Phil Berrigan on Confronting Truth

(Philip Berrigan is 74, a World War II veteran, author, member of Jonah House, a nonviolent resistance community in Baltimore, Maryland, and a father of three. He and five others are currently serving sentences ranging from 6 to 27 months for their roles in the Ash Wednesday Prince of Peace Plowshares action aboard the USS The Sullivans. For further information about The Prince of Peace Plowshares write to them c/o Peace & Justice Office, 1 Pleasant St., 4th floor, Portland, ME 04101, (207)828-8620).

In the late 60's, while the Vietnam war raged, the Secretary General of the United Nations, U Thant, stated that "if the American people knew the truth about the Vietnam War, they would stop it." A huge "if" indeed, since the government strenuously withheld the truth from its people, employing disinformation, propaganda, suppression of events and outright falsehood.

U Thant's remark applies as well to nuclearism and war today, but even more intensely and urgently: "if the American people knew the truth about Washington's nuclear and interventionary warmaking, they would stop it."

But they don't know the truth, because once again, the government, warmaking corporations and the military have taken every measure to disguise this Big Lie, to huckster it as policy and to distort it as an unmitigated good.

Seizing on one aspect of The Big Lie, Americans have little grasp of the spiritual, social and ecological curse of nuclearism and total (conventional) war. I recall Sidney Lens' appraisal of this horror this way: "Take the great programs and genocides of history - Those of Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun, Tamerlane, Hitler, Stalin, Nixon, lump them all together, the BOMB is a greater tragedy and crime."

Secondly: "Take the great natural catastrophes of history - earthquakes, famines, floods, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, lump them all together, the BOMB is a greater tragedy and disaster."

Thirdly: "Take the plagues, mass infections, epidemics and viral scourges of history, lump them all together, the BOMB is a greater tragedy and catastrophe."

Finally: "Take the genocides, natural disasters and plagues of history, lump them all together - the BOMB is a greater tragedy and curse."

Now, how do we avoid making Lens' assertions mere abstractions, or "interesting conjectures"? If his claims are true (and I believe they are) how do we wrap our minds around the demonic reality of the BOMB (and its progeny, total war) without crumbling into shock? How do we grasp the spiritual devastation strewn by the BOMB, its corruption of political life, its savaging of ecology without fleeing into escapism or going mad?

It seems to me that such questions remain central to life today, at least for those serious about faith, justice and sanity; Those striving to define the human in a violent and perilous world.

It also occurs to me that one cannot confront the American empire and its BOMB without a vital belief in God (as Gandhi would put it), whose authorship and sustenance of life indicts empires, nation states, transnationals, dictatorships, wars, prisons - all the panoply of death. Moreover, faith in God (or love of neighbor) inspires and sustains action against death (non-violent civil resistance).

The fierce conflict between life and death in the public domain extrapolates a similar war in our spirits, between God and gods, true God and false gods, between God and money, power, property, class privilege, a white face and male supremacy.

Our spirits are a battlefield between God and idols.

This is especially true of Americans. The empire and its BOMB ranks high in our catalog of idols. War is our #1 business, we fund warmaking more lavishly than the rest of the nations combined, our military bristles against our "enemies," hungering for an excuse.

Where is our allegiance - that is The question, one that ought to preoccupy us even momentarily, and for the rest of our lives? Where is our allegiance - is it to God and neighbor or to the empire and its BOMB? Do we pledge ourselves to following Christ, his non-violence and disarmament, or do we make the Faustian bargain, trafficking with devils? As Christ would ask the disciples, "Who do you say that I am?" (Mark 8:29)

The BOMB and modern war are the summit crimes of history, pornography that transcends language in its corruption and filth. They confront humankind with an either...or. God is never lacking in giving us what we need. Nor will we be lacking, with God's help.

For more information about peace movements in America, visit Nonviolence.Org.

Read the New York Times Book Review of Philip Berrigan's Autobiography.