Longtime anti-war and anti-nuclear activist Philip Berrigan died Friday, Dec. 6 at Jonah House, a community he co-founded in 1973, surrounded by family and friends. He died two months after being diagnosed with liver and kidney cancer, and one month after deciding to discontinue chemotherapy. Approximately 30 close friends and fellow peace activists gathered for the ceremony of last rites on November 30, to celebrate his life and anoint him for the next part of his journey. Berrigan’s brother and co-felon, Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan officiated.
During his nearly 40 years of resistance to war and violence, Berrigan focused on living and working in community as a way to model the nonviolent, sustainable world he was working to create. Jonah House members live simply, pray together, share duties, and attempt to expose the violence of militarism and consumerism. The community was born out of resistance to the Vietnam War, including high-profile draft card burning actions; later the focus became ongoing resistance to U.S. nuclear policy, including Plowshares actions that aim to enact Isaiah’s biblical prophecy of a disarmed world. Because of these efforts Berrigan spent about 11 years in prison. He wrote, lectured, and taught extensively, publishing six books, including an autobiography, ??Fighting the Lamb’s War.
Berrigan was first jailed in Baltimore in 1967. But he may be best known for an action he conducted a year later with his brother, Father Daniel Berrigan, and seven other activists in Catonsville, Maryland. The group became known as the Catonsville Nine. In May 1968 the group entered a Maryland Selective Service Board, snatched up draft records, carried them outside and set them ablaze with homemade napalm.
At the time of their arrest, the activists released a statement that read in part:
"We use napalm on these draft records because napalm has burned people to death in Vietnam, Guatemala and Peru; and because it may be used in American ghettos. We destroy these draft records not only because they exploit our young men, but because these records represent misplaced power, concentrated in the ruling class of America. Their power threatens the peace of the world."
The Catonsville action sparked a nationwide series of draft-file burnings aimed at halting the Vietnam War.
Philip Berrigan was sentenced to three and a half years in jail and he would continue to serve prison sentences up until 2001. At the time of the Sept. 11 attacks he was in jail. And at the age of 77 officials immediately placed him in solitary confinement. But after his release last year he continued protesting. In January he led a Raleigh, N.C. march against war. On April 20 he spoke at a major anti-war rally in Washington. And just a month ago on Nov. 5 he spoke at West Chester University in Pennsylvania alongside his wife, the former nun Elizabeth McAlister. At the university he told the packed crowd, "For a long time I’ve been astonished by the fact that the human family has not caught on, not caught on at all, to the bankruptcy of violence and killing. Violence is, was, always will be, bankrupt, anti-human, criminal–always!"
In his last weeks, Berrigan was surrounded by his family, including his wife Elizabeth McAlister, with whom he founded Jonah House; his children Frida, 28, Jerry, 27, and Kate, 21; community members Susan Crane, Gary Ashbeck, and David Arthur; and extended family and community. Community members Ardeth Platte and Carol Gilbert, Dominican sisters, were unable to be physically present at Jonah House; they are currently in jail in Colorado awaiting trial for a disarmament action at a missile silo, the 79th international Plowshares action. One of Berrigan’s last actions was to bless the upcoming marriage of Frida to Ian Marvy.
Berrigan wrote a final statement in the days before his death. He began dictating a statement the weekend before Thanksgiving. It was all clear–he had it written in his head. Word for word he wrote:
"I die in a community including my family, my beloved wife Elizabeth, three great Dominican nuns–Ardeth Platte, Carol Gilbert, and Jackie Hudson (emeritus) jailed in Western Colorado–Susan Crane, friends local, national and even international. They have always been a life-line to me. I die with the conviction, held since 1968 and Catonsville, that nuclear weapons are the scourge of the earth; to mine for them, manufacture them, deploy them, use them, is a curse against God, the human family, and the earth itself. We have already exploded such weapons in Japan in 1945 and the equivalent of them in Iraq in 1991, in Yugoslavia in 1999, and in Afghanistan in 2001. We left a legacy for other people of deadly radioactive isotopes–a prime counterinsurgency measure. For example, the people of Iraq, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Pakistan will be battling cancer, mostly from depleted uranium, for decades. In addition, our nuclear adventurism over 57 years has saturated the planet with nuclear garbage from testing, from explosions in high altitudes (four of these), from 103 nuclear power plants, from nuclear weapons factories that can’t be cleaned up–and so on. Because of myopic leadership, of greed for possessions, a public chained to corporate media, there has been virtually no response to these realities..."
At this point in dictation, Phil’s lungs filled; he began to cough uncontrollably; he was tired. And then he couldn’t talk at all. And then–gradually–he left us.
- Phil Berrigan, memorial produced by Pacifica Peacewatch’s Scott Gurian and Laurel Paget-Seekins featuring one of the last recorded interviews with Berrigan from October, 2002