Frida Berrigan Speaks at Greenham Common
At the unveiling of a monument celebrating the life of Philip Berrigan
October 2, 2004.
Today is Mahatma Gandhi 's 135th birthday. So, on this site of death and destruction that has been so beautifully transformed by women's work for peace, we are grateful for the path forged by Gandhi 's teaching and example. Happy Birthday.
This coming Tuesday would be my dad's 81st birthday. He hated having a fuss made over him on his birthday. But he loved the women of Greenham Common, loved the long commitment, the steadfastness, the faithfulness, the personalism of people taking responsibility for the health and well being of people, nation and world when government's were endangering the health and well being of people, nation and world.
So, on this site when 50,000 missiles have become 50,000 birds and butterflies and flowers, he would be grateful to Greenham Common women, for your creativity, steadfastness, and embodiment of hope. Happy birthday, Dad.
I have been asked to share about my dad. Dan said I could talk about him as a father, a peacemaker, a disciple of Jesus , a member of the Jonah House community, an organizer, etc. He said I had half an hour, and if I could also talk about how he influenced and challenged the peace movement in the United States that would also be great.
It is not an easy thing to do, but I will try.
I am honored and moved to be here to represent our family and the Jonah House community at this celebration and commemoration.
I hope by talking about him as a father, you will see the peacemaker, the disciple, the community member and the organizer.
I think I would like to talk to him as a father first, because that is how I best know him. I was at a retreat led by my mom and Uncle Dan recently. At lunch a woman brightly asked me, "so what is it like to have icons as parents." To which I replied, "I don't know. They are not icons to me." I think it was her way of telling me how much she appreciated them, but it a little uncomfortable nonetheless.
"What was it like?" is a question I am often asked. What was it like to have these larger than life people as parents. I don't have any other parent experience to compare it to* The thing is, my dad was not an icon to me. He was- and still is even though he is dead- my father. The man who pushed back my cuticles, rolled up my too long sleeves and was always telling me to comb my hair and get my bangs out of my eyes.
My dad was a man with an easy laugh, shit eating grin who learned some hard lessons about war and greed and the need for people to take responsibility. He passed them on to us without too much sugar coating.
My dad was a man whose expectations of himself- and by extension his children- were sky high and biblically rooted. "From those to whom much has been given, much will be required." He said. We were gifted, he said, in family, love, skills, talents, insights- and we had a responsibility to use those gifts in the service of others.
My dad was a man who transcended prisons and confines and hardships again and again to be there for us. There were lots of missed milestones- the plowshares action that happened on my 17th birthday. He was in jail for my sister's graduation from high school and all three of our college graduations. But there were intimate moments- the milestones we created- that we stole from the state, stole from the sterility and inhumanity of countless prison visiting rooms.
I want to share one story from one of those visiting rooms. In 1997, Dad was in jail in Maine . My boyfriend Ian and I went to visit him, but it was a short visit and there were a lot of other people there to see him and his codefendants.
We did not have a lot of private time together. In fact, there was no private time. But some how zone in on where I was and what I was thinking. I had just graduated from college. I was deep into planning and trying to figure it all out. I was asking all the big questions and avoiding all the answers.
A week or so later, I got a letter that spoke directly to the "what do I do with my life" questions I was obsessing about.
"Constant effort to chart out future, to confirm relationships, and to come up with a bewildering array of answers, is a first world practice par excellence. And self defeating, impossible of clarity, another aspect of the western addiction to effectiveness and results.
"What about the present? What about the "now"? the Gospel is a "now" manifesto- what do we make of the world now? What does God command us to do now? Is one doing good work now?
"If good work is being done, then the future, then the good and just relationships, then the right questions will appear in time."
"Sufficient for the day is the evil thereof," he quotes. And "seek God's kin-dom and Her righteousness and everything else will be added."
He finished up, "Please forgive the soapbox- I don't mean to climb it. But I don't want to see you giving an inch to this rotten kulcha."
Our of prison and the chaos of a brief visit comes Dad's letter with a brand of advice I was not getting anywhere else. Dispensed with love and humor from inside of a lousy county jail in Maine .
