most was burying black soldiers at my Josephite
parish, putting those tin boxes in the ground that were coming back
from Vietnam. I tried to do my homework. I did a lot of reading. I
talked to a lot of thoughtful people who were against the war. It
was not so much a case of faith with me, or a case of justice. It
was a case of outrage. I was royally pissed off.
Vietnam War grew more intense, we began to do some organizing here
in Baltimore. We got together a group called Clergy and Laity
Concerned about Vietnam. We went through the whole routine of
talking to congresspeople in Washington, lobbying, meeting with
State Department officials, holding street demonstrations and legal
marches. But all of that was just window dressing. Finally we
realized that we were going to have to do some serious civil
I’d been called out to Chicago by an old friend of mine, an ex–labor
leader by the name of Sidney Lens. He was a fine researcher and
writer and had written several books on the nuclear arms race. He
called together some young people from Students for a Democratic
Society, and I met with them to talk about disrupting the Selective
Service. Their idea was to chain the wheels of the buses that took
young men to be inducted into the army. They had done this already,
and they said that when they sabotaged a bus, the young recruits
would get off and talk with them, and many of them agreed not to go
back on the bus.
When I got
back to Baltimore, I thought to myself, What would happen if we
destroyed draft files? We scoped out the Customs House, where
they had brought eighteen local draft boards together under one
roof, and we consulted a lawyer, who said, “Don’t go in there at
night, because they will throw the book at you.” That made sense to
us; we didn’t want to face fifteen to twenty years in prison. So we
went in in broad daylight and poured blood on the draft files.
Why do you use blood in so many direct actions?
Because war is an outright bloody business, and Americans are not
attuned to that. War is foreign to us here in this country. The
Pentagon lies consistently about American casualties. There have
probably been several hundred recently in Afghanistan. They say
forty-one. We Americans don’t like to see our own blood or be
reminded that war is a bloody business.
We used blood
in a demonstration at the Pentagon. We had doctor friends take three
or four pints of our blood, and we went to the Pentagon and poured
it at the top of the steps, thinking, They’ll listen if they have
to track blood into the Pentagon. They had to walk right through
our blood to get into the building. And it didn’t make the slightest
difference. Pentagon workers — both civilian and military personnel
— trooped into that building like slaves. They kept their eyes on
the ground. We would try to give them leaflets, and they’d slap them
away. Many of them cursed us. But they trooped in like slaves.
That’s the only metaphor that does them justice.
In the first
book of Samuel, the Jewish elders come to the prophet Samuel and ask
for a king. And Samuel says to God, They want a king. And God says,
Give them a king and don’t feel bad about it, Samuel. They’re
rejecting me rather than you. So don’t get put out about it. But go
ahead and tell these elders what a king is going to cost them: their
sons are going to be drafted into the military; they’re going to be
taxed right out of their pants, and so on.
culminating phrase is: “And they’ll be the king’s slaves.” The
message is clear: You want a human leader, a leader other than God,
then you’ll be a slave.
that the American people are the most enslaved in the world, because
we’ve made an idol of materialism. We’ve been living high on the
hog, but when it comes to peace and justice, we are nowhere. We’re
like kindergarten children, only worse: at least children are open.
Elliott: You’ve said that you only
break laws that are “unjust.” What makes a law unjust?
Berrigan: Justice rests on treating
others as you would want to be treated. When a law doesn’t meet
these criteria, when it favors one person against the other, it
becomes unjust. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used to say that you have
to break unjust laws, because they aren’t real laws. In fact, an
unjust law is no law at all. Therefore one does something truthful
by breaking it.
Look at the
life of Jesus. He went through his whole public ministry breaking
laws because they were crushing the people and because they weren’t
real laws. Every time he went into the synagogue on the Sabbath and
healed people or cleansed the temple, he was breaking the law. The
story of Jesus’s public ministry is suppressed by the established
Church, so much so that the historical figure of Jesus never
emerges. It’s pitiful.
I no longer act because I want to remake this
country. I no longer have the aim of humanizing this wretched
society — which Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker movement used to
call “a filthy, rotten system.” I do things because they’re right,
and because they’re the best version of the truth I can fathom, and
because they’re better than what’s being done by the government and
the Pentagon, by our whole killing machine.
You’ve spent eleven years in prison. What would you say to people
who view that as wasted time?
That it is exactly the opposite. Many people can’t help but admire
that you’ve given up your liberty. You’re not taking a paycheck, and
you’re not getting any gold watches. Prison guards have told me, “At
least you’ve got the strength of your convictions. At least you
believe in something and are willing to stand up for it.” That’s a
grudging allowance, and yet it’s proof that people do recognize the
sacrifice. No one likes prison, but those of us who have given up
our freedom willingly transcend that pit of misery. We grin and bear
it. We help humanize it. So going to prison wins people’s hearts and
minds and spirits.
