'The burning of paper instead of children'

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.

NCR-Podcast-logo_web.jpgListen to the latest episode of the NCR podcast.

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.

Support independent reporting on important issues.

 One family graphic_2016_250x103.jpg


NCR Comment code: (Comments can be found below)

Before you can post a comment, you must verify your email address at Disqus.com/verify.
Comments from unverified email addresses will be deleted.

  • Be respectful. Do not attack the writer. Take on the idea, not the messenger.
  • Don't use obscene, profane or vulgar language.
  • Stay on point. Comments that stray from the original idea will be deleted. NCR reserves the right to close comment threads when discussions are no longer productive.

We are not able to monitor every comment that comes through. If you see something objectionable, please click the "Report abuse" button. Once a comment has been flagged, an NCR staff member will investigate.

For more detailed guidelines, visit our User Guidelines page.

For help on how to post a comment, visit our reference page.

Commenting is available during business hours, Central time, USA. Commenting is not available in the evenings, over weekends and on holidays. More details are available here. Comments are open on NCR's Facebook page.



NCR Email Alerts


In This Issue

June 16-29, 2017