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A Dialogue Underground

In early July, 1970, I was asked by a group of young doctors and divinity students to visit Lewisburg Federal Prison, where Father Philip Berrigan and David Eberhardt were being held in solitary confinement after they had undertaken a fast to protest a series of alleged harassments and restrictions which many in the Catholic peace movement felt were designed to pressure Daniel Berrigan, then still underground, to turn himself in (NYR, November 5, 1970).

Upon his return from Lewisburg, I met with Daniel Berrigan to tell him about his brother’s medical condition; and soon thereafter, two weeks before Daniel Berrigan’s capture on Block Island, we began a series of recorded conversations which lasted for seven days. What follows is the first of several excerpts from these conversations that will appear in The New York Review; the complete text will be published in September as The Geography of Faith.


COLES: You keep mentioning what I suppose we could call the “outside” or “objective” problems—which plague all continents and nations. How about violence and hate and exploitation in what is loosely called the movement? How about the brutishness one can presumably find in the underground, which is presumably made up of people who are escaping from what they conceive to be the violence of the society but which clearly has in it people who do not hesitate to use violence and endanger innocent lives?

BERRIGAN: It seems to me that there are rhythms in everyone’s life which require the kind of passive suffering that John of the Cross speaks about. When the Weatherman phenomenon was growing I had a choice of going forward with that development, and somehow making an adjustment and being at the side of the people who were preparing for violence and becoming less and less concerned with nonviolence. Or I had the option of standing aside, and I chose to do so because I couldn’t accept that kind of approach, that violence. And I felt it important to tell those students going in the Weatherman direction what I felt, even if it meant they would no longer want to talk with me—which would be sad. I hope that one day sanity and compassion and community will assert themselves over all of us, the violence-prone in the movement and the violence-prone who run countries and order bombers to drop bombs and men to shoot at men.

C: Do you think that day is near at hand?

B: I am not so pessimistic about some of the students as I am about some of our politicians. I know some young people who have been Weathermen. They have gone through great personal anguish and tried to change this society, without much success, which they cannot forget. When they were picked up by the police they were not underground, but they were picked up in communes which they were forming for students and for working people and they were doing what the Panthers had been doing in New York City. They were with the people. They were dealing with students, especially high-school students, and with the poor. Now they are in jail, and with very high sentences for what they did.

C: What did they do?

B: They were involved in trashing in Chicago, both at the Convention and later when there were those other explosions going on, too; and, as I said, that’s all over with now because I believe they have undergone a change of attitude.

C: Then you feel that the law should not punish them for what they have done?

B: Let me speak personally. At this point the law is after me. I have never been able to look upon myself as a criminal and I would feel that in a society in which sanity is publicly available I could go on with the kind of work which I have always done throughout my life. I never tried to hurt a person. I tried to do something symbolic with pieces of paper. We tend to overlook the crimes of our political and business leaders. We don’t send to jail Presidents and their advisers and certain congressmen and senators who talk like bloodthirsty mass murderers. We concentrate obsessively and violently on people who are trying to say things very differently and operate in different ways.

C: How would you apply your thinking to those on the political right who would like the same kind of immunity from prosecution and the same kind of right to stay out of jail in their underground?

B: Well, that subject came out very acutely at our trial; the judge and the prosecution essentially asked me the same question you just did. How would we feel about people invading our offices and burning our files? And our answer was a very simple thing: if that was done, the people who did it should also present their case before the public and before the judiciary and before the legal system and work it through and submit themselves to what we went through.

C: Well, how about one of the chiefs of the Klan who was arrested a while back and went through the process you describe—and as a result went to jail?

B: Yes, I think he is now in jail.

C: Would you argue that he perhaps should have taken to the underground?

B: Well, it seems to me what we have got to discover is whether nonviolence is an effective force for human change. The Klansmen, as I understand it, have been rather violent over the years; so their methods are not ours.

C: Are their methods any different from the Weathermen’s methods?

