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Thinking Out Loud

Daniel Berrigan

by Michael Jinkins | Aug 16, 2016


Mike MatherEditor’s note: Today’s “Thinking Out Loud” blog is guest written by the Rev. Mike Mather (pictured), Pastor of Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. Mike is also a member of the Louisville Institute Board of Directors.

“…they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
   and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
   neither shall they learn war any more.” —- Isaiah 2:4

I’ve often heard those words preached on, and I saw them lived in the life of Father Daniel Berrigan. At small and at large - and always suffused with laughter - Dan had a gift for turning swords into ploughshares, both joyful and rewarding work.

When I think of Dan, I think of the words: “God’s Fierce Whimsy.” It was a book title by the Mud Flower Collective, but it captured my experience of Dan.

During my years in seminary (1982-1985), I spent time with Dan. I met him at Kirkridge Retreat Center and was arrested with him in New York City. In conversations with him during those years he shaped and formed my faith.

In my second year in seminary, I spent a month in prison for praying at the “christening” of a Trident nuclear submarine. People were upset with me. A friend set up a conversation between Dan and me upon my return from prison. I told Dan about the people who were unhappy around me. His response was, “Jesus said following him would divide people. Don’t you believe him?” Yes, I do.

Dan went on. He told me that because following Jesus can divide people, we need to be as disarming as possible.  

He told me a story about meeting with the head of the Jesuits after his arrest and conviction for pouring napalm on draft records in Catonsville, Maryland. The head of the order asked him sternly, “Do you want to remain a Jesuit?”  

“Why yes, yes I do,” Dan answered. And then quietly, softly he turned the question on his superior, “Do you want to remain a Jesuit?”

He looked at me and said, “Always be disarming.” I wondered about that as I left. What did that mean? How could I turn the sword of people’s anger and disagreements into ploughshares? I liked his words, but I didn’t know how to live into them.

Years later, I am aware of how much I took those words to heart. Beating swords into ploughshares didn’t mean beating the sword carrier. In one way it means re-purposing the sword and the spear. It means taking what is in our hands and inviting people to use it as a tool for feeding one another.

In a day and age when we use the term “peacekeepers” for people carrying weapons into war zones, I think that Dan may have been on to something. He turned those swords and spears into kitchen instruments for friends and enemies to use to share a holy meal together.

Laughter filled the air around Dan. The best kind of laughter that carries both insight and challenge.

Dan came to give a talk at the seminary I attended. Afterwards he met with the students over lunch. Dan was asked about the recent (at the time) silencing of the liberation theologian, Leonardo Boff. “What do you think is the future of liberation theology now that Boff has been silenced by the Vatican?” Dan’s response (whimsical as ever), “Liberation theology has been around a lot longer than the Vatican. At least since the Exodus. So, I would say that the real question is, ‘What’s the future of the Vatican?’”

At that same lunch someone asked Dan why he’d done all the things he had done. Hadn’t it come at great cost, people wanted to know. “Well, if it wasn’t fun, I wouldn’t have done any of it.” People laughed, but he was serious. I thought of the words of Jesus in John 15 as he headed off to his death: "I came that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be full." With Dan it was always full.

A year before, I had attended an appeal hearing in New York City for some of Dan’s friends who had hammered swords into ploughshares at the King of Prussia plant in Pennsylvania and were serving long sentences in federal prison. After the hearing, Dan invited the attendees (and defendants) to a restaurant in Chinatown. We gathered around a large round table sharing food and companionship. The sentences some were carrying around the table didn’t do anything to diminish the sense of freedom there was around Dan. Turning swords into ploughshares is rewarding work.

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