Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence–Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.–The Revolution Speech–Read it!
Join us April 5th, 6:30 pm at RCNV with Rev. Deborah Johnson to listen and discuss it
Delivered 4 April 1967, Riverside Church, New York City[AUTHENTICITY CERTIFIED: Text version below transcribed directly from audio. (2)]
Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen:
I need not pause to say how very delighted I am to be here tonight, and how very delighted I am to see you expressing your concern about the issues that will be discussed tonight by turning out in such large numbers. I also want to say that I consider it a great honor to share this program with Dr. Bennett, Dr. Commager, and Rabbi Heschel, and some of the distinguished leaders and personalities of our nation. And of course it’s always good to come back to Riverside church. Over the last eight years, I have had the privilege of preaching here almost every year in that period, and it is always a rich and rewarding experience to come to this great church and this great pulpit.
I come to this magnificent house of worship tonight because my conscience leaves me no other choice. I join you in this meeting because I’m in deepest agreement with the aims and work of the organization which has brought us together: Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam. The recent statements of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart, and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” And that time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.
The truth of these words is beyond doubt, but the mission to which they call us is a most difficult one. Even when pressed by the demands of inner truth, men do not easily assume the task of opposing their government’s policy, especially in time of war. Nor does the human spirit move without great difficulty against all the apathy of conformist thought within one’s own bosom and in the surrounding world. Moreover, when the issues at hand seem as perplexing as they often do in the case of this dreadful conflict, we are always on the verge of being mesmerized by uncertainty; but we must move on.
And some of us who have already begun to break the silence of the night have found that the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak. And we must rejoice as well, for surely this is the first time in our nation’s history that a significant number of its religious leaders have chosen to move beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience and the reading of history. Perhaps a new spirit is rising among us. If it is, let us trace its movements and pray that our own inner being may be sensitive to its guidance, for we are deeply in need of a new way beyond the darkness that seems so close around us.
Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: “Why are you speaking about the war, Dr. King?” “Why are you joining the voices of dissent?” “Peace and civil rights don’t mix,” they say. “Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people,” they ask? And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.
In the light of such tragic misunderstanding, I deem it of signal importance to try to state clearly, and I trust concisely, why I believe that the path from Dexter Avenue Baptist Church — the church in Montgomery, Alabama, where I began my pastorate — leads clearly to this sanctuary tonight.
I come to this platform tonight to make a passionate plea to my beloved nation. This speech is not addressed to Hanoi or to the National Liberation Front. It is not addressed to China or to Russia. Nor is it an attempt to overlook the ambiguity of the total situation and the need for a collective solution to the tragedy of Vietnam. Neither is it an attempt to make North Vietnam or the National Liberation Front paragons of virtue, nor to overlook the role they must play in the successful resolution of the problem. While they both may have justifiable reasons to be suspicious of the good faith of the United States, life and history give eloquent testimony to the fact that conflicts are never resolved without trustful give and take on both sides.
Tonight, however, I wish not to speak with Hanoi and the National Liberation Front, but rather to my fellow Americans.
Since I am a preacher by calling, I suppose it is not surprising that I have seven major reasons for bringing Vietnam into the field of my moral vision. There is at the outset a very obvious and almost facile connection between the war in Vietnam and the struggle I, and others, have been waging in America. A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated, as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So, I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.
Perhaps a more tragic recognition of reality took place when it became clear to me that the war was doing far more than devastating the hopes of the poor at home. It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. And so we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. And so we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would hardly live on the same block in Chicago. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.
My third reason moves to an even deeper level of awareness, for it grows out of my experience in the ghettoes of the North over the last three years — especially the last three summers. As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask — and rightly so — what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government. For the sake of those boys, for the sake of this government, for the sake of the hundreds of thousands trembling under our violence, I cannot be silent.
For those who ask the question, “Aren’t you a civil rights leader?” and thereby mean to exclude me from the movement for peace, I have this further answer. In 1957 when a group of us formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, we chose as our motto: “To save the soul of America.” We were convinced that we could not limit our vision to certain rights for black people, but instead affirmed the conviction that America would never be free or saved from itself until the descendants of its slaves were loosed completely from the shackles they still wear. In a way we were agreeing with Langston Hughes, that black bard of Harlem, who had written earlier:
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath —
America will be!
Now, it should be incandescently clear that no one who has any concern for the integrity and life of America today can ignore the present war. If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read: Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over. So it is that those of us who are yet determined that America will be — are — are led down the path of protest and dissent, working for the health of our land.
As if the weight of such a commitment to the life and health of America were not enough, another burden of responsibility was placed upon me in 1954;1 and I cannot forget that the Nobel Peace Prize was also a commission, a commission to work harder than I had ever worked before for “the brotherhood of man.” This is a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances, but even if it were not present I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I’m speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the good news was meant for all men — for Communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the One who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them? What then can I say to the Vietcong or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this One? Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?
And finally, as I try to explain for you and for myself the road that leads from Montgomery to this place I would have offered all that was most valid if I simply said that I must be true to my conviction that I share with all men the calling to be a son of the living God. Beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of sonship and brotherhood, and because I believe that the Father is deeply concerned especially for his suffering and helpless and outcast children, I come tonight to speak for them.
This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls “enemy,” for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.
And as I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to understand and respond in compassion, my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the ideologies of the Liberation Front, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. I think of them, too, because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries.
