Dan was born on May 9, 1921 in Virginia, Minnesota, the fifth of six boys to Thomas and Frieda Berrigan. His family subsequently moved to Syracuse, New York, where the boys grew up attending Catholic grade schools. While he was in high school, inspired by his childhood friend, Jack St. George, Dan applied to become a member of the Society of Jesus. In 1939, along with his friend, Jack, Dan entered St. Andrew-on-the-Hudson, the Jesuit novitiate near Poughkeepsie, New York. With his classmates, he made the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, a thirty-day silent retreat; spent two years studying philosophy; went on to teach at St. Peter's Prep in Jersey City, New Jersey (from 1946-1949); and eventually, to study at Weston School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts (from 1949-1953).
Dan was ordained a priest on June 21, 1952. In 1953, he traveled to France for the traditional Jesuit sabbatical year known as "tertianship." There, his worldview expanded as he met the French "worker priests." He returned to teach at Brooklyn Prep until 1957, when he moved on to LeMoyne College, in Syracuse, New York, where he taught New Testament until 1962.
Denied permission to accompany his younger brother Philip, a Josephite priest, on a Freedom Ride through the South, Dan went to Paris on sabbatical in 1963, and then on to Czechoslovakia, Hungary and South Africa. On his return, he began to speak out against U.S. military involvement in Vietnam and co-founded the Catholic Peace Fellowship. In 1964, along with his brother Philip, A.J. Muste, Jim Forest and other peacemakers, he attended a retreat hosted by Thomas Merton at the Abbey of Gethsemani. Merton spoke about Franz Jagerstatter and the need for Christians to oppose war. In 1965, he marched in Selma, became assistant editor of "Jesuit Missions," and co-founded Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam. He traveled the country speaking out against the war.
In November, 1965, a young Catholic Worker named Roger LaPorte immolated himself in front of the United Nations. Because Dan spoke at a liturgy at the Catholic Worker shortly afterwards, his Jesuit superior and New York's Cardinal Spellman ordered him to leave the country immediately. Dan was exiled to Latin America. Instead of leaving the Jesuits or the church, he obeyed and went. After an enormous public outpouring of support, Dan returned and in late 1967 began teaching at Cornell University.
On October 22, 1967, Dan was arrested for the first time with hundreds of students protesting the war at the Pentagon. "For the first time," he wrote in his journal in the D.C. Jail, "I put on the prison blue jeans and denim shirt; a clerical attire I highly recommend for a new church."(1) In February, 1968, he traveled to North Vietnam with Howard Zinn and took cover in a Hanoi shelter as U.S. bombs fell around him. He assisted with the release of three U.S. air force personnel.
Then, as all the world learned, on May 17th, 1968, along with his brother Philip and eight others, Dan burned draft files in Catonsville, Maryland. "Our apologies, good friends," Dan wrote in the Catonsville Nine statement, "for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise."(2) After an explosive three day trial in October, he was found guilty. Catonsville was a turning point for Dan and many others, as Dan would write later:
The act was pitiful, a tiny flare amid the consuming fires of war. But Catonsville was like a firebreak, a small fire lit, to contain and conquer a greater. The time, the place, were weirdly right. They spoke for passion, symbol, reprisal. Catonsville seemed to light up the dark places of the heart, where courage and risk and hope were awaiting a signal, a dawn. For the remainder of our lives, the fires would burn and burn, in hearts and minds, in draft boards, in prisons and courts. A new fire, new as a Pentecost, flared up in eyes deadened and hopeless, the noble powers of soul given over to the "powers of the upper air." "Nothing can be done!" How often we had heard that gasp: the last of the human, of soul, of freedom. Indeed, something could be done, and was. And would be.(3)
From now on, the possibility of active, nonviolent resistance to war stood before the American public and believing communities. Scores of similar actions followed. Lines were drawn. Many denounced such actions as "illegal," "destructive," "scandalous." The churches in particular were horrified or impassive, but rarely laudatory. Nonetheless, the example was given and undergone. Dan had become a resister. He now read St. Paul's letters from prison in a new light. Perhaps, too, he began to read differently the life of Jesus, whom Gandhi called "the most active resister known to history, nonviolence par excellence."(4)
"We have assumed the name of peacemakers, but we have been, by and large, unwilling to pay any significant price," Dan wrote shortly after Catonsville. "And because we want the peace with half a heart and half a life and will, the war, of course, continues, because the waging of war, by its nature, is total--but the waging of peace, by our own cowardice, is partial...There is no peace because there are no peacemakers. There are no makers of peace because the making of peace is at least as costly as the making of war--at least as exigent, at least as disruptive, at least as liable to bring disgrace and prison and death in its wake."(5) Years later, he wrote, "The question for me, as peacemaking came to be a question, was one of soul, of center. The soul of peacemaking was simply the will to give one's life."(6)
Instead of turning himself in to prison in April, 1970, Dan went underground. For over four months, he traveled through the Northeast, speaking to the media, writing articles against the war, and occasionally appearing in public. Eventually, the F.B.I. tracked him down and arrested him one August morning at the home of theologian William Stringfellow on Block Island, off the coast of Rhode Island. He was brought to the Danbury, Connecticut Federal Prison where he spent eighteen long months. On June 9, 1971, while having his teeth examined, he suffered a massive allergic reaction to a misfired novacaine injection and nearly died. Finally, on February 24, 1972, he was released.
