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‘The Berrigans’ venerates walking one’s talk

“The Berrigans: Devout and Dangerous” (2021). Cast: Interviews and Archives: Daniel Berrigan, Philip Berrigan, Elizabeth McAllister, Frida Berrigan, Jerry Berrigan, Kate Berrigan, Daniel Ellsberg, Martin Sheen, Jeremy Scahill, Howard Zinn, John Dear, Jim Forest, Stephen Kelly, Carmen Trotta, Jim Wallis; Voice-overs: Liam Neeson, Bill Pullman. Director: Susan Hagedorn. Web site. Trailer.

Sticking to one’s principles is undeniably a noble pursuit. Walking one’s talk is indeed to be commended for its honesty and integrity. But living up to that aspiration can be quite the challenge, especially when one adheres to an outlook that draws the ire of others, particularly those in positions of power. However, if an impactful statement is to be made, following this course is essential, despite the dangers and difficulties, as seen in the inspiring new documentary about a trio of committed activists seeing through on their mission, “The Berrigans: Devout and Dangerous.”

In the 1960s, the US was embroiled in a highly controversial conflict in Southeast Asia, one that divided the nation into two camps – devoted patriots and vocal opponents. This division came as something of a surprise, given that, in virtually all of the country’s previous wars, Americans had typically gone along with the party line without question. However, Vietnam was a different story. With the conflict being brought home into family living rooms on a nightly basis thanks to television coverage, ostensibly the first time a war had been reported on in such a manner, viewers bore witness to the carnage firsthand in a way that they never had before, and it didn’t sit well with many citizens, including those who considered themselves loyal patriots. They simply couldn’t understand the reasoning behind this war in a faraway land, one that was costing the lives of many young men who were being involuntarily sent off to fight for principles and purposes that were anything but clear. And the vague explanations regularly offered by officials, such as the US being present in Vietnam to make the world safe for democracy, just didn’t cut it with many Americans.

Thus opposition was born, and it only grew stronger as the death tolls rose and the prospect of “winning” the conflict became increasingly murky. Cries of “What are we doing there?” emerged and became commonplace. But, as frustrated as many Americans were becoming, they also wondered what they could do about it. How could they make a meaningful difference? That’s when activism took root.

Drawing upon their experience in the civil rights movement of the early ʼ60s, the growing ranks of anti-war advocates began stepping up and using many of the tactics employed in their earlier endeavors. These acts of civil disobedience were designed to get the attention of the government and the public to protest the insanity of the Vietnam conflict. But, given how entrenched the US had become in the war, anti-war activities needed to be intensified. It also called for leaders who would serve as symbols of the movement and what it stood for. And that’s where three unlikely figures entered the picture.

Roman Catholic priests Philip and Daniel Berrigan, along with nun Elizabeth McAllister, took center stage in the anti-war movement. They were not alone in this by any means, but the audacity of this trio’s measures surpassed those of virtually anyone else. They engaged in activities that many considering shocking, such as the destruction of public draft records, vandalism of the offices of corporations supplying the war effort and deliberate tax evasion. And they made little attempt to hide what they were doing. They earned the scorn of the FBI, with Daniel being the first priest ever named to the agency’s most-wanted list, a stunning counterpoint to the brothers being featured on the cover of Time magazine in 1971. Their anti-war activism subsequently (and frequently) landed them in prison for various infractions with sentences of differing lengths.

In later years, the Berrigans became involved in other activities, such as the founding of the Plowshares movement, an initiative aimed at drawing attention to the madness of nuclear arms. This undertaking included vandalism at a nuclear missile manufacturing facility in Pennsylvania, where they damaged nose cones and poured blood on documents and files. And, thereafter, the brothers became outspoken opponents to the government’s lack of compassion in its handling of the early days of the AIDS crisis. They even took on their own religious organization, with Philip and McAllister breaking their vows of celibacy and marrying in open defiance of the Church, a move that got them excommunicated.

Given the trio’s history of extreme antagonism, one might wonder how committed religious figures could become involved in such ventures. However, as they openly preached and wrote, they believed it was their duty to call out those who defied the ways of peace and the teachings of Christ. To do less on their part would mean that they were falling short of their calling. Some labeled them hypocrites for engaging in acts of violence that went against these very principles, but others applauded them for speaking up and drawing attention to the atrocities of officials who unhesitatingly sanctioned such brutality.

Good cases could be made for both points of view. However, as Americans look back on the war, nuclear escalation and the initial mishandling of the AIDS epidemic, many wonder how these events could have been allowed to occur as they did in the first place. It took courageous voices to make the public aware of what was happening on these fronts, people who were willing to put themselves, their lives and their futures on the line for the sake of their principles. There’s no telling where we might be today if they hadn’t said something, especially when so many others weren’t willing to do so, no matter how sincerely they may have felt about these issues.

