On Saturday, April 30, peace activist and Jesuit Catholic priest Daniel Berrigan died at the age of 94. Berrigan was probably best known for his high profile protests of the Vietnam War, including multiple arrests for anti-war demonstrations. Most notably, Berrigan and fellow protesters seized draft records from an office in Maryland and burned them in the parking lot.
Berrigan was the “radical priest” memorialized in Paul Simon’s song “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard.” Colum McCann based the priest character of Father Corrigan in one of my favorite books, “Let the Great World Spin,” on Berrigan.
Put simply, Berrigan believed that true faith in Christ did not allow wars of global domination like Vietnam. He put his anti-war beliefs alongside all of his other Catholic tenets, like the sanctity of life and the duty to serve the sick and the poor. He was also a steely-eyed bad ass, who was not afraid to break the law or go to jail to make his point. Obviously, this makes him a divisive figure in the Vietnam Era.
As a post Vietnam baby I knew little of Berrigan until today, however. He and his brother Philip were well known during the civil strife of the 1960s and ’70s, but eluded my awareness until Daniel Berrigan’s death on Saturday.
Here’s Bob Collins from MPR’s NewsCut:
The way history is taught in many public schools, kids will never learn about the Vietnam War, which is a shame because they’ll never learn about people like Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest who was the face of opposition to a war that killed more than 50,000 Americans.
How true. My high school American history classes in the 1990s never quite reached the Vietnam War. They always faded into a vague mist around Korea. History teachers talked about Vietnam the way nervous health teachers talked about sex ed, or controversy-averse biology teachers talked about evolution.
Popular culture gave me perspective. But there was a big disparity between the movies “Born on the Fourth of July,” and “Apocalypse Now” which I rented with my pizza delivery money, and John Wayne’s “The Green Berets,” which is the one I watched with my grandpa.
Actually, the most I ever heard about the Vietnam War in college was my freshman year down in Dubuque, Iowa. My world history professor and I would take smoke breaks after class. She’d tell me about her brother who died in the war. It occurred to me that I interacted every day with middle aged people whose siblings were frozen in time at the age of 18, 19 or 20 — the same age I was then.
Of course, as some may know, Berrigan was born in Virginia, Minn., and his brothers were born in various towns along the Iron Range and North Shore. Their father Thomas Berrigan was a railroad engineer and labor leader.
In the last few days I’ve seen a few folks ascribe to the notion that it was his father’s Iron Range labor activism that set Berrigan on his path toward life as a radical peacemaker before the family moved to upstate New York. I’d argue it seems a lot more complicated than that.
In his 1987 autobiography, Daniel Berrigan talked about his Irish Catholic father as a violent, angry man whose rage ruled the household. His German-American mother kept the peace for her six sons and lived a life of quiet rebellion against her husband’s anger. Berrigan’s activism seemed more based on his desire to break free of the yolk of violence and authoritarianism.
“Early on,” he wrote, “we grew inured, as the price of survival, to violence as a norm of existence. I remember, my eyes open to the lives of neighbors, my astonishment at seeing that wives and husbands were not natural enemies.”
Berrigan would speak fondly of the Iron Range community as he remembered it. It would have been one place of solace in a difficult upbringing. But the 1920s Iron Range was a place of good and evil, too. Each household had its struggles. Each household still does.
Peace or war. We make this choice every day.
Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog MinnesotaBrown.com and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the May 8, 2016 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.