After the indictments and mistrial in Harrisburg, aimed especially against Philip and Elizabeth McAlister, Dan joined his family and friends in a new examination of the culture's violence and the biblical requirements of nonviolence. They looked long and hard at U.S. militarism and saw that underneath the Pentagon's war in Southeast Asia lay plans for the destruction of the planet. With Phil and Liz's newly formed Jonah House community, Dan embarked on resistance as a way of life. Throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, they were arrested repeatedly at the White House and the Pentagon for acts of nonviolent civil disobedience against U.S. nuclear policies.
"Our real shrines are nuclear installations and the Pentagon and the war research laboratories," Dan explains. "This is where we worship, allowing ourselves to hear the obscene command that we kill and be killed--a command which, it seems to me, is anti-Christ, anti-God. The mainline churches have joined this effort to make killing acceptable and normal--at least by silence."(7) The commands of Christ, on the other hand, could not be clearer: "No killing, no war, which is to say, above all, no nuclear weapons. And thence the imperative: Resist those who research, deploy or justify, on whatever grounds, such weaponry."(8)
On September 9, 1980, with Philip and six friends, Dan walked in to the General Electric headquarters in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania and hammered on unarmed nuclear weapon nosecones. They were arrested, tried, convicted and faced up to ten years in prison. Their "Plowshares" action opened a new chapter in the history of nonviolent resistance. It stepped further beyond Catonsville into the process of nuclear disarmament. More, it brought to life the biblical command of Isaiah: "They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again"(Isaiah 2:4). "All great moments are finally simple," Dan wrote of the action years later. "Why not, we asked our souls, why not us, our hands, our hammers? And if not us, who? So we took our small courage and our small household hammers in hand. It was, I need not add, a watershed hour for our lives--and who knows, perhaps also for the lives of others."(9)
On the stand, Dan testified to the Christian vocation of nonviolence:
The only message I have to the world is: We are not allowed to kill innocent people. We are not allowed to be complicit in murder. We are not allowed to be silent while preparations for mass murder proceed in our name, with our money, secretly...It's terrible for me to live in a time where I have nothing to say to human beings except, "Stop killing." There are other beautiful things that I would love to be saying to people. There are other projects I could be very helpful at. And I can't do them. I cannot. Because everything is endangered. Everything is up for grabs. Ours is a kind of primitive situation, even though we would call ourselves sophisticated. Our plight is very primitive from a Christian point of view. We are back where we started. Thou shalt not kill; we are not allowed to kill. Everything today comes down to that--everything. (10)
Since that first hammer fell, over fifty Plowshares actions have occurred around the country and the world. Dan continues to resist "Lord Nuke," as he names our idolatry. He regularly breaks the laws which legalize mass murder. His life of nonviolent resistance finds him in and out of handcuffs, police vans, courts, and jails. This rhythm of resistance allows him to taste "the slight edge of life death," his translation of resurrection.
