WAR AND PEACE: An Open Letter To A Bishop, by Philip Berrigan

This is a 1971 letter that Berrigan sent to Catholic Bishop William Baum, who had invited Berrigan to share his thoughts on justice and peace.

Here are a few ideas I promised you.  They are qualified, of course, by my status and by the two years I have already served.  But I possessed them before imprisonment, my books are full of them, and, it goes without saying, I believe them profoundly enough to stake my life on them.  I have not found many men who can say that about their ideas.

So if you find the following negative, caustic, angry – remember that they come from one who has questioned domestic racism and modern war for ten years; who has lived in the slums and seen the anguish of the poor; who has resisted militarism and war-making repeatedly; who has experienced not only prison but solitary confinement and long fasts; who has endured the charade of three political trials and who faces a fourth; and who probably will be in and out of prison for the remainder of his life.  In sum, my experience has been out of the ordinary, and it comes purely from attempts to answer the question, “What does Christ ask of me?”

Despite the fact that we come from different frames of reference, and that the Berrigan view of the gospel (Dan’s and mine) is radically different from the hierarchy’s, we will not admit that our own responsibilities differ from yours.  In fact, we might imply that the bishops have a deeper obligation to costly witness than we do because of the magisterium, their pastorship and charism.  I tend to state the matter bluntly.  On the issue of modern war, the hierarchy’s default is very nearly total; it is so bad, in effect, that nuclear exchange would find bishops unprepared to discuss anything but the morality of defending a shelter with a shotgun.

Apart from these observations, which I offer only in introduction, please convey our love and fraternity (Dan’s and mine) to the Pope.  It strikes me that we speak for those unable to do so, those sisters and brothers imprisoned around the world – priests, religious, laity – in Latin America, Africa, Europe, Indochina, the Marxist world.  We constitute the church in chains – advocates of resistance to naked power, disproportionate wealth, racism, war-making.  We want to express our fidelity to the church and to the Chair of Peter, even as we sorrow over Christian myopia, hardness of heart and even cowardice.

With these preliminaries, let me offer a few general observations as well.  It impresses me that thinking in the church today, now that we are over the Vatican II euphoria, is stereotyped, cautious, quasi-despairing.  Bishops, theologians, and clergy are obviously operating under the housekeeping assumption: from top to bottom, from Rome to parish, more synods, councils, democracy, and guitars will see us through present world crises.  We operate as though, under a divine and magical star, we will muckle through with minimal losses while grace and providence work for us – providing, however, we pretend hard enough that nuclear overkill does not exist, that genocide in Indochina has not been carried out, that the North Atlantic community does not control 50 percent of the world’s wealth, that wealth and power are not identified with the white world, and poverty and desperation are not identified with the so-called colored world.

Those Catholics – clergy and laity – who have not expressed disillusionment with such realities by leaving the church altogether are leisurely marking time, maintaining low profile, avoiding controversy, shoring up obsolescent structures, talking a species of ecclesiastical doublespeak, and rejecting any involvement in the social horrors of the day.  Apparently they take lightly the admonition of a witness like Paul: “Bear the burdens of one another, and you will have fulfilled the law (of Christ).”

Implicit in attitudes like these, shockingly pervasive as they are, is a dreadful and ill-defined fear – fear that we’re not going to make it; fear that the church will go down with the powers of this world; fear of questioning, initiative, creativity, courage; fear of sacrifice, loneliness, criticism; fear finally of self, of neighbor, of gospel, of Christ.  (I remember President Johnson saying, with an off-the-cuff honesty quite foreign to him: “Peace is going to demand more than we counted on!”)  In the same manner, Catholics are discovering that Christ will demand more than we counted on.  And generally, the thought fills them with dread.

The church in America – in fact, in the West as a whole – has accepted as religion a kind of cultural syncretism, culminating in near-perfect allegiance to the state.  Not a few of its more prominent bishops have even waited upon the Presidency like court jesters.  And now the culture is being violently challenged, and the state doesn’t so much govern as rule by force.  To whom do we turn?

