A Conversation with Philip Berrigan
Philip Berrigan died on December 6, 2002 after a brief
illness. As part of the Baltimore Four and the Catonsville Nine, he
helped lead the movement against the Vietnam war and spent several
years in prison in the early 1970s. In 1973, along with his wife
Elizabeth McAlister, he founded Jonah House, a community of
nonviolent resistance in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1980, with his
brother Daniel and the Plowshares Eight, he entered the G.E. nuclear
weapons plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, where he hammered on
an unarmed Mark 12A nuclear nosecone to "beat swords into
plowshares." By 2002, Phil Berrigan had spent over eleven years of
his life behind bars for anti-war and anti-nuclear demonstrations.
John Dear interviewed Phil Berrigan for "Fellowship" magazine in the Spring of 1993 in Oakland, California. Six months later, on December 7th, 1993, Phil and John, along with Lynn Fredriksson and Bruce Friedrich, went to Goldsboro, North Carolina, where they hammered on an F15-E nuclear-capable fighter bomber, and spent over eight months together in a county jail cell for their "Pax Christi-Spirit of Life Plowshares Action." For further information, see,www.johndear.org
John: The Gospels tell us to read "the signs of the times." What do you see as "the signs of the times," the essential questions confronting us now as people of justice and peace?
Phil: On the one hand, we have seen the disintegration of the Soviet Empire, and we need to be clear that it was an entirely different empire than our own. And then, of course, we have the situation in Eastern Europe and the introduction of democracy in the old Warsaw-pact nations.
On the other hand, we’re seeing the slow disintegration of the
American empire. We're going the same route as the Soviets. The U.S.
hoped that the arms race would bankrupt the Soviets and drive them
into submission to us because they couldn't support a war economy to
the extent that we could. They couldn't be an equal partner in the
arms race, that was our hope. Reagan used the term "roll back." We rolled the Soviet Union empire back into Western capitalism. So that happened but now we're going the same route as they did.
John: Could you describe what makes the United States an empire?
Phil: The central imperial ingredient is our possession and use of nuclear weapons. They are used partly to enforce our will
around the world, particularly in the third world and in aspects of
the fourth world, but in addition to that, they maintain the status
The military is the prime weapon of the administration, the
national leadership, to enforce the status quo at home. That means a
narrowing group of elite control more and more of the wealth.
One/two-hundredth of our people control thirty-seven percent of what
this country produces.
The military is the leading vehicle to continue this inequality.
They are slowly disintegrating the middle class and creating a
two-tiered society. That's happening right now. These are all
aspects of an empire in decline.
John: Many of us have been struggling to respond to a whole
variety of issues and injustices--from the death penalty and U.S.
intervention in Central America to homelessness and the Persian Gulf
war to racism and sexism--yet at the heart of all these problems is
the continued presence of nuclear weapons. What is our
responsibility in light of the government's continued willingness to
destroy the planet?
Phil: As they say, the bomb makes every other issue redundant. I believe that to be overwhelmingly true.
The fact that we are complicit in the presence of the bomb, because
we help pay for it, and that we allow its deployment and possible
use--and we have threatened to use it at least 25 times unilaterally
during the 47 years of the Cold War--destroys us spiritually,
morally, psychologically, emotionally and humanly, in a broad
Our complicity in the bomb makes us incapable of dealing with
lesser social and political problems that are in reality spin-offs
of our dedication to the bomb.
We have the intent (to use the old judicial expression) to use the
bomb under certain circumstances. The American people are drawn
into that. When they paid their income taxes on April 15th, they
paid for it. They also pay for it by their silence or by their
active involvement in warmaking (in a war plant) or by their active
involvement in the military.
So the bomb is destroying us spiritually, morally, psychologically,
emotionally and humanly.
John: What should our response be? What can we do about this?
Phil: The only conversion that is real today is a conversion
that accepts responsibility for the bomb.