"We resist because we believe and we believe because we keep resisting," Dan writes.(11) He is learning what St. Paul and the apostles had to learn--that following Jesus means peacefully, prayerfully, lovingly resisting the forces of death on behalf of life. The evil Christians oppose, Dan knows, are not human beings, but the structures and forces which normalize war and "the metaphors of death" into a way of life. Every follower of Jesus must resist these principalities and powers, from the Pentagon to the Riverside Research Institute to Livermore Laboratories. As Christian resisters confront the spiritual consequences of war and the empire's reign of death, they taste the spiritual consequences of nonviolence, the blessings bestowed on peacemakers. The duty, the obligation, the command remain today: resist, and keep on resisting. It is a lesson learned painfully over a lifetime.
Like St. Paul, Gandhi, Dorothy Day and other resisters, Dan is a writer. To date, he has published thirty four books of poetry, prose and drama. He writes about the truth and how we must do the truth because it's truthful. We must do the good simply because its good, he writes. Let go of results; get beyond success and efficiency; stand fast in the truth and leave the outcome in God's hands. Tell the truth and say your prayers. When the storm comes crashing down, stand fast.
In his search for truth, Dan offers a new vocabulary. Instead of evil, Dan spoke of "the abattoir," "anomie," and "acedia." He spoke of grace and fecundity as "lagniappe." As a writer, Dan was never, "so to speak," bromidic, mawkish, or incondite. His multifarious books comprise a pastiche of everything, yet at center, a concinnous summons to faith, hope and love. His vocabulary inveigled the reader to reflection and beyond to action. Dan's first book of poetry, Time Without Number, won the 1957 Lamont Poetry Award and was nominated for the National Book Award. His early books include The Bride: Essays in the Church; Encounters; The Bow in the Clouds; The World for Wedding Ring; No One Walks Waters; They Call Us Dead Men; Love, Love at the End; and False Gods, Real Men. His 1967 book, Consequences: Truth and ... chronicled his journeys to Selma, South Africa and Latin America. His diary, Night Flight to Hanoi, records journey to North Vietnam
After Catonsville, Dan writing took a new urgency. His passion urged others to resist war. No Bars to Manhood chronicled his own story but included fiery essays on the scriptures, "the times," Gandhi, and the need for civil disobedience. His play, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, perhaps Dan's most well-known work, brought the testimony of resistance to audiences around the country and the world. The Dark Night of Resistance, written during the months when Dan was underground, offers St. John of the Cross' "Dark Night of the Soul" imagery as a guide for resisters. With Robert Coles, he published The Geography of Faith, "conversations while underground." America Is Hard to Find gathered together his letters and articles from prison, while Trial Poems and Prison Poems offered his hopes for prisoners and for peace. Lights On in the House of the Dead, his journal from Danbury prison, records his day to day prison struggles and reflections. Selected and New Poems, published in 1973, collects the best of his poetry until then. Absurd Convictions, Modest Hopes, a collection of interviews with Lee Lockwood, tells in detail the story of Dan's life underground, on trial and in prison, with all the pain and hope of those tumultuous days.
After he emerged from prison, Dan explored the roots of faith and resistance. His book with Thich Nhat Hanh, The Raft Is Not the Shore, records their conversations on peacemaking from Christian and Buddhist perspectives. A Book of Parables retells familiar biblical tales from new angles. Chapters include: "The Prison Letters of Cain," "The Patience of Job in Detroit," "A Brief Press Conference with God on the Fate of a Favorite Son," and "Jeremiah or God is a Downer." In Uncommon Prayer, Dan interprets the poetry of the Psalms in light of our nuclear madness as pleas for disarmament and liberation. In Beside the Sea of Glass and The Nightmare of God, Dan unpacks the book of Revelation as a manifesto of radical discipleship to the nonviolent Christ for those living in empires. In The Words Our Savior Gave Us, he meditates on the Lord's prayer for our times. In Whereon to Stand: The Acts of the Apostles and Ourselves, he reflects about the early church as a community of resisters, models for our own active nonviolence. The Discipline of the Mountain delves poetically into Dante's Purgatorio as a metaphor of the world on the brink of nuclear destruction.
