We will need more Dan Berrigans to combat injustice in the future
Given my vocational choice, it is perhaps unsurprising that one of my favorite movies depicts an activist priest in pitched battle with the forces of injustice. “On the Waterfront,” Elia Kazan’s 1954 masterpiece starring Marlon Brando and Karl Malden, is based in part on the life of John M. Corridan, a Jesuit priest who took on the mob-controlled labor unions on Manhattan’s West Side docks. The pivotal scene of the movie is when the priest, played by Malden, is standing over the body of Kayo Dugan, the mob’s most recent victim. As Malden finishes his prayers, one of the dockworkers shouts out, “Go back to your church, Father!”
In one of his best performances in a cinematic career that spanned five decades, Malden responds: “This is my church! If you don’t think Christ is down here on the waterfront, you’ve got another guess coming.... Christ is always with you. Christ is in the shape-up, in the hatch, in the union hall. He’s kneeling right here beside Dugan, and he’s saying to all of you, ‘If you do it to the least of mine, you do it to me.’”
I thought of this scene when I learned over the weekend that Daniel Berrigan, S.J., had died. Much like Father Corridan, Dan Berrigan gave his life to waging peace, standing up to the privileged and powerful. He opposed the Vietnam War with his body, heart and soul. For many years he was an outlaw, putting his ministry, indeed his very life at risk in order to bear witness to the radical call of the Prince of Peace. “Faith is rarely where your head is at,” he once said. “Nor is it where your heart is at. Faith is where your ass is at!”
I have never been a chain-yourself-to-the-fence kind of activist. More often than not, I’m the guy who is sent in to negotiate, if negotiation is possible. But I fully recognize that every meaningful social movement needs prophets as well as politicians, people who are willing to break the system and others who are able to subvert it from within. Only in that way, when a social movement breathes fully with both lungs, is change really possible.
I suspect, however, that reversing the great injustices that survive Father Berrigan will require more of his kind of activism than mine. Pope Francis reminds us that we are called to participate in this present kairos moment of mercy through action, through deeds, not merely with words. In an increasingly impersonal and depersonalized world, I suspect that our self-gift to God and one another will more and more resemble the radical acts of love and forgiveness to which the Gospel testifies: acts of true discipleship that are subversive of every creaturely notion of power.
Daniel Berrigan knew from his own relationship with Jesus Christ that any true encounter with God will scandalize us, destabilize us. An encounter with the God of mercy will make our lives messier before it makes them better. In other words, if we walk away from an encounter with God in the Gospel with our worldviews affirmed, with our previous ideas intact, then we have seriously missed the mark. Grace is a radicalizing force; it seizes us, transforms us and transports us to heights of head and heart we could previously only imagine.
Grace is the motive force of every true revolution, a revolution that is first and last a conversion of hearts, or it is no real change at all. Above all, an encounter with the risen Lord should open our eyes to the countless crucifixions that surround us. “Some people think the crucifixion only took place on Calvary,” said Malden. “Well, they better wise up!”
R.I.P. Father Berrigan. May you rest now in the eternal peace to which you bore such humble, heroic witness throughout your life.