July 24, 2016
Isaiah 6:1-13 Trans. Daniel Berrigan
In the year that King Uzziah died
I beheld Yahweh
the seraphim surrounding—
in my soul their song
Whose glory fills the earth!
I could but stammer;
mercy on me, for polluted lips
and the nattering of my people!
An angel seized living coals
touched my mouth with fire—
“Now, all expunged—
announce the evangel!”
and the Lord God spoke:
“Whom then shall we send?
who to bear the word?”
Tongue, heart aflame I cried,
“I, I, no other!”
Isaiah 2:1-5 (Trans. Daniel Berrigan)
The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
Behold my mountain
touching high heaven,
the temple of God crowning all!
In that place,
the nations shall converge
“Come join with us
that Yahweh may teach us godly ways
as we walk in [God’s] paths!”
in that day, Arbiter over all,
God will judge the nations.
They will beat their swords into plowshares,
their spears into pruning knives.
Never more war
“Come let us walk
in the light of Yahweh!”
Daniel Berrigan, Isaiah: Spirit of Courage, Gift of Tears
Isaiah, and those who live in his tradition, announce the impossible: “They will beat their swords into plowshares.” The necessary must somehow be fused with the impossible. Something new, something beyond all effort or genius or ecstatic longing or even imagining must come to be. This historically impossible must happen to the inconvertible, the imperium, to those obsessed with violence and arms and the misuse of resources and the wanton expending of lives.
The truth of this transformation oracle, “swords into plowshares,” is absolutely crucial to the survival of individuals, of children and the elderly and the ill. It is crucial to honor, to religious faith, to a civilized sense of the human—crucial to the fate of the earth.
On August 6th, 1995 the National Cathedral in Washington held an observance for the 50th anniversary of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The United States is the only nation in the history of the world to this day to use nuclear weapons for warfare.
The bomb called Little Boy was dropped on Hiroshima on August 6th, 1945 and three days later, August 9th, a bomb called Fat Man was dropped on Nagasaki. Within four months of the bombing between 90,000 and 146,000 people were estimated to have been killed in Hiroshima and 39,000 to 80,000 in Nagasaki. Half of the dead in both cities were killed on the first day of each bombing and then over the next four months the other half died from burns, radiation sickness, malnutrition, and illness.
Of these more than 200,000 people, nearly all were civilians. These nuclear attacks were preceeded by intense firebomings that had obliterated many Japanese cities.
On August 15th following the nuclear bombings and the earlier declaration of war by the Soviet Union, the Japanese surrendered ending World War 2. To this day, the ethics of this bombing are debated.
Bev and I attended the 50th anniversary observance at the National Cathedral. It was by accident. We were returning from a Stephen Ministry training in Baltimore and decided to go to Washington DC and while there we heard about this event and attended.
I don’t remember much about the service except that both Martin Sheen and Father Daniel Berrigan spoke. What I remember about Father Berrigan is that he was angry, disgusted really. When he spoke the tenor of the service changed. I remember that.
I said that there was debate over the ethics of the nuclear attacks. There still is. I am sure there is disagreement among those in this very room. If you are familiar at all with the argument you know that the bombings are defended by those who say that they saved 100s of thousands of American lives and ended the war. The nuclear bombings thus were necessary.
Others will argue that the Japanese were ready to surrender anyway, in large part due to the entrance of the Soviet Union and for other reasons. Beyond the tactical reasons, those who argue against the use of nuclear weapons declare that the United States’ use of them stepped beyond the line. What line? Is there a line? The line of morality. These argue that the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki constituted war crimes and terrorism. Still others argue that the bombing was not about the Japanese surrender but about intimidating the Soviet Union in the early stages of the Cold War.
Fifty years later, in 1995, there is a service at the National Cathedral in Washington.
At the service in addition to Father Berrigan and Martin Sheen, there were many peace advocates from various religious traditions. The message was clear that nuclear weapons should not be used again.
