We have been accused of arrogance But what of the fantastic arrogance … of our leaders What of their crimes against the people … the poor and powerless Still no court will try them … no jail will receive them They live in righteousness … They will die in honor For them we have one message … for those in whose manicured hands … the power of the land lies We say to them Lead us … Lead us in justice
In May 1968, nine Catholic activists set fire to draft records in Catonsville, Maryland, in a deliberate act of sabotage and protest against the Vietnam War. For the crime of destroying government property, a crime they freely admitted, they were tried in federal court in Baltimore and found guilty. I’ve been reading the edited trial transcript (with commentary) by Daniel Berrigan, one of the Catonsville Nine and a Catholic priest. What unified these nine people was their moral opposition to the Vietnam War, a moral revulsion to the acts their country was committing in Vietnam, a revulsion that drove them to burn draft records with a weak brew of homemade napalm so as to gain the attention of their fellow citizens.
On this Easter Weekend, I would like to focus on a few of the statements made by the Catonsville Nine, as recorded by Daniel Berrigan in “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine.”
Statement by Philip Berrigan
We have been accused of arrogance But what of the fantastic arrogance … of our leaders What of their crimes against the people … the poor and powerless Still no court will try them … no jail will receive them They live in righteousness … They will die in honor For them we have one message … for those in whose manicured hands … the power of the land lies We say to them Lead us … Lead us in justice and there will be no need to break the law Let the President do … what his predecessors failed to do Let him obey the rich less … and the people more Let him think less of the privileged and more of the poor Less of America and more of the world Let lawmakers … judges … and lawyers think less of the law … more of justice less of legal ritual … more of human rights …
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Statement by Thomas Lewis
We were speaking as Americans We were proud to be Americans Yet we have representatives in Vietnam who do terrible things in our name We were saying to the military This is wrong … This is immoral … This is illegal And their response to this was they were only obeying orders
Question from the Judge: But they did respond to you, did they not?
Thomas Lewis: It was an atrocious response.
Statement by Marjorie Melville
I know that burning draft files is not an effective way to stop a war … but who has found a way of stopping this war I have racked my brain I have talked to all kinds of people What can you do They say yes … yes But there is no answer no stopping it the horror continues
Statement by Thomas Melville
I hear our president … confuse greatness with strength riches with goodness … fear with respect hopelessness and passivity with peace The clichés of our leaders pay tribute to property … and indifference to suffering We long for a hand of friendship and succor and that hand clenches into a fist I wonder how long we can endure
Statement by George Mische
We were not out to destroy life There is a higher law we are commanded to obey It takes precedence over human laws My intent was to follow the higher law My intent was to save lives … Vietnamese lives North and South American lives To stop the madness That was the intent
Statement of Daniel Berrigan
Question from the Judge: You say your intention was to save these children, of the jury, of myself, when you burned the [draft] records? That is what I heard you say. I ask if you meant that.
I meant that of course I mean that or I would not say it The great sinfulness of modern war is that it renders concrete things abstract I do not want to talk about Americans in general …. I poured napalm [on the draft records]
on behalf of the prosecutor’s and the jury’s children
Closing Statement by Daniel Berrigan
When at what point will you say no to this war? We have chosen to say with the gift of our liberty if necessary our lives: the violence stops here the death stops here the suppression of truth stops here this war stops here Redeem the times! The times are inexpressibly evil Christians pay conscious … indeed religious tribute to Caesar and Mars by the approval of overkill tactics … by brinksmanship by nuclear liturgies … by racism … by support of genocide They embrace their society with all their heart and abandon the cross They pay lip service to Christ and military service to the powers of death And yet … and yet … the times are inexhaustibly good solaced by the courage and hope of many The truth rules … Christ is not forsaken …
At the end of the trial, as all nine defendants were found guilty, a “member of the audience” cried, “Members of the jury, you have just found Jesus Christ guilty.”
That last statement, and the words of the Catonsville Nine, give us much to ponder this Easter.