This conversion turns one's life around so that one is free enough
to witness against this inhuman, incredibly wicked manifestation of
our demonization and our insanity.
We all have to take responsibility for the bomb. This conversion
and new responsibility will breed all sorts of life-giving, salvific
benefits in our lives. It will create the new human person, the new
creation, the just social order, that the scriptures speak about.
John: On Easter Sunday, 1991, you boarded the U.S.S.
Gettysburg at the Bath Ironworks in Maine and participated in a
plowshares action to begin the process of disarmament. What was your
Phil: We were two and a half hours on that hell ship at the
Bath Ironworks in Bath, Maine. The U.S.S. Gettysburg had returned
from sea trials and they were ironing out a few bugs and so it was
there at the Ironworks. It was completely unguarded and we went
aboard before dawn, at 4:30 in the morning. We had complete latitude
to do anything that we wanted to that ship.
But you have to keep the symbol clear. You have to restrain and
discipline yourself so that you don't go into an orgy of
destruction. It is important that the symbol speaks for itself,
rather than cluttering up or smothering the symbol by getting into
maximum destruction. Otherwise, people see the destruction and focus
on that rather than on the sense of responsibility towards that hell
ship and its counterparts in the Air Force or in the army.
So, we didn't do maximum destruction. We didn't go up to the bridge
or go the engine room even though we could have. There was nobody on
board the ship deterring us. We merely used blood and hammers on the
missile hatches. Then we went looking for security because there was
no security on the ship at all. We brought a sergeant back to the
ship and told him what we had done. Later on, he called the police
when we wouldn't leave and we were arrested.
John: Given this, how would you define our vocation to be
people of nonviolence, people of resistance, in these times?
Phil: Nonviolence in the best sense is a strict and
definitive social justice. It means putting into practice the one
law isolated by Paul in the letter to the Romans. He said, "You will
have fulfilled the law if you bear the burdens of one another." Paul
says in that same context that there is only one law, to love your
neighbor as you love yourself. In Matthew's Sermon on the Mount, the
neighbor includes your enemy.
God is perhaps most apparent to us and present to us through the
enemy--through the warmakers, who make nuclear hostages out of us;
through the politicians who lie to us; through the generals who
supposedly protect us yet in reality protect the rich; and on and on
and on. They're our true enemies and we have to love them and to
work for their conversion. All of that comes under the heading of
We are expected to do good, to do justice in our lives and we're
expected to resist evil. The scriptures, especially the New
Testament, make it very clear that evil has to do with systemic
evil, with major institutions which are the habitat of the
principalities and powers. And the state is the main power and
principality, especially an imperial state, our own government.
John: What is the role of community in this vocation of
Phil: Community is one of the convertibles of nonviolence and
resistance, which is to say they are the same thing from different
reference points. We can't imagine a true community without it being
dedicated to nonviolence and doing resistance to evil and to the
state. We really can't imagine a community without that.
Community building was the first public act of our Lord. That says
something about the priority Jesus laid upon community. This tiny
band of ragtag people were to be a kind of microcosm of the new
social order, the "kin-dom" of God, where people live as sisters and
brothers and treat one another with justice and love. Jesus placed
this primacy on community. After several years of instructing and
serving them, he risked being abandoned by them and being betrayed
by them and that happened.
One good commentator, an Englishman by the name of Dodd, writes
that Jesus won them over finally because he forgave them. After the
resurrection, Jesus forgave them, and they became disciples and
apostles because he forgave them.
John: You helped found and have been part of the Jonah House
community since 1973. What part does community play in your life of
Phil: I couldn't conceive of continuing to make peace without
having the blessing of community. On the one hand, it's a supremely
powerful human unit and on the other hand, it's the most fragile of
units. It depends upon the Spirit and a spirituality which is not so
much individual but communitarian, social, political and nonviolent.
I cannot imagine myself living apart from community.