But the cathedral included in the order of worship a statement from the board or the trustees or whoever it is in charge of the National Cathedral. I don’t have the bulletin but I remember it said something like that the “board of the National Cathedral is a voice for peace but it has no opinion on the debate over the ethics of the bombings in 1945.”
That is what made Father Berrigan angry. When it was his turn to speak, and I am sure he had something else planned, but he brought up the program and read that line and called out the cathedral for its idolatry and for its inability to name evil.
Father Daniel Berrigan had an opinion. I remember feeling both admiration and discomfort for his ruining of the mood. There is this pious observance and calls for peace, this nice orderly Episcopal service in this beautiful cathedral in the heart of our nation’s capitol, and in the midst of it this priest gets up and calls out the host for shirking its prophetic role.
It is Jesus turning over tables in the temple. It is Jeremiah wearing an oxen yoke to the king’s palace, calling the king to submit to Babylon. It is Father Daniel Berrigan and his brother Philip as part of the Catonsville Nine.
In 1968 these nine broke into a draft board office in Catonsville, Maryland. They removed armloads of draft records and burned them in the parking lot with homemade napalm.
They were arrested and Father Berrigan spent about two years in a federal prison in Danbury, Connecticut. At his arrest, Father Berrigan wrote:
“Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children.”
Father Berrigan had an opinion. His opinion was rooted in his experience as a Catholic priest and in the prophetic tradition of Jesus and the prophets. He believed this revelation to be true:
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore.
It is true as it is enacted in the present.
That was the defining text for Father Berrigan. That was the prophetic call and task, to announce this truth.
It is an impossible text. Impossible and necessary.
“They will beat their swords into plowshares.”
It is an impossible text that must be announced. It must be announced in churches, in mosques, in synagogues, in temples.
It must be announced on streets, at media events, in boardrooms, at political conventions, in the pentagon.
It must be announced, knowing that it will not be heard.
We read the first eight verses of Isaiah chapter 6 and we sing about it “Who shall I send? Send me!” We sing it at new members’ inductions and ordination services and at confirmations and perhaps graduations, but we leave off the rest of the passage, verses 9-13. These verses destroy the mood. Like Father Berrigan in the National Cathedral, these verses cause an uncomfortable silence, fidgeting in the seat, why does he say that now? Has he no decorum?
Verse 9 is the truth of the prophetic task. Any who thinks they would like to follow the teaching of the Bible, who thinks they know anything about “believing in God” and what all, must come to terms with Isaiah 6:9, the verse we seldom read:
9And [God] said, ‘Go and say to this people:
“Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.”
Announce the impossible, knowing it will make no difference. Minds dull, spirits warped by expedience and decorum. That is who we are. We know what kills us but we don’t listen. We cannot.
About the same time as the 50th anniversary of the horror of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Daniel Berrigan wrote a commentary on Isaiah. Published in 1996, it is called Isaiah: Spirit of Courage, Gift of Tears. Father Berrigan may have been thinking specifically of his experience in the Cathedral when he wrote this passage:
“…. the beating of swords into plowshares lies beyond the stated morality of conventional religion. The churches, with some few exceptions, balk and cavil and bow low before the imperial usurpation. Rather than calling the nation to judgment, the churches are loud with conniving silence. They pronounce a sorry blessing on the forging and wielding of swords—a blessing that is a curse.” P. 14
You may all remember that it was from the pulpit of that same National Cathedral, when America was in shock and numb, that George Bush the Second announced his call to war, using the 9/11 false flag for the neocon crusade.
“The churches…balk and cavil and bow low before the imperial usurpation.”
Berrigan was a poet, because it is poetry alone that has any hope of piercing the shield of dullness. He was a poet and a dramatist.
“They shall beat their swords into plowshares.”
With the fiery coal of the seraphim still burning on his lips, he and his brother Philip and six others broke into the General Electric plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. It was 1980 and the Mark 12A, a first strike nuclear weapon was being assembled there. The Plowshares Eight as they were subsequently called, took hammers and beat on the nuclear warhead nose cones and poured blood on documents and files.
