By Bart Erbach
A few weeks ago I attended the funeral of Daniel Berrigan, the Jesuit priest and poet who lived his life protesting war and promoting peace. It brought back a lot of memories, and feelings — and questions.
I remember my mother telling a very young me that two Catholic priests had been arrested for burning draft cards. I recall the pride in her voice. There was an implication that this is what priests should be doing. This fired my imagination. Priests as protesters. There was a time, quite a long time, that I wanted to be Dan Berrigan.
When many years later I was discerning whether or not I myself would apply to the Jesuits, I wrote to Dan, and he wrote back. I was surprised at how honest he was about his own experience with the Jesuits and not as surprised with his rant about the Shah of Iran and “petrodollars.” At the time I was living in Albuquerque, NM. When I did decide to apply, I moved back to New York and met with Dan in his modest room in a small, Jesuit community on 98th Street off Broadway. We sat cross-legged on the floor and he listened to me talk about my hopes and dreams. He was gentle, serious and funny. That he made some space for me in his life was inspiring on many levels. I was deeply involved at the time in the anti-nuclear movement and would soon become one of the leaders of huge, non-violent direct action protests at several nuclear power plants where I would be arrested.
In deferring my application, among other things, the Jesuits cited as problematic my “attitude towards authority”. The deferral was just one of many times throughout my life I was steered in the right direction by the wisdom of Jesuits.
As I sat in the church, in the midst of colorful protest banners and placards and surrounded by a thousand “movement’ people, I felt both at home and alone. It was as if I was transported back in time. I lived among tribes like this for many years. But then I went to college, got a job, got married, bought a house, had kids, and you know the rest.
I generally believe that my work with inner-city education, with community organizations, my writing of poetry, my raising of children, is the same work as the protests. But then, on days like yesterday, I wonder, does it go far enough?
Though I have made my own way, I live a privileged life. I am hyper-aware of the ways my actions and inaction fall short of, or flat out violate, the Gospel mandate to work for peace. The spirit present in the church yesterday — Daniel Berrigan’s spirit — stirred my discomfort.
We do not Iive in an absolute world, one that is easily delineated as black and white. And as I grew beyond my 20s, I came to realize there was something in “the movement”, something in the “reform politics” that I worked for, indeed something in me, that I didn’t like. It was the self-righteousness, the belief that we were right, which of necessity meant that you were wrong (and perhaps evil). It reveals itself more as an energy, a vibe, than as articulated principle.
I remember picking up my final Philosophy essay in my senior year of college. I had poured myself into the paper hoping to impress my Jesuit professor. I rifled through it looking for comments. But there were none. Except on the final page, where I saw my grade (4.0) and this single sentence: “It is a function of immaturity too easily to assume one is on the side of the angels.” Hmmmm.
Or in the words of Berrigan, “A revolution is interesting insofar as it avoids like the plague the plague it promised to heal.”
What I’ve learned from working and watching so many political campaigns is that no matter the candidates, or the parties, the choice is ultimately cast in the same form: us against them. Given the way media mirrors our daily events, it’s difficult not to see the world this way.
But I do not see the world this way.
These days I am more drawn to lighting a candle than cursing the darkness.
But as I listened to the voices at Dan Berrigan’s funeral I wondered if I should be cursing the darkness more.