BLOG 5/8/16. MY DEBT TO A CONTROVERSIAL PROPHET: DANIEL BERRIGAN
Daniel Berrigan was buried in New York this past Friday, and his death brought back to mind many poignant memories of his unlikely influence on one such as I. In the late sixties and seventies, in the midst of the huge national controversy over the Viet Nam War, Daniel and his brother Philip, two Jesuit priests, were often in the news, always in some confrontation with the dominant order of this nation which was supporting that war. They were often in prison. Daniel wrote eloquently about how totally immoral that war was. But the “my country right or wrong” constituency of the Christian community found the Berrigan brothers to be dangerous—as, to be sure, they were. But then, so are many of the teachings of Jesus.
My own career began in a very conservative portion of the Protestant church in the decade of the forties and fifties. Our part of the the Christian community was focused on that part of the message of Jesus Christ that had to do with personal redemption, the forgiveness of sins, our readiness for heaven—that sort of thing. Early in the 20th century there had arisen that which was to be called: the social gospel. A pious German Baptist pastor, Walter Rauschenbusch, in the Hell’s Kitchen section of New York had seen the wretched human conditions of poverty, homelessness, hunger and hopelessness among its inhabitants, mostly recent immigrants, … and how indifferent most of the prosperous Christian churches in New York were to those conditions right under their noses, and so began to eloquently call the church to its social responsibility as taught by Jesus. This became widely known, therefore, as the social gospel. The problem arose when Rauschenbusch’s disciples in following generations forgot the essence of the work of Jesus, and his teachings, and his cross … and focused only on the call to social ethics separated from the message of the root of those ethics in his reconciling work on the cross.
In my conservative section of the Christian church, it was generally considered that those who preached that social gospel had departed from he true faith and were to be avoided. And so I entered my public ministry as a teaching shepherd of the Christian church with that bias. The irony is that I was ordained in the summer of 1954 just after the Supreme Court’s Brown-vs-the Board of Education decision had been handed down, and for the next couple of decades was deeply engaged with university students in both their struggle with the civil rights era, and with the horrendous Viet Nam war, and with how the teachings of Jesus Christ, which I was expounding to them spoke to these complex but obviously unjust realities in their daily lives.
In my quest to find resources and company for my confrontation with these social and political realities, alas, I found almost none among my conservative colleagues in church, and was somewhat shunned and maligned by them when I insisted on seeking to be faithful to the teachings of Jesus and the Old Testament prophets. It was a lonely period. I must also say that those fellow leaders in the church who claimed to see the reality of these social problems were, what I would call: ‘armchair liberals,’ who were for the cause in the cloister of the like-minded but would hardly go public for fear of offending their congregations.
So it was out of that loneliness that, along the way, I found those such friends as John Perkins and Bill Pannell in the African-American community who encouraged and resourced me in he civil rights engagement, but it was Daniel and Philip Berrigan, whose writings and whose bold confrontational witness were such an encouragement to me. And it was in those days also that there was emerging, in baby-form, Evangelicals for Social Action under Ron Sider, and the Sojourner’s Community under Jim Wallis. But even these were hardly affirmed by the majority of the church in which I operated, … but at least I knew that I was not alone. And so today I want to pay this tribute to my debt to Daniel Berrigan, and give praise to God for his bold confrontation of principalities and powers, and what an encouragement he has been to one such as I.