Speaking in 2006 with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!, Father Berrigan recounted the event:
Well, we didn’t know exactly where in that huge factory these weapons were concealed, but we had to trust in providence that we would come upon the weaponry, which we did in short order. We went in with the workers at the changing of the shift and found there was really no security worth talking about, a very easy entrance. In about three minutes, we were looking at doomsday. The weapon was before us. It was an unarmed warhead about to be shipped to Amarillo, Texas, for its payload. So it was a harmless weapon as of that moment. And we cracked the weapon. It was very fragile. It was made to withstand the heat of re-entry into the atmosphere from outer space, so it was like eggshell, really. And we had taken as our model the great statement of Isaiah 2: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares.” So we did it, poured our blood around it and stood in a circle, I think, reciting the Lord’s Prayer until Armageddon arrived, as we expected.
They were arrested. Tried, convicted and sentenced for three to ten years. They were released on appeal for another ten years, and finally in 1990, the judge gave them both time served.
Amy Goodman pointed out that Father Berrigan had been arrested probably more times than years that he lived, he was 85 at the time of that interview.
Isaiah chapter 6 ends with hope, but not until after devastation. The promise, “They will turn their swords into plowshares” will come true but not until all is waste. Verses 9-13:
Then I said, ‘How long, O Lord?’ And [God] said:
‘Until cities lie waste
and houses without people,
and the land is utterly desolate;
until the Lord sends everyone far away,
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
Even if a tenth part remains in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak
whose stump remains standing
when it is felled.’
The holy seed is its stump.
That is the hope.
The holy seed is its stump.
Father Berrigan understood Isaiah. If people won’t listen, why do it?
If the Presbyterian Church, even, faced with the evidence that even if a fraction of the carbon in the ground that is the financial basis for corporations is actually extracted, it will be the end of Earth’s climate. Yet, they could not say, “Let’s not kill ourselves and our children.” No they wore suits and ties and they looked and sounded smart and reasonable and said,
“We can have it all. Because if we do not invest in our destruction we will lose some percentage points in profit.”
Not to invest in our destruction is an impossible task. The prophets still announce it. Why? Why bother?
We make weapons and more weapons and we celebrate the military with show after show and we know that we will be desolate. Musn’t we know? But we, theologians that is, cling to theories of “just war” as if there ever was one, and claim the latest skirmish of killing as necessary. And we bless the imperium. And we curse humanity.
Berrigan understood Isaiah. He understood the impossible task. The necessary task. In the 2006 interview, Amy Goodman asked him if his peace work has had any good effect. This was his answer:
No, the point of—my understanding of the spirituality of nonviolence is that you cut yourself free of any kind of necessity of succeeding. You cut yourself free of the other end of the good work you’re trying to do, and concentrate upon the goodness of the work you’re trying to do.
That is the call, that is the burning coal on the lips of Isaiah. If we sing, “Here I am, send me!” that is where we are sent.
Father Daniel Berrigan breathed his last at the age of 94 on April 30th, 2016. Who will follow as he followed? The seraphim, singing, “Holy, Holy, Holy” have tongs with the hot coals. Who will offer their lips? Who will the Lord send to announce the impossible? Who will the Lord send to speak the truth of “swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks?”
Father Daniel Berrigan was a poet. Only a poet can pierce the dullness. He closed his 2006 interview with Amy Goodman with this poem. I will give Father Berrigan the last word:
Some stood up once, and sat down.
Some walked a mile, and walked away.
Some stood up twice, then sat down.
“I’ve had it,” they said.
Some walked two miles, then walked away.
“It’s too much,” they cried.
Some stood and stood and stood.
They were taken for fools,
they were taken for being taken in.
Some walked and walked and walked —
they walked the earth,
they walked the waters,
they walked the air.
“Why do you walk?” they were asked, and
“Why do you stand?”
“Because of the children,” they said, and
“Because of the heart,” and
“Because of the bread,”
“Because the cause is
the heart’s beat, and
the children born, and
the risen bread.”