Dad was a big one for not being distracted. Focus. Discipline. Vision. The long haul. They are such anachronistic concepts, aren't they. I was looking through some old papers preparing for trip and found an article he wrote for Jonah House 's newsletter Year One. He told this story that I had not heard before about the entrapments of the culture.
I recall how a 1964 witness in South Vietnam gave me hope and clarity, and strengthened me for perseverance. Two young Frenchmen, appalled by how the U.S. followed the French downward spiral of violence and cruelty, resolved to do an action against the war. (They were in Saigon teaching, an alternative to military service.) They climbed a war memorial statue in downtown Saigon , scattered hundreds of leaflets - eagerly read by cabbies and bystanders - and waited for security. Police pulled them down, beat and jailed them. At a court appearance a journalist confronted them, visibly shaken: "Who paid you?" he shouted. "You couldn't have done anything so stupid without getting paid!" One of the Frenchmen retorted: "People don't always act for money!" "Bullshit!" came the answer: "Either you sell yourself, or they come and buy you!"
The journalist thereby expressed a cardinal rule of corporate capitalism when hitched to imperialism: "Either you sell yourself, or they come and buy you!" Hitler reportedly said the same: "Every man (sic) has his price and it's surprising how cheap it is!"
Who are "they" who traffic in the human spirit? The hucksters of the Establishment - politicians, warriors, CEO's, pundits, churchmen - bombard one with a thousand solicitations and seductions to sell. The tradeoffs are multitudinous and unrelenting - jobs, income, benefits, reputation, privilege, country clubs, vacations, expense accounts, the right to owe the bank. They slam every door, boxing one into a cell of appetite and greed, making it too expensive to say "NO!'
The story from Saigon forced me to think, practically as well as Biblically. Slowly, I developed a horror of life reduced to economics, to business, commercialism, selling and buying of lives. Especially my own. And I drew a line in the sand - never allow my compromises - we all compromise - to destroy essentials, like my life is not mine to exploit as I please.
Yes, I've proven unfit for the kindom of God. But always, God's mercy has resurrected me, filling my lap with the hundredfold. Now, at 78, following a hip replacement, I hope for a few more years to awaken the American people to an archenemy, their own government and the domination coalition that it serves.
"Does the one who shaped the ear not hear? The one who formed the eye not see? Does the one who guides nations not rebuke? The one who teaches humans not have knowledge?" (Ps. 94: 9,10)
I did not know my father as a priest. The photos of the handsome well dressed cleric do not fit neatly next to the grizzled house painter and working man who was my father, but I did understand my dad as a person struggling to be faithful. Whose considerations and deliberations were studded with biblical insights- like this article is.
He was a man who knelt by the side of the bed each morning and we did not interrupt those times of quiet commune.
In the glove compartment of every car and truck we owned growing up was a small bible, and at the beginning of each trip, whether it was a six hour drive to visit relatives or a 20 minute jaunt to a job site or the vegetable terminal where we scrounged food form dumpsters- every trip began with a reading from the bible.
My brother and I got a first class biblical education from the time we were four and five. Once a week we read bible stories and discussed them with dad, him probing us to put ourselves in the stories, identify with the beggar, the blind man, the one with the faith to ask for healing. These sessions interrupted the much more popular nightly reading of The Lord of the Rings, and Laura Ingalls Wilder , and later on Shakespeare and Charles Dickens .
John Deer , a Jesuit friends, tells of being in jail with dad and finding a list on the back of a writing tablet, the list:
Prince of Peace Son of God Root of Jesse Suffering Servant Wonder Counselor Peacemaker Christ Annoitted One Messiah Good Shepherd The Way The Truth The Life
What is this? asked John. Oh, my dad replied. I read these names each night and reflect on them when I lie in bed.
That was my Dad's faith. Worked on. Practiced. Never take for granted. Practical. A tool to use, again and again and again, to carve hope out of despair, light of darkness, community out of alienation.
When he got sick- he was diagnosed with cancer around this time two years ago- we had a family meeting. He told us he would try the doctor route, would submit to chemotherapy, but he would not put his faith in hospitals or medicine. He was putting his faith in God, praying for healing, not a cure. He told us he was not afraid to die, and it was a comfort to hear that, just as it was comforting all those years to know that he was not afraid of prison.