They must see Americans as strange liberators. The Vietnamese people proclaimed their own independence in 1954 — in 1945 rather — after a combined French and Japanese occupation and before the communist revolution in China. They were led by Ho Chi Minh. Even though they quoted the American Declaration of Independence in their own document of freedom, we refused to recognize them. Instead, we decided to support France in its reconquest of her former colony. Our government felt then that the Vietnamese people were not ready for independence, and we again fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long. With that tragic decision we rejected a revolutionary government seeking self-determination and a government that had been established not by China — for whom the Vietnamese have no great love — but by clearly indigenous forces that included some communists. For the peasants this new government meant real land reform, one of the most important needs in their lives.
For nine years following 1945 we denied the people of Vietnam the right of independence. For nine years we vigorously supported the French in their abortive effort to recolonize Vietnam. Before the end of the war we were meeting eighty percent of the French war costs. Even before the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu, they began to despair of their reckless action, but we did not. We encouraged them with our huge financial and military supplies to continue the war even after they had lost the will. Soon we would be paying almost the full costs of this tragic attempt at recolonization.
After the French were defeated, it looked as if independence and land reform would come again through the Geneva Agreement. But instead there came the United States, determined that Ho should not unify the temporarily divided nation, and the peasants watched again as we supported one of the most vicious modern dictators, our chosen man, Premier Diem. The peasants watched and cringed as Diem ruthlessly rooted out all opposition, supported their extortionist landlords, and refused even to discuss reunification with the North. The peasants watched as all this was presided over by United States’ influence and then by increasing numbers of United States troops who came to help quell the insurgency that Diem’s methods had aroused. When Diem was overthrown they may have been happy, but the long line of military dictators seemed to offer no real change, especially in terms of their need for land and peace.
The only change came from America, as we increased our troop commitments in support of governments which were singularly corrupt, inept, and without popular support. All the while the people read our leaflets and received the regular promises of peace and democracy and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs and consider us, not their fellow Vietnamese, the real enemy. They move sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps where minimal social needs are rarely met. They know they must move on or be destroyed by our bombs.
So they go, primarily women and children and the aged. They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one Vietcong-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them, mostly children. They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers.
What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building? Is it among these voiceless ones?
We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. We have cooperated in the crushing — in the crushing of the nation’s only non-Communist revolutionary political force, the unified Buddhist Church. We have supported the enemies of the peasants of Saigon. We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men.
Now there is little left to build on, save bitterness. Soon, the only solid — solid physical foundations remaining will be found at our military bases and in the concrete of the concentration camps we call “fortified hamlets.” The peasants may well wonder if we plan to build our new Vietnam on such grounds as these. Could we blame them for such thoughts? We must speak for them and raise the questions they cannot raise. These, too, are our brothers.
Perhaps a more difficult but no less necessary task is to speak for those who have been designated as our enemies. What of the National Liberation Front, that strangely anonymous group we call “VC” or “communists”? What must they think of the United States of America when they realize that we permitted the repression and cruelty of Diem, which helped to bring them into being as a resistance group in the South? What do they think of our condoning the violence which led to their own taking up of arms? How can they believe in our integrity when now we speak of “aggression from the North” as if there were nothing more essential to the war? How can they trust us when now we charge them with violence after the murderous reign of Diem and charge them with violence while we pour every new weapon of death into their land? Surely we must understand their feelings, even if we do not condone their actions. Surely we must see that the men we supported pressed them to their violence. Surely we must see that our own computerized plans of destruction simply dwarf their greatest acts.
How do they judge us when our officials know that their membership is less than twenty-five percent communist, and yet insist on giving them the blanket name? What must they be thinking when they know that we are aware of their control of major sections of Vietnam, and yet we appear ready to allow national elections in which this highly organized political parallel government will not have a part? They ask how we can speak of free elections when the Saigon press is censored and controlled by the military junta. And they are surely right to wonder what kind of new government we plan to help form without them, the only party in real touch with the peasants. They question our political goals and they deny the reality of a peace settlement from which they will be excluded. Their questions are frighteningly relevant. Is our nation planning to build on political myth again, and then shore it up upon the power of new violence?
Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.
So, too, with Hanoi. In the North, where our bombs now pummel the land, and our mines endanger the waterways, we are met by a deep but understandable mistrust. To speak for them is to explain this lack of confidence in Western words, and especially their distrust of American intentions now. In Hanoi are the men who led the nation to independence against the Japanese and the French, the men who sought membership in the French Commonwealth and were betrayed by the weakness of Paris and the willfulness of the colonial armies. It was they who led a second struggle against French domination at tremendous costs, and then were persuaded to give up the land they controlled between the thirteenth and seventeenth parallel as a temporary measure at Geneva. After 1954 they watched us conspire with Diem to prevent elections which could have surely brought Ho Chi Minh to power over a united Vietnam, and they realized they had been betrayed again. When we ask why they do not leap to negotiate, these things must be remembered.
Also, it must be clear that the leaders of Hanoi considered the presence of American troops in support of the Diem regime to have been the initial military breach of the Geneva Agreement concerning foreign troops. They remind us that they did not begin to send troops in large numbers and even supplies into the South until American forces had moved into the tens of thousands.
Hanoi remembers how our leaders refused to tell us the truth about the earlier North Vietnamese overtures for peace, how the president claimed that none existed when they had clearly been made. Ho Chi Minh has watched as America has spoken of peace and built up its forces, and now he has surely heard the increasing international rumors of American plans for an invasion of the North. He knows the bombing and shelling and mining we are doing are part of traditional pre-invasion strategy. Perhaps only his sense of humor and of irony can save him when he hears the most powerful nation of the world speaking of aggression as it drops thousands of bombs on a poor, weak nation more than eight hundred — rather, eight thousand miles away from its shores.