A case in point is the Catholic response to the Indochinese war.  It is a classic case of burning incense to Caesar.  After twenty-two years’ involvement in Indochina (President Truman committed American support to the French in 1949); after millions of Indochinese deaths (six to eight might be a conservative estimate); after as many as 100,000 American dead (Pentagon figures are probably half the total); after war expenditures of 300 billion; after documented ecocide and genocide; after all this, thirty-two American bishops have finally condemned the immorality of the war.  In a tragedy of this magnitude, worldwide in its ramifications, the American church supposedly the most vital expression of universal Catholicism, has mustered 32 tepid, episcopal voices, most of them recent.  This, despite crushing evidence of the war’s illegality – United Nations Charter, Geneva Accords, the SEATO agreement, the U.S. Constitution.  Why so long for episcopal word, why so late and feeble?  So late, in fact, that few listen and few care.

We have obviously surpassed the German church in negligence both moral and criminal.  (Resistance to Hitler, for example meant totalitarian reprisal, which is not the case here.)  Despite the clarity of Paul VI’s stand, despite Constitutional protections, no bishop has challenged the illegality of the war in serious fashion; no bishop has broken patently immoral laws (the apostles were martyred for refusing to obey the law); no bishop (except Parrilla of Puerto Rico) has advocated nonviolent resistance to the war (Mayor Lindsay of New York City, a nebulous liberal at best, advocated such a course two years ago).  And only two or three bishops have visited Catholic resisters in jail, at least two of them virtually apologizing for their action: “This visit is a spiritual work of mercy, which I would perform for any of my flock.”  More to the point would be an explanation of why they themselves were not in jail.

Furthermore, no bishop has questioned the marriage of Big Business and Big Military in Big Government, and how the marriage results in government by and for the wealthy and powerful.  No bishop has condemned the American rape of the developing world, nor the arms race in horror weapons, nor American arms salesmanship, nor the division of the world by superpowers.

On the contrary, the American episcopacy has docilely and silently stood by while their countrymen and spiritual sons established the American empire and ruled it with ruthless might.  They stood by as spectator, or advocate, while their country plunged into perpetual hot and cold warring, spent one-and-a-quarter trillion dollars on war and weapons since 1946, and filled up Arlington Cemetery with the dead of Korea, the Dominican Republic, and Indochina.  And yet, the church they lead, like the Savior, is come “to give life, and to give it more abundantly.”  What a gross irony!

Do I exaggerate?  Perhaps.  Some Catholics, who have suffered for dedication to gospel and church, would go much further, however.  One layman I know, a superb student of gospel politics and Gandhian nonviolence currently in jail, would say this with a snort: “Shepherds?  There is not one in the American church!  They are upper-management people for the most part.  And they are the state’s sheep!”  Of him, I must say that he is capable of transcending mediocrity.  He remains loyal in a sense that most Catholics and most bishops cannot understand.

Perhaps in the above you might perceive my difficulty in speculating about the priesthood, and how it might serve man as physician and prophet.  For who will finally legislate as to training, experience, freedom?  And who will provide what is most crucial of all – example?  The men and women who can address the subject realistically are concerned mainly with witnessing against institutionalized terror and death – and they are in severe jeopardy or in jail.

Moreover, there is this factor to consider.  If Dan and I can serve as examples of repression by the church – for nearly ten years now we have engaged in a constant, painful, running skirmish with church authority, encountering ridicule, outrage, exile, reassignment, mistrust – the scales have, nevertheless, slowly balanced out.  Today the episcopacy tolerates us, under the jurisdiction of the state.  But episcopal hypocrisy has cut very deeply.  Catholics who are today developing for themselves and their brothers “the freedom with which Christ has made us free,” are extremely skeptical of papal or episcopal pronouncements.  They even tend to ignore them as shallow and devious.  They want the pronouncement of action, feeling that it is very late for words.

In effect, thinking Catholics make little distinction between treatment by church and state.  They know that both desire malleability and conformity, that both fear conscience, that both are self-righteous and dogmatic, that both are ruthless in handling deviants.  To be fair, the church is quicker to forgive and to forget.  On the other hand, the state may be quicker to learn.  But the point is that Catholics increasingly tend to ignore the official church since it says so little real about the questions of life and death, and lives less than it says.  How could it be otherwise? they ask.  The official church is not about the gospel, or the plight of what Pope John called “the majority of men.”  Therefore, how can it speak to either issue?

