Remembering Phil Berrigan

I first met the late Phil Berrigan in January of 1970 at the age of 20. I had joined the Catholic Left a month before and was actively involved in preparations for an early February, non-violent raid on three draft board offices in Philadelphia, followed the next night by a non-violent raid on the offices in Washington, D.C. of war corporation General Electric. Phil came to the house in Philadelphia where we were making our preparations. I can still see him standing at the foot of the stairs as I came down them, a very imposing, handsome man with a wonderful, winning smile.

But it wasn’t until a year and a half later that I really got to spend time with him, after we had both been indicted as defendants in the Harrisburg 8, “Kissinger kidnapping,” conspiracy trial. For about five months I was with him behind bars, primarily at Danbury federal prison in Connecticut. Those charges were eventually dropped.

Phil Berrigan was a highly motivated, dedicated, non-violent revolutionary. At Danbury he organized two study groups, one that met Monday and Wednesday and another that met Tuesday and Thursday. I was privileged to be invited by Phil to be part of both. I don’t remember a great deal of what we discussed, but I do remember one book that Phil was able to get for us all to read, Sisterhood Is Powerful. Phil and his brother Dan, also present at Danbury, helped me and others to understand the importance of combating sexism.

While very serious, Phil was also quick to laugh. I remember his boisterous laugh while watching a movie one evening with him and hundreds of other prisoners.

Phil had no illusions about what we were up against. He used the term, “ruling class,” not rhetorically but to describe the enemy we are facing. He certainly had no illusions about the Democratic Party.

But by 1973 I had developed differences with Phil and others around him over the tactical wisdom of continuing to organize small-group, illegal, non-violent direct actions. I felt they were not having much impact as far as reaching and educating broad numbers of the American people about the need for fundamental change. Following a face-to-face discussion and several months of correspondence with Phil in 1974, I decided to write what I called “An Open Letter of Resignation from the Catholic Left,” which was printed in Win Magazine, a major movement publication at the time.

Phil was the “foil” for my letter. I referred to the correspondence we had been having. My major point was that we needed “political organizing,” not “moral witness, ‘purified’ actions.”

But I did more than this. The way in which I wrote the article left little room for ambiguity or continuing dialogue. It was essentially an arrogant article, and the result was that for literally 18 years, I had virtually no contact with Phil and his wife and former Harrisburg co-defendant Elizabeth McAlister.

18 years later I found myself sitting on the steps of the U.S. Capitol on something like the 20th day of what turned out to be a 42-day, water-only fast between September 1 and October 12th, 1992 in protest of the official celebrations of the Christopher Columbus Quincentennial. I began talking with a young woman, Michele Naar, who had recently joined in on the fast and who, it turned out, was living in Jonah House in Baltimore with Phil and Liz. I learned that there were now three children, one of them 17 years old, who had come along into the Berrigan/McAlister family.

I was very affected by this news. I think I was particularly struck because I was on this long fast, and on long fasts you have the time and the inclination to reflect upon things you might not reflect upon otherwise. And coming face to face with the reality that Phil and Liz now had a child who was almost as old as I was when I first met them really hit home.

I knew that I had to take an initiative to correct this situation and, after the fast had ended, began communications with Phil and Liz. Within a fairly short time this led to a reestablishment of our friendship, a highlight of which was an overnight stay with them at a time when all three of their children were present. Although they were continuing to organize Plowshares non-violent direct actions, and I was doing my independent politics organizing, there was no tenseness, no sense that we were anything other than brothers and sisters working together along parallel tracks towards a common objective of a world free of war, sexism, racism and exploitation.

And now Phil, a warrior for peace, has passed on to his eternal glory.

Phil and those of his generation like him were heroes to me as a young person. They were models, examples, people I looked up to and followed. They helped to get me onto the road of struggle for justice and for this I will always be grateful.

But via my interactions with Phil, and my eventual coming to grips with my youthful arrogance, I learned another important lesson: the need to respect differences on this road of struggle, to resist thinking that my way is THE way, to develop the humanity and humility which Phil’s God, the God he believed in, wants us to develop.

This is not just a spiritual or a personal lesson. It is also a political lesson.

It is not easy to stay positive and hopeful in the world we are living in. And if we are not positive and hopeful models, there is little chance we will be able to help others find the courage to stand up for their rights and for justice.

The movement for justice and human liberation is full to overflowing with examples of political, tactical or personal differences keeping us separated, at best, if not at each other’s throats. What about if we all made a New Year’s resolution for 2003 that we’re going to consciously work to function differently?

Let’s approach our work with the certainty that comes from knowing we are on the right side of history, on the side of suffering humanity and a damaged eco-system, but with the openness and humility that comes from understanding what we are up against and the urgency of the situation the whole world is facing. We might be surprised at the results.