2016-06-30
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On December 6, legendary peace activist Phil Berrigan, a war veteran and former priest, died of cancer at 79. Below, Johann Christoph Arnold--author and senior minister of the Bruderhof movement--remembers a conversation with him, and reflects on his legacy.

Whenever Phil Berrigan was hauled off to jail for his latest act of civil disobedience--and it happened again and again, long after others had left the Sixties behind and returned to middle-class life--admirers across the country took heart. Here, they would say, is a man who stands by his convictions.

Others, including many who supported Phil's aims (though not his methods) raised their eyebrows and sighed. Ineffective, they murmured. Idealistic. Out of touch. Phil, who was good at defending himself, always had a comeback. But he was also humble enough to admit that to most people, "my actions over the years have constituted a theater of the absurd."

It was in the fall of 1997, and I was visiting him in a prison in Maine, where he had been arrested after leading an anti-war event at a naval shipyard. He was sure to face a hefty sentence, he told me. But, he added pointedly, he would rather spend the rest of his life in prison for his beliefs, than die "on some beach." He was seventy-four at the time, yet he spoke with such vigor that he seemed far younger.

Phil and I talked about peace, and about Jonah House, the community he and his wife, Liz McAlister, founded in Baltimore in 1973. Devoted to resisting capitalism and war, its members have been performing "works of mercy" in the inner city for years, feeding the hungry, helping the homeless to find shelter, and caring for elderly shut-ins and people with AIDS.

Like members of the Bruderhof (the community I belong to), Jonah House members have abandoned the accepted path to middle-class happiness--the route of private homes and property, careers, bank accounts, and retirement funds--in order to follow Christ in the manner of the first churches. It is a life of sacrifice and self-discipline and service--not peace, as the world thinks of it. By most standards, it is completely "unrealistic."

But what is peace? Surely it can't be prosperity--a house in the suburbs, a good job, a car, and a retirement fund-when our enjoyment of those things is dependent on the exploitation of the Third World. Surely it can't be national security, which (at least in the case of the United States) has been bought by means of the largest and most destructive war-making machine in history.

And surely "reality" does not have to mean a world bristling with weapons, class hatreds, personal grievances, and general cynicism. For isn't there a greater reality, where all these powers are overcome?

Phil is gone now, but I suspect his answer would have been "Yes." And I am certain that would affirm these words of his wife, who wrote (around the time of my visit):

Our hope is in God. And God's vision--more, God's promise--of a humane and just society is a promise on which we can bet our lives. But none of us can be content until this promise is a reality for all people and for all the earth. So we stake our lives on the vision of Isaiah, the day to come when people will beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.

Down through the centuries, countless men and women have longed for this day, and so do millions in our time. In fact, I believe every human does. Call it what you like-harmony, serenity, wholeness, soundness of mind-the yearning for it exists somewhere in every soul. According to the Old Testament, creation itself groans for it.

Obviously, peace cannot just be had or bought. It is rare enough in public and political life, and even in personal life, backbiting, hypocrisy, jealousy and divisiveness often prevent it from taking root. And these powers cannot just be ignored or avoided. They must be battled head on.

But this should not frighten us. If Christ's life serves as example (and it should, for those of us who claim to follow him), his peace is not so much the result of detachment or meditation or prayer than the fruit of hard struggle and agonized striving. For him, peace cost a terrible conflict, followed by voluntary submission to the most harrowing act of self-sacrifice imaginable: death on a cross.

Many of us who call ourselves Christians today have forgotten this, if not willfully blinded ourselves to it. Yes, we want peace, but we want it on our own terms. Phil was one who did not. And he not only accepted the suffering that came his way in life (which is already more than many people do), but embraced it. He knew the truth of Jesus' words, "Whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it."

A few weeks after I visited Phil, he was sentenced to two years in prison. Shortly after, Liz sent him the following letter:

"..It isn't fair--that at 73 you are looking for the umpteenth time at a jail sentence for justice' sake and for peace. And that you face it without even a hearing in the court. But what else can we expect when millions are in prisons around our world, so many of them under torture, starving, disappeared, their loved ones bereft?

"It isn't fair--we can't enjoy the home we built together; admire, as they bloom, the roses we transplanted; eat the fruits we've nurtured; take pride in the children we've raised. But what else can we expect when millions are homeless, millions more are refugees of war, famine, repression--their souls too dazed by weariness and fear to see the beauty around them; their hopes and hearts so broken by the daily dying of their children.?

"It isn't fair--we can't celebrate Frida's and Jerry's college graduations together. They long for you to be with them and partake in their pride, accomplishments, new beginnings. They long for your wisdom, your heart, your presence in this new phase in their lives. But what else can we expect when for the vast majority of kids a college education, a loving family, a caring community isn't even the stuff of dreams, victims as they are of the decrepit institutions that pass for public education, victims too of the futurelessness that is the great society's legacy to them? "It isn't fair--we can't guide Kate together as she looks to high school graduation and beyond, as she becomes a young woman. " It isn't fair--the community you've worked all these years to build and rebuild is without you, the prayer and work and dreaming and laughter devoid of your gifts and vision and grace. But what else can we expect when community of any sort is suspect, a threat, an aberration, when the silence is almost complete, when people are cowed, bought off, distracted, participants in their own extinction.?"

This separation was not the first, nor would it be the last. All in all, Phil spent eleven years behind bars. They were long, hard, lonely years. But, as Liz's letter makes clear, the couple saw them as a necessary sacrifice on the road to true and lasting peace--a goal best described here by Phil himself:

"It is that peace where domination is no more, where injustice is undone, where violence is a relic of the past, where swords have disappeared and plowshares are abundant. It is the peace where all people are treated as sisters and brothers, with respect and dignity, where each life is sacred, and where there is a future for the children. It is such a world that God calls us all to help make a reality.

"In our country this can mean going to jail, risking reputation, job, or income, and even being disowned by family or friends. Yet, in a state which daily prepares for nuclear holocaust, it also means freedom, a sense of self and vocation, and a whole new community of friends and family. In fact, it means resurrection."

Today, as the world again rushes toward war, Phil's name is being mentioned mostly in connection with his death. In some quarters his passing has been spoken of as the end of an era. But why should that be so? The struggle for justice and peace to which Phil gave his life will go on, regardless. And thus we must do more than reflect on the man. We must allow his convictions to rekindle our own.

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