Gathje Discusses Berrigans from Catholic Stanceby Elizabeth Heron
Oberlin students are no strangers to activism, but giant crosses, priestly garb and prayer circles are not often seen in campus protests. Professor of Religion Peter Gathje brought the idea of religious resistance to Oberlin on Tuesday, highlighting the work of Catholics and peace activists Daniel and Philip Berrigan.
Gathje's lecture, entitled "Rituals of Resistance: The Prophetic Politics of Daniel and Philip Berrigan," sought to explain how Roman Catholic rituals were effective in the Berrigans' anti-war protests.
"Rituals are actions that give some reassuring order to our lives, that structure time and space," began Gathje. "Society seeks to create and shape its members by using rituals." He spoke of private and public rituals, religious and commemorative rituals, and explained how the government reaffirms its actions to the public through ritualistic rites. "The state seeks to present an aura of power, reinforced by things like the national anthem. Society generally holds together because of this support for mutually compatible values and goals," said Gathje.
Brothers Daniel and Philip Berrigan sought to use Roman Catholic rituals to make an anti-war statement. Gathje defined their "rituals of resistance" as seeking to "unmake and delegitimate the actions of the state by symbolic actions standing in judgement against the existing order."
In 1967, the Berrigan brothers were both Roman Catholic priests in their early 40s. At that time, the Catholic Church had not spoken officially against the Vietnam War. The Berrigans, already active in the anti-war movement, began to think that the seriousness of the situation called for more concrete action than they were currently engaged in.
"They wanted to strengthen the bond between their belief in God and their work in social justice," said Gathje.
Daniel Berrigan was a chaplain at Cornell University and Philip was a parish priest in inner-city Baltimore. The Catholic Church had tried to get them to tone down their anti-war actions, but in October of 1967, Philip escalated his protest by pouring blood over hundreds of draft files. "Blood is a symbol of life. His action reflected a sacrificial theme," said Gathje. "They felt that the blood being shed in the Vietnam War was connected to the blood of Christ on the cross."
Philip Berrigan encouraged his brother to step up his level of resistance. Later that year, the Berrigan brothers, along with seven other Catholic peacemakers, removed 500 draft files and set them aflame with homemade napalm. "They got the recipe from a U.S. army manual," said Gathje. They then stood in a circle of prayer around the flaming files.
This action began a lifetime of faith-based resistance of war for the Berrigans. Their lifestyle of protest continued after the war ended and into the present day.
In 1980, the U.S. continued to build up an arsenal of nuclear weapons because of the Cold War. On Sept. 9, 1980, The Berrigans and six others broke into a weapons facility and pounded upon a warhead with hammers, and covered it in blood. Their group took the name "Plowshares" from a biblical passage.
The Plowshares are still active today. Philip Berrigan was recently arrested for a similar action in Baltimore. He was given a 30-month sentence. His daughter, first-year Kate Berrigan, said, "He'll probably only serve a year and a half sentence. You get time off for good behavior, overcrowding in the jails and working inside the system."
Gathje ended his lecture by asking the audience, "What does this mean for us? These rituals can be empowering for the participants, but if they cannot make a connection with those looking on, if people are repulsed by it, they won't have an effect."
"What symbols may be employed that evoke strong responses?" said Gathje. "The Berrigans made use of clerical symbols." Gathje asked the audience if they thought this would work in a mostly secular society such as Oberlin.
Gathje's speech sparked a lively discussion of what place religious symbols have in activism. Kate Berrigan, an active campus activist, said that although her father was heavily influenced by religious rhetoric, her form of protest is more secular. "My main motivation comes from a deep faith that's not necessarily Catholic. I'm more trying my own thing than using the Catholic Church to support my own activism."
Kate Berrigan describes both her parents as "big-time peace activists." Her mother, Philip Berrigan's wife Liz Mcalister, will deliver a speech entitled "Non-violent Resistance in a Violent World" today at 4:30 p.m. in Wilder 110.
Copyright © 2000, The Oberlin Review.
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