After one dose of chemotherapy, Dad said, no more. I am dying and I will not spend my last months fighting it in a hospital. I want to be home with my family and community.
I know Dad was (is) well regarded as a biblical scholar and theologian, but that is not the part I know. I know the earthy, loving man, who put himself in God's hands. Who did not see himself as the actor, the wielder of power, who worked to sublimate ego, to quiet self, so that he could hear God.
The last story I want to tell is one of my favorite memories of my Dad. On April 20, 2002 there was a huge peace march in Washington , DC and Dad was asked to speak at it. We all drove down from Baltimore together. We brought a folding chair because dad was due for hip surgery and it was hard for him to stand.
It was a beautiful day and the whole city seemed filled with the brilliant colors of posters and banners and masks and puppets.
Behind the big stage, the organizers had set up a tent for all the "luminaries." Dad was greeted with deference and respect by people like Martin Luther King the Third, lefty movie stars, union leaders, and organization directors. But he really wanted to talk with the young people who were making it happen, the kids in the headsets and walkie talkies.
He was so energized to see how many thousands had turned out to protest how the attack of September 11th had been used as an excuse to wage war.
When it was his turn to speak, he got up on the stage and saw for the first time how huge the crowd was. He was silent for a second, and mustered up new energy to be heard.
He started off by saying, "you are the answer, you are the answer. Don't get tired, don't get tired."
I was sitting on the side of the stage watching him. I had helped him up the stairs, and I knew he was in a lot of pain, that bone on bone grind of his hip and socket. I knew he was tired. Tired of pain, but mostly tired of bullshit and half-heartedness. And that in front of all those thousands, that tired was melting away, being replaced by the energy and hope of tens of thousands.
His "don't get tired," was an injunction, an order, but it was also a plea.
"May this be the first of many new beginnings aimed at sending the bosses and warriors packing."
He only had a few minutes to speak. And with the deftness and simplicity of a haiku master he laid out all the challenges facing the peace movement, all the war, injustice, pain and wrong. He ended by saying:
What do we do about this can of worms?
1. Love God, love our neighbor, love our enemies.
2. Stay loving, just, strong, nonviolent.
3. Don't mourn, organize.
4. Non-cooperate now, don't run the rotten system for the bosses and billionaires.
5. Oppose any and all wars. There has never been a just war.
6. Be clear: "The killing stops here with each of us!" We will prevent others from killing. When we do that, marvelous things will happen.
7. Don't get tired.
God bless you.
I hear his voice in my head all the time, saying "Don't get tired."
I get so tired. I cop out, I get pissy and frustrated. And I remember my dad standing on the stage, looking out over the thousands, but I think also looking back on all he had accomplished and created and suffered, and begging us not get tired. I still do get tired, but I hear him calling me back from selfishness each time.
That day in April was a high point of joy he would remember. His eyes shining, he would say, "wasn't it beautiful." He died eight months later.
That was his gift, his challenge, to the peace movement- to good people in general. Don't get tired. Don't give up. It is a luxury that we cannot afford. And here is a simple recipe for sustaining hope and energy- love, faith, action, mix and repeat until the cruise missiles have left Greenham Common. Until communities of resistance and resiliance have formed. Until our voices are strong and our visions are clear. Until we cannot be marginalized any longer. Love, faith, action. Mix and repeat.
I want to end with a poem is so central to my mom and dad's vision, that they named the book they wrote together after it. The Time's Discipline. It seems like a perfect poem to read here, with a group of people who have so embodied and enacted this discipline.
A Discipline By Wendell Berry
Turn toward the holocaust, it approaches On every side, there is not other place To turn. Dawning in your veins Is the light of the blast That will print your shadow on stone In a last antic of despair To survive you in the dark. Man has put his history to sleep In the engine of doom. It flies Over his dreams in the night, A blazing cocoon. O gaze into the fire And be consumed by man's despair, Ad be still, and wait, and then see The world go on with the patient work Of season, embroidering birdsong Upon itself as for a wedding, and feel Your heart set out in the morning Like a young traveler, arguing the world From the kiss of a pretty girl. It is the time's discipline to think Of the death of all living, and yet live.