Daniel Berrigan touched uncountable lives with his activism and literary works. (Mr. Fish)
Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not usually a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions are worth celebrating.
Reviewing the many obituaries extolling the late Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan, I cannot help but think that the words depict the passing of a saint. Berrigan, who died April 30, just days before his 95th birthday, would probably object to that title, just as he refused to be called a hero. And yet, a hero in every sense of the word he was, his friends and followers assure those of us who did not have the fortune to meet him during his long, momentous life.
A Jesuit priest from Minnesota, Berrigan was also “a poet, pacifist, educator, social activist, playwright and lifelong resister to what he called ‘American military imperialism’ ”—just some of the roles ascribed to him in the more than hour long “Democracy Now!” special posted above.
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I consider it a failing of my education as a poet that I did not read Berrigan’s work until recently, and I feel blessed (there is no more appropriate word in this case) to have eventually encountered his poetry. To read his free verse is to glimpse the inner workings of faith and heroism, as well as the pain that pacifists must often suffer to achieve their earthly goals. His literary works speak of God, the Trinity and the “risen bread” but also of war, atrocities and—most importantly—resistance. Although in skimming old copies of Poetry Magazine you will find his more spiritual work, he is perhaps better known for more politically charged poems such as “Some,” written in memory of his friend Michael Snyder, a longtime advocate for the homeless, recited by the late poet below.
And here is his poem about his trip to Vietnam with social activist Howard Zinn, on which the two traveled to Hanoi to retrieve three American prisoners of war from the Viet Cong in 1968, a journey that would forever leave its mark on Berrigan:
“Children in the Shelter.”
Imagine; three of them.
As though survival were a rat’s word, and a rat’s death waited there at the end
and I must have in the century’s boneyard heft of flesh and bone in my arms
I picked up the littlest a boy, his face breaded with rice (his sister calmly feeding him as we climbed down)
In my arms fathered in a moment’s grace, the messiah of all my tears. I bore, reborn
a Hiroshima child from hell.
While “Some” invokes a phrase his close friends quote him as saying often—“Don’t just do something. Stand there.”—and highlights with the repetition of “cause” the importance of protest, “Children in the Shelter” is a vulnerable account of the types of violence committed against innocents that were seared into the poet’s mind during the time he spent in Vietnam. The poem, like the poet, bears witness to horrors committed in America’s name by vividly depicting the moving image of the three children—God’s children and no doubt a symbol of the Holy Trinity. The “littlest,” with rice biblically “breaded” on his face, is miraculously “reborn,” like Christ himself, on the page only to morph from that line to the next into the hair-raising, infernal horror of “a Hiroshima child from hell,” the legacy of America’s sins in Japan repeating themselves mercilessly in Vietnam.