Daniel Berrigan’s Biblical Pedagogies

Bill Wylie-Kellermann

In the final weeks of his underground freedom in 1970, Daniel Berrigan sat at table with William Stringfellow at his Block Island home. The board spread before a picture window overlooking New Harbor. Down the hill on the adjacent stone wall a wooden platform would be discovered suitable for placing an FBI directional microphone aimed at the window. I suppose it’s possible that somewhere a record of their conversations is transcribed.

Their discussions in those days included many things: among them the Book of Revelation as a political tract of non-violent resistance. The conversation would continue as Dan studied it closely in prison and Bill wrote An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land. The other topic over which they brooded together was the prospect of an underground seminary after the fashion of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Confessing Church school at Finkenwald in Germany of the 30’s. Berrigan had gone underground on the anniversary of Bonhoeffer’s execution by Hitler and had begun that day a review of his biography. In it he was taken with the seminary so monastic in character. Stringfellow was similarly edified going back to the immediate post-war period and was, by the present converse, imagining a school on Block Island using the empty summer hotels to house it.

These conversations were interrupted when the infamous FBI “birdwatchers” invaded the property coming up the drive along the adjacent wall. A storm was gathering and Dan sat in the backyard slicing apples. He rose and went out to meet his captors leaving the fruit behind. Stringfellow, it turned out, “gathered up the remnants that nothing be lost,” and consigned them to the freezer. When Berrigan returned two years later after the completion of his prison term, he reports being greeted with a spectacular banquet, including a glorious pie of (the self-same) resurrected apples.[1]

It would be wrong to imagine that the move toward the seminary was itself interrupted. In point of fact, the prison time marked a kind of try out inside the wall. From the cells of Danbury, Berrigan gathered a cohort of draft resisters, politicos, and conventional felons to learn the rule of Thich Nhat Hahn’s Tiep Hien order, study scripture, and practice resistance on the inside. He just kept teaching. As he put it:

A classroom is where you find it. In 1970 I voyaged from Cornell, where I had taught and ministered to Danbury Prison, a slot below the Ivy League, so to speak. I felt, nonetheless, a certain rightness in the move…I was shortly to discover another class, in more senses than one. It was a kind off dark side of the moon; the subjects were despair, anger, violence, broken lives, racism, macho and punk, suffocation of spirit, Quite an education for the teacher…It was clear that some prisoners wanted desperately to flex their minds.[2]

When he emerged from Danbury in 1972, one vocational thread which lay before him was teaching. He resolved to accept only one-semester commitments, and those with the caveat that it might be interrupted by civil disobedience and its consequence. His first gig was at Woodstock College, the Jesuit school in Manhattan, just across the street from, and affiliated with, Union Seminary. It was the exception to his rule, as he stayed an entire year.

That’s when I met him. A group of us Union seminarians were more than ready to welcome him. The year prior, our first, we’d been prepared by a course from Rubem Alves, the Brazilian Protestant liberation theologian then writing a book on imagination and the powers, or as he put it: resisting the “logic of the dinosaur.” We’d also done a student-directed course of our own devising, on the Harrisburg Conspiracy trial.

Dan’s course was on John’s Apocalypse, per his conversation with Stringfellow you might say. We were reading it with the work of Jacques Ellul in the other hand. Bill would have been instrumental in conversation about Ellul as well, though the latter’s work had also been a topic of the famous Merton retreat in 1964, particularly with respect to the technological powers. Our “class” was reading his early tract: The Presence of the Kingdom. By then Ellul himself had produced a commentary on the Apocalypse, then still in French, which Dan of course spoke and perhaps had read. His own reading of Revelation in those days was laced with a bit of T.S. Elliot’s Four Quartets, (in the end is our beginning). He reported having memorized the Quartets while at Danbury. It was a discipline he undertook to survive the deadly homilies of the prison chaplain at mass. As Father began to drone on, he simply applied himself to the poetic text.

In many respects Dan’s lectures were nearly oracular and ecstatic utterances. We’d be scrambling to keep up in our notebooks. More than once I recall one of us saying, “Wait. What did you just say?” and he’d look up, as if coming out of a trance, to shrug and be no further help: “I donno.”

I confess I “freaked in” a bit. For a while, I could barely speak. Inner foundations had been shaken. I’d been raised in the church, yet most of what I believed, at least politically, was little more than sociology. Now the veil was torn away. I walked round dumb and silent. Berrigan noticed. The moment that he called my name down a basement hallway at Union, I consider my summons to discipleship. He invited me up to his McGiffert Hall apartment and poured a scotch, my first. That turned into weekly mornings over mint tea and talk, handing me Merton on the desert monks and Dorothy Day on the pilgrimage of poverty. Such sessions were my first experience of spiritual direction, though I’d never even heard tell of such a thing.

I know he taught Revelation courses in more than one venue in subsequent years, but I always thought that his little book The Nightmare of God, was basically a transcription of our NYC class, post-prison. He wasn’t so much teaching us to put more politics into our scripture study as he was urging us to put more biblical savvy into our politics. His life and witness provided the authority for reading scripture as a life and death matter. Prison was both geography and credential. The blood of Vietnamese children was motive. The Catonsville draft board action as liturgical poetics and the trial as theatrical drama fully filled and informed the classroom.

I remember the lectures (vividly), the readings, and the group discussions, but have nothing in my files by way of written assignments, papers. Yet he did influence work I undertook for other classes. For example, in a course on the Passion of Jesus, I produced a paper detailing the suffering created by the War – it had a fifteen-page footnote which was the exegetical assignment of the class. For a course on Poetry and Theology, I analyzed his prison poem, “Vietnamese Letter.”[3] I brought his presence to the table of a Seminar on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, taught by one of Bonhoeffer’s own Finkenwalde students, theologian Paul Lehmann. And I wrote my M.Div. thesis on “Resistance as Pastoral Ministry.” Such like.

Instead of papers, he led us out of the classroom with the Book in hand. To the Thomas Merton Center, then based at St. John the Divine, down to the Catholic Worker to meet Dorothy Day on an evening in which he spoke to clarify our thoughts. Even down to the trial of the Camden 28 (another draft board raid) where he would testify on the stand, mostly about the Sermon on the Mount. Conversations in the hall there turned into life-long friendships. There were vigils in front of St Patrick’s, walks over to Columbia to meet with students resisting Riverside Research, a university military think tank. We followed him to Danbury Prison for the release of his brother Phillip – into the waiting arms, not only of Liz McAlister and Dan, but of Abraham Heschel (who taught across the street from us and shortly crossed over to the ancestors) as well as Pete Seeger, who sang at the improvised Eucharist.

Moreover, he brought in “teaching assistants,” members of the Danbury cohort, now on the street organizing. We sat with Mitch Snyder, who joined the prison group as felon (grand theft auto) and now worked with the Community for Creative Nonviolence in DC. John Bach, one of the young draft resisters, was now part of Jonah House – the community founded in Baltimore by Phillip and Liz. In those days, the MO of Jonah was to gather as a community at the house each weekend, but then some would scatter up and down the east coast to meet with smaller communities. Our little class became one of those; John would hitch hike the Jersey turnpike to NYC each week to meet with us, study a book like Jim Douglass’s Resistance and Contemplation and eventually to plan simultaneous actions with other groups. He was my mentor in Theological Leaflet Writing 101.

One action involved dropping an anti-air-war banner from the Statue of Liberty. The gym floor at Riverside Church served as a banner-painting surface. But mostly I think of the liturgical actions we undertook at Riverside Research, carrying a Good Friday cross all the way from Union down to its nondescript warehouse digs on 58th Street, there to block the doors and be arrested. Riverside subsequently become an ongoing witness of the Kairos Community in NY of which Dan was part.

The resistance seminary did in fact get resurrected like the apple pie. One day Berrigan brought us unexpected greetings from no less than Bill Stringfellow, including an invitation to meet and consider the idea of an underground seminary. We came to the meeting, our eager heads full of plans: location, faculty, finances? So we were utterly dumbfounded, and gradually edified, when the entire day was dedicated to Bible study, in this case 2 Thessalonians. There is a saying that goes “To plan a party, have a party,” and that applied, we were learning, to underground seminaries as well.

Dan and Bill managed to make clear that if there were to be more such gatherings, they would needs be initiated and planned by students interested. We were, and so seized the proffered initiative, organizing a series of them over the years. For the first such go-round, we secured a farm in the Berkshires and dispersed a call letter to assorted contacts which read in part:

The seminaries we come from tend to be parochial in their concerns, and those concerns narrow daily as financial problems make “survival” a deathly institutional preoccupation. We would gather to connect with one another, and broaden our vision of ministry. The seminaries we come from tend to follow cults of academia, worshiping professionalism and expertise. We would gather free of idolatrous enslavements. Seminarians and seminaries seem to have forgotten how to read the Bible, reducing it to an intellectual exercise, to a matter of proper critical technique. We would gather to help each other become radically biblical and biblically radical. In short, the seminaries we come from are more and more swallowed up by the culture. We would gather to come out, to turn again.[4]

Just to say, the pattern of these gatherings was simple in the extreme. A date compatible with their calendars would be set. Dan would respond often with a simple post card with a cryptic scrawl, but clear affirmation: like “Barkus is willin’.”  Place would be found with sufficient sleeping space arranged (much of it on the floor or in tents). Meals were cooperative in character, anarchist as it were, with bread and a large pot of soup being mainstays.

The real feast, however, was the biblical text (Acts, say, or James or Isaiah) chosen in consultation and named in the invitation. A handful of folks, including Bill and Dan, would each take a chapter, preparing reflections with which to lead out. Then a silence would follow, with space to walk some paths or a lakeshore or even city streets. It always seemed that when we returned to the circle, the text had in the meantime read us, measured our lives and summoned our hearts into the open. Then lo and behold, in conversation, acts of conscience could be imagined, communities formed, vocations awakened, even marriages sparked, a spirit of holy improvisation set loose.

After Woodstock/Union I know he went on the road to Jesuit universities to be a resident theologian or some such for a semester. Next was the Jesuit School at Berkley, but he also had stints at Fordham, the University of Detroit, others. At all of these, he left in his wake new communities of resistance. The roots of Day House (the Detroit Catholic Worker) and the Detroit Peace Community, can be traced directly to his visitation here.

In his funeral homily for Dan, Steve Kelly referred to him (and Phil) as Doctors of the Church. “They retrieved for the people of God a move from preoccupation with orthodoxy to orthopraxis.”[5] That’s a big and formal title conferred on very few of the saints. And I wouldn’t disagree. Suffice it to say: Daniel Berrigan, as for so many others, was my teacher. In a tradition, in the wholeness of his humanity, it was a gift and vocation he embraced with wit and love. Doctor? Professor? Well, something close, inseparable from poet, priest, and prophet.

Bill Wylie-Kellermann is author of Celebrant’s Flame: Daniel Berrigan in Memory and Reflection (Cascade, 2021) from which this essay is excerpted.

[1].Daniel Berrigan Block Island (Greensboro, NC: Unicorn Press, 1985), p. 17.

[2] Daniel Berrigan, Ten Commandments for the Long Haul, (Nashville TN: Abingdon, 1981), pp. 126-7

[3] See chapter xxx

[4] Call letter in the author’s files.

[5] Stephen Kelly S.J., “Do No Be ruled by Fear, But by Faith,” Sojourners, August 2016.