Beyond Berrigan, Making May Day New, Past Passover

Photo of Daniel Berrigan

This Passover was book-ended  by Earth Day before and May Day  after   -- with the  crossing-over of Dan Berrigan in its midst.

More about Father Dan in a moment. First, some thoughts and a song for the festivals that in a way extended Passover, in time and in its meanings:

Earth Day emerged from early glimmers of understanding the planetary eco-crisis. May Day began  as an ancient festival of pre-Christian European earth-centered spirituality. (When I was in elementary school, every year on May Day we danced around a May Pole.  Many many people of my generation remember that too. I recall no complaints demanding separation of state from paganism.)  

In the USA in the 1880s, May Day was reinvented as a day to pursue and celebrate the struggle for an eight-hour day and more broadly the struggle for social justice. It became a world-wide workers’ festival –- everywhere but in the country of its birth.

In honor of both aspects of May Day, I am glad to share these lyrics, singable to the tune of the Internationale but with a very different tone and a fuller message:

Arise, ye prisoners of pollution;

Arise, ye poisoned of the Earth!

 We dance to make a revolution—

A better world’s in birth!

No more the corporate smoke shall blind us,

We can hear the trees and oceans call --

Humankind amidst the breathing life-forms—

Together we are all!


As we face the crisis of all history,

 Let us rise to heal our Place.

span style="background-color: #ccffff; color: #008000;">To save our deeply wounded planet

 We must awake the human race!

And during this Passover, we lost from our planet Dan Berrigan, another of the extraordinary spiritually rooted prophetic voices that arose in the crisis of 50 years ago.  We who knew him knew that at 94 he was becoming more and more frail. His death came as a shock but not a surprise.

Dan Berrigan’s death during Passover echoes for me that I met him in the midst of a Passover Seder in 1970.

The Freedom Seder I had written and helped make real the year before had become well-known. About a week before Passover in 1970, I got a phone call from some students at Cornell University.  Students, with the help of the campus religious community, were planning a long weekend of honoring Father Dan, who had been a chaplain at Cornell, and his brother Father Phil.

Both of them had helped awaken the country to the evil of the US War against Vietnam by direct and powerful nonviolent actions to disrupt the war machine.. They had been convicted of burning records of a draft board, but instead of meekly surrendering to serve a jail sentence, went underground. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI   was chasing after them, as they floated through America like twin colorful but invisible butterflies.  

Cornell's weekend celebration – entitled “America is Hard to Find”  -- came during Passover. {The title meant, “The Berrigans are hard to find, and the Berrigans are America.”)  The students wanted me to help lead a gigantic Freedom Seder in the University Field House for a couple of thousand people

Of course I said Yes. 

Then in the Field House when we reached the passage in the Seder where we say, “Let all who are hungry or in need come and celebrate with us!” a man enveloped in a huge overcoat walked up on the platform where we readers were guiding the Seder. Off came the overcoat, and on came Father Dan!

The FBI was all over the place, but didn’t dare try to arrest him in the midst of all those students.  After the Seder he went underground again. Maybe one of the few times in the last couple of millennia when a Seder has actually physically liberated someone, even for a few hours.

I did not always agree with Father Dan. In one comment he made about Israel in the ‘70s, he went beyond strong criticism of the Israeli government to a critique of its whole society that even denied the original creativity of the kibbutz movement. I thought then, and think now – Which of us has not fallen into an occasional error in the pursuit of our visions? I said as much to him.

And now, a generation later, Passover once again.  I hope that Father Dan took joy in being liberated once more by Passover -- crossing the Unknown Sea on its seventh day, the day when we commemorate the crossing of a people through the Red Sea, out of their enslavement to racism, militarism, and materialism –- and into a fragile freedom. I am sure that Dorothy Day, Dr. Martin Luther King,  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, and El-Hajj Malik El-Shabbaz were waiting on the Unknown Side of the Unknown Sea to welcome him into the Promised Land.

May his spirit and the Breathing Spirit of the World continue to embolden us!

As I have already written you, for The Shalom Center this past Passover was a time of teaching at the National Museum of American Jewish History  about the “Freedom Seder Revisited,”  a time of direct action against the subversion of our elections by the Pharaohs of our own society and being therefore arrested in a sit-down at the US Capitol, and a time of being invited to speak in a panel on “A Moral Economy” along with a major candidate for President.

And for us,  going beyond Passover into the Wilderness journey of creating a new society is meaning three specific actions:

1. Helping organize the Faith Contingent of a March for a Clean Energy Revolution, to take place on July 24, the eve of the Democratic National Convention, when it gathers in Philadelphia.

 2. Working with religious congregations and other community organizations for the creation of neighborhood solar coops. We have begun with a neighborhood in Philadelphia.

 3. “MLK + 50.” Exploring the possibility of making the year between April 4, 2017, and April 4, 2018 -- – the 50th anniversaries of Dr. King’s most profound speech – the one at Riverside Church to “Clergy and Laity Concerned About Vietnam” --  and of his assassination --  into an American Jubilee Year of  Truth and Transformation.

 Unfolding each of these would take more time and space than we have today.  I will be reporting to you on each of them, one at a time, over the next week.

And meanwhile, I need to say to you:    Three thousand years ago, according to the Bible, it took the post-Exodus contributions of all those runaway slaves to shape a Shrine they could carry through the Wilderness, inspiring and emboldening them to breathe freely in tune with YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, the Breath of Life.   

In the same way, we need your help, your gifts. We need your contributions to sustain our work as we undertake the three efforts I have named above.

;When I say “Need,” I mean indeed not “want” but Need.  Perhaps in this important election year, some of you have been giving contributions to the political candidates of your choice.

I understand, and applaud.  AND -- it is still true that even the best of candidates emerge from and respond to a wave of well-informed and passionate moral commitment.  And even the worst of candidates cannot be stopped  without a wave of well-informed and passionate moral commitment.

That wave is what we help create. We can’t do it without your help. Please click on the ”Contribute” button in the left-hand margin, and then please actually sustain our work for a just and sustainable world by giving what you can.





Jewish and Interfaith Topics: