Must We Burn Something to Get Attention?: 50 Years After the Catonsville Nine

Fifty years ago today, the Catonsville Nine burned draft files at the local draft board in Catonsville, Maryland. Two Catholic priests, Jesuit Daniel Berrigan and Josephite Philip Berrigan, along with seven others trespassed on government property, walking where private citizens were forbidden to walk. They stole and burned government property, lighting hundreds of draft files in the parking lot outside, using a recipe for homemade napalm that they’d found in the Anarchist’s Cookbook.

This was no generic moral protest, but a specifically Catholic denunciation of the Vietnam War. Certainly, in this, they drew on the church’s social encyclicals (especially Pacem in Terris, which articulated the Church’s default pacifism) and on the protest lineage of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Workers. As the cameras rolled on the protest, Daniel prayed, too, to the God of peace in whose name they undertook the action.

But as the Catonsville Nine reached into the ashes and made crosses on their brows—the Lenten sign of repentance for the sacrifice of the innocent and of the Church’s belief that fire purifies as well as punishes—the protest became a remarkably specific articulation of Catholicism’s embodied language of witness, atonement, and sacrifice. As Dan Berrigan intoned over the flames, signaling that specificity but also a wider moral audience, “We’re all part of this.”

When I first learned of this protest, many years ago, I was taken by its power, its evocative symbolism, and the political risk it signaled. I wrote about it in my first book. And I regularly look at the words Daniel Berrigan wrote to explain the protest. They hang in the entryway to my home:

“Our apologies,

Our apologies,

good friends

for the fracture

of good order,

for the burning

of paper instead

of children,

for the angering

of the orderlies

in the rose garden

of the charnel house.

We could not,

so help us God,

do otherwise,

for we are sick at heart

and cannot rest

for thinking of

the Land of the

Burning Children

and for thinking of

that other Child

of whom the poet,

Luke, speaks.

Our Consciences

are in His keeping

and in no other.”

We still haven’t recovered from the brokenness of that moment, of all that went down in that most fractious year, from Tet to MLK to Bobby to “the whole world is watching.” It was also the year of the Poor People’s Campaign, recently restarted by Reverend William Barber and others, and about which Father Berrigan enthused at the time.

How should we think about Catonsville, given that we have added to this legacy much new brokenness of our own?

I think of the lonely vigil the Berrigans performed out of the spotlight throughout the 1970s. Dan ringing the bells for the Christ of peace on the cathedral steps in Manhattan. Phil driving to the Pentagon from Jonah House in Baltimore, ready to spill some blood on the Pentagon steps, telling the guards and anyone watching that it was Christ’s blood; he was just showing you it was there, spilled freshly each time a bomb was built.

With the first Plowshare protest in 1980, the Berrigans built on the earlier interreligious impulses they’d explored during Vietnam to build an international movement that was less explicitly Catholic in its goals and orientations. But while those protests multiplied in number, and continue still, they were drowned out by the hosannas of Ronald Reagan’s America™. If burning children are the price paid for our stock portfolios or geopolitical advantage, well, just keep smiling, America.

The whole world is now the land of burning children. So, too, has America’s never-ending war (who are we fighting now, again?) marched on. There is fire in the way we imagine other humans burning for the failure of not being like us. This fire is in our communities, at our borders, in our hashtags.

Where, then, is religious protest today? What will we look back on about the religious protest of the new Poor People’s Movement? Of Black Lives Matter? Of arms locked and marching in Charlottesville, and before state houses across the country, teeming with teachers? What do America’s religions say to those Americans with disabilities being hauled off by Capitol cops, and to the numberless people standing against legal authority that suspects them for the crime of simply being black or Muslim or queer?

If we think about Catonsville not just as a curiosity, a minor episode in the history of radical chic, but as a provocation or a template, what do we learn? Must Americans burn something to get attention? Must religious protesters be arrested?

Many current protesters are already in a position of risk and precarity with respect to the law. What is incumbent on religious protesters today is not just to fill up the jails, but to multiply. The Berrigans created their audience by being paid attention. And this is what religious protesters are doing brilliantly today: in protests, online, in their communities, even in their classrooms. The strategies are many, but the goals can only be achieved if attention increases. If movements form, rather than occasional actions.

Renewed reflection on Catonsville helps us not in the sense that it must be emulated, necessarily, but because it underscores how urgently religious Americans need to challenge the public power of America’s corporate Christianity. When Sam Brownback and Tony Perkins (whose organization is classified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as a hate group) are affiliated with the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, when Robert Jeffress is the poisonous voice sanctifying the American embassy’s relocation in Israel, when the Vice President of the United States understands Christianity as a “get out of jail free” card used to freely exercise open bigotry, it can seem pretty conclusive that power has prevailed over justice.

But consider some other words of Daniel Berrigan’s: “Redeem the times! The times are inexpressibly evil. Christians pay conscious, indeed religious tribute, to Caesar and Mars . . . And yet, and yet, the times are inexhaustibly good, solaced by the courage and hope of many.”

Cynicism is understandable, and despair more so. But instead of siding with cheap, whitewashed nostalgia, let us note that certain moments in the past remind us of the future that may yet still be achieved.