Chris McDonnell: Dan Berrigan – A witness for justice

A Witness for Justice

Chris McDonnell April 1st, 2022

La Croix International

Dan Berrigan’s signature on the flyleaf of ‘Tulips in the Prison Yard’.

 Back at the end of April, 2016 Dan Berrigan, SJ died in the US.

A few days later I went on Amazon looking for Collections of his poetry and in the Market Place, where second hand copies are sold, I came across a Collection, largely written during his time in jail for civil disobedience. It is called Tulips in the Prison Yard. It cost me the princely sum of £5. On receiving it, in good condition for a second-hand book, I opened the fly leaf. Inscribed there were these few words. “To a witness for justice – Dan Berrigan”.

I found I had in my hands a possible autographed copy of a poetry collection, first published in 1992. Unsure of my find, I e-mailed the page to Jim Forest, another American who was a friend and fellow-protester with Dan Berrigan, asking him to confirm the signature. His reply was swift. “Yup, that’s Dan’s hand”. That was the confirmation I needed; the autograph was indeed authentic.

The book had a store sticker of a Baltimore, MD, book shop in Catonsville, where he and his brother, together with seven other Catholics, were arrested for burning Vietnam Draft Cards, Catonsville is a suburb of Baltimore .

It led me to think about signatures, the value we place on authenticity, the mark that verifies ownership, the gathered letters of a name, the personal touch.

We are often asked to sign our name, whether it be on a legal document, a cheque or the electronic pad of the delivery man. It is the mark of authenticity that we are happy to confirm by our hand-written scrawl. In earlier years, when many folks were illiterate and unable to sign their names, they showed their agreement with a mark, often a large X on the paper.

I use the word scrawl deliberately for, when I was a headteacher, I had many letters to write and sign, often in a hurry. One evening, when parents were visiting school to speak with teachers about pupil progress, I met one Dad at the school door. We hadn’t met before. We extended hands in greeting and he acknowledged me with the phrase “Ah, the straight line and squiggle man!” Indecipherable it might have been, but it was immensely hard to forget!

We are always looking for authenticity in so many aspects of our lives. A recognisable signature on a piece of paper is one thing, but how do we confirm that we are Christians? Is it enough to scrawl our name at the foot of a page declaring “I am a Christian”? In any case, what does that mean? Something much more is required. It is something that we can recognise through a life lived in accordance with Christian principles. Who we are is about what we do. That’s why we recognise in contemporary people such as Mother Teresa, Thomas Merton, Oscar Romero, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King and yes, Dan Berrigan, the reality of the person of Christ. They were people willing to go a step further and to be what they wrote about with such dramatic effect. At times their actions involved personal risk, but none the less that did not prevent them.

Our baptism at times demands more than the confirmation of the event on a signed piece of paper. Baptism, like Marriage and Holy Orders, is a sacrament that has to be lived. The manner in which we live those sacraments is our daily witness as Christians. Early on it was remarked “See how these Christians love one another”.

But don’t let it be thought that declaring oneself a Christian is a soft touch. It takes both courage and fortitude and can at times, on a human level, be a very lonely journey. Think for a moment of the courage that has been needed by some Irish priests who have fallen foul of the CDF in Rome in pursuit of honesty within the Church. Their pain is even greater, for their home within the Church they have served for so many years is being questioned. Their signature has been required on a piece of paper that would have violated their conscience and that can never be demanded.

In Psalm 54, the psalmist writes:

If this had been done by an enemy, I could bear his taunts. If a rival had risen against me, I could hide from him. But it is you, my own companion, my intimate friend!

How close was the friendship between us. We walked together in harmony in the house of God.

It has never been easy for a small group or an individual to speak out when there is urgent need to do so. That is why we should admire and applaud those Russian people who have protested the actions of their government in invading Ukraine, violating that country’s right to independence.  They deserve our support in whatever way we can express it. Last Saturday marches in support of the Ukrainian people took place in cities across the world.

But sometimes, there is little choice. We have a responsibility to express our opinion, for the greater good the question has to be put, the argument developed, and reality faced.

Ignorance is no longer an option nor is inaction. There is a strong taste of the fragility of peace evident in these early months of 2022.


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