At Agape we are remembering Daniel Berrigan, SJ, after news of his death Saturday. We have shared an article written by Dan, a piece written by Suzanne, and an illustration of Dan.
Illustration Robert Mcgovern
Below is an article that Dan wrote on the occasion of the Agape’s Community’s Tenth Anniversary in 1992:
Politics of Vision by Daniel Berrigan, SJ (1992)
The following was Dan’s talk given at Agape’s 10th Anniversary Celebration
I want to reflect with you on this beautiful afternoon on the politics of vision. Something that is so dreadfully lacking in our public life and so profoundly present in the Agape folk. So that we can cling to the one and turn from the other especially in these times of hype, greed and violence masking itself in three-piece suits and great promises. This politics of vision is a biblical venture—dreams on one hand and nightmares on the other and we can only really exorcise the nightmare by allowing the dream. I would like to tell you about a dream I had a few years ago. It occurred “between elections.”
It was remarkable in many ways. It had a first chapter of puzzlement and then an awakening. It appeared that I was standing in front of a very beautiful tower, which was railed in stone, a young man standing looking down on me and holding his young child. And the child was singing and the voice was absolutely enchanting. And I listened and listened and could not understand what the child was saying. At that point I awakened and then drifted back to sleep. I heard the child singing again. The only difference now was that there was an old man who appeared at my side. He asked me kindly what was the matter. I said “I can’t understand the words of the child.” He said “I will tell you.”
The child is singing this: “Let us sing of the things we will never see.” Let us sing of the things we will never see. I thought that had to do with us spending the day together, something to do with visionary politics as opposed to an absolutely deadly and anti-human one. Something also that has to do with casting a vote in one direction or another. This has nothing to do with a candidate and has everything to do with a life in community. I took it this way. I took it back to the Latin word—the language I am familiar with, I took it back to a word “voveo—“to vow.”
We need to take a very deep promise which renders one’s life in a certain direction as opposed to certain others. To vote is to pronounce a vow. I can understand totally from the context of religious life that to take a vow, to make a promise is to head one’s life in a very particular direction. And that began to resonate with my experience of the world, where certain people would beckon my life in a certain way. Great men and women would, an in almost forgotten way, cast a vote by way of pronouncing a vow. Issuing a vision from the very human and not from this very murky bottomless pit, the inhuman—represented by imperial culture. This real voice both beckoning and irresistible, not a command, but an invitation which heads us in a certain direction.
There are constellations of words that come from voveo—devoted, devotion, votary. We have a whole vocabulary of depth in the human. Then we have this whole other kind of nonsense where we cast a vote as though one were casting away one’s conscience, as though from that frivolous moment one could justify the inhuman. While the fate of children and the unborn, and those on death row and the poor, and the people dying in the next war is left to others. Casting a vote versus taking a vow. Now the people in the Agape Community and generally those in this room who gather around such people understand the difference. The human vow is a renunciation. Any great tradition that speaks of ourselves as responsible or responsive and spontaneous people who are capable of saying no to the enemies of life in order to say a resounding yes to life itself.
So, we celebrate on a day like today, ironically, those who have cast their vote for all eternity—for once and for all and we celebrate with them—we want to be in those ranks—a kind of understanding where grace is for ourselves.
I thought of the prophet Isaiah as someone who has cast a vote in the sense that we are talking about today. Isaiah has this politics of vision. He offers a surgical analysis of the illness of empire. There is a kind of ethical ecology at work here—in this oracle in Chapter 19, one that rejects greed, lies, violence. It goes to the root of community, and the economy of ecology.
What happens to the idol of the empire when the truth is in the air. Yahweh comes to Egypt and the idols tremble before God. If the leadership of the minorities in society vote in a visionary way, it sets the idols trembling; the military idols, the sexist idols, all of those illnesses, all of which are terminal in our own country. The heart of the Egyptians were holding on to the idols. Most of the people in our country are barely functioning with a kind of vague hope which is so inflated and so awfully deceptive as though better times can come. Hope won’t come until structures have changed, our hearts have changed. “Egypt is going to be demoralized” says Isaiah, “while she continues to consult idols and wizards, mediums and sorcerers.” It is like the magic of “the economy” during the election year which had become kind of an incantation, the magic of military might, the magic of being bigger than the human and having all the control at our fingertips. All this is magic.
