'The burning of paper instead of children'

This article appears in the Remembering Daniel Berrigan feature series. View the full series.

Like many people who were inspired by Daniel Berrigan, I am both mourning his passing ... and rejoicing in the legacy of justice and peacemaking he bequeathed to us. And, for me, no statement sums it up better than the statement he included in the later drama he wrote about the peace action of the Catonsville Nine: "Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children ... ."

Most of us know the story of the Catonsville Nine. In 1968, as the Vietnam War was boiling, nine peace activists pulled draft files out of an office in Catonsville, Md., and set them afire in the parking lot next to the building. They prayed until they were arrested. The case became iconic in the annals of U.S. peace activism.

And too often, in press reports, the "nine" are reduced to two: the Berrigan brothers. So, for the record, the nine were: Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest; Philip Berrigan, a former Josephite priest; Br. David Darst, a De La Salle Christian Brother; John Hogan; Tom Lewis, an artist; Marjorie Bradford Melville; Thomas Melville, a former Maryknoll priest; George Mische and Mary Moylan.

Later, after sentencing, going on the "lam," finally getting caught and serving about two years in prison, Dan Berrigan wrote a play called "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine" And that is where he penned the line which still -- to this day -- sums up for me his call as an activist and a peacemaker: "Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children... ." Indeed, one can only hope that any of us would "fracture good order" to do the same.

I never met Daniel Berrigan; I knew of him only from afar. But I remember that in early 1968, I was still formulating my views about the Vietnam War. Was Lyndon Johnson correct? Was the war justified in any sense? The statements of Dr. Martin Luther King and the action of the Catonsville Nine soon eclipsed the arguments of President Johnson. Together they convinced me that the war was not justified. Daniel Berrigan and his colleagues in civil disobedience moved my heart and soul.

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Later, when I entered graduate school in political science at Georgetown University, I took a seminar that encouraged us to explore, and write about, contemporary political issues and trends. I remember that the title of my paper (about political peace activism) was the same as the title of this essay: "The Burning of Paper Instead of Children."

And in May 2010, I saw for myself what the "burning of children" means. I was part of an interfaith delegation to Vietnam led by the Rev. Bob Edgar, then the president of Common Cause. There I saw the burned children, those who felt the pain of napalm on their bodies, and suffered deformities that have to be seen to be believed.

Faced with that sight, one could only wish that thousands had done what Dan Berrigan did: burned paper instead of children.


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