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Chris Hedges reflects on Berrigan’s legacy as a writer and activist

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SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: It’s The Real News Network, I’m Sharmini Peries in Baltimore. Reverend Daniel. J Berrigan, a Jesuit priest and antiwar activist, died on Saturday April 30, 2016, at the age of 94 in New York. Father Berrigan became a prominent figure in the 1960s for his opposition to the Vietnam War, and for his radical interpretation of the scriptures. His participation in the Catonsville Nine, where nine catholic activists burned draft files to protest the Vietnam War on May 17, 1968, landed him on the FBI’s most wanted list, and on the cover of TIME magazine, and in prison. On to talk about the famous priest is Chris Hedges. Chris, thank you so much for joining us today. CHRIS HEDGES: Sure. PERIES: So Chris, in an interview that you did on The Real News Network’s on Reality Asserts Itself, you said that Berrigan was an influential figure in your life. Give us a view into his life through yours. HEDGES: Well, my father was a Presbyterian minister who was involved in the anti-Vietnam War protest, as a member of Concerned Clergy and Laity, which is a group that Berrigan founded. My family grew up very—although we were Protestant—very close to the Catholic Worker Movement, led by Dorothy Day, which Berrigan was intimately involved with. My father was also an activist in the civil rights movement; again, Berrigan was extremely—along with Phil Berrigan, active. So during my childhood in the 1960s, when I was a boy and being taken [by] my dad to these demonstrations, both Phil and Daniel Berrigan loomed very large as figures, Christian figures, who I would say did not radically interpret the gospel, but correctly interpreted the gospel, which is a radical document, and I speak as a seminary graduate. And [they] held fast to that radical message, even to the point of going to prison. PERIES: So Chris, what made him so prominent? Obviously this act of the Catonsville Nine is famous, but obviously he had a lifelong commitment to antiwar and peace activism. Tell us more about that. HEDGES: Well the thing about Daniel Berrigan, unlike his brother Phil, who was really the radical who pushed his younger brother forward, by Daniel Berrigan’s own admission, Berrigan was quite a fine poet. He was a prolific writer of radical theology. He loved Jeremiah, as I do. He wrote commentaries on the Bible, he wrote social commentaries from a radical Christian perspective. So he was, unlike Phil Berrigan, as important as an intellectual as he was an activist. Indeed I would argue that despite his activism, perhaps his most important contribution was as a writer. PERIES: And give us some insight into his writings and the kinds of things that he committed his academic life to. HEDGES: Well, you know, his academic life, as you could imagine, was sporadic. He managed to get pushed out of innumerable institutions from Cornell to Union Theological Seminary, because of his stances. He wouldn’t compromise with institutions, which he understood as the theologian Paul [unclear] once said are inherently demonic, including of course the Church. And he lived on the margins of the Catholic Church, was often targeted by the Church hierarchy. It’s kind of miraculous that he managed to survive as a priest. His brother Phil, who was also a priest, left the priesthood and married, although continued his activism, spending a total of eleven years in prison for anti-war activity. But Berrigan was part of that cadre of great theological thinkers, who applied the message of the gospel to American imperial power. He has a book called No Bars to Manhood that I like very much. And if you have a minute I can read you just a passage of it, just to give you a flavor of him. PERIES: Please do. HEDGES: And this passage I love and have quoted in my own books. He writes: “But what of the price of peace? I think of the good, decent, peace-loving people I have known by the thousands and I wonder. How many of them are so afflicted with the wasting disease of normalcy, that even as they declare for peace, their hands reach out with an instinctive spasm in the direction of their comforts, their home, their security, their income, their future, their plans, that 5 year plan of studies, that 10 year plan of professional status, that 20 year plan of family growth and unity, that 50 year plan of decent life, an honorable natural demise. Of course, “Let us have peace,” we cry. But at the same time, “Let us have normalcy, let us lose nothing, let our lives stand intact. Let us know neither prison nor ill-repute nor disruption of ties.” And because we must encompass this and protect that, and because at all costs—at all costs—our hopes must march on schedule. And because it is unheard of that in the name of peace a sword should fall. Disjointing that fine and cunning web that our lives have woven. Because it is unheard of that good men and women should suffer injustice or families be sundered or good repute be lost. Because of this we cry peace and cry peace and there is no peace. There is no peace because there are no peacemakers. There are no makers of peace because the making of peace is as 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.”


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Chris Hedges is a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist who was a foreign correspondent for 15 years for The New York Times, where he served as the Middle East bureau chief and Balkan bureau chief for the paper. He previously worked overseas for The Dallas Morning News, The Christian Science Monitor, and NPR. He is the host of show The Chris Hedges Report.