Fifty years ago, on Sunday, August 3, 1970, the Reverend Daniel J. Berrigan stepped up to the pulpit of the United Methodist Church of Germantown, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and gave the sermon below.
Berrigan, a Jesuit, pacifist, and dedicated anti-Vietnam War activist, was also a fugitive at the time as a member of the Catonsville Nine, who had been charged with the destruction of draft papers at a Selective Service office in Catonsville, Maryland on May 17, 1968. So Berrigan’s attendance came as something of a surprise.
Just two months before the nation had erupted in the largest student strike in U.S. history in the aftermath of the killing of students and protesters at Kent State on May 4 and Jackson State on May 14.
In Witness to the Revolution, author Clara Bingham wrote that by this time in the summer of 1970 the “country was coming unhinged.”
“If you didn’t experience it back then,” Nixon aide Stephen Bull told Bingham, “you have no idea how close we were, as a country, to revolution.”
At the pulpit on August 4, Father Berrigan argued that the overwhelming need to end the Vietnam War and the repression in the U.S. led to “such times as make it increasingly impossible for Christians to obey the law of the land and to remain true to Christ,” in an extraordinary moral call to action that remains powerful and more relevant than ever in the year 2020. Berrigan was caught eight days later, on August 11, 1970. – RR
Dear friends, I must thank first of all so many who have made this morning possible, that I should be in a church with my fellow Christians in such circumstances as my life has brought me to.
I come to you freely in the name of all those who have said no to this war – from prison, from the underground, from exile, from the law courts, from death itself.
I do not hesitate to say in the light of the readings we have heard from Scripture, that I come to you also in the name of the unborn to present on an ordinary Sunday morning to fellow Christians the scandal of one who lives outside the law; the added scandal of one whose brother, also a priest, is in federal prison, the first political prisoner in our history who was a priest.
To present you with a further scandal that I have refused to submit before the law, and to go to prison myself, and that I am hunted and underground for the duration of the war at least.
To suggest to you that my life may open questions also for yours, for your families, for your work, for your attitude to human life and deaths, especially the death of children and the innocent.
We heard this morning that tale of the great men of old, who suffered persecution in their time, who in the Old and New Testament were such witnesses to the truth as to become part of that truth itself, so that we may now hear of their lives and deaths as God’s word.
In such men and women it seems to me again and again the truth of human life was made flesh, and the flesh that declared that truth was the flesh of man, often violated, exiled, despised, ostracized by the powers, unable to come to terms with the caesars of church and state.
Men and women who endured life and endured deaths because they believed.
Dear friends I believe we are in such times as make such demands on us also, I believe we are in such times as make it increasingly impossible for Christians to obey the law of the land and to remain true to Christ. And this is the simple word that I bring to you as a brother in Christ. I bring it with a full consciousness that in bringing it I increase my own jeopardy. But I bring it as I stated before from my brother in prison, from all my brothers in prison, from all of those who suffer because children and the innocent die.
We are told that some thirty years ago when the Nazis had occupied Denmark, the ministers of religion made an agreement among themselves that week after week they would mount their pulpits with a common project in mind, that is to say that they would go before the people with the word of God in order to translate the lies of the times, all of that hideous language of blood purity and of the liberation of people through death, and of the thousand year kingdom of the racist fuhrer, and of blood purity, and of Jews who must be eliminated in order to obtain or to keep that purity. And of the cult of violence and blood and death, and of the captivation of the churches as good civil servants of the state.
All of this, week after week, the people found translated to the vital truth that saves. Week after week the liars were unmasked. Week after week the Jews were protected. Week after week men, women, and children went on living, supported in hiding, gotten out of the country, saved from the executioners.
Dear friends how do we translate in our lives the bombing of helpless cities? How do we translate in our lives the millionth Vietnamese peasant perishing?
How do we translate to the truth of our lives, the one hundred thousandth village burned? How do we translate to our lives, in the light of our Bible, the millionth refugee rounded up? How translated to the truth of this morning’s text the fifty thousand children napalmed? How to translate on this summer morning the fifty thousand American dead? How to translate the perfidy of the Tonkin resolution or the tiger cages open?
Perhaps we have no translation. Perhaps our lives are meant to go as usual. Perhaps for us there will be no suffering. Perhaps our moral equipment allows no limit to the death of the innocent.
Perhaps we will continue to link our lives not with the great men whose lives are commended to us today, but to link our lives with the obedient American Christians with the good, obedient German Christians under the Nazis, with the good, obedient South African Christians under the racist state, with the good, obedient Brazilian Christans, with the good, obedient police state of Greece.
I do not know, because regretfully I do not know you. But for my brother and myself the choice is already made. We have chosen to be powerless criminals in a time of criminal power. We have chosen to be branded as peace criminals by war criminals.
This is how we have tried to read the simple words that you heard this morning. This is how we have tried to read and translate and embody in our own lives the will of God. To respond to the voices of those great men and women who speak to us out of eternity, out of the past, but most of all, out of today, out of today’s prisons and exile and underground and death itself.
Good men and women are increasingly perplexed. They listen and their hearts are sore with the continual ill news of the daily press and television. They find themselves cornered by life, with fewer and fewer decisions to take in regard to conscience.
They ask again and again, night and day, “What can we do?”
A Christian can confront the law of the land. That law, which protects the war-makers even as it prosecutes the peacemakers. The Christians can refuse to pay taxes. They can aid and abet and harbor people like my brother and myself, who are in legal jeopardy for resistance, along with AWOLs.
They can work with GIs on bases, helping those young men to awaken to the truth of their condition in their society; in coffee houses or in hospitality in their own homes. They can organize within their own profession and neighborhood and churches so that a solid wall of conscience confronts the death-makers.
They can make it increasingly difficult for local draft boards to function.
There are a hundred nonviolent means of resisting those who would inflict death as the ordinary way of life. There are a hundred ways of nonviolent resistance up to now untried, or half-tried, or badly tried. But the peace will not be won without such serious and constant and sacrificial and courageous actions on the part of large numbers of good men and women.
The peace will not be won without the moral equivalent of the lowest and suffering and separation that the war itself is exacting.
Dear friend, dear brothers, I thank you for being patient, I thank you for accepting me in this very brief span. I ask for your prayers for all those who are in deep trouble with the law, who have had to face separation from families and friends and to forge new lives for themselves in such times, a very small price indeed, for the death of a single child.
May the peace of Christ which is promised to the courageous and the patient and the cheerful of heart be yours also.