At this point I should make it clear that while I have tried in these last few minutes to give a voice to the voiceless in Vietnam and to understand the arguments of those who are called “enemy,” I am as deeply concerned about our own troops there as anything else. For it occurs to me that what we are submitting them to in Vietnam is not simply the brutalizing process that goes on in any war where armies face each other and seek to destroy. We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved. Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy, and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor.
Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak of the — for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home, and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours.
This is the message of the great Buddhist leaders of Vietnam.
Recently one of them wrote these words, and I quote:
Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom, and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism (unquote).
If we continue, there will be no doubt in my mind and in the mind of the world that we have no honorable intentions in Vietnam. If we do not stop our war against the people of Vietnam immediately, the world will be left with no other alternative than to see this as some horrible, clumsy, and deadly game we have decided to play. The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit that we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people. The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways. In order to atone for our sins and errors in Vietnam, we should take the initiative in bringing a halt to this tragic war.
I would like to suggest five concrete things that our government should do [immediately] to begin the long and difficult process of extricating ourselves from this nightmarish conflict:
Number one: End all bombing in North and South Vietnam.
Number two: Declare a unilateral cease-fire in the hope that such action will create the atmosphere for negotiation.
Three: Take immediate steps to prevent other battlegrounds in Southeast Asia by curtailing our military buildup in Thailand and our interference in Laos.
Four: Realistically accept the fact that the National Liberation Front has substantial support in South Vietnam and must thereby play a role in any meaningful negotiations and any future Vietnam government.
Five: Set a date that we will remove all foreign troops from Vietnam in accordance with the 1954 Geneva Agreement.
Part of our ongoing — Part of our ongoing commitment might well express itself in an offer to grant asylum to any Vietnamese who fears for his life under a new regime which included the Liberation Front. Then we must make what reparations we can for the damage we have done. We must provide the medical aid that is badly needed, making it available in this country, if necessary. Meanwhile — Meanwhile, we in the churches and synagogues have a continuing task while we urge our government to disengage itself from a disgraceful commitment. We must continue to raise our voices and our lives if our nation persists in its perverse ways in Vietnam. We must be prepared to match actions with words by seeking out every creative method of protest possible.
As we counsel young men concerning military service, we must clarify for them our nation’s role in Vietnam and challenge them with the alternative of conscientious objection. I am pleased to say that this is a path now chosen by more than seventy students at my own alma mater, Morehouse College, and I recommend it to all who find the American course in Vietnam a dishonorable and unjust one. Moreover, I would encourage all ministers of draft age to give up their ministerial exemptions and seek status as conscientious objectors. These are the times for real choices and not false ones. We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.
Now there is something seductively tempting about stopping there and sending us all off on what in some circles has become a popular crusade against the war in Vietnam. I say we must enter that struggle, but I wish to go on now to say something even more disturbing.
The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality…and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing “clergy and laymen concerned” committees for the next generation. They will be concerned about Guatemala — Guatemala and Peru. They will be concerned about Thailand and Cambodia. They will be concerned about Mozambique and South Africa. We will be marching for these and a dozen other names and attending rallies without end, unless there is a significant and profound change in American life and policy.
And so, such thoughts take us beyond Vietnam, but not beyond our calling as sons of the living God.
In 1957, a sensitive American official overseas said that it seemed to him that our nation was on the wrong side of a world revolution. During the past ten years, we have seen emerge a pattern of suppression which has now justified the presence of U.S. military advisors in Venezuela. This need to maintain social stability for our investments accounts for the counterrevolutionary action of American forces in Guatemala. It tells why American helicopters are being used against guerrillas in Cambodia and why American napalm and Green Beret forces have already been active against rebels in Peru.
It is with such activity in mind that the words of the late John F. Kennedy come back to haunt us. Five years ago he said, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.” Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values.
We must rapidly begin…we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.
A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.
A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth. With righteous indignation, it will look across the seas and see individual capitalists of the West investing huge sums of money in Asia, Africa, and South America, only to take the profits out with no concern for the social betterment of the countries, and say, “This is not just.” It will look at our alliance with the landed gentry of South America and say, “This is not just.” The Western arrogance of feeling that it has everything to teach others and nothing to learn from them is not just.
A true revolution of values will lay hand on the world order and say of war, “This way of settling differences is not just.” This business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into the veins of peoples normally humane, of sending men home from dark and bloody battlefields physically handicapped and psychologically deranged, cannot be reconciled with wisdom, justice, and love. A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.
America, the richest and most powerful nation in the world, can well lead the way in this revolution of values. There is nothing except a tragic death wish to prevent us from reordering our priorities so that the pursuit of peace will take precedence over the pursuit of war. There is nothing to keep us from molding a recalcitrant status quo with bruised hands until we have fashioned it into a brotherhood.
This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against communism. War is not the answer. Communism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. Let us not join those who shout war and, through their misguided passions, urge the United States to relinquish its participation in the United Nations.
These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We must not engage in a negative anticommunism, but rather in a positive thrust for democracy, realizing that our greatest defense against communism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice. We must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity, and injustice, which are the fertile soil in which the seed of communism grows and develops.