Isaiah: “I mean to turn the Egyptians over to a hard master, a cruel ruler to stand over them. It is Yahweh who speaks.” This verse is about domestic tyranny, it’s about misery on the streets, it’s about increasingly large numbers of people considered expendable in a kind of permanent triage. It’s the sort of mentality that says let them vanish between the cracks. I find it astonishing…I don’t think I’ve ever seen a harsher “master” in my lifetime than we have been under this last decade, I mean domestically. They have succeeded in narrowing the understanding of our own people with regard to living humanly in this world. This will take many hours of reflection in trying to grasp this fact, I know…this diminution of humanity, of our own people.
There has been a terrifying fiction at work exemplified in the aftermath of the Gulf War. That is, that damage can be done in enormous measure and it will never ricochet. All of the deaths of the children, all of the sanctions, all of the suffering of the aged, all this will happen “over there.” Within two months of the end of the war we had our children killing each other and then the uprising in Los Angeles and we’ve been having a “war” with Iraq ever since. It’s an extraordinary lesson I think that we can’t wreak havoc on others without working against our own humanity in ways that are just devastating—devastating.
Isaiah goes immediately into the ecological damage of this kind of idolatry. In verse 5, he said “the rivers will be parched and dry. All the vegetation will dry up and blow away and the fisher folk will mourn and lament all who cast hooks in the Nile.” Isaiah then began a diatribe against atrocious authority, preaching the likes of which we don’t ordinarily hear in the pulpit. Verse eleven reads: “The princes are utter fools,” “Pharaoh’s wisest counselors are stupid.” I suppose if a preacher tried this, there would be a great walk-out! “How can you “he means the great advisors) say ‘I am a disciple of bygone kinds’.” It is kind of a marvelous deflation of this kind of absurd “voting.” Isaiah invites us to a kind of skepticism of this.
Isaiah continues: “The princes of Zoan are fools, the princes of Noph, self-deceivers; Egypt is led astray by the governors of her provinces. On them Yahweh has poured out a spirit of giddiness. They have Egypt slithering in all she undertakes as a drunkard slithers in his vomit.” (Is. 19:13-14) Oh, the preacher is in trouble now! An absolutely fantastic and shocking image. All this business about wisdom from on high and look, he is really a drunken man.
I don’t offer all this as a downer on such an afternoon. Now let us remember that Isaiah 19 tells us that the oracle continued in the next generation. Evidently 50-100 years later someone said—hey good things have happened since then and let’s write that down and we need to incorporate that into the nineteenth chapter of Isaiah. And it was a very different version.
It was something like Eastern Europe frozen in 40 years of horror and then liberated. So that someone else gets to write a little chapter. Let me read it—it’s a kind of P.S. It’s a sign of hope.
In that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt and a pillar to the Lord at its border. It will be a sign and a witness to the Lord of hosts in the land of Egypt; when they cry to the Lord because of the oppressors he will send them a savior and will defend and deliver them and the Egyptians will know the Lord in that day and worship with sacrifice and burn offering and they will make vows to the Lord and perform them.
And it ends with this inspiration….In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth who the Lord of hosts has blessed saying, Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands and Israel my heritage.
So there is hope—there is hope. We have to see that. Who would have predicted 15 years ago everything that happened in Eastern and Central Europe, Southern Africa and so many places in between. It really happened because so many good people were not enchanted and bought and sold at not having to see the outcome of their good work.
And there were so many people in prisons. So many of our friends were in prisons and there was seemingly no hope. My brother is in prison as we meet, during this election year, and there seems to be very little hope. But there is hope. There is. There is Agape and there is ourselves!
Daniel Berrigan, S.J. was introduced by Suzanne at the Tenth Anniversary as a “normative Christian,” found guilty, wrote his own friend William Stringfellow, “of preaching the Resurrection.”
