A prophet honored in his time?

City Diary

March 08, 2000|By David Eberhardt

I RECENTLY paid a visit to my old friend, Phil Berrigan, in the Baltimore County Jail. He is a prisoner of conscience, a rare type to find in any jail, awaiting trial for entering a Maryland Air National Guard airfield in Essex with three others and hammering on planes, including an A-10 nicknamed the "wart-hog," on Dec. 19, 1999. To Phil, the wart-hog is an "engine of hell."

He is a former Josephite priest who has dedicated his life to nonviolent protests against war. His most recent protest concerns a topic of special interest to him these days -- depleted uranium.

The airplanes Phil and his friends demonstrated against use this uranium in their munitions because it has greater penetrating power. When it fragments into dust, the uranium has long-lasting, injurious medical effects.

In a paper delivered to

cf03 The Sun

cf01 after his arrest, Phil stated his case bluntly: "Certainly, in a 55-year-old love affair with the bomb, Americans have not measured the cost of this idolatry -- spiritual numbing, social denial, moral paralysis. Certainly a $19 trillion price tag since 1940 for past, present and future wars suggests our addiction to war and bloodshed."

Phil is no longer a member of the Roman Catholic Josephite order as he was when I first met him in Baltimore in 1963. Yet to me, he will always be a father figure. We poured blood together at the Baltimore Customs House in 1967 to protest the Vietnam War and shared a jail cell for a month or two.

Phil is a striking individual. At 76, he is tall and handsome and looks the part of prophet or hero with his dignified white hair. In 1998, he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

I am still somewhat awestruck because I grew up in the church, and I have always thought of biblical figures as a bit larger than life. Of course, they weren't. They too, were ordinary people, sitting in holding areas, waiting for the Romans' next move.

In the book of Matthew, Jesus says, "A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country and his own house." While this may seem to apply to Phil, the rest of this passage does not: "He did not do many deeds of power there because of their unbelief."

Phil has, despite our unbelief, done quite a few deeds of power.

We are indeed fortunate from a literary standpoint: Never let it be said that the day of heroes is past.

Of course, these are not "deeds of power" to everyone. To many, they are simply illegal.

But Phil is following a higher moral law -- as well as the Nuremberg Statutes.

Since our blood pouring on South Gay Street in 1967, our paths have diverged, but jail has played a role in both of our lives. Phil has continued demonstrating, and as a result, has spent about 10 years behind bars. I, on the other hand, work at the city jail. I don't mind going in and out of there every day, I tell him.

But I do like to go home at night and sleep in my own bed.

During our visit, I found myself wondering how Phil stays true to his course of civil disobedience, which is so hard for the average person (like myself) to do the first time, let alone many times.

What makes Phil tick, what gives him the "juice," that power of conviction so many of us lack? There is an element in Phil that revels in "no nonsense" -- he actually enjoys pointing out the truth. (One of the gestures I associate with him is the shrug. Not a shrug of despair, but a shrug of "well ... this fight is going to be difficult.")

"Dave," he says simply, "it's the killing," referring to the A-10.

I asked his wife, Elizabeth, whether she thinks Phil is a rare person. "No," she said bluntly. Well, then, I ask, why do so few commit to civil disobedience? I get the feeling Liz has heard this before as she responds, "That's a question they have to ask themselves."

To Phil, his response to issues is only logical. But to me, even having done the same thing at one time, it is still hard to understand how he carries on.

Tactically, I wonder, what does Phil hope to achieve? I know that he sees going to jail as very important.

Yet some may criticize him, saying that going to jail makes more sense in a time of upheaval.

In the 1960s, people like Phil stood out more. In the 1990s, the anti-war movement was practically nonexistent during the conflicts in Iraq and Kosovo.

But there was a peace movement, small as it was, and there still is. Phil is interested in building that movement. With all the violence we have in Baltimore, we should be proud he lives here.

I believe Phil's presence puts Baltimore on the map of history.

With former Attorney General Ramsey Clark to defend him, Phil's trial on March 20 in Towson should be an event. And yet, given our oblivious mood in these "happy" times, it may well land in front of us and sink from view like a stone below the glassy surface.

Today's writer

David Eberhardt was one of the Baltimore Four, who splattered blood on Selective Service records during an antiwar protest in 1967. He now works in the Baltimore City Detention Center and lives in Guilford.

City Diary provides a forum for examining issues of community concern.

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