These are revolutionary times. All over the globe men are revolting against old systems of exploitation and oppression, and out of the wounds of a frail world, new systems of justice and equality are being born. The shirtless and barefoot people of the land are rising up as never before. “The people who sat in darkness have seen a great light.”2 We in the West must support these revolutions.
It is a sad fact that because of comfort, complacency, a morbid fear of communism, and our proneness to adjust to injustice, the Western nations that initiated so much of the revolutionary spirit of the modern world have now become the arch antirevolutionaries. This has driven many to feel that only Marxism has a revolutionary spirit. Therefore, communism is a judgment against our failure to make democracy real and follow through on the revolutions that we initiated. Our only hope today lies in our ability to recapture the revolutionary spirit and go out into a sometimes hostile world declaring eternal hostility to poverty, racism, and militarism. With this powerful commitment we shall boldly challenge the status quo and unjust mores, and thereby speed the day when “every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.”3
A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies.
This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing — embracing and unconditional love for all mankind. This oft misunderstood, this oft misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of man. When I speak of love I am not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am not speaking of that force which is just emotional bosh.
I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate — ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of Saint John: “Let us love one another, for love is God. And every one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love.” “If we love one another, God dwelleth in us and his love is perfected in us.”4 Let us hope that this spirit will become the order of the day.
We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. And history is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals that pursued this self-defeating path of hate. As Arnold Toynbee says:
Love is the ultimate force that makes for the saving choice of life and good against the damning choice of death and evil. Therefore the first hope in our inventory must be the hope that love is going to have the last word (unquote).
We are now faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there is such a thing as being too late. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood — it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words, “Too late.” There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. Omar Khayyam is right: “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on.”
We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. We must move past indecision to action. We must find new ways to speak for peace in Vietnam and justice throughout the developing world, a world that borders on our doors. If we do not act, we shall surely be dragged down the long, dark, and shameful corridors of time reserved for those who possess power without compassion, might without morality, and strength without sight.
Now let us begin. Now let us rededicate ourselves to the long and bitter, but beautiful, struggle for a new world. This is the calling of the sons of God, and our brothers wait eagerly for our response. Shall we say the odds are too great? Shall we tell them the struggle is too hard? Will our message be that the forces of American life militate against their arrival as full men, and we send our deepest regrets? Or will there be another message — of longing, of hope, of solidarity with their yearnings, of commitment to their cause, whatever the cost? The choice is ours, and though we might prefer it otherwise, we must choose in this crucial moment of human history.
As that noble bard of yesterday, James Russell Lowell, eloquently stated:
Once to every man and nation comes a moment to decide,
In the strife of truth and Falsehood, for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, God’s new Messiah offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever ‘twixt that darkness and that light.
Though the cause of evil prosper, yet ‘tis truth alone is strong
Though her portions be the scaffold, and upon the throne be wrong
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.
And if we will only make the right choice, we will be able to transform this pending cosmic elegy into a creative psalm of peace. If we will make the right choice, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our world into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. If we will but make the right choice, we will be able to speed up the day, all over America and all over the world, when “justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”5
1 King stated “1954.” That year was notable for the Civil Rights Movement in the USSC’s Brown v. Board of Education ruling. However, given the statement’s discursive thrust, King may have meant to say “1964” — the year he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Alternatively, as noted by Steve Goldberg, King may have identified 1954’s “burden of responsibility” as the year he became a minister.
2 Isaiah 9:2/Matthew 4:16
3 Isaiah 40:4
4 1 John 4:7-8, 12
External Link: http://www.thekingcenter.org/
Research Note: This transcript rechecked for errors and subsequently revised on 10/3/2010.
Get in trouble- Good trouble, with Nonviolence! Check it out: interviews with Congressman John Lewis
9/1/16: Congressman John Lewis interviewed by Stephen Colbert on Get in Trouble- Good Trouble, with Nonviolence... https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6ATwisIrtfg
Excerpts below or click links to see the full Comedy Central videos from the August 8, 2016, Trevor Noah interview with Rep. John Lewis, GA, on nonviolence. John Lewis has just released book 3 in his graphic novel /biography “March” series.
JOHN LEWIS – GETTING INTO TROUBLE TO FIGHT INJUSTICE
AUGUST 8, 2016 – JOHN LEWIS
JOHN LEWIS – CREATING A BLUEPRINT FOR PEACEFUL PROTESTS WITH THE “MARCH” TRILOGY
AUGUST 8, 2016 – JOHN LEWIS 08/08/2016
Don’t miss Legendary Folksinger, songwriter, instrumentalist
TUESDAY, JANUARY 17, 2017 CONCERT. AT RCNV, 612 Ocean St., Santa Cruz, CA. Time: 7:30PM
NO more tickets via Paypal. Come to the concert to pay at the door. There may be a few tickets still available.
Ticket info: Advance Tickets sliding scale $18-35. Door: $20-35.
Bring in the New Year with Folk music’s renaissance man:master instrumentalist, powerful singer-songwriter, storyteller, activist, and author John McCUTCHEON. All are invited to attend this concert and celebrate RCNV’s 40th Anniversary!
Advance reservations may pay the advance price at the door (cash or checks): $18-35 sliding scale.
John’s got a brand new CD!– Trolling for Dreams. “John McCutcheon is the Bruce Springsteen of Folk Music … a national treasure!” “You can’t help but feel more connected to the world after his concerts.” Proceeds benefit RCNV. More about John.
MORE INFORMATION: call 831.423.1626
GIVING OPPORTUNITY: Help UCSC Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) to attend “Critical Mass: With Our Roots in Resistance, Forging a Just Future.”