In the last twenty years, Dan has published journals and accounts of his lifework. We Die Before We Live chronicles his work among the dying at St. Rose's home in New York City. Sorrow Built a Bridge shares his friendship with AIDS patients. Steadfastness of the Saints recounts his 1984 pilgrimage to El Salvador and Nicaragua. The Mission records his experience as an advisor on the set of the motion picture about the Jesuit Reductions in South America. Portraits tells of his friends and mentors, including Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day. Stations offers stark verse meditations on the modern day stations of the cross lived out by Christ in the homeless poor. Block Island gathers together poems written at the late William Stringfellow's island hermitage. Ten Commandments for the Long Haul muses on the years after his release from prison and shares the biblical lessons he has learned. His autobiography, To Dwell in Peace, published in 1988, chronicles the story of his life. Though panned by reviewers as "unAmerican," it remains a classic of resistance literature. Like most of his books, it quickly fell out of print. Despite this neglect from publishers, Dan carries on, saying what need to be said as only he can say it.
Dan was influenced by the French Worker priest movement but even more so by the extraordinary peacemakers, Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day. He marched in Selma and heard Dr. King define the church "as the place you go from." Throughout the years, as he taught, wrote and spoke out for justice and peace, he did so in defense of the poor and marginalized. Over the years, he has accompanied those dying of cancer and AIDS; stood with the homeless; walked with the oppressed in South Africa, Central America, Eastern Europe, Russia, Middle East and Ireland; supported dignity for gays and equality for women; and guarded the unborn and those on death row.
Throughout his public journey, Dan has suffered for this public stand for justice and peace. Church leaders, Jesuits, reporters, politicians, the F.B.I., and all sorts of ordinary people have attacked him for his witness. Besides his arrests and imprisonment, two events provoked the loudest outburst. His words of consolation at a private Mass at the Catholic Worker in November, 1965 shortly after the self-immolation of Roger LaPorte prompted Jesuit superiors and New York's Cardinal to order Dan out of the country and into exile in Latin America. His October, 1973 speech to the Association of Arab University Graduates, criticizing Israel's oppression of the Palestinians and its vocation to be a nonviolent people caused an explosive outrage and closed off his access to the media, publishers and audiences.
Despite this hostility toward him, Dan persists with his quiet, modest witness for justice and peace, in season and out. Whether attracting national media coverage or ignored by everyone, Dan keeps on. Like his great friends Merton and Day, he takes a consistent, faithful stand for life. His faithful persistence may be his greatest legacy.
Fidelity, Dan insists, means taking Jesus at his word. "Blessed are the peacemakers. Love your enemies. Love one another. Put down your sword. Be compassionate like God." Jesus stands at the center of Dan's life. Over and over again, Dan speaks of Jesus and keeps that memory green:
Once there was a dead man, a criminal, a subject of capital punishment. And lo! he refused to stay dead. He stood up. As the authorities shortly came to sense, this was an earthquake in nature; in the nature of law and order, in the nature of death, the nature of war. For in the nature of things, as defined by the nation state (a great one for deciding what the nature of things is)--dead people stay dead. The word from Big Brother, the word that gives him clout, inspires fear, is--A criminal, once disposed of, stays disposed!Not at all; along come these crazies shouting in public, "Our man's not dead; He's risen!" Now I submit you can't have such a word going around, and still run the state properly. The first nonviolent revolution was, of course, the Resurrection. The event had to include death as its first act. And also the command to Peter, "Put up your sword." So that it might be clear, once and for all, that Christians suffer death rather than inflict it.(12)
While he was underground, Dan wrote a famous open letter to the "Weathermen," the underground group of violent anti-war rebels. "The death of a single human is too heavy a price to pay for the vindication of any principle, however sacred," Dan observed.(13) His message hit home. They stopped their violence.
