In 2010, foreign-correspondent-turned-cultural-critic Chris Hedges published Death of the Liberal Class. The book traces the decline of groups like organized labor, the media, the academy, and the church that once effectively challenged moneyed interests. Hedges argues that over the last several decades, most of the “liberal class” assimilated into the corporate establishment, and the remaining outliers were successfully marginalized.
But he does profile some of those outliers who have continued, at great personal cost, to speak out. One is the poet and peace activist Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J. A veteran of civil disobedience, Berrigan was one of the “Catonsville Nine” who broke into a draft board and burned its files in 1968, and one of the “Plowshares Eight” who broke into a nuclear missile plant in 1980. He knows how jail feels.
Hedges reported that Berrigan was “unbowed at eighty-seven when I met him” (he turns ninety-one May 9) and “sat primly in a straight-backed wooden chair in his upper Manhattan apartment.” The posture was symbolic: “Time and age had not blunted this Jesuit priest’s fierce critique of the American empire or his radical interpretation of the Gospels.”
How did Berrigan persist long after former allies “disappeared into the matrix of money and regular jobs”? The priest observed: “It is very rare to sustain a movement in recognizable form without a spiritual basis of some kind.”
One of his mentors was Thomas Merton. The Trappist monk would “gather us for days of prayer and discussion of the sacramental life. He told us, ‘Stay with these, stay with these, these are your tools and discipline, and these are your strengths.’ He could be very tough…He said, ‘You are not going to survive America unless you are faithful to your discipline and tradition.’”
Berrigan relied on “the Eucharist, his faith, and his religious community,” Hedges said. Berrigan emphasized that he did what he did because of “a spiritual discipline that went on for months before these actions took place. We went into situations in court and in prison and in the underground that could easily have destroyed us and that did destroy others who did not have our preparation.”
I got involved with Call To Action a few months before starting the book. I read Berrigan’s words through that lens. I will not argue that the toll of church justice work is as severe as what he experienced. But even so, keeping our commitment is profoundly challenging.
Increasingly, the Catholic hierarchy not only affirms the exclusionary status quo but picks fights, and it remains ever the monolithic controller of facilities and issuer of paychecks. Those of us who speak up for a renewed church cannot call on the same power and infrastructure. We are small nonprofit staffs putting in many bizarrely-scheduled hours. We are volunteers with other jobs and families, who must use precious spare time for local agitation.
We stay at it because of our sense of fairness, because of the outsiders who are dear to us. But we definitely learn the meaning of Vaclav Havel’s remark: “You do not become a ‘dissident’ just because you decide one day to take up this most unusual career.” To survive we must be centered and rock-solid, with the right preparation.
We must look to people like Berrigan and Merton. We must use their tools and disciplines of prayer and sacrament. We must have faith in the Messiah, understanding that he began as an obscure, backwater carpenter who talked about things that were none of his business (“Where did this man get all this?”, “And they took offense at him,” Mark 6:2, 3).
We must have places, whether in good parishes or in the intentional communities of the “emerging church,” where we break bread and listen over and over again to the prophets and the promises, the stories of dying and rising. We must live in community, because while we have no choice about how much the burdens weigh, we do have the choice of sharing them with each other.
Every day we must “stay with these, stay with these.” These are our strengths and the church justice movement’s strengths.