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PHILIP BERRIGAN Printer Friendly Page
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  • Ex-Catholic priest and anti-war activist
  • Arrested for destroying draft documents during the Vietnam War
  • Co-founded the Plowshares movement
  • “I don’t think I’d be anywhere as an activist if I didn’t get authority from the Bible.”

Born in New Harbors, Minnesota on October 5, 1923, Father Philip Berrigan was a longtime antiwar activist and agitator whose acts of civil disobedience led him to numerous criminal convictions and some time spent in jail. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 1955 and left the priesthood eighteen years later. Like his brother Daniel Berrigan, Philip often invoked Catholic scripture to justify his demonstrations against U.S. policies. "I don't think I'd be anywhere as an activist if I didn't get authority from the Bible," he said.

Berrigan was the last of six sons born to his German immigrant parents, Frida Fromhart Berrigan and Thomas F. Berrigan (the latter was a radical labor organizer). The family moved to Syracuse, New York when Philip was a child, and he was raised there.

A veteran of World War II, Philip Berrigan began his career as an anti-war activist by taking part in protests against the Vietnam War. On October 27, 1967, he and three accomplices -- Tom Lewis, David Eberhardt, and Rev. James L. Mengel (they were collectively known as the “Baltimore Four”) -- poured blood on Selective Service files in the Baltimore Customs House; one of the records was of Philip Berrigan himself.

On May 17, 1968, Berrigan and eight others (again, including his brother Daniel) forced their way into a Catonsville, Maryland draft-board office, stole some government records, and used home-made napalm to destroy other documents.

Berrigan was arrested for his role in that “Catonsville Nine” incident, but (along with his brother Daniel) went underground before the sentencing phase of his trial and spent several months as a fugitive. His name was on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list until his 1970 apprehension in New York City, at which time he was sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison.

During his incarceration, Berrigan was indicted by Federal prosecutors as a co-conspirator in a scheme to abduct then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and blow up federal buildings in Washington, DC. Berrigan was acquitted of complicity in the plot and was paroled from prison in 1972.

After his release, Berrigan became an activist against America's development of nuclear arms. "Nuclear weapons are the scourge of the earth," he said. "To mine for them, manufacture them, deploy them, use them, is a curse against God, the human family, and the earth itself."

In 1973 Berrigan and his wife (a former Catholic nun named Elizabeth McAlister, who he had married earlier that year) created Jonah House, a community of anti-war activists who use Biblical scriptures as the basis upon which they condemn all armed conflict -- regardless of the circumstances. The Jonah House founding statement reads, "We submit ourselves to the over-arching standard of nonviolence: love of enemies (Matthew [5:43]) …” The organization's core belief is that “the U.S. is the world’s #1 terrorist” and should “disarm now.”

In 1980, Berrigan and seven other Jonah House members (including his brother Daniel) took part in the first action of what would later come to be known as the Plowshares nuclear arms abolitionist movement. The "Plowshares Eight" vandalized an arms-production factory in Pennsylvania, pounding missile casings with hammers in a symbolic attempt to "beat swords into plowshares"(a phrase from Biblical passages in Isaiah [2:4] and Micah [4:3]).

In the ensuing years, Berrigan participated in many Plowshares demonstrations. His final Powshares action took place in 1999, when he and some fellow activists tried to sabotage a group of A-10 Warthog warplanes stationed at the Middle River Air National Guard base. Berrigan was sentenced to 30 months in prison for his involvement, and was released in 2001.

With the start of the war on terror, Berrigan turned his focus to condemning the Bush administration. He complained that Bush's wrongdoing had begun with "the stolen [2000] election in Florida, then the hardening of his campaign promises. And then [his] adhering to a [policy] … which went beyond the war in Afghanistan -- which, of course, was an enormous swindle in itself -- to Iraq and the invasion there and the control of the Middle East and its oil. And to do this with military might and then to leapfrog around the planet."

In a letter to President Bush that he co-wrote with his wife, Berrigan asserted that America had used nuclear weapons on three occasions other than the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings of World War II. The letter stated, "Dear President Bush: We know that your war against terrorism is a colossal sham. How can the supreme terrorist nation wage war against terrorism? Does a new war annually and four nuclear wars (Hiroshima and Nagasaki; Iraq; Yugoslavia; and Afghanistan) not qualify as terrorism? We know, by your own words, that you intend to commit the U.S. to perpetual war."

Berrigan endorsed an October 6, 2002 protest event that sought to "stop the U.S. government's war on the world; detentions and roundups of immigrants; and attacks on civil liberties." The protest was organized by Not in Our Name (NION), a Communist front group initiated by the longtime Maoist activist C. Clark Kissinger, who is a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party. At the NION rally, two of the featured guest speakers were the terrorist financier Sami Al-Arian and the radical attorney Lynne Stewart.

Philip Berrigan died of cancer on December 6, 2002 in Baltimore, Maryland.


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