Help UCSC Students for Justice in Palestine
“Critical Mass: With Our Roots in Resistance, Forging a Just Future.”
the National Students for Justice in Palestine conference in Washington, DC on November 4-6.
Thank you to Eric Thiermann and Impact Creative for videotaping Bob Fitch’s memorial on 5/27/16 at Peace United Church in Santa Cruz. See link to video below.
We encourage people to share it and download it to your computers if you want to save it. It is about 2 hours long.
HEAR a 2015 radio interview with Bob Fitch by Ruth Copland, from her “A Question of Balance” show. Scroll down to the bottom of this page to click the link: http://www.
Bob’s memorial was a wonderful celebration and tribute to his life. Local singer/songwriter Aileen Vance began the service by leading Bob’s version of the song “All the Good People.” Good friend Brian Murtha emceed. Bob’s daughter Ma Ka Wa Alexander, sons Jaxon Raven and Ben Fitch spoke, and Ben sang a song. California State Senator Bill Monning remembered Bob’s work with the United Farm Workers and connected with him through the Resource Center for Nonnviolence. Assemblymember Luis Alejo remembered Bob’s active support in Watsonville. Bob’s son Jaxon Ravens, chairman of the Democratic Party in Washington state, read a statement from Bernie Sanders, who knew Bob during the civil rights movement. Bob’s partner Karen Shaffer shared memories and led the group in singing one of Bob’s favorite songs: “Get Up and Go”. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s close colleague and lawyer Clarence B. Jones spoke about Bob’s impact on the civil rights movement. Numerous community members, including former RCNV staff member Sandino Gomez and many friends shared their reflections about Bob’s impact locally, regionally and nationally. A potluck and contradancing followed the memorial.
By Josh Sonnenfeld
There are two images that come to mind when I think of Bob. The first is of Bob, on the ground, with his back on the pavement of a road somewhere in between the California farming communities of Watsonville and Salinas, clutching his camera in his hands, capturing photo after photo as hundreds of people march over him – part of a “Peregrinación Por La Paz” – pilgrimage for peace, for immigrant rights, and against militarism. This was during the height of the latest Iraq war in the mid-2000’s. The march was led by Fernando Suarez del Solar, the grieving father of a Marine who died in Iraq, who committed his life to make sure no parent ever had to feel the way that he did. I had come along on the trip with Bob, acting as both an assistant and a fellow photographer, but mostly just as a friend, and I was slightly terrified seeing my then 65-year-old friend on the ground, at risk of being trampled.
Bob always told me that, “You’ve got to get closer” to those you are taking pictures of. He meant that both physically, in this case, but also, I believe, emotionally. To him, his life-long commitment to social justice and community wasn’t just a political act or a profession – it was a deep act of love. Those that he struggled alongside over many years – through the civil rights movement, peace movement, farm workers movement, Catholic workers movement, and many others – weren’t just allies, they were his friends, his lovers, his family.
Documenting these movements to him, was ultimately about documenting people. Everyday people of all ages and backgrounds who did courageous things – who faced down police, the Klu Klux Klan, and armed thugs – but also people who, like all of us, had real flaws: ego, infidelity and chauvinism, shortsightedness and more. Bob understood that our movement leaders, people like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, Dorothy Day, Fathers Phillip and Daniel Berrigan, Joan Baez, and many others were both extraordinary people, and also real people – people who laughed, and cried, goofed around, and who made mistakes. Bob also knew that these leaders came out of a particular social context, and that movements were made up of thousands of people – thousands of leaders – whose names most of us will never know. Bob made it his life’s mission to tell the stories of not just those leaders whose names are remembered, but also the “foot soldiers” of these movements that transformed American life.
In many ways Bob was one of those foot soldiers himself. Experiencing some of the most transformative moments of mid-to-late 20th century history in the U.S. through the lens of a camera, Bob was an incredible and savvy observer. He understood how these movements were organized, the personal struggles and success stories of our leaders and their families, and also the magic that could be produced from “movement moments” – those times when the distance between reality and what is possible come closest – such as the March on Washington in 1963, where Bob took one of several iconic photographs of Dr. King.
When I met Bob as a 17 year-old high school senior in the run-up to the Iraq war, Bob had gone beyond the camera and was applying the lessons he had learned through many years as a staff member for the Resource Center for Nonviolence in Santa Cruz, California. With a keen eye for leadership, Bob spotted me as I was working with my fellow high school students to convince our school board to limit military recruitment on campus. Bob quickly pulled me under his wing, and over the next several years, taught me much of what I know about community organizing, and about friendship. A constant learner and reader, Bob gave me my first books on organizing – classics such as Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals”, George Lakoff’s “Don’t Think of an Elephant,” and, most impactful on me, “The Long Haul,” the autobiography of Myles Horton, the founder of the Highlander Folk School, which has trained generations of organizers since its founding in the early 1930’s. More than just sharing books, however, Bob was a storyteller, sharing with me and many others the many lessons that he picked up from the variety of movements that he was a part of.
One of the best lessons I learned from Bob, however, was not about how to be a strategist, or effectively pressure decision-makers, but about how to show up. Bob understood the responsibility that came along with being a person of privilege (or, as he would describe himself, “a big, loud white guy”) in a society with deep levels of oppression, and saw the real need – and incredible power – when leadership came from the communities most impacted by the problems we face. He believed that the best way for a person of privilege to support community struggles is to show up, do the dirty work (stacking chairs, washing dishes), and to have a skill to offer that could be of use by the community. Like all good teachers, Bob gave this lesson most by his own example – and I struggle to remember any event Bob and I went to where he didn’t end the night with a mop in his hand, or happily moving tables from one side of the room to the other.