As this film’s title suggests, the Berrigans truly were seen as dangerous for their activities. At the same time, though, no one could realistically question their devotion to their causes. And, considering how events played out in the wake of their activism, we should give serious thought to how we label them. For all we know, we could have been saddled with these issues far longer and with more dire consequences than we actually were if they hadn’t raised their voices. Now who could realistically take issue with that?

Given their acts and deeds, the Berrigans and their followers truly walked their talk, operating with integrity, honesty and sincerity, all in line with their true selves. Their lives mirrored the beliefs they held dearly in their hearts, and that resulted in the reality they experienced, for those notions shaped what emerged. Such is the nature of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains we manifest our existence based on these intangible resources. It’s not clear whether they had ever heard of or studied this school of thought, but it’s obvious from what they created that they were masters of its principles, successfully bringing into being materializations in line with what they genuinely believed.

This is verified through many interviews with those who knew the Berrigans and/or their work, such as journalist Jeremy Scahill; historian/philosopher Howard Zinn; actor/activist Martin Sheen; Pentagon Papers whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg; activists/theologians/pacifists John Dear, Jim Forest, Stephen Kelly, Carmen Trotta and Jim Wallis; and the children of McAllister and Philip Berrigan, Frida, Jerry and Kate. These witnesses to history offer fitting tributes to their devoted peers and the changes they helped implement through their courageous, thoughtful work, all of which, simply enough, began with their commitment to their convictions.

A number of important qualities permeated their beliefs in helping to bring their manifestations into being. For example, their staunch fearlessness in the face of significant, oppressive opposition played a pivotal role in enabling them to carry out their daring plans. They refused to let apprehensions stand in their way, regardless of whether or not they were present at the time they launched into their ventures. The same could be said where limitations potentially stood in their way; they wouldn’t allow them to keep them from moving forward, no matter how formidable they might be.

Because of the success they achieved and the attention they generated, the Berrigans attracted a large number of followers. In addition to those noted above, they also won over the support of other activists, particularly among college students, proponents who had much at stake given their draft eligibility and the likelihood of being sent into the very conflict they were protesting against. By pooling their energies and putting them collectively behind mutual beliefs, they brought opposition to the war to the forefront of the American public, pressuring officials to bring it to an end as soon as possible. This is an excellent example of collaborative co-creation at work in which inspired souls work together to achieve a mutually sought outcome.

But, as the Berrigans themselves frequently and freely acknowledged, they saw their work as their destiny. This is a practice that conscious creators better know as value fulfillment, the concept associated with being our best, truest selves for the betterment of ourselves and those around us. And, considering the causes the Berrigans got behind, who could find fault with them for trying to bring about results aimed at curing the world of unnecessary and unspeakable ills? Anyone who believes to the contrary should take a good, hard look at his or her beliefs and wonder why such atrocities would be considered acceptable.

In times of war and great social challenges, it can be difficult to remain devoted to one’s principles – no matter how strongly one feels about them – when prevailing circumstances threaten to curtail our freedoms and our ability to express our feelings about them. Yet there are courageous, unflappable individuals who refuse to let such conditions stop them, as evidenced by this superb documentary. Director Susan Hagedorn chronicles the efforts of these anti-war advocates who refused to remain silent. Through a wealth of archive materials and recent interviews with those who knew or worked with the Berrigans and McAllister, these three activists brilliantly come to life, both as advocates for their causes and as compassionate, committed individuals, all captured in a highly personal way. This material is supplemented with voiceover narrations of the brothers’ writings read by Liam Neeson and Bill Pullman, adding an intimate and thoughtful dimension to their portrayals. We owe much to these virtuous champions, and this eminently moving film makes that abundantly clear.

Unfortunately, finding this film may take some effort at the moment, as it has primarily been playing in special screenings and at film festivals, such as the St. Louis International Film Festival, where it won the Interfaith Award for best documentary feature. Nevertheless, this truly is a film worth seeing, especially for fans of 20th Century American history and those who value bravery and the merits of social conscience. 

Stepping forward to address issues of significant social and political importance is critical to the health and well-being of a nation. When we lose sight of that, we stand to lose a lot, both from a practical standpoint and in the soul of a society. It’s at times like that when we need heroic individuals to stand up and point out where we’ve gone wrong, and thankfully we’ve had courageous figures like the Berrigans to do just that. They weren’t afraid to show us the errors of our ways and to take steps to help put us back on the right path. We truly need more advocates like them when we’re at critical junctures in our history.

Do we have any volunteers?

Copyright © 2021-2022, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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