We have agreed to resist war for the rest of our lives. We believe
this is a Gospel imperative. It's implicit in the command to love
We hold all things in common, according to the pattern of the Acts
of the Apostles. We do common work together. We share the drudgery
of community, such as the cooking or the laundry or cleaning up the
house or working to serve our poor neighbors (because we live in a
poor neighborhood). We are either constantly planning resistance or
John: Many people around the country and the world think the
problem with nuclear weapons is over, and yet it's not. What can you
suggest regarding the need to keep working for nuclear disarmament?
Phil: John Mitchell, Nixon's attorney general who went to
jail for Watergate, was once speaking to a bunch of journalists and
they were asking him questions and he grew exasperated with the
reporters and he said, "Stop listening to what we say and start
watching what we do!"
I think we ought to watch what they do and not so much what they
say because they consistently lie. They don't lie consciously. They
lie because they're involved with warmaking and war is a big lie.
Any adherence to war and any promotion of war will draw people into
lying. They lie without realizing it. Bush and Cheney lie without
realizing. They're involved in a huge lie. They're just expressing a
facet of this lie. They habitually lie.
Fiscal appropriations are very important. The fiscal appropriations
for 1993 are $282 billion dollars for warmaking. That is more than
the rest of the world spends on warmaking and here we are five
percent of the world's population. We've been doing this for years
and years. We've been leading the arms race and we've been
contaminating the world with this war fixation, this war mentality,
this business of war as economy and systemized structure.
So, I would say that we have to continue resisting war as long as
we live. The U.S. is claiming to be the only superpower in the world
and you don't maintain a superpower status unless you are armed to
the teeth. So, the U.S. will continue with weapons development, star
wars, and a permanent war economy, because to do otherwise, is to
shift the status quo and redistribute the wealth here in this
country. The last people who want to do that are the
one/two-hundredth who control thirty-seven percent of what the
country produces, and their representatives, the president and the
official terrorists in Washington. We need to keep resisting this
business of making war.
John: Many people say to me, "Nonviolent civil disobedience
is no longer needed. It's use in history is over." I tell them
that's not true. Would you agree that part of our nonviolent
resistance means we need to continue to risk arrest in opposition to
Phil: One way to look at our responsibility is from the angle
of law. We don't know anything about this law that we have. People
who purport to be Christians don't know anything about the biblical
treatment of law and the fact that human law is always under the
judgment of God because it's a sign of rebellion against God.
Nuclear weapons are legal, right across the board, from making and
processing them to running them through Pantex down in Amarillo,
Texas and deploying them. It's all legal, every step of the way.
What does this say about law? What does it say that we legalize
every measure that could destroy the world? What does it mean that
it is legal to destroy the world through toxic poisoning?
It says something about law. It's like the law under which Christ
was crucified. The rulers said, "We have a law and under this law,
he has to die." He was executed, legally.
John: You spoke recently here on Good Friday at the prayer
service and nonviolent demonstration out at Livermore Labs in
California about our call to become, like Jesus, "outlaws." What did
you mean by that?
Phil: I meant that we can't keep the law of God and keep
human law as it stands today in the imperial United States. We have
to make a choice between the two.
John: We have talked before about Gandhi's insight into
nonviolence, how he wrestled with power and powerlessness, and the
Gospel way of nonviolence which involves powerlessness. How do you
understand the role of power and powerlessness in our nonviolence?
Phil: We should recall as frequently as possible that the
temptations of Christ in the desert (as recorded by Matthew and
Luke), which are stereotypes of all human temptations, are really
temptations to power, whether religious, economic or political
power. We need to remember that our Lord did not succumb to those
temptations to power.
The alternative to succumbing to the temptation of power is to
embrace powerlessness. One then becomes an agency through which the
power of God can work. One becomes a vehicle for divine power. But
that means that the ego has to be suppressed along with its natural
instinct to power. We have to deny the self, take up the cross and
follow. We have to embrace powerlessness.
That means we have to place far more emphasis on the development of
human community rather than on the development of a mass movement
which would speak power to power. We have to avoid that assumption
(especially in a time of federal election) that "if our mass
movement is strong enough, then we'll get political change."
