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Awesome Men Throughout History: Daniel Berrigan

Since the Republican primary is still going strong enough to merit televised debates every six hours or so, now seems like a good time for Awesome Men Throughout History to examine someone who stands at the intersection of religion and politics.

The great Daniel Berrigan

Actually, there really isn’t ever a good time for this ? religion and politics are touchy enough subjects on their own. Mixing them is like swinging a stick at a pinata full of live hornets.

Nevertheless, there is another side to faith-based political activism than the kind we’re used to seeing, which is the vacantly-smiling conservative 700 Club kind where everyone involved looks like they have fresh lobotomy scars just under their hairlines. Back in the day, there was a fierce Catholic anti-war element who used their beliefs as the basis for demanding social justice at home and abroad. And one of the most active and visible members of this movement was this week’s subject, Daniel Berrigan.

Daniel Berrigan was born in 1921 and joined the Jesuits as soon as he graduated high school, eventually being ordained to the priesthood in 1952. He dedicated himself to relieving poverty, which he felt required a change in the traditional relationship between priests and their congregations. He was sternly opposed to the Vietnam War, and was arrested for non-violent protesting in 1967, which further radicalized him against the government. The following year, he and historian Howard Zinn traveled to Hanoi to receive three American POWs who had been released by the Viet Cong.

Daniel’s most infamous act was yet to come, though; in 1968, he and eight other Catholic protesters, including his brother, destroyed draft board files with homemade napalm in the parking lot of the Catonsville, Maryland draft board office. They even called WBAL-TV beforehand and had them film the whole thing ? you can watch it on YouTube. Daniel wouldn’t approve of my phrasing, but the huge chrome-plated balls on this guy were something else entirely.

As one would expect, he was arrested and sentenced to three years (his and Saul Levitt’s play, The Trial of the Catonsville 9, is a partial transcript of the trial), but went into hiding afterward, popping up every now and again at protests to bait the cops and speak his mind. He was also part of a documentary called The Holy Outlaw during this time, although the FBI caught up with him right after he was filmed for it. He served his sentence and was released in 1972.

Berrigan’s activities then and now (he’s still going, and was arrested as recently as 2006 for civil disobedience) are basically America’s version of liberation theology, which originally began as a counterpoint to corruption in Latin America. Say what you will about guys like Berrigan, but they are extremely courageous and see the communities they serve as more than hands passing a collection plate around. Remember that point I keep making about how awesome men light their own path and do what they think is right, even when it’s hard? It applies here. Big time.

Besides, take a look at this sweet old man, and then think about how he was bad ass enough to be filmed for a documentary while on the run from the FBI. If that’s not awesome, then nothing is.

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About Dave Kiefaber Dave Kiefaber is a Baltimore-based writer who regularly contributes to Adfreak and the Gettysburg Times. His personal website is at

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