Beyond doing the dishes, photography was Bob’s skill that he could offer – and he did so with incredibly regularity and personal sacrifice over many decades. He understood that by taking photos, he was providing a service, allowing a more true story to be heard, amidst the spin of our opponents and distortion of the mainstream media. He knew that his job was to show up, “keep his mouth shut,” and “DFIU” (don’t ‘mess’ it up). His approach, in turn, engendered a deep level of trust by almost all with whom Bob worked – to the point that they would open up their lives, families and struggles for Bob to document. This makes Bob’s photographic archives (now stored at Stanford University, free for all to download and print – at his insistence) one of the most incredible and deeply personal records of social movement history in the U.S. over the past 50 years.
The second image that comes to mind when I think of Bob is of that grin. Bob was always so full of life, and “mischievousness” as he liked to describe it. He took Emma Goldman’s quote,” If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution” literally – and any efforts he was going to be involved in certainly was going to involve a lot of dancing. Bob was a contra dancer for decades at his local granges, but more than anything he was a constant jokester. I can’t think of Bob without smiling and laughing, because that’s pretty much what I was doing the whole time we were together. He had an infectious spirit, and incredible energy – dancing, playing guitar, singing, and boogie boarding in the Monterey Bay until his Parkinson’s eventually got in the way. His humorous spirit was also incredibly disarming, crossing cultural and linguistic boundaries, and building friendship and trust wherever he went.
I trust that for many decades, I will continue to meet friends of Bob’s that I never knew he had – each one with an incredible story to share about how they met him, a lesson that they learned from him, and a deep appreciation for this man who gave so much to so many, and whose images and impact will be seen and felt for many generations to come. We love you, Bob.
Bob Fitch, ¡présente!
Josh Sonnenfeld is a graduate of the University of California, Santa Cruz, and is a former staff member of the Resource Center for Nonviolence. He lives with his wife Rachelle in Oakland, California, where he works with the Sierra Club to build powerful movements to protect the places and that we love.
Remembrance of Bob Fitch
By Paul Ortiz, May 23, 2016
I first met Bob Fitch in person through our work together at the Resource Center for Nonviolence in
Santa Cruz in 2001. Of course however, I knew of Bob through his remarkable movimiento photographs
of generations of activists in the United Farm Workers, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference,
the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and many other social justice movements. What we
learn about Bob through these photographs is that what matters is the people, our struggles for justice,
and our willingness to listen to each other and to work for a better world.
Bob Fitch’s photographs preserve and promote the best and most difficult moments of each social
movement that he participated in. In doing so, he left us with important pieces of the puzzle on how we
can keep the struggle for justice alive and well. In Bob’s photographs, we see the heroic fortitude of an
individual resistor like Dorothy Day who defies the police to cross her path; however, we also see the
agony of people brutalized and mistreated by the cops on picket lines and protests.
We see moments of painful, interior reflection of a father, Fernando Suarez del Solar, as he agonizes
over the loss of his son in the Iraq War. Bob was equally adept at capturing moments involving
thousands of people—the masses in motion!—on International Workers’ Day, 2006, the Great American
Boycott, when Latina workers across the nation said ¡Basta Ya! (Enough is Enough!) to racism, labor
exploitation, and anti-immigrant laws.
Bob Fitch’s photographs honor the dignity and humanity of every individual life at the same time he was
able to preserve the magical moments when people wove themselves together into powerful forces for
change. Yes, these documents tell us much about the abuse of authority. Certainly, we learn about the
power of the state, of corporations, of the armed police to suppress and crush the aspirations of
working class people. Equally important however, we learn of the strength of hitherto powerless people
to come together and demand living wages, union contracts, immigration rights, Black Power, and end
to war, and so many other life-affirming causes.
What is my favorite Bob Fitch photograph? I love Bob’s recent series of photographs of Luis Alejo, a man
Bob described as a [quote] “Watsonville ‘home boy’ who has the charisma and organizing skill of Martin
Luther King or Cesar Chavez.” I love this series because it was Bob’s way of saying that the movement
for justice has a lineage, and it is always beginning anew in the shape of thoughtful people working
together for change.
Here’s another favorite. When Daniel Berrigan recently passed away we all were treated to Bob’s
remarkable photo of Father Berrigan flashing a peace sign in handcuffs, smiling his smile that says: “As
long as war exists we are going to resist; in joy, not in revenge. In peace, not in violence. In love, not in
hate.” “We defy authority,” that smile says, “because to be human is to be in conflict with the agents of
the state who put us at war with our brothers and sisters.” ¡Basta Ya! Enough is Enough!
That smile, which was so much a part of the beautiful Daniel Berrigan, was the smile I saw the first time I
had the honor to meet Bob Fitch and it was always there whenever I and Sheila had the privilege to
work with Bob during our wonderful years in Santa Cruz. Bob mentored countless students at UC-Santa
Cruz in the ways of seeing the world, and he was there with us on that wonderful day on May 1, 2006
when our students shut down the campus in the cause of human rights and immigrant justice.
Again, we remember so much of that remarkable day through Bob’s insightful photography. His
photographs depicted picket signs with affirmations like “This Nation Was Built by Immigrants!” “Don’t
Split Immigrant Families Apart!” and “Let us be part of the American Dream.” The Mexican flag and the
American flag fly proudly together, not separately.