B: Well, I look upon the Weathermen as a very different phenomenon because I have seen in them very different resources and purposes. I believe that their violent rhythm was induced by the violence of the society itself—and only after they struggled for a long time to be nonviolent. I don’t think we can expect young people, passionate young people, to be indefinitely nonviolent when every pressure put on them is one of violence—which I think describes the insanity of our society. And I can excuse the violence of those people as a temporary thing. I don’t see a hardened, long-term ideological violence operating, as in the case of the Klansmen.

C: You don’t see that kind of purposeful and unremitting violence in the students?

B: Well, I am hopeful that the violence I do see in them will not take over and dominate them. I am going to continue to work—so that it doesn’t happen.

C: This issue is a very important point, and I find it extremely difficult to deal with because—in my opinion and I’ll say it—you’re getting close to a position that Herbert Marcuse and others take: you feel that you have the right to decide what to “understand” and by implication be tolerant of, even approve, and what to condemn strongly or call “dangerous” at a given historical moment. You feel you have the right to judge what is a long-term ideological trend, and what isn’t, and you also are judging one form of violence as temporary and perhaps cathartic and useful or certainly understandable, with the passions not necessarily being condoned, whereas another form of violence you rule out as automatically ideological. It isn’t too long a step from that to a kind of elitism, if you’ll forgive the expression—to an elitism that Marcuse exemplifies, in which he condones a self-elected group who have power and force behind them, who rule and outlaw others in the name of, presumably, the “better world” that they advocate. There is something there that I find very arrogant and self-righteous and dangerous.

B: O.K. Well, let’s agree to differ on that, maybe from the point of view of a certain risk that I am willing to take in regard to those young people—a risk that I would be much less willing to take in regard to something as long-term and determined and as formidable as the Klan. But I am willing to say that there is always danger in taking these risks, and that the only way in which I can keep free of that danger, reasonably free of it, is by saying in public and to myself that the Weatherman ideology (for instance) is going to meet up with people who are going to be very harshly and severely critical of it, as I have been and will be; in fact, at the point in which their rhetoric expresses disregard of human life and human dignity, I stand aside and I say no, as I will say no to the war machine. But I discern changes in our radical youth, including the Weathermen. And again, I have hope for them, hope they will not be wedded to violence.

C: You feel they are no longer what they were?

B: Well, at least now there are divisions among them that are very significant, and with respect to the general agreement that they have to remain underground and do underground work, there are very different reasons among them for doing that. Many of them have gone underground to work with the poor, rather than to use dynamite.

C: They are not all of a piece?

B: Absolutely not.

C: They vary in many ways?

B: We simply cannot talk about just one stereotype of the Weathermen, or one kind of rejection of our society. I am going to try to work with them.

C: Work at communicating with them?

B: Right, and disagree with them thoroughly at times; because there is an absolutely crucial distinction between the burning down of property and the destroying of human lives.

C: You feel the courts and all of us as citizens should understand the distinction between the two?

B: Yes, and not only understand the distinction but embody it and gear their actions to that kind of distinction. This was acutely in my mind when I went to Catonsville. I wanted to emphasize how wantonly lives have been squandered in Asia—with no one punished for doing so; whereas we get stiff sentences for trying to highlight the tragedy by burning up government paper.

C: You mentioned a little while back that you especially have hope for our young who are university-educated and who have their ideals if not their actions grounded in certain values that you share. I strongly disagree—in the sense that I have not found that people in universities (or for that matter many others who in this century have proclaimed the brotherhood of man) are any more immune to arrogance and meanness and viciousness and snobbery than others of us are. Many of the people I work with (they are now called “middle Americans”) are young people—and you don’t talk about them, maybe don’t know them. You mention young people often, but large numbers of young people are not going to universities, are not necessarily involved in politics, and may not be inspiring to people like you or me because they lack a political consciousness. But some of these young people may not be as murderous as some of the young people you’re talking about.

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