Tuesday, August 03, 2010

Speaking up publicly, paying up personally

Phil Berrigan said that Albert Camus (pictured) told us that--in response to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, which was mercilessly crushed by Soviet tanks and solidified Soviet domination of Eastern and Central Europe in the early Cold War--"It is time for us to speak up publicly and pay up personally." Camus did so and was ostracized by his old friend Jean-Paul Sartre, a communist who engaged in apologia for revolutionary violence against common people by communist regimes. Camus, a pacifist, wrote against Soviet violence and won the Nobel Prize for Literature for his writings against the death penalty.

So, who are these public intellectuals who speak up for peace and pay the price?

Daniel Berrigan, an intellectual Jesuit priest, is perhaps the exemplar of the literati pacifist activist who used the written word, the spoken word, and the message of bold action to draw our focus from the banal to the outrageous and then to the alternative. Phil Berrigan, his brother, was also a priest, though from a less intellectual order, the Josephites, and Phil was eventually tossed out of the priesthood when he married a nun, Elizabeth McAlister. The Berrigan brothers were an astonishing team of players on the moral stage of America in the 1960s and beyond.

In the beginning of the 1960s, the brothers were both priests, Dan teaching and writing and Phil ministering in an African American parish and active in the New Orleans Congress of Racial Equality. Their respective superiors forbid them from taking part in a 1961 Freedom Ride, which went a long way toward alienating Phil from the priesthood and, along with some other impositions against activism, almost resulted in Daniel resigning from the Jesuits (Polner & O'Grady, 1997, p. 101). Only the urgent counsel of Thomas Merton changed Dan's mind, and he is still a Jesuit today. Phil, born in 1923, succumbed to cancer in December 2002. He paid up personally to an amazing extent, serving more than double the time in prison for his nonviolent resistance than Gandhi (11 years, and Gandhi served a total of more than five).

Daniel is a true intellectual, author of some 18 books, including essays and poetry, and is emeritus at Fordham University in New York. Along with brother Phil and seven others, he burned 378 draft files which they removed from a Selective Service office in Catonsville, Maryland, on May 17, 1968, and lit up with homemade napalm in the parking lot. They stood there in prayer until arrested, exemplifying the Camus dictum, and of course went to prison.

We all go out together, but we pay the price alone, for the most part. The public peace intellectuals usually only risk professional sanction of some type, often subtle, sometimes overt. The fear of pacifists is an odd thing, slippery and usually hard to hold still long enough to justify, but those who favor peace and say so with boldness can rely on those who hold power and thus enjoy the status quo to devise payback.

Accepting these consequences is both punishing and liberating, and we come full circle to Camus, who was often labeled an absurdist, something other public peace intellectuals might find absurdly appropriate.

Polner, Murray, and Jim O’Grady (1997). Disarmed and dangerous: The radical lives and times of Daniel and Philip Berrigan. New York: HarperCollins Publishers.


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