As these photos eloquently demonstrate, we now remember some our best moments in struggle
through the images and words of our hermano, our brother Bob Fitch. We honor to his memory by
supporting today’s movement photographers, by nurturing the journalists and the movement organizers
who tell the people’s stories today—and by nurturing each other in loving resistance to the forces of
economic injustice, militarism, and oppression everywhere.
Paul Ortiz and Sheila Payne,
Paul Ortiz taught at UCSC and he served on the Resource Center for Nonviolence Steering Committee. Both Paul and Sheila were active RCNV volunteers and community activists in Santa Cruz until their move to Florida in 2008. Paul now teaches at the University of Florida Department of History. Professor Ortiz is also the Director of the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program. He is also the author of several books, including “Emancipation Betrayed: The Hidden History of Black Organizing and White Violence in Florida from Reconstruction to the Bloody Election of 1920.”
RCNV is Hiring! We’re looking for a dynamic, self-motivated person to focus on outreach to youth and young adults in SC County and inspire them to change the world! Applications accepted until June 3, 2016
See PDF job announcement link, or see text below:
Resource Center for Nonviolence JOB OPENING
Position: Program Staff: Project ReGeneration / Nonviolence Education & Training
The Resource Center for Nonviolence seeks a new staff person to work in a collaborative team of 4 half-time staff members. Emphasis: Project ReGeneration coordination– inspiring the next generation of activists, and Nonviolence Education & Training. The position is half time, 23 hours per week, paying $15 per hour. The person hired for this position will use a variety of interpersonal and communication skills to further the mission of the Resource Center for Nonviolence with youth and young adults. The Center has an egalitarian structure; work hours are flexible and coordinated with co-workers.
TO APPLY: The deadline for applications is FRIDAY, JUNE 3, 2016. Email a PDF of your resume and cover letter to firstname.lastname@example.org . In addition, respond to these questions: 1.What is your philosophy and practice of nonviolence? 2. Outline the skills and experience you would bring to this position. 3. How did you hear about this position?
POSITION: Program Staff: Project ReGeneration / Nonviolence Education & Training
EMPLOYER: Resource Center for Nonviolence/Eschaton Foundation
612 Ocean Street, Santa Cruz, CA 95060 831- 423-1626 rcnv.org
PROGRAM RESPONSIBILITIES: (16-18 hours per week)
1. Project ReGeneration Coordination
Work with diverse groups that involve young people in social issues, activism and empowerment throughout Santa Cruz County; Organize and support community building and nonviolence education activities that prioritize youth and young adult participation; Build alliances among diverse youth activists and groups; Maintain and expand ReGeneration contact lists and integrate these with other RCNV lists; With other staff, maintain a webpage and Facebook page; Invite and encourage young adult participation in other RCNV programs; Seek and involve interns and volunteers in Project ReGeneration activities.
2. Nonviolence Education
Speak in public forums and classrooms and youth groups about nonviolent social change; Support public programs organized by other RCNV staff; Learn nonviolence training methods such as Kingian Nonviolence, Engage, or similar methods; Develop and implement collaborative, participatory, and action-oriented nonviolence/social justice trainings and workshops for youth and all ages.
3. Community Engagement
Participate in community efforts that prevent violence and develop community and nonviolence among youth, such as the Youth Violence Prevention Task Force; Connect with groups engaged in political struggle and nonviolent direct action in Santa Cruz County and local region.
Take primary responsibility to write the annual grant that funds this position, and seek other grant sources to augment and complement that funding; Organize other fundraising activities to support Project ReGeneration; Coordinate one major RCNV fundraising project each year.
ORGANIZATIONAL RESPONSIBILITIES: (5-7 hours per week)
All staff will:
- Commit to nonviolence and the mission of the Resource Center for Nonviolence.
- Maintain regular office hours.
- Actively participate in staff and Steering Committee meetings and retreats, RCNV programs, and special projects. Representation on sub-committees will be divided among staff.
- Actively participate in fundraising for RCNV’s budget and operations.
- Coordinate one major fundraising event and letter per year.
- Update and maintain relevant areas of RCNV website
- Commit to a mutually supportive and collegial working relationship with other staff and volunteers.
- Maintain clear and regular communication with all staff.
NOTE: The first 3 months will include orientation to RCNV and training in Kingian Nonviolence or other nonviolence methods.
Desired Skills and Experience
- Commitment to nonviolence and core values of the Resource Center for Nonviolence
- Fluency in Spanish a plus
- Team member who is committed to consensus decision-making and shared responsibilities
- Familiarity with nonviolence and compatible methods of community organizing
- Demonstrated follow-through with responsibilities
- Experience with nonviolence training methods a plus
- Experience with non-profit or other organization a plus
- Experience working or living with diverse persons or communities
- Excellent social media and web skills, including WordPress,YouTube, Fb, Forums, Instagram, etc.
- Excellent writing, editing and interpersonal communication skills
- Familiar with Microsoft Office Suite
- Flexible availability
- Some college experience
- One year’s work experience
- At least one year commitment
- Access to a car or other personal transportation will be needed.
Send a PDF of your resume and cover letter. In addition, respond to these questions: 1.What is your philosophy and practice of nonviolence? 2. Outline the skills and experience you would bring to this position. 3. How did you hear about this position?
