Father Dan Berrigan died yesterday (April 30, 2016). He was one of the leading lights of the antiwar and civil rights movements of the 60s and 70s. Father Berrigan continued his activism till the last days of his life, in recent years protesting against the latest imperialist ventures including the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
During his long struggle, he was imprisoned several times. He rose to international prominence when he, together with fellow activists, burnt the draft files of 378 people who would have been forced to join the army and kill innocent Vietnamese. For this and other acts of resistance, he was also featured on the cover of the Time Magazine in 1971.
Along-with Noam Chomsky and Edward Said, Berrigan was also an early critic of Israel. All the way back in 1973, when there were only a handful of prominent western critics of Israel, Father Berrigan said, “[It was a tragedy that] in place of Jewish prophetic vision, Israel should launch an Orwellian nightmare of double talk, racism, fifth-rate sociological jargon, aimed at proving its racial superiority to the people it has crushed’.
Finally, it is important to note that Father Berrigan, a believer in God, took part in efforts aimed at saving the lives of millions of people, and making the world a better place, together with his non-religious friends such as Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky. Both parties were humble enough to put aside inconsequential personal differences to fight for a bigger cause. If only some new-atheists could learn from this, rather than self-indulgently preening their so-called ‘higher intelligence and knowledge’.
Lastly, I want to share one of my all time favorite poems by Father Berrigan. In my view, this poem is right up there with the very best of left, protest poetry, in the same league as the best poems by Pablo Neruda, Faiz Ahmed Faiz and Sahir Ludhianvi.
Some stood up once
and sat down.
Some walked a mile
and walked away.
Some stood up twice
then sat down.
I’ve had it, they said
Some walked two miles
then walked away.
It’s too much, they cried
Some stood and stood and stood.
They were taken for fools
They were taken for being taken in.
Some walked and walked and walked
They walked the earth
They walked the waters
They walked the air.
Why do you stand
they were asked, and
Why do you walk?
Because of the children, they said, and
Because of the heart, and
Because of the bread.
Is the heart’s beat
And the children born
And the risen bread.
In his last years, with the imperialist machine killing millions in Afghanistan and Iraq, and going crazy in its blind power circus, father Berrigan confessed to having as little hope from the system as at any point in his long life. One can only imagine what he must have felt recently on seeing demagogues like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz on the one hand, and war-loving hawk like Hilary Clinton on the other, squabbling for the chance to shape our future according to their ugly visions.
However, the fact is that despite all the ugliness and apparent hopelessness, Father Berrigan was among those “some” who walked the road to the very end, and he did it for the children, the heart and the bread. May his spirit inspire some others.