Becket: It is not for me to win you round. I have only to say no to you.
King: But you must be logical, Becket!
Becket: No. That isn't necessary, my liege. We must only do -- absurdly -- what we have been given to do -- fight to the end.
From the play "Becket," by Jean Anouilh
The struggle against the monstrous radical evil that dominates our lives -- an evil that is swiftly despoiling the earth and driving the human species toward extinction, stripping us of our most basic civil liberties and freedoms, waging endless war and solidifying the obscene wealth of an oligarchic elite at our expense -- will be fought only with the belief that resistance, however futile, insignificant and even self-defeating it may appear, can set in motion moral and spiritual forces that radiate outward to inspire others, including those who come after us. It is, in essence, an act of faith. Nothing less than this faith will sustain us. We resist not because we will succeed, but because it is right. Resistance is the supreme act of faith.
During the Vietnam War, on the afternoon of May 17, 1968, nine Catholics, including two brothers, the radical priests Phil and Dan Berrigan, entered the draft board in Catonsville, Md., and seized Selective Service records. They carted them outside to the parking lot in metal trash cans and set them on fire with homemade napalm -- the recipe was from the Special Forces Handbook of the U.S. Army. The men and women, many of whom were or had been members of Catholic religious orders, stood and prayed around the bonfire until they were arrested. They were protesting not only the war but, as Dan Berrigan wrote, "every major presumption underlying American life." They acted, and eventually went to prison, Berrigan went on, "to set in motion spiritual rhythms whose outward influences are, in the nature of things, simply immeasurable."
The group's statement read:
Our apologies good friends
for the fracture of good order the burning of paper
instead of children the angering of the orderlies
in the front parlor of the charnel house
We could not so help us God do otherwise
For we are sick at heart
Our hearts give us no rest for thinking of the Land of Burning Children. ...
We say: Killing is disorder
life and gentleness and community and unselfishness
is the only order we recognize. ...
How long must the world's resources
be raped in the service of legalized murder?
When at what point will you say no to this war?
We have chosen to say
with the gift of our liberty
if necessary our lives:
the violence stops here
the death stops here
the suppression of the truth stops here
this war stops here. ...
The Catonsville protest sparked a wave of break-ins at draft boards in which files were burned, mutilated, stolen or destroyed. The Selective Service, in the first eight months of 1970 alone, recorded 271 "anti-draft occurrences" at draft boards across the country.
The nature, power and cost of civil disobedience, along with the understanding that confronting evil is the highest form of spirituality, is the subject of the play "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine," written by Dan Berrigan. Transport Group will present a production of the play at the Abrons Arts Center in New York City from Jan. 16 to Feb. 23. It will be performed with three actors, one of whom is my wife, Eunice Wong. Our daughter was baptized by Dan Berrigan (1921-2016).
The men and women who became known as the Catonsville Nine pleaded guilty to the charges leveled against them -- theft and destruction of property of the U.S. government and "disrupting the official activities" of the Selective Service. The Catonsville Nine used the court to indict the now-omnipotent war machine, which as Berrigan wrote "has come to include the court process that serves it." The courts, the presidency and the Congress, he noted, have calcified and turned to stone. "The 'separation of powers' is proving a fiction; ball and joint, the functions of power are fusing, like the bones of an aged body," he wrote.
"For you cannot set up a court in the Kingdom of the Blind, to condemn those who see; a court presided over by those who would pluck out the eyes of men and call it rehabilitation," Berrigan continued.
The defendants in the Catonsville Nine trial declined to question or challenge any potential jurors during the selection process. Later they would use their testimony not to attempt to prove their innocence -- they freely admitted they were guilty of the prosecution's narrow charges -- but to put the nation on trial. They argued that to abide by a higher law they must confront the law. Breaking the law was a function of conscience.
"The law, as presently revered and taught and enforced, is becoming an enticement to lawlessness," Dan Berrigan wrote in his book of essays, "No Bars to Manhood." "Lawyers and laws and courts and penal systems are nearly immobile before a shaken society, which is making civil disobedience a civil (I dare say a religious) duty. The law is aligning itself more and more with forms of power whose existence is placed more and more in question. ... So if they would obey the law, [people] are being forced, in the present crucial instance, either to disobey God or to disobey the law of humanity."
"The courts, up to the U.S. Supreme Court itself, are unwilling, especially in wartime, to consider seriously the moral and legal questions of war itself," Berrigan wrote. "So we felt that civilized [people] must seek to use the courtroom in order to achieve some public audibility about who we were and what we were about. The issues raised by the war -- issues of constitutionality and morality of the war, of free speech and freedom of protest -- might thereby be separated from our personal or corporate fates."
The law, Berrigan saw, is used to strengthen "a corporate system bent in the direction of more and more American hegemony abroad, more and more firmly imbedded poverty and racism at home." This capitalist machine, he said, had to be "taken apart, built over again." The Nine understood that it was "spiritually absurd and suicidal to be pretending to help the poor at home while we bombed the poor abroad." Mass incarceration and widespread poverty were the inevitable results of endless war and unchecked militarism.
If this militarism was not curbed -- and it has not been curbed -- the Nine predicted it would exacerbate racism among dispossessed whites, expand lethal, militarized police forces and transform the Congress, the judiciary, the presidency and the press into handmaidens of the corporate state. The trajectory, Dan Berrigan wrote, would lead to "an interlocking dance of death, a celebration of horror."
The Catonsville Nine were indifferent to their fate. "We were obliged in fact to attain some kind of personal liberation before acting at all," Berrigan wrote, "a certain spiritual detachment from the fact of prison." They did not expect miracles. They were not deceived by the roller coaster of emotional highs and lows that characterize a consumer culture. Patience, as the Vietnamese in Hanoi told Dan Berrigan, "is a revolutionary virtue." It was the truth that was on trial. The point of civil disobedience, Berrigan said, is not that people will agree or even follow. It is that such actions foster among the wider population "a deepened consciousness."