By Anna Brown
What We Are Reading These Days
Here of late, friends in the Kairos peace community and beyond have been re-reading and sharing one of Daniel Berrigan’s books: Ten Commandments for the Long Haul. This particular turn to Berrigan pivots on two questions for the peace communities: How do we stay rooted in the work of peacemaking, especially when the attacks on life are increasing at an exponential rate? How do we bring the gifts and insights of our ancestors and past struggles alive in the present moment and in our way? For those of us who were fortunate enough to live and act in community with Berrigan, we witnessed the answers to these questions embodied in Berrigan himself. My experience of Dan was one in which you thought that someone had flipped the light switch on permanently in him. Despite the travails of old age and ill health, despite witnessing a body politic that seemed to be hell bent on destroying our beloved earth and its peoples, there was always an illuminating light within Dan. More concretely, this light manifests itself in a steadfast courage, a mind and heart expressed poetically, and a love for life that compelled him to constantly gather folks into the community, never leaving anyone outside the circle.
Get Your Hands Dirty and Keep Going
For nearly a decade now, our social justice community at Saint Peter’s University has collaborated with our undocumented students. More recently, the University opened its Center for Undocumented Students in our Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – Kairos Social Justice House. Although the threat of deportation was certainly a possibility during President Barack Obama’s tenure in office, our students at least had the protection of DACA. They could emerge from living in the shadows and be afforded some semblance of dignity in our society. The election of Donald Trump in November of 2016 was ushered in on a promise to “Make America Great Again.” To keep that promise meant, in part, to hunt down and remove mass numbers of people, particularly those who were Mexican and Muslim in origin. The Clinton-era immigrant detention and deportation infrastructure, which was maintained by all Presidents since then, is now being significantly enhanced and with it the promise of thousands of jobs for work