The young men
who refused to serve in Vietnam and went to prison helped to change
the hearts and minds of their friends and neighbors back home. I was
in prison with a lot of them. I saw the support they got. Most of
the time, their parents were against them. Yet even their parents
were forced to ask, “Why is the government jailing my son?”
Thousands of these kids were in federal prison. They each had a
constituency at home: they had a church or synagogue, they had a
campus, they had a family. They gained notoriety because they had
taken a stand and had been given three years. They were known
statewide. Many people’s minds were slowly changed by these young
the labor movement, the Industrial Workers of the World, also known
as the Wobblies, said flat out, “We have to fill up the jails,” and
they proceeded to do it. They would go into a mining town in
Colorado, or Idaho, or Wyoming, where some of their buddies were in
jail, and they’d immediately break curfew or get drunk, and they’d
fill up the jails. The community would be unable to feed all these
prisoners, and so it would have to open the jail doors. It was one
of the finest chapters in the U.S. labor movement’s history.
who was jailed many times, said, “If we fill up the jails, maybe we
can free some of the poor who are in there. Because there certainly
isn’t going to be room for all of us.”
You and your wife, Elizabeth, spent time in prison when your
children were young. How do you reconcile your need to protest with
your responsibility to them?
Liz and I were able to serve prison time because we had a supportive
community. Once, we were both jailed for a mass action in which we
poured blood on all sixteen pillars on one side of the Pentagon. It
was an extremely truthful moment, because it’s a house of blood. The
only reason for its existence is to find more expedient ways of
Liz got six
months, and I got ninety days. Our children were one and two years
old at the time. But we had trusted friends at home caring for them.
After that, when we were both out of jail, we vowed that we would
take turns so that one of us could always be with the children.
people to build a community. And it doesn’t have to be under the
same roof, like Jonah House, but just some true friends who’ll help
out. Through our resistance, our children learned to deconstruct
myths and counter the lies of our culture.
Once, when my
brother Daniel was giving a talk, a young married man with children
got up and said, “I can’t afford to go to jail. What do you
recommend?” And Daniel shot back at him, “Think about it for a
moment. You can’t afford not to go to jail, because the
outcome of your not going, of your not standing up, is going to be
You have chosen to live in an intentional community of activists.
What has been the most challenging thing about this?
Well, the resistance part is tough, because you’ve always got
friends locked up in jail or people planning some complex action.
But the really tough part is the human relations. You’ve got to
respect the people who are with you so deeply that their faults
don’t drive you away. Because we all have our idiosyncrasies and our
weaknesses. We’re all broken people. Without the grace of God,
though, we’d be a hell of a lot worse.
particularly hard to live in an intentional community in the U.S.,
because the culture is anticommunitarian. It’s all about buying and
selling. My daughter is a researcher with the World Policy Institute
in New York City, and she admits that when she goes down to lunch on
Fifth Avenue, she has to leave her credit card at home in Brooklyn
or she will be seduced into buying things she doesn’t need. On the
one hand, she’s confessing a weakness, but on the other, she’s
saying that everybody is under enormous pressure to buy.
How has the media coverage of Plowshares actions changed over time?
I know that you and your brother Daniel were once on the cover of
Yes, but you have to put that in context. The media in this country
are corporate, and that means any media outlet is tied to a lot of
other corporations. Their interests dovetail. Consequently, the
media has learned to tailor the news to protect the corporations and
the government. As Noam Chomsky would say, it “manufactures
actions rarely get more than local coverage. And this has been true
right across the board. In Western Europe, it’s different. There’s
not the same degree of corporatism. Europeans are a little more sane
than we are.
Elliott: What would you say to critics
of the Plowshares movement who claim that your actions have not
produced tangible results?
Americans want to see results because we’re pragmatists. God doesn’t
require results. God requires faithfulness. You try to do an
act of social justice, and do it lovingly. You don’t threaten
anybody or hurt any military personnel during these actions. And you
take the heat. You stand by and wait for arrest.
At many of
these Plowshares actions, we could have escaped. We went aboard the
U.S.S. Gettysburg, a huge missile cruiser up at the Bath Iron
Works, and we did symbolic disarmament on the Tomahawk missile
hatches there. We pounded the hell out of them. And nobody came. It
was Easter Sunday morning, and there were no guards on that
multi-billion-dollar boat. We had to call security ourselves.
I’m surprised you were able to gain access to so many expensive and
In God’s world, you can’t protect such hellish instruments, because
they are so counter to nature. There have been almost eighty such
actions around the world since 1980 — our friends in the U.K. and
Scotland are still doing actions against British Trident submarines
— and time and again we’ve been able to go where we needed to go.