SEND TO: email@example.com The deadline for applications is Friday, June 3, 2016
Resource Center for Nonviolence, 612 Ocean St., Santa Cruz, CA 95060 831. 423.1626 rcnv.org
Berrigan’s witness to nonviolence challenged church and nation
By Stephen Zunes
Originally published in NCROnline, May 9, 2016, reposted on HuffPost Religion…
Jesuit Fr. Daniel Berrigan, who died at the end of April, not only challenged the conscience of the Catholic church and the nation on the dangers of militarism and the need to affirm Christ’s teachings of nonviolence, he challenged those who oppose war to engage in direct action to stop it.
He was a devout Catholic amid the largely secular anti-war left. He opposed abortion as a form of violence while most of his colleagues in the peace movement identified as “pro-choice.” He remained a priest while many of his contemporaries, including his brother Philip, left the priesthood for marriage or over doctrinal disputes. Berrigan was guided not by adherence to a particular ideology, but by a deep faith in God through the nonviolent witness of Jesus Christ.
Over the decades, I prayed with him, broke bread with him, was arrested with him, and discussed matters of politics, theology and movement-building. We did not always agree. Yet his warmth, his humor, his faith, his wisdom and his commitment always left me inspired.
His actions led him to become one of the best-known priests of the 20th century. Yet he had no desire for people to follow him. He simply wanted people to follow the Gospel.
Like many Americans, I first learned of the Berrigan brothers in 1968 when they and seven other Catholic activists entered the Selective Service office in Catonsvillle, Md., seized hundreds of draft files and, using homemade napalm similar to what was then being dropped on Vietnamese villages, burned them in the parking lot.
In a statement following the incident, the group which became known as the “Catonsville Nine” declared, “We confront the Roman Catholic church, other Christian bodies, and the synagogues of America with their silence and cowardice in the face of our country’s crimes. We are convinced that the religious bureaucracy in this country is racist, is an accomplice in this war, and is hostile to the poor.”
Traditionally, pacifists have believed that nonviolent action should eschew damage to property. Dorothy Day, for example, thought that the Berrigans’ advocacy of property destruction and other militant tactics crossed a dangerous theological threshold.
However, the Berrigans firmly believed that some property — such as nuclear warheads and draft files — had no right to exist and it was the responsibility of pacifists to destroy them, as long as people were not harmed. Their actions were intended to shock, as the American people needed to be made aware of the enormous danger from their nation’s militarism.
While most activists of that era sentenced to prison for nonviolent resistance would turn themselves in to authorities, Berrigan and his brother, Philip, were willing to go underground, even showing up unannounced to speak at rallies and church services then disappear before they could be arrested. They became folk heroes, appearing on the cover of Time magazine and becoming the first priests to appear on the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list.
At the same time, they never wavered from their opposition to violence, particularly as the Weather Underground and other extremist anti-war groups began a campaign of bombing. In The Village Voice, Berrigan wrote, “The death of a single human is too heavy a price to pay for the vindication of any principle, however sacred.”
The first time I met Berrigan was in October 1973 during the Arab-Israeli War, when I was 16 years old, at a talk he gave in Washington, D.C. While many peace activists at that time would avoid the often divisive issue of Israel and Palestine, he decided to address it head on. Unlike many liberals of that era who opposed U.S. militarism but rationalized for Israeli militarism, he could not defend militarism by anybody. His analysis was blunt and he did not try to be “balanced,” but it was basically an accurate and honest assessment. In short, it was typical Dan Berrigan.
He noted how Israel was, like the United States and South Africa, “seeking a biblical justification for crimes against humanity.” He expressed his regret that “in place of Jewish prophetic vision,” Israel had launched “an Orwellian nightmare of double talk, racism, fifth-rate sociological jargon, aimed at proving its racial superiority to the people it has crushed.”
Noting the similarities of Israel’s “military-industrial complex” with that of the United States, he observed how “Israel has not freed the captives, she has expanded the prison system, perfected her espionage, exported on the world market that expensive blood-ridden commodity, the savage triumph of the technologized West, violence and the tools of violence.” He also noted that he “was very depressed by the silence of my own church about Israel.”
As with many of his words and actions, giving such a speech at that time was not very strategic, leading to widespread criticisms and misinterpretation. Similarly, his later arrests, largely focused around trespassing at nuclear weapons facilities, which at times included damaging components of warheads and missiles, led to many months in prison without much publicity or a discernible growth in the movement. However, strategic efficacy did not really matter to him. For Berrigan, it was a moral imperative. Indeed, when a reporter noted he was not getting as much attention as he had previously, he replied, “I don’t think we ever felt our conscience was tied to the other end of a TV cord.”
And yet, while some accused him of acting more out of “Catholic guilt” than on building a movement, Berrigan’s witness indeed had a profound impact. It encouraged the broader anti-war movement, which prior to Catonsville had been primarily focused on street protests, into nonviolent direct action and other forms of active resistance. It brought many young Catholics, who had been alienated by the hierarchy’s support for the Vietnam War and U.S. militarism, back into active involvement in the church. As a middle-aged priest, his actions brought greater credibility to opponents of the Vietnam War, then often portrayed as angry, young, long-haired misfits.
And he undoubtedly played a role in moving the Catholic church to a more active witness for peace and justice. The church eventually came out against the Vietnam War, renounced the legitimacy of nuclear weapons, and challenged the Israeli occupation and repression of Palestinians.
Indeed, just days before he died, the Vatican hosted a landmark meeting raising questions about the just war doctrine and examining nonviolent alternatives. Would this have even been possible were it not for such prophetic voices as Berrigan?