In a similar open letter to Ernesto Cardenal of the Solentiname community in Nicaragua, he again respectfully laid out the biblical mandate of nonviolence. "Alas, I have never seen anyone morally improved by killing; neither the one who aimed the bullet, nor the one who received it in his or her flesh."(14)
Once, while traveling in Europe, an internationally know moral theologian announced: "The Berrigans are off base; they are talking about the Sermon on the Mount as though it were realizable now. What we really need is an ethic of the interim." Dan commented later: "An ethic of the interim, as I understand it, would allow us to fill the gap between today and tomorrow with the bodies of all who must die, before we accept the word of Christ. On the contrary, I think the Sermon on the Mount concerns us here and now, or concerns us never. In whatever modest and clumsy a way, we are called to honor the preference of Christ for suffering rather than inflicting suffering, for dying rather than killing; in that sense, all 'interim ethics' have been cast aside. The time to obey is now."(15)
A gifted writer and a prophetic voice, Dan is a born teacher. In classrooms across the country, from Lemoyne College to Cornell University, to the Graduate Theological Union at University of California at Berkeley and Union Theological Seminary, to DePaul University and Loyola University-New Orleans, Dan has been sharing his wit and wisdom. His courses have evolved over the years from "Dogmatic Theology" to "Faith and Nonviolence" and "The Poetry and Literature of Prisoners." Throughout his journey, he has deepened his love of the Bible and its application to the struggle for justice and peace. In recent years, he has studied the book of Isaiah, the Psalms, the apocalyptic writings of Daniel, the minor prophets, the Gospel of Mark, the Acts of the Apostles, and the book of Revelation.
In countless retreats across the country, Dan has shared his insights and opened up the wisdom of the scriptures to thousands of people. Nearly every weekend, Dan can be found at some podium quietly reflecting on the Word of God.
As a writer, speaker, teacher, and ultimately, a believer, Dan fits well within his home in the Society of Jesus. Dan entered the Jesuits intrigued by their revolutionary history and remains just as intrigued today, fifty-five years later, despite many ups and downs. When Thomas Merton first met Dan at the Abbey of Gethsemani in the early 1960s, Merton wrote in his journal (subsequently published as Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander) that Dan is "an altogether winning and warm intelligence and a man who, I think, has more than anyone I have ever met the true wide-ranging and simple heart of the Jesuit: zeal, compassion, understanding, and uninhibited religious freedom. Just seeing him restores one's hope in the church," Merton concluded.(16) In a letter to a friend afterward, (on September 20, 1962) Merton wrote: "Daniel Berrigan...is a man full of fire, the right kind, and a real Jesuit, of which there are not too many, perhaps.... He is alive and full of spirit and truth. I think he will do much for the church in America and so will his brother Phil, the only priest so far to have gone on a Freedom Ride. They will have a hard time, though, and will have to pay for every step forward with their blood."(17)
Within the Jesuits, unfortunately, Dan has been ignored and ostracized. I think he represents the best of the Jesuit ideal--a broad vision, a desire for God's greater glory, a dedication to the universal good, sacrifice, detachment, a sense of mission, and devotion to Jesus--and his example is especially challenging to Jesuits. When the Central American Jesuits called upon North American Jesuits to stand in solidarity with them as they face opposition for their denunciation of injustice, Dan responded and journeyed to Nicaragua and El Salvador to learn and listen to the suffering peoples and our noble Jesuit brothers. Five years later, when Ignacio Ellacuria and the Jesuits of El Salvador, along with Elba and Celina Ramos, were assassinated on November 16, 1989, Dan was shocked and outraged by their martyrdom but equally proud and challenged by the witness of their blood. Teaching at Loyola University in New Orleans at the time, he joined people of faith to protest U.S. military aid to El Salvador. With two other Jesuits and several other friends, he staged a sit-in in the elevators of the fifteen story Federal Building. As people blocked entrances to Federal Buildings around the country, Dan's witness helped send a loud and clear message: Not one more dime for death squad governments.
Since the early 1970s, Dan has lived at the West Side Jesuit Community in New York City. His apartment walls are covered with bright artworks, icons, and pictures of "the cloud of witnesses" he has known during his life. He is well known for his gourmet cooking, his humor, interest in others, and caring service to community members who are ill. Dan makes living in community a blessing. He remains the best of Jesuits.
A resister to state-sanctioned violence and a dedicated advocate of justice, Dan remains a contemplative. He can be a peacemaker because he takes private time with the God of peace. He tends to the roots of the spiritual life. He offers the Eucharist, leads thousands in retreats, and spends time in silence and solitude. This grounding in contemplative prayer gives Dan the strength to stand publicly for peace. It enables him to go forward and take risky action. It makes him hopeful, generous, forgiving and joyful. In this prayer, Dan fulfills his vocation not only to resist institutionalized violence but to keep watch for the nonviolent coming of God in our midst.