A Peace that Disturbs: Berrigan's Restless Spirituality

"Christ Driving the Money-Changers from the Temple,”
by Theodoor Rombouts, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
So Lent (for those who observe it) is about getting one’s inner spiritual house tidied up first so that one might be a more effective disciple and social justice warrior, right?

Wrong! Daniel Berrigan, at least, would have demurred.

I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve never really read this notorious Jesuit poet and radical peace activist, so I’m trying to rectify this neglect and make a fresh start during this penitential season of new beginnings by engaging this anthology from Orbis’ superb Modern Spiritual Masters Series. Berrigan (1921-2016), a critically acclaimed poet and biblical interpreter who wrote around 50 books, earned international notoriety -- and FBI surveillance! -- in the 1960s through his trenchant critiques and prophetic actions against the war in Southeast Asia. In 1968, the tumultous year that witnessed the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, Berrigan travelled to Vietnam with historian Howard Zinn, where they managed to secure the release of several U.S. prisoners of war. Several months later, he joined eight other activists in Catonsville, Maryland, in burning draft records with home-made napalm, a deed for which he served two years in federal prison. In 1980 he was arrested with his brother Phillip and other members of "Plowshares Eight" group who defaced an unarmed nuclear warhead at a federal facility in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. Throughout the following decades, both brothers were arrested many times for such acts protesting and resisting the military-industrial complex. For Daniel Berrigan, matters of conscience brooked no compromise.

Daniel Berrigan: Essential Writings, Selected with an Introduction by John Dear (Orbis, 2009).

In his warm and bracing introduction to the life and thought of his friend, John Dear shares a few provocative Berrigan quotes, on the topic of "spirituality," culled from a 25-year-old article (“Daniel Berrigan on Contemporary Developments in American Spirituality” Tikkun 13, no. 5, Sept./Oct. 1998, p. 48). (Unfortunately, the article is not available on the magazine’s online archive, so for now I’ll have to be content with quoting it at one remove.) In this passage, Berrigan offers strong tonic against any conception of the spiritual life that strives for inner harmony through mute passivity or solipsistic navel-gazing:

”Some people today argue that equanimity achieved through inner spiritual work is a necessary condition for sustaining one’s ethical and political commitments,” Dan writes. “But to the prophets of the Bible, this would have been an absolutely foreign language and a foreign view of the human. The notion that one has to achieve peace of mind before stretching out one’s hand to one’s neighbor is a distortion of our human experience and ultimately a dodge of our responsibility.” (p. 30).

Here’s my gloss: It’s high time for believers to count the inner turmoil that comes from identifying with the hopes and struggles of an often brutal and violent world, a brutality and a violence that we confront inside ourselves every bit as much as it is out there.

Berrigan continues:

”Life is roller coaster, and one had better buckle one’s belt and take the trip. This focus on equanimity is actually a narrow-minded, selfish approach to reality dressed up within the language of spirituality” (ibid.)

Is Berrigan being a bit too harsh here? After all, it seems to me, the desire for inner peace is not intrinsically wrong per se. Still, the Jesuit poet eschews the still-current fashion of retrieving this or that bit of the contemplative tradition – or, at least, some of the more facile and commodified appropriations from that spiritual heritage. Moreover, in addition to rebuking our penchant for individualism, Berrigan takes on another sacred cows of our North American religious heritage – namely, our results-oriented pragmatism. In other words, sometimes you have to do what’s right simply because it’s right, no matter the consequences.

”I know that the prophetic vision is not popular today in some spiritual circles,” he continues. “But our task is not to be popular or to be seen as having an impact, but to speak the deepest truths that we know. We need to live our lives in accord with the deepest truths we know, even if doing so does not produce immediate results in the world” (p. 31).
These comments remind me of the final book (or, if you prefer, screed) published by William Stringfellow, one of Berrigan's very close friends -- The Politics of Spirituality (1984), which tackles some of the spiritual kitsch and idolotries of the Reagan years. But, as I don’t want to wear out my welcome any further here, I’ll defer taking up that book for another day.


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