Dan Berrigan, the peace activist and poet, together with members of his Jesuit community in Lower Manhattan, spent a week of prayer and reflection over Labor Day at the Kirkridge Retreat Center in Pennsylvania. Kirkridge has long been a friend to those who strive for peace, and has hosted over the years not only the Berrigans and Phil Berrigan’s widow Elizabeth McAlister, but also Dorothy Day. In one 1960s photo in album in a meeting room where we gathered, she is shown at a table outdoors with a dozen or so retreatants. Our community’s week together included a visit to what is called the peace garden, created last year to honor Dan, Phil and Elizabeth. The quiet location amidst pine trees honors the three for “witnessing to peace for more than 35 years.” In the center of the site is a bed of evergreen shrubs and flowers, with a tall eight-sided post in the middle with a peace message on each side, each in a different language.
Our days together included Dan’s reading from his poems. With the anniversary of 9/11 approaching, one poem concerned a dream he had at that time. It begins: “When the towers fell/a conundrum./Shall these from eternity/inherit the earth/all debts amortized?/Gravity was ungracious/a lateral blow/abetted, made an end.” Another more personal poem was “Block Island”, which Dan often visited and where he was finally apprehended by the FBI during the Vietnam War: “Walking by the sea/ I put on/like glasses/ on a squinting shorted soul–your second sight/ and I see/washed ashore/the last hour of the world/the murdered clock of Hiroshima.” Dan continues to write poetry at age 89.
On the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, we all drove to King of Prussia. Close to 100 men, women and children gathered there in front of the General Electric Plant (now Lockheed Martin) to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the 1980 Plowshares action of which Dan was a part. At that time, the action consisted of the eight entering the plant and hammering on nuclear warhead casings. A warhead casing was positioned on the sidewalk by the group, along with and a hammer, and each person was invited to come forward to strike it with the hammer. The group’s name comes from the passage in Isaiah (2:4) that speaks of beating swords into plowshares so that “nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more”. Now, three decades later after the original event at King of Prussia, many similar Plowshares actions have taken place both in the United States and in Europe as new war resisters have come forward.
At the September 6th gathering, Molly Rush, one of the original eight Plowshares members who was imprisoned, read a poem of Dan’s and others spoke of their commitment to non-violence. These included John Schuchardt, a Marine veteran and another of the Plowshares 8 who did prison time. He is now an attorney living at the House of Peace in Ipswich, MA. Elizabeth McAlister also shared a reflection on the meaning of the occasion. It was she, together with her late husband, Phil Berrigan, who formed the Jonah House community in Baltimore forty years ago, dedicated to war resistance. The presence of children at the gathering, many of them offspring of the resisters themselves, was a vivid reminder of the toll that war takes on children.
George Anderson, S.J.