And below, a tribute to Daniel Berrigan by Suzanne Belote Shanley:
Tribute to a Normative Christian: Daniel Berrigan, S.J. Written for the Tenth Anniversary of the Agape Community.
In the anthology of Daniel Berrigan’s literary works edited by Michael True, Dan is quoted in one excerpt as saying:
I believe we were created for ecstasy. And redeemed for it, at considerable cost. Certain vagrant moments are moreover, clues to the native structure and texture of things.
Only a poet such as Daniel Berrigan could encapsulate the nature of being as “ecstasy” offering the humble phrase “vagrant moment” to assist us in defining, in the perspective of eternity, the ten vagrant moments (years) in the life of the Agape Community.
Ecstasy, writes Berrigan, is “our proper distillation of soul.” And what a soul indeed, that of our friend, Daniel, “to wit,” (as he would say), “guilty,” as his friend William Stringfellow once sentenced him in print, “of preaching the Resurrection.” Would that we could all be found guilty of breaking what Berrigan calls, “the state control of death.”
Nevertheless, we must advise a caution here—granting status of sainthood to Dan, lest we begin to believe as some prominent theologians console us: “Nonviolence is meant for the exalted few, the elect. An isolate, world-denying, sectarian aberration.” As if Jesus anointed a “few” to preach the Resurrection. Not so, says Stringfellow of Berrigan who in Stringfellow’s estimate, “had not been all that unusual, but simply normative for a Christian.”
This is not to say that the Berrigan muse, his gift of poetry, of the written word is normative. For this superlative gift to the community of aberrational sectarians, we rejoice! But in so rejoicing, we remember what Stringfellow said, what Dan signifies: Nonviolence is normative. In this gospel tradition, the Jesus-story—our story. Nonviolence is normative, Consider this. Ponder this. Measure it against the “normative” violence of our culture, soaked in blood we can’t wash off. Our affliction Dante tells us is that of Vilta or “littleness of soul.” We normative Christians are trivializers of truth. We own “little souls” which yearn to wade through the lies, the denial, and move into Scripture. We are witnesses in the scene of “The Great Debate” between the potentate Pilate and the candidate for Resurrection, Jesus. “What is truth?” Pilate asks Jesus.
Dan writes that Dorothy Day spoke and lived the answer: “Loving the truth as if it were true.” That’s it. Simple. A poem then, for Daniel on this occasion of our community’s Tenth Anniverary, for his…
Loving the Truth as if it were True
By Suzanne Belote Shanley
to preach the Resurrection
to be normative
to be a scandal
to walk with the Scandalous One
to live in ecstasy
to be meek, “God-molded”
to be summoned,
“to break the mold,”
“The God-molded, mold-breakers”
To foster life as we hear
From our Normative Man
“along a whole spectrum
Pre-birth to the last gasp
To give quiet and persistent evidence
Of the great idea tat
The sacred is not a threat to humankind
That our prayer is to be
Blessed with the gift of tears.”
Tears and ecstasy
People, this is who we are,
blessed with the gift of tears
capable of repentance
created for ecstasy,
those vagrant moments,
a clue perhaps, as the poet says,
“to the native structure,
the texture of things.”
This nonviolent credo is offered to us by our Nonviolent Troubadour, Daniel Berrigan SJ, who, on his 50th Anniversary as a Jesuit recommends these ingredients for ecstasy:
Courage and excellence
Don’t kill for whatever pretext
Leave the world unbefouled
Where do we stand? A fitting way to conclude my introduction is to quote from a letter Dan sent for our ground-breaking three years ago:
Sometimes the uphill tends
to be awfully perpendicular
and we turn into mountain goats
or rope-hangers—but dangle and
sweat and pull and even make it
to the next ledge.
Given the world,
Can I wish you,
(us) the next ledge?
We could do worse.
But here we are.
And a muted Alleluia!
And a thank-you
that never dies
in the throat.
And to you,
at this vagrant moment
of 10 clue-filled years
we, the aspiring to be
wish you a muted Alleluia
that never dies in the heart.
by Suzanne Belote Shanley