The understanding from this quarter is simply this: both church and state are vast, sprawling bureaucracies which share an insufferably arrogant assumption that they offer the fundamental answers to the human condition.  The understanding, further, is that, despite claims to the contrary, church and state have brought Western civilization to its nadir, and have destroyed other civilizations in the process.

Critics have learned, or are learning in swelling numbers from history as well as from the Gospels, that nothing much makes sense except death to self and conversion to Christ and neighbor.  All the virtues exemplified by the Lord – poverty, freedom in responsibility, the politics of community, willingness to risk jail and death for the exploited person – all these attack head-on the conceptions and realities of bureaucracies whether in church or state.  The goals of bureaucracies are simply not the goals of Christ.

To apply all this seriously to contemporary problems of priesthood – especially as an American – is enormously difficult, simply because we are so cut off from the mind and life of Christ.  About all one can do is fumble with a few critical questions, and then labor with the complications of response.

The Catholic priest in America – and in the West generally – is more of a cultural phenomenon than he is a gospel man.  He is a nationalistic, white supremacist, and uncritical toward affluence and its source.  His training reflects nuances of these cultural fixations, but, beyond that, it schools him merely in neutrality toward life.  By that I mean, he tends to take a purely institutional view of threats to life, whether they be its abuse or destruction.  Indeed, if he is sensitive, he will go through immense convolutions to escape such brutalities.  Or if he is hardened, he will advocate them, or remain casual in face of them.

Therefore the problem becomes – how to instill convictions strong enough to resist dehumanization in oneself, in others, in structures.  How to instruct him in nonviolence as a way of life, as mark of the new man, as instrument of human revolution and social regeneration?  How to teach him the realities of power in all its nuances, from the will to dominate others to the will to exploit whole nations and peoples?  How to toughen him so that one will understand and accept persecution, contempt, ostracism, jail or death on account of conscience and (above all) on account of the suffering brother?  How to infuse him with such sensitivity to human rights and dignity that one will confront violence in every turn of his life – in himself, in the culture, in the state?  How to convince him that Christ’s man must integrate word and act, in full recognition that this might lead him to death, even as it did his Lord?

I don’t know, because one can neither teach the above nor administer it.  But the church can beg the grace of God, the church can provide the setting; even though it be modern catacombs, the church can begin, realizing that her life must always constitute beginnings, and never endings.  And if such fidelity means a vocation of opposition to Powers and Principalities as they operate in government and in the circle of prestige for which the government exists, so be it.  If it means the outlawry of the church, persecution. . . the Lord spoke of that too: “The time will come when those who kill you will think they are doing a service to God.”  But in the process, the church would serve humanity, would even help to give humanity a future on this planet which it could not otherwise have.

As for the impending deliberations on world justice and peace, I have anguished questions about them.  Do the American bishops accept the implications of their country’s control over one-half the world’s productive capacity and finance?  Do they realize that, despite our affluence, we have institutionalized poverty for perhaps one-quarter of our own people, plus millions in the developing world?  Will they admit that these appalling realities are not an accident, but a cold calculation, that they follow the logic of profit and policy?  Can they comprehend that war, particularly modern war, decides what nation or “security bloc” will control the profits, and that on the success or failure of the Indochinese war hinges the American Open Door Policy to the developing world?  (Policymakers fear that if the Indochinese force us out, certainty will spread among the world’s poor that wars of liberation can succeed.)  Do they understand that a few hundred American corporations, with hundreds of billions in assets and international holdings are empires in their own right, exerting political and economic dominion wherever they are?  To deliberate justice and peace while overlooking such realities is both ignorant and dishonest.  Just as it is dishonest to deny that while most men starve, most bishops live in comfort and affluence, welcome the dividends of offending corporations, and remain discreetly silent before the excesses of capitalism.

In closing, I hope and pray this letter is a source of help to you, and not a cause for pain and shock.  You are an unusual man and Christian – intelligent, open, compassionate.  Obviously you love the church as I do.  But before the tragedy and ruin of the times we must love the church even more – enough to criticize honestly and charitably, enough to pick up heavier burdens, enough to lose everything in order that others might discover life.  In essence, what would the wretched of the Earth have us do to offer them hope, to lift from them the horror of war and starvation, to extend a sense of dignity and destiny in God and human community?

Our prayers go with you.  And our wishes for the light, the strength, the peace of Christ.


Philip Berrigan, S.S.J.

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