Berrigan's God overcomes all other gods

  • September 17, 2009
{mosimage}Long before Jesuit Father Daniel Berrigan became famous for getting arrested — the “radical priest” in Paul Simon’s song “Me and Julio Down by the Schoolyard” — he was a poet, a man of letters and imagination.

At 88 Berrigan can still combine words in ways that startle readers awake. Which doesn’t mean that he’s given up getting arrested. This man with eight others burned 378 stolen draft files using homemade napalm in 1968. He hammered on nuclear missiles then poured his own blood on documents and files at the bomb-maker’s headquarters in 1980. When U.S. President George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq in 2002, Berrigan decided to sit in at the Times Square recruiting office in Manhattan, getting arrested along with several of his students.

Through the years, Berrigan has remained as incendiary in life as he is on paper. He has never found a reason to back off or back down.  

{sa 0802864627}When No Gods But One hits bookshelves in late September, the wise old man of radical Catholicism will be reaching out to a new generation with an invitation to them to read the Bible with him.

They should accept the invitation. Berrigan reads the Book of Deuteronomy with close attention to detail and a sense of what the text may have to say to the America of empire, wealth, power and war.

He told The Catholic Register he sees no reason to leave the Old Testament text stuck in history. Applying Deuteronomy to America today is what the church is supposed to do with its sacred Scripture — keep it alive to the believing community.

“It seems to me a reading of the text that is inherent in the text itself,” he said. “This (book) is to empower objection and resistance to this kind of unlimited search for power and domination in the world.”

Berrigan’s Bible is a tool of discernment for conscientious objection. The key to understanding Deuteronomy is to see the war going on within the text itself. As Berrigan reads it, there are two conceptions of God fighting for the mind of the reader.

Plainly spoken: no to war

0802864627.jpgThe disappearance of American Christians into the culture goes largely unnoted and unreproved. As a body, we can choose to “fit in,” enlisting for war when required, compliant, paying up, voting in favour of this or that political non-entity.

Let us suppose that the candidate — to the judiciary, the Congress, the White House — is a Christian. Most are — or so it is vehemently declared. He or she enters the dollars-for-media chase; win or lose, in the course of the campaign a huge “war chest” is amassed.

Whatever the political party, these masters of human fate ensure the prosperity of a few, the misery and death of many. Here is the unspoken, unprinted “platform” of whatever politician, seeking high office: Ensure the continuity of a system of inequity and cruelty, manipulate an ugly retributive public mood, tighten the coils of law and order. And undertake war, and not as a last resort — as a first, and only. 

Let it be stated plain: The religion that goes with a culture of death goes down with the culture. We see it, or we do not: religion, culture, rotting before our eyes.

No Gods But One

Page 168

The priestly class which controls the temple prefers a small-g god of war, revenge and retribution. But a big-G God of love and life and reconciliation, the God who will later find a voice through the prophets and become human in Jesus Christ, gradually overcomes all the small-g gods.

The plot involves much more than the end of the Exodus journey and the conquest of Canaan. Berrigan traces a triumph of God over god.

Which leaves today’s readers with a problem. What are we to do with the bloodthirsty god who exhorts Israel to annihilate the Cananites?

“If a third eye is open, something like the following would flash from the page,” Berrigan writes as he considers Deuteronomy 21. “War is murder and worse. It is fratricide, the murder of brother by brother.”

Since we must have our wars anyway, we wrap them up in religion and liturgy. It’s what happened as Israel invaded Canaan, and it’s happening today, says Berrigan.

“In the autumn and winter of 2001-2002, the American Catholic bishops fell in line with the Bush war in Afghanistan. A verbose, abstract document, many times longer than the Sermon on the Mount, was issued. It contained not a single reference to the Gospel. And it granted ‘qualified approval’ to the carnage,” Berrigan writes.

Though that seems hard on the American bishops, over the phone Berrigan is almost sympathetic with bishops who have been swallowed, Jonah-like, by a culture forged by war.

“If you live in a permanent war atmosphere, as we have for most of my adult life, you are going to see the induction of religion into all kinds of militaristic aide de camp,” he said. “To resist that and say we have a message, or say we have a vision, is going to be a difficult task.”

For the strongly pro-life Berrigan, his regret is that too many in the church have been sucked into the narrowest possible notion of a culture of life.

“(It) is what you might call a caricature of the Catholic Church and its teaching on the culture of life,” he said. “It’s very insistent and meticulous about the fact that every child conceived deserves to be born into the world. And yet at the age of 18, or 20, or 21 these same people whose lives were so precious are now abandoned to the military.”

Descended in equal parts from theologian Karl Rahner and activist Dorothy Day, Berrigan the writer pulls together a great stream of Catholic thought spanning the Cold War to the War on Terror, said University of British Columbia lecturer Ross Labrie, who has wrote a 1989 critical assessment of the poet, The Writings of Daniel Berrigan.

“He represents a continuing, central Christianity that combines religious and moral contemplation,” Labrie wrote in an e-mail.

For Berrigan being Catholic means we’re called to the extraordinary.


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