How I Failed the Berrigan Test

The Berrigan brothers, Daniel and Philip, both Catholic priests, were leaders in the anti-war and anti-draft movements during the Vietnam War. Daniel, an intellectual and a theologian, complemented Philip’s political and social activism. Along with seven other Catholic protesters, they burned the records of the Catonsville draft board and spent time in jail. Come to explore, through their writings and resistance, how their life-long devotion to peace and social justice aligns with our Unitarian Universalism principles.

Sermon Text by Jim Richardson


This morning, I would like to talk about prophets, courage and forgiveness, and two brothers, Philip and Daniel Berrigan, who were both Catholic priests and leaders in the anti-war and anti-nuclear protests in the United States. It’s a lot to undertake, I agree, especially since I would like to save a few minutes at the end for you to share your thoughts.

You are probably unaware that our fellowship has a connection, admittedly a somewhat weak one, with the Berrigans. Years ago, Jim Bank, our minister, mentioned in one of his sermons that he personally knew Phil Berrigan, and that he had once painted Jim’s house when he lived in Baltimore. I remember feeling aghast hearing this. Philip Berrigan, a house painter; he’s famous! What’s he doing painting a house? Now that I know more about his life, it doesn’t seem to me so extraordinary.

In 2002, when Philip died, Rev. Dan Higgins, our minister, (who is the reason Martha and I became UUFE members), and a good friend and neighbor, asked me if I would like to go with him to Philip’s funeral in Baltimore. I will never forget that day. The huge downtown Catholic church was filled, and there was only standing room left when we finally got inside. At the beginning of the service, a beautiful procession of bird-like constructions made of colorful fabric and carried on the top of tall slender poles, moved down the main aisle to the sound of music. Many members of the Berrigan family spoke, including his brother, Daniel. The place seemed alive and full of love; it was truly a celebration of his life.

Afterwards, Dan Higgins and I waited in a long line to receive refreshments at the parish house. While we were waiting, a homeless man approached and joined us in line. I politely informed the man that the line was for people who had attended the funeral, friends of Philip Berrigan – not just for anyone.

Now it’s important to put this comment into context; Phil and his wife, Elizabeth, founded Jonah House in 1973, a faith-based community centered on the concept of non-violence, resistance, and community. I repeat,  community! I’m certain now that Phil would have much preferred homeless people standing in his line over privileged people like me. Dan Higgins, who stood over six feet tall, immediately looked down on me, glowering with his fierce eyes and thick dark eyebrows, clearly disappointed. He then turned to the man and assured him that he was welcome to stay. This morning, I confess in front of all of you , I failed the Berrigan test.

Another connection between our congregation and the Berrigans is by way of my sister, Jean, who is the director of Kirkridge Retreat Center in Bangor, Pennsylvania. For many years, the retreat center hosted annual workshops led by Dan Berrigan up until his death two years ago.  Several times Jean had invited me to Kirkridge to meet this famous peace activist and poet, but I could never find the time. Another regret. When she learned I was preparing a talk about the Berrigans, she sent me a book, Daniel Berrigan, Essential Writings, and put me in contact with some of his close friends living in New Jersey, Peter and Kathy Wise.

Finally, and most importantly, the Berrigan brothers’ principles of fighting for peace and justice and their vision of working for a better world, fully align with our own UU Principles: The inherent worth and dignity of every person. Justice, equity and compassion in human relations. Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth. A free and responsible search for truth and meaning. The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process. The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all. Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part. The Berrigan brothers’ lives not only centered around these principles, they embraced them.

A brief history of events: In 1967, Phil and three others poured blood on Baltimore Selective Service records at the Customs House and became known as ‘The Baltimore Four.’ Before being arrested, Phil  addressed draft board employees, “This sacrificial and constructive act is meant to protest the pitiful waste of American and Vietnamese blood in Indochina.” For this, he was sentenced to six years in prison.

On May 17, 1968, Philip, Daniel, and seven others were arrested for burning 378 draft records – with homemade napalm – outside the draft office in Catonsville, Maryland. They became known as ‘The Catonsville Nine,’ one the best known of the anti-war protests during the Sixties. They stated, “We confront the Roman Catholic Church, other Christian bodies, and the synagogues of America with their silence and cowardice in the face of our country’s crimes. We are convinced that the religious bureaucracy in this country is racist, is an accomplice in this war, and is hostile to the poor.” Shortly thereafter, they were arrested by the F.B.I. and sentenced to three and a half years in prison.

In 1969, I had just enrolled in graduate school at the U. of Wisconsin at Madison in hopes that I could somehow avoid the draft. I was twenty-two, scared, and feeling very much alone. Like other young men at that time, I thought about escaping to Canada or going to jail. But in the end, I didn’t have the courage to do either. At the same time, I learned that a man named Philip Berrigan was also living in Madison, only he was in jail awaiting trial with thirteen other men. In the fall of 1968, they had been arrested for taking 10,000 draft files from the Milwaukee draft board and burning them in a public square. They were known as ‘The Milwaukee 14,’ and most of them spent time in jail.

As many as thirty non-violent Berrigan brother-led actions followed between the years of 1968 and 1975 in protest of the Vietnam war. They included ‘The D.C. Nine,’ ‘The Boston Eight,’ ‘The Buffalo Five,’ ‘The Harrisburg Seven,’ and ‘The Camden 28 Group.’

