Dialogue Underground: Inside and Outside the Church

The following is the concluding excerpt from conversations between Daniel Berrigan and Robert Coles which were held last July, two weeks before Dan Berrigan was captured on Block Island. The complete text will be published in September as The Geography of Faith.

The Editors

COLES: We are now being told on radio and television and in newspapers and magazines that this is the first time that a Catholic priest has been a fugitive from justice. As I read and listen to those accounts I find myself thinking of our past, our history. What do we in fact know about our history? We are only now beginning to realize how distorted our history books have been so far as blacks and Indians are concerned. The issue often is one of blatant misrepresentation by historians; but, more subtly, a certain tone or shade of emphasis can also lead the reader far along into an ideological position which he confuses with a statement of “fact.” So, I wonder about the history of the underground in America and other countries. I wonder how unique and surprising and unprecedented your behavior is.

I have the impression that this country was founded by people from England who had been in the underground. Not only were many of our first settlers in the underground in England, but in addition they fled, they became exiles; so it was exiles and ex-members of a religious underground who started the United States of America. And then one wonders whether, apart from the underground railroad in the nineteenth century, there isn’t a tradition in this country of dissent similar to yours, a tradition whereby people not only say controversial things, but take action that challenges the society in a more significant way, a more comprehensive or unnerving way—and do so without immediately surrendering themselves to sheriffs and judges. I am thinking of the South and Appalachia and the Southwest, where the needs of “justice” as well as “banditry” have prompted men to defy authorities believed to be corrupt or worse.

BERRIGAN: I do believe very much that what I am doing has a tradition behind it. As for what you now hear about me, I believe in this country one constantly has to contend with the ahistorical and sensational aspects of our news media. We see every day how a “folklore” of sorts is created, how the words and acts of particular individuals are written about and talked about wildly, uncritically, hysterically, romantically, foolishly. And certainly in our culture religion and the words or deeds of religious men are just more grist for the mills that the media run.

I mean, every breakaway from the so-called “norm” is going to be a headline for the media, who obviously are interested in all kinds of grotesquerie and deviation. I really don’t know whether it’s useful any longer to consider my status or that of my brother in the light of the Roman Catholic segment of the population. It …

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