Under the Patriot Act that President Bush signed into law in October
2001, civil disobedience could potentially be considered “domestic
The movement was traumatized by September 11. For a long time, there
wasn’t any civil disobedience. Now people are overcoming their fear
and pushing ahead. A couple of our Catholic Worker friends climbed
on a B-52 bomber at Langley Airforce Base and draped the fuselage
with a big banner saying, “This is a weapon of mass
destruction.” And now they’re facing prosecution.
Ashcroft are defending a big lie. They lie all the time. I don’t say
that to denigrate them. It’s just the nature of things. Ashcroft is
trying to keep the American people paranoid, like we were back in
the early 1950s with McCarthyism and the hysteria over Communists,
which was utterly without cause. There wasn’t a major Communist
figure in this country who was advocating the overthrow of the
American government. Not one. Most of them were just bright people
who stood for social justice.
Elliott: You were in jail on September
11, 2001, and I understand that you were put into solitary
Yes, I was put into solitary right away. Ten minutes after the
second tower went down, the guards came for me. It was a matter of
security in their minds. The whole penal system responded this way.
Anybody in prison who was the slightest bit suspect was rounded up
and thrown into solitary. I didn’t care about myself. I’ve done
months in solitary. Solitary doesn’t hold any fears for me. I
welcome the silence, the time to pray and read the Bible. But I was
worried they would start rounding up people at home, including right
here at Jonah House. They’ve got the camps ready for anyone they
suspect is sympathetic to terrorist causes. And if John Ashcroft has
a blank check to lock people up, he’s probably going to use it.
Elliott: You and your brother Daniel
were once at the top of the FBI’s most-wanted list.
Yes, I think it was mostly because Daniel pulled the FBI’s chain. To
start with, he and I decided not to show up for prison. We were
supposed to report to the U.S. Federal Marshals on a certain date in
early 1970, but we refused, simply to protest the injustice of the
whole thing. Daniel was teaching up at Cornell University, and he
went underground there. I hid out in New Jersey.
very close to the Students for a Democratic Society, however, so
when they asked him to come speak at a big rally, he agreed, even
though he knew the place was going to be alive with FBI agents. He
got up at the rally and said his two cents’ worth, fully expecting
to be arrested. Then the Bread and Puppet theater went on. They had
these giant puppets on stage, and one of them nudged Daniel and
said, “Hey, you want to split?” [Laughter.] So he escaped underneath
one of the enormous puppets. They loaded the puppets into a van and
took him to a safe place.
J. Edgar Hoover was in a frenzy over that. And the manhunt began.
Daniel was a constant thorn in their side: giving interviews with
the mainstream media, meeting with the Black Panthers, preaching at
Christian churches. And after each public appearance, he was
spirited away. He had a network of decent people who’d hide him and
feed him and move him on to the next station. Daniel reasoned that
the FBI doesn’t know anything about nonviolence as a way of life.
They are trained to apprehend violent criminals, and if you’re not
one, they can’t catch you. You can stay underground indefinitely.
Meanwhile, they caught me almost immediately, because I didn’t know
these things. [Laughter.]
How do you show love toward people who don’t share your convictions?
The Gospel requires us to love our enemies. I don’t know how good a
job I do at this, but I pray for all the killers in this society
every night before I sleep.
We are a
nation of killers. Thomas Merton used to write about the official
killers in American society: the White House, the Pentagon, the
Department of Energy (92 percent of the Department of Energy’s work
is for the Pentagon), even the Supreme Court, which sanctioned the
theft of the 2000 presidential election. And then there’s the
war-making corporations and the old veterans’ groups. You mention
anything about peace, and the veterans will climb right down your
throat. They’ll vilify you. I was on a call-in talk show in
Connecticut, and these old veterans would call in and say, “You
traitor son-of-a-bitch. If I could come down there, I’d pull your
We’ve got to
love all these guys and wish them well because God loves them. But
it’s hard to do sometimes.
You’ve said that you do not believe the institutions of this
country, including its churches, can provide real change. How do you
see real change happening?
Well, I began to work out this sketchy plan in prison. I asked
myself: Does this material beast have any weaknesses? How do you get
a handle on it? How do you curb it? How do you slow it down? After
reading about the Russian strike of 1905 and solidarity in Poland
and Gandhi’s work in India — all of which involved a general strike
— I decided that was the way to go. The beast’s only vulnerable
point is the economy. You’ve got to convince the American people of
the injustice of consuming eight times more than our share of what
the world produces. This country is like a huge mouth that’s being
stuffed all the time. A strike would address that, but it would need
to be buttressed by all sorts of direct action. As soon as I recover
from surgery, I’ll go out and start shooting my mouth off.