Twelve years later, with the Vietnam war finally at an end, Philip, his brother Daniel, and six others started what became known as the ‘Plowshares Movement’ – an active resistance group with the goal of putting an end to the country’s nuclear weapons program. Philip said, “The Plowshares movement began, and must continue, because the government has no intention of disarming its nuclear arsenal. Atomic weapons protect the rich and powerful. That’s why they were designed, built, tested, and deployed. That’s why the establishment is willing to threaten other countries, and our own people, with atomic annihilation.”

In September, 1980, Dan and Phil, along with six others, entered the General Electric Nuclear Missile Division in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, where warhead nose cones were manufactured. There, the activists hammered on nose cones, poured blood on documents, and offered prayers for peace. They were arrested and charged with ten different felony and misdemeanor counts. Since then, there have been over seventy similar Plowshares actions against weapons around the world. Altogether, Phil spent eleven years of his life in prison. It seems a prophet never loses his vision.

Speaking of prophets, back in January, the Rev. Diana Davies delivered a sermon entitled, “Procrastinators, Predictors, and Prophets.” In it, she asked the question, “What does it mean to be a prophetic person? It doesn’t mean to ignore the future or to prepare for it. Prophets are neither grasshoppers nor ants. They interfere with the future. They actively mess with it, not based on predictions but regardless of them. The thing about prophets is that they don’t just tell the future, they have a vision of a better future, a better world, and they use their words and actions to make that vision real. Prophets may be scorned, mocked, even killed, but they remain firm in their vision of a more just and loving tomorrow.”

She goes on to say, “In the words of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah, the prophet is the one who calls people to cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” Her words got me thinking and I asked myself, do I know any prophetic people that fit this description? Are there modern-day prophets that have walked this earth during my life-time?

For me, Phil and Dan Berrigan fit Rev. Davies description of a prophet. It was their commitment to end the Vietnam war and their willingness to sacrifice years of their lives in jail in order to achieve peace, that drew me to them. Again, in the words of the prophet, Isaiah, the prophet is the one who calls people “to cease to do evil, learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.”

Dan Berrigan was an award-winning poet, (he won the Lamont Poetry Prize), and a prolific writer. He published over 60 books of poetry, essays, journals and scripture commentaries, as well as a best-selling play, “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine,” The play later became a movie directed by Gregory Peck.

Dan did his best to protect life, whether in the womb, in a death row cell, or in a war zone. In an open letter to a radical group called the Weather Underground that had turned to using bombs as a means of protest, Dan wrote, “No principle is worth the sacrifice of a single human being.”

His contemplative and quiet manner balanced his brother’s fierce and impatient nature. According to his friends, Peter and Kathy Wise, community and friendship were very important to Dan. Despite being a legend, (he and his brother were pictured on a Time magazine cover, and Dan had been on the F.B.I.’s Most Wanted list), they described him as a humble man, a great listener, and someone who possessed a good sense of humor. They told me about visiting him along with other invited guests when he lived in Manhattan, in an apartment he shared with several other Jesuit priests. It had a big picture window that looked on the lights of Broadway. Later, when the priests were evicted by their landlord, they visited Dan at his Greenwich Village apartment whose walls were covered with posters and paintings and a room filled with sculpture. On the inside of the toilet seat lid, they remember, was a picture of Cardinal Spellman, an outspoken supporter of the Vietnam War and long-time critic of social activism, dressed in military fatigues.

Peter and Kathy also told me about the time Dan was asked to deliver the commencement speech at the Xavier High School in New Jersey. As a poet and one who also had a great sense of theater, the only words he spoke to these young people before he sat down were these; “Know where you stand and stand there.” I wish I could have heard those words as a student.

Near the end of his life, Peter and Kathy told me that Dan underwent many surgeries. Before one of these procedures, he was visited by a surgeon. “Are you Dan Berrigan, the Dan Berrigan?” the doctor asked.

“Yes,” Dan replied hesitantly, unable to determine if the man agreed with his political actions or not.

“You may have saved my life,” the surgeon smiled reassuringly. “You burned my draft records in Catonsville and made it possible for me to attend medical school.”

I’ve also learned from my conversation with Peter and Kathy, that the Berrigan family continues their struggle against nuclear arms even though both Dan and Phil are now gone. At seventy-eight, Elizabeth McAlister, Philip’s wife and, along with him, the founder of Jonah House in Baltimore, is currently in jail in St Mary’s, Georgia, awaiting trial for protesting with six others on April 4th, at the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base. Calling themselves the ‘Kings Bay Plowshares,’ they were detained after entering the base without authorization and vandalizing areas by spray painting messages such as “love one another” and “repent,” hanging banners with messages about genocide and nuclear weapons, and splashing a red liquid on buildings and signs. According to newspaper reports, there was no damage or threat to military assets and no one was injured. The activists picked the anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, they said, because he devoted his life to addressing “militarism, racism and materialism.” The judge that arraigned the group assigned a $50,000 bond to each of the seven members. In the meantime, I’ve also learned that, while in jail, they have been denied books and other items of comfort. The only things they can receive from the outside world are plain white postcards with written messages.

If you are interested in writing a few words of encouragement to Elizabeth McAlister or any of the other protesters, I can provide you with the postcards and an address for where to send them after the service.

Peace, Shalom.




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