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To Be Accurate and Blunt: The Activist as Writer

by Harry James Cargas

Dr. Cargas’s most recent book is Harry James Cargas in Conversation with Elie Wiesel (Paulist, Newman, 1976) This article appeared in the Christian Century, June 1, 1977, p. 532. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


PHILIP BERRIGAN, former priest of the Josephite Order, and a member of the group of draft-record-burners known as the Catonsville Nine, now lives in Baltimore, Maryland. Having served a number of prison sentences, Berrigan, with his wife, the former Sister Elizabeth McAllister, has formed a small community of eight adults (and the two Berrigan children) living in Jonah House in what might be described as a ghetto area of the city. A part of their involvement includes the daily distribution of vegetables to neighbors through an arrangement with produce firms.

The Jonah House community is a voluntary association of persons who have no time commitment to each other and who own all of their property in common. The three primary goals of the group, according to Berrigan, are taking speaking engagements on the topic of nonviolence, working with other small communities to explore the meaning of nonviolence, and engaging in overt resistance. In explaining these efforts, Berrigan said that “some of the U.S. military’s first-strike weapons are now being tested. . . . We understand now that we are struggling for survival as a race. Mathematically, chances of our avoiding some big nuclear crunch by the turn of the century are very, very slim indeed.”

Philip Berrigan has written four books and numerous articles. His brother Daniel, also one of the Catonsville Nine, has received much attention for his writings, including poetry, theology, drama and war-resistance essays. Critic Harry James Cargas of Webster College, St. Louis, Missouri, author of Daniel Berrigan and Contemporary Protest Poetry, here talks with Philip Berrigan about his work as an author.

I

Cargas: Why do you write?

Berrigan: I write because I think it’s a very serious obligation to share an experience one believes in; one that stems from conviction, one with certain universal overtones that might be applicable or helpful to other lives. So particularly from jeopardy it’s necessary to write. Maybe the best theology or the most solid social reflection is done from jeopardy with the government. Some of Dan’s best poetry has been written in prison -- that is, from the suffering of prison.

And then too, when one is in social jeopardy, it adds an entirely different dimension and perspective. One sees things differently. I remember the last time I was in jail: it was an easy matter for me to identify with political prisoners that I was hearing about all over the world. This isn’t to say that I was stressing the fact of being a political prisoner, but I was in a better position to comprehend their sufferings. I think it’s important to record that, to get that down so possibly others might be helped by it.

Cargas: But your first book was written prior to the more political experiences you’ve had. In the introduction to No More Strangers Thomas Merton wrote that you were following a tradition of Rahner, Mounier and Teilhard. Do you see what you are doing now as an extension of that?

Berrigan: No, I would say that there’s quite a different cast to things now. About the time No More Strangers came out, I was busily exploring. I remember Dan and I went to a party in connection with the book in New York city, and I was on my way to Baltimore the next day -- I’d been kicked out of my teaching assignment at our seminary in Newburgh because of antiwar activity and because we’d been organizing against U.S. involvement in Indochina. But that was about the first taste I’d had of official reprisal for what I was doing. The book had been written before I experienced any of that.

Now it’s a different thing. I’m trying to, number one, clarify for folks what resistance is and the necessity for that as just a means to living a sane life; and number two, I’m trying to share with them the various directions that resistance might take in their lives. It’s this constant reflection upon what is happening here, in the light of nuclear arms, saying something to folks about the utter urgency of this resistance. That’s quite a bit different than it was in 1965.

II

Cargas: You mentioned two things that I’d like to ask about. You mentioned writing to clarify. Does your writing also help to clarify things for you?

Berrigan: Oh it does. It forces me to think, to ponder, to meditate. I don’t have that much discipline to be a good writer; I have to sweat things through -- I kind of bleed at a typewriter. I’ve never liked writing well enough nor have I considered it of primary enough importance really to work at it. As you say, I’ve always been more or less the activist. I would write only when I was at a position of leisure, whether that be in jail or in slack time -- or when I was forced to write because I was hitting the road to give a talk somewhere, at some campus. But I don’t consider myself primarily a writer.

Cargas: A second point you made earlier was one of sharing. Is writing somehow an extension of community?

Berrigan: I see your point, and it’s a good one. Yes, it’s an extension of community. I guess it’s a way of paying debts to the wider community that one has profited so much from in one’s formation. There are a countless number of people whose good books you and I have read and from which we benefited so very heavily -- to pay debts back on that and to say, well, this might be of some use to someone, somewhere. And so it’s an expression of hope, I would say, toward a wider community. Possibly these few ideas or this experience might provide a basis for them or an assistance to them in building community themselves.

Cargas: Your writing frequently takes the form of letters, particularly your pieces in Commonweal, Christian Century, Christianity and Crisis. Is that form forced upon you by the nature of experience? Letters from jail and so on

Berrigan: Well, I was perhaps borrowing a vehicle that Martin Luther King used with a great deal of effectiveness when he was jailed down in Birmiugham. And then too, it’s a means whereby a more general slice of the public might be addressed. You can’t write them all individually, and so you write to them collectively.

Cargas: You also wrote (and published) a letter to a bishop. But that was at his request, wasn’t it?

Berrigan: Yes. I suppose I just watch my chance and I adopt some means, some vehicle, some format that I think might fit the substance of what I’m going to say. I don’t think there’s any penchant for letters rather than just writing a short essay or piece.

III

Cargas: Elie Wiesel says “some words are deeds.” Do you feel that writing is an extension of your activism?

