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Philip Berrigan, Anti-War Activist,
Dies at Home
By Becky Johnson
Phil Berrigan died December 6, 2002 at about 9:30 PM, at Jonah House, a community he co-founded in 1973, surrounded by family and friends. He died two months after being diagnosed with liver and kidney cancer, and one month after deciding to discontinue chemotherapy.
Approximately thirty close friends and fellow peace activists gathered for the ceremony of last rites on November 30, to celebrate his life and anoint him for the next part of his journey. Berrigan's brother and co-felon, Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan officiated.
During his nearly 40 years of resistance to war and violence, Berrigan focused on living and working in community as a way to model the nonviolent, sustainable world he was working to create.
Jonah House members live simply, pray together, share duties, and attempt to expose the violence of militarism and consumerism. The community was born out of resistance to the Vietnam War, including high-profile draft card burning actions; later the focus became ongoing resistance to U.S. nuclear policy, including Plowshares actions that aim to enact Isaiah's biblical prophecy of a disarmed world.
Because of these efforts Berrigan spent about 11 years in prison. He wrote, lectured, and taught extensively, publishing six books, including an autobiography, Fighting the Lamb's War.
In his last weeks, Berrigan was surrounded by his family, including his wife Elizabeth McAlister, with whom he founded Jonah House; his children Frida, 28, Jerry, 27, and Kate, 21; community members Susan Crane, Gary Ashbeck, and David Arthur; and extended family and community. Community members Ardeth Platte and Carol Gilbert, Dominican sisters, were unable to be physically present at Jonah House; they are currently in jail in Colorado awaiting trial for a disarmament action at a missile silo, the 79th international Plowshares action. One of Berrigan's last actions was to bless the upcoming marriage of Frida to Ian Marvy.
Berrigan wrote a final statement in the days before his death. His final comments included this: "I die with the conviction, held since 1968 and Catonsville, that nuclear weapons are the scourge of the earth; to mine for them, manufacture them, deploy them, use them, is a curse against God, the human family, and the earth itself."
Mourners may make donations in Berrigan's name to Citizens for Peace in Space, Global Network Against Nuclear Weapons, Nukewatch, Voices in the Wilderness, the Nuclear Resister, or any Catholic Worker house.
PHIL'S STATEMENT December 5th , 2002
(as given to Elizabeth McAlister)
Philip began dictating this statement the weekend before Thanksgiving. It was all clear - he had it written in his head. Word for word I wrote...
WHEN I LAY DYING...of cancer
I die in a community including my family, my beloved wife Elizabeth, three great Dominican nuns - Ardeth Platte, Carol Gilbert, and Jackie Hudson (emeritus) jailed in Western Colorado - Susan Crane, friends local, national and even international. They have always been a life-line to me.
I die with the conviction, held since 1968 and Catonsville, that nuclear weapons are the scourge of the earth; to mine for them, manufacture them, deploy them, use them, is a curse against God, the human family, and the earth itself. We have already exploded such weapons in Japan in 1945 and the equivalent of them in Iraq in 1991, in Yugoslavia in 1999, and in Afghanistan in 2001.
We left a legacy for other people of deadly radioactive isotopes - a prime counterinsurgency measure. For example, the people of Iraq, Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Pakistan will be battling cancer, mostly from depleted uranium, for decades.
In addition, our nuclear adventurism over 57 years has saturated the planet with nuclear garbage from testing, from explosions in high altitudes (four of these), from 103 nuclear power plants, from nuclear weapons factories that can't be cleaned up - and so on.
Because of myopic leadership, of greed for possessions, a public chained to corporate media, there has been virtually no response to these realities...
At this point in dictation, Phil's lungs filled; he began to cough uncontrollably; he was tired. We had to stop - with promises to finish later. But later never came - another moment in an illness that depleted Phil so rapidly it was all we could do to keep pace with it... And then he couldn't talk at all. And then - gradually - he left us.
What did Phil intend to say? What is the message of his life? What message was he leaving us in his dying? Is it different for each of us, now that we are left to imagine how he would frame it? During one of our prayers in Phil's room, Brendan Walsh remembered a banner Phil had asked Willa Bickham to make years ago for St. Peter Claver. It read: "The sting of death is all around us. O Christ, where is your victory?"
The sting of death is all around us. The death Phil was asking us to attend to is not his death (though the sting of that is on us and will not be denied). The sting Phil would have us know is the sting of institutionalized death and killing. He never wearied of articulating it. He never ceased being astonished by the length and breadth and depth of it. And he never accepted it.
O Christ, where is your victory? It was back in the mid 1960's that Phil was asking that question of God and her Christ. He kept asking it. And, over the years, he learned
· that it is right and good to question our God, to plead for justice for all that inhabit the earth
· that it is urgent to feel this; injustice done to any is injustice done to all
· that we must never weary of exposing and resisting such injustice
· that what victories we see are smaller than the mustard seeds Jesus praised, and they need such tender nurture
· that it is vital to celebrate each victory - especially the victory of sisterhood and brotherhood embodied in loving, nonviolent community.
Over the months of Phil's illness we have been blessed a hundred-fold by small and large victories over an anti-human, anti-life, anti-love culture, by friendships - in and out of prison - and by the love that has permeated Phil's life. Living these years and months with Phil free us to revert to the original liturgical question: "O death, where is your sting?"
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