Anti-War Horse

At 75, Baltimore's Philip Berrigan is fresh out of jail and raring to resume his battle against what he knows is wrong. Even if it means more time in a cell.

April 20, 1999|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

In the warm, comfortable living room of Jonah House, the "community of conscience" he calls home, 75-year-old Philip Berrigan greets a visitor, then settles back into a rocking chair. He looks for all the world like a fellow ready to simply sit and rock and whittle. He's not.

Berrigan has spent half a lifetime fighting for what he calls "peace and justice." He's preached, protested, demonstrated and been arrested in myriad actions against war and nuclear weapons. He has no plans to stop now. Barely five months off a two-year prison stretch he did for an anti-war protest, what Berrigan wants to talk about this day is a demonstration that could land him right back in the federal pen.

In the morning, he'll be out in front of a federal office building, protesting on behalf of members of the Jonah House community who have been barred from returning home by the federal probation system.

"They could arrest me, sure," says Berrigan, who is on probation. He shrugs. "And if they do, OK, all right. We don't choke over going to jail. All of us have done too much of it."

Berrigan himself has gone to prison 60 or 70 times in the three decades since he was arrested for pouring blood on draft records at the Baltimore Customs House, in one of the first anti-war protests of the Vietnam era. He became internationally famous for burning draft records in 1968 as one of the Catonsville Nine. Altogether, his "crimes of conscience" have put him in jail for about nine of his 75 years. He views prison time, he says, as the measure of his commitment.

And he's a man who hates jail.

"No human being belongs in these human zoos," he says. But he gets along very well inside. "I have absolutely no trouble," he says. "That's mostly because you learn nonviolent conduct. You listen to people, first of all.

"Everybody's got a story and nobody wants to listen," he says. "So you listen to people. You try to help out. You teach."

He's become an equal-opportunity teacher. He's taught English to right-wing, anti-Castro Cuban drug dealers from Miami whose politics are diametrically opposed to his. "And you can study the Bible with guys, and some are very eager to do that," he says. "They remake their lives in very astonishing fashion sometimes."

That's not exactly what Berrigan has done in prison. He's written Biblical commentaries while incarcerated, and most of his autobiography, "Fighting the Lamb's War." During his last stretch at the federal prison in Petersburg, Va., he and another peace activist researched the gospels for their political content.

While identified primarily with the peace movement, Berrigan's actions stem from a strong belief in the sanctity of life. So along with war, he opposes Dr. Jack Kevorkian's assisted suicide, abortion and capital punishment.

So does his wife, Elizabeth McAlister. He was a priest and McAlister was a nun when they married nearly 30 years ago. They have three grown children, all born at Jonah House.

They make a handsome couple. McAlister's strong, clear, open face is framed by a striking nimbus of white hair. She's extraordinarily energetic and completely unaffected. Berrigan's a big, handsome, barrel-chested guy who's weathered well over the years. His hair is white, his eyes liquid blue. His face, rugged and lined, creases easily into an engaging, sometimes ironic, smile.

While he talks with his visitor in the Jonah House living room this day, McAlister is at the penitentiary in downtown Baltimore, demonstrating against the death penalty.

"We believe according to the heart of the matter," he says. "We believe that God said, `Thou shalt not kill.' And everything depends on keeping that commandment. And you love your enemies. They're two central commandments coming out of the Bible. After looking at an awful lot of American issues, we've concluded that and we've invested our lives in it."

Communal living

The Jonah House residence is a four-square clapboard house built by the community and its friends on the edge of the old St. Peter the Apostle cemetery in the heart of West Baltimore, a few blocks below North Avenue.

Ten people call Jonah House home these days, and virtually all, except two young women from other communities who now live there, have been convicted of felonies in connection with anti-war or anti-nuclear actions.

So Berrigan, on probation as a "peace felon," is forbidden to consort with fellow Jonah House felons who joined in a 1997 Ash Wednesday action at a Maine shipyard against an Aegis guided missile destroyer.

They acted in the name of the Plowshares Movement, which got its start in 1980 when Berrigan and his brother, Daniel, a Jesuit priest and poet, and six others poured blood on blueprints and hammered on nuclear warheads at a General Electric plant in King of Prussia, Pa. Since then, the movement has spread widely, and there have been more than 60 Plowshares "disarmament actions."

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