The recent death of Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J., the famous anti-war priest, reminded me of a retreat he gave in Houston well over twenty years ago. I was a brand new Catholic convert, a pacifist and a Dorothy Day admirer, full of eagerness to serve and sacrifice. Here was a priest, heavily influenced by the Catholic Worker Movement, who had fought against the government, got on the FBI’s “Most Wanted” list, and gone to federal prison for his beliefs.
The Vietnam War was long over, but I was still expecting some fire-and-brimstone preaching against the military/industrial complex and the warmongers. The Soviet Union, our enemy over all those years, had collapsed by that time, but it seemed to me clearer and clearer that the United States was not going to stop its reliance on military force, we were simply looking for a new enemy. I was ready to join the fight against militarism!
Father Berrigan was nothing like I had expected, nothing. Here we were, a group of pacifists at a Pax Christi retreat, gathered together to talk about terrible and painful things like war and war profiteering, and all he wanted to talk about was love.
I had never encountered or imagined someone like him. His greatness was not in his skill as a speaker or as a homilist, or in his ability to “rally the troops”. Father Berrigan was at war with no one. He had no enemies, he disparaged no one, he felt superior to no one. There was a complete absence of righteousness or anger or resentment, only kindness and love in his message.
Sure, he took sides. He was clearly and unequivocally on the side of the poor, the marginalized, the victims of war. He was opposed, vehemently op-posed, to the exploitation of the poor and of the victims of a clearly unjust system. But there were no human enemies here, just the system of oppression, the organized injustice.
I had always thought of the people on the other side as the enemy, and while I was trying to adjust to a different way of thinking, he starting talking about some-thing even more amazing. He said that the reason that he himself took the side of the poor was that God took the side of the poor. God loved everybody, equally, but, nevertheless, He took the side of his people who were poor and oppressed. We struggle alongside Him, alongside of the poor and the mar-ginalized, but our only weapon is love. Always love, only love.
Although memory is a powerful thing, sometimes it is hard to hold on to the beauty of that day, especially as our political climate has embraced the very opposite. Meanness and insult and cruelty rule the day and monopolize the headlines. I am grateful in these days that my experience as a Catholic Worker provides a refuge.
Maybe it is because we see every day at Casa Juan Diego the terrible results of “us vs. them” thinking that we are tired of it. We are not detached by any means, we know what side we are on, in the sense of whom do we work for, whom do we suffer with. But the other side is not our enemy. In fact, there are no enemies, in the deepest sense, no other side. There is an organized system of injustice, one that we should never accept. But the way to deal with it is not to go to war against it, to join the fray of the good guys vs. the bad guys, but to do the opposite – to turn away from a system based on the division between us and “the other” and towards a new way based on the Gospels, where hospitality and the works of mercy provide the guide to a better world. The “Dorothy Option” recognizes that the politics of division is a distraction from what is important in our lives and in our world, that solidarity with those most marginalized is the way to free us from this mess of power and privilege.
There is a paradox here. Certainly political action is important – people organizing to get their needs met. As long as we recognize that the “other side” needs to have their needs met, too, we are in tune with Dorothy Day and Father Berrigan. But when politics becomes a process of demonizing the other side and winning at all costs, it becomes itself demonic. And the ever present danger is that in our focus on the “issues,” we can forget both the individual human person who is suffering and to forget that to change the system, the first step is to change ourselves.
At Casa Juan Diego, we have a new woman, “Elsa”, on our personal care list that we support every month. She is young and beautiful, and totally paralyzed by her husband who stabbed her in a violent rage. She is undocumented and dependent upon the support of Casa Juan Diego to care for herself and her child, yet she has the most peaceful spirit. I fear that I would be angry and bitter in her place, but she is not. My job is not to hate her husband, but to become more like her. To bring about a kingdom of Heaven on Earth, it is me that has to change, not someone else.
I teach my students that we control what grows in our hearts; we water the seeds of compassion and forgiveness, or else we spend our precious time watering, with thoughts and actions, the weeds of resentment and anger. I learned from Father Berrigan that keeping anger in your heart, no matter how sure you are that you are right and they are wrong is, in fact, an impediment to peace. Your actions, however well-intentioned, will be poisoned by your hatred.
Father Berrigan’s homily was my first lesson in what was possible for the human heart, and I am so grateful for my opportunity at Casa Juan Diego to water the seeds of compassion and kindness a hundred times a day.
We think that only grand gestures and powerful people will change the world. We believe that change comes only from winning the next election. Nothing could be further from the truth. Only beauty and goodness will save us. Or as Father Berrigan kept saying that weekend so long ago, only love.
Gordon, M. (2016, January, 22). Revisiting ‘Catholic Citizenship and the Dorothy Option’. Retrieved from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/thedorothyoption/revisiting-catholic-citizenship-and-the-dorothy-option/.
Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXXV, No. 3, June-September 2016.