Berrigan: Very much so. It’s a point about which I feel very strongly. When one is activist over convictions, then that’s a way of not only testing the convictions but even defending them. During the Catonsville trial we got into a long dialogue in court with the judge that I’ll never forget. The question came up, either from the judge or the prosecutor, as to what right we had to do what we did. Somebody pointed out very mildly, and yet very forcefully, that we were doing no more than testing our truth in doing what we did. And then the national community would place some stamp of indifference, disapproval, approval on our actions. But it’s a way of sifting out one’s truth and purifying it, in probably the best way. In a sense, when you’re writing, you’re doing that too -- in a much less abrupt way, of course, but you’re doing it nonetheless.

Cargas: In No More Strangers you say that “we need accurately blunt statements from our leaders.” 1 would suppose that your whole life is an attempt to be an accurately blunt statement.

Berrigan: Yes. One goes through a period of time where -- and here I’m not trying to be pessimistic or jaundiced -- where one thinks it is actually possible for leaders of superpower status like ours are to offer accurately blunt statements, and then one realizes that it is very unlikely that they ever will. They are too compromised not only by their position, the fearful ambiguity which is connected with their ambition, but also by the ambiguities of the system itself which they represent. And the murderousness of it -- I think that needs to be emphasized. After all, the memories of a genocidal experience in Indochina are very close, and our leaders had a good deal to do with that experience. And what that system does to the truth is a very mysterious thing. I think we can fairly say that it subverts the truth and in some cases it even makes the truth impossible to express.

I went through a period when I was fresh from being something of a Kennedy admirer when I wrote that book. I still thought that it might be possible for people to be honorable, officially. And yet, without trying to appear jaundiced or anything like that, I no longer think that it will ever be likely as long as the United States is number one, as long as we’re exploiting the world to the degree that we are.

IV

Cargas: Are you working on anything now?

Berrigan: I dabble, Harry. I have a pile of essays downstairs, I suppose 15 or 18, which are more or less talks I’ve prepared around the country on all sorts of subjects, but mostly reflections on Indochina and also the nuclear arms race -- sometimes from the scriptural viewpoint, sometimes from a purely political one. I’m working them up now.

I don’t know if Dan had a chance to share this with you, but both of us are having trouble with the major publishing houses and some of the major magazines. The magazines that we counted on in the past for communicating our stuff are no longer responsive. So we have to find new sources. Dan recently had one of the best books he’s ever written rejected by Maryknoll. He finally had to farm it out to Germany. It’s a series of parables on the Old Testament -- superb writing, in my humble opinion; very radical stuff, it’s true. Increasingly we’re running into that problem.

Then, too, my last publisher, Simon and Schuster, has been assimilated by Gulf and Western, and consequently I don’t think I’d even approach them. They lost quite a bit of money on my last book, so I don’t think they’d consider me seriously anyway. So it goes. A couple of our movement friends are dabbling with printing houses and small publishing efforts. There are a couple in the midwest -- the Catholic Worker in Grand Rapids and one in the Chicago area. I think I’ll go with one of them this time. I’ll rework this stuff and get it out. But I’m working on something all the time and when I must speak, then I’ll be doing more work on the writing.

Cargas: Your most recent book, Widen the Prison Gates, makes an obvious kind of reference, but one that needs to be made for us, about the relationship between war and racism. In a sense your work is coming full circle from racism to war back to racism.

Berrigan: Somebody was pointing this out to me the other day, that it’s very hard to dissociate one from the other more clearly because they’re so intermingled. And Indochina, of course, which is the salient expression of racist warmaking, combined the two issues in an unprecedented way. A lot of our so-called colonialist wars in the past have been racist -- not to the degree, perhaps, that this one was.

Then too, this connection opens up avenues of . . . the way we make objects of racism out of people who are in ideological differences with us. For example, the status of the Russians in the American mentality, in effect, is not much different from, say, the status of the American black or the Chinese or other colored peoples in the world. This is sort of an interesting facet of American racism that has always preoccupied me to an extent. But as you say, you’re always coming in and out of these circles which are so often concentric.

Cargas: You mention in A Punishment for Peace the same thing that Berdyaev says: if we treat people as things, all of this that has happened will follow. That’s just what you’re saying again, isn’t it?

Berrigan: Yes. I’m finally getting into a little of The Technological Society. I’ve read a lot of Ellul’s books. I began reading him seriously in prison.

Cargas: Dan has read a lot of Ellul.

Berrigan: Dan has read more of him than I have, but I think he has helped both of us. He’s not without his imperfections, and sometimes he reminds me of Solzhenitsyn in some of the political judgments that he makes, but he’s pretty good and he’s a solid biblical scholar. But in The Technological Society he was dwelling upon the obsession with technique and how it screws up ends and means -- so much so that everything we are doing is for people, and yet the means are so preoccupying that they become ends in themselves and more important than the people they are done for. It certainly illustrates what we’re into. Bill Stringfellow has been doing some work on this just recently, too.

Cargas: What has it meant to you to be a writer?

Berrigan: Well at one point you made a reference to the clarifying aspects of writing, and for me, that’s the most rewarding side of it. That and a sense of achievement when I put something down that, well, might be fairly good, might possibly be fairly helpful to others. But the discipline of writing itself does so much for thinking and expression. It is a discipline that should be suggested to everybody.

I remember when we were in jail Dan and I were always at the guys to write, these guys within the resistance community that we knew so well. Sit down and write. Just keep a diary, but write. Tone up your vocabulary, get your grammar straight, perfect your spelling. And when you’re writing, think about the way you talk and try to make the connection between the two. Try to improve your speech so that you’re more lucid and more disciplined. Some of them did. Some of them really became pretty good. Writing is hard for me for a variety of reasons, but it’s always very rewarding.


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