We're called to something different. We're called to serve the
poor, resist the state and be ignored, ostracized and sent to jail
because we do that.
John: Part of our nonviolent resistance means then risking
arrest and being willing to go to jail or prison. How does the
witness from jail and prison and that powerlessness speak to
Phil: This witness speaks to society because a person goes to
jail innocent. A person goes to jail condemned under a law which is
the fundamental problem. The law is the problem. It legislates
murder, exploitation, intervention--everything the American empire
is doing. All of it is made legal under the law. One is condemned
under that law. But we are to stand outside the law and become
That is something which is inescapable from the Gospels. Our Lord
was an outlaw. As Paul would say, Jesus was the only person without
sin and he was condemned under the law. In Galatians, Second
Corinthians, and Romans, Paul makes clear the judgment of God
against human law which condemned God's son.
Today, we are condemned to being hostages of the bomb. Legally,
we've been held hostage by the bomb for the last 47 years. If
nuclear war breaks out, it will all be legal. We'll be killed
legally. That's a commentary on the law and the essential nature of
John: We recently spent Easter Sunday together keeping vigil
out at the Concord Naval Weapons Station which stores nuclear
weapons and ships weapons around the world. What is your
understanding of resurrection in the age of nuclear weapons and the
Phil: Living out the resurrection today means turning away
from the violence in our lives and taking responsibility for the
violence of the state.
We don't often hear from Christians or theologians about the fact
that we are commanded in the New Testament to have a certain
relationship with the state. We are to hold the state accountable,
to resist the state and call it to justice to the point where it
evaporates from view and you know longer need it. We may only need
the state to help pick up the garbage, fix the potholes, deliver the
mail and do those innocuous chores. If we had our druthers, it would
go out of existence. We would have a community of sisters and
brothers living in justice and peace with one another.
We resurrect to the extent that we take responsibility for the
victims of the state. On the one hand, we have to take personal,
private and interpersonal responsibility in league with one another.
On the other hand, we have to take public, social and political
responsibility for the crimes of the state.
A voice for the victims has to be raised and we're in a position to
do that. That's what the denial of the self and taking up the cross
is about, becoming a voice for the victims of the state.
John: You often speak about the connection between hope and faith. How is hope connected with faith?
Phil: We are hopeful in so far as we are faithful. Having
faith means we haven't given up on the world. It's a very simple
concept. We tend to make it very complex but it's not. It's simple.
We haven't given up on the world. It's God's world and God has
certain, revealed plans for this world and its people. Together, we
are be part of the "kin-dom" of God, where people live as sisters
and brothers. When we believe that and live accordingly, we generate
hope. We are a hopeful people.
If we aren't living that life, acting on faith and generating hope,
we'd be despairing, hopeless or disbelieving but that's impossible
as long as we strive to act faithfully. Hope is automatic then.
As one theologian says about faith, "If we conclude that we are
faithless or do not have faith, we should try to act faithfully, to
act as if we have faith, and then we will have faith!"
We have faith because we act faithfully and God sanctions our
faithful action and reinforces our faith with grace. But it's up to us. We're free agents.
John: How would sum up your message today?
Phil: The disarmament of our nuclear weapons needs to be a
priority for us. Peacemaking needs to be our priority. Peacemaking
is not only a central characteristic of the Gospel. Peacemaking is
the greatest need of the world today.
We have to have peace. If we don't have peace, we have nothing. And
we don't have much of it yet. We don't have a peaceful relationship
with the environment or with one another or with other nations and
that means that we are really at war with God. If we can't handle
the exquisite creation that God has entrusted to us in stewardship,
if we can't have a peaceful and just relationship with creation and
with one another, how can we have a solid relationship with God?
If we can't have that peaceful relationship, we hold in contempt
the fact that we are really daughters and sons of God. But we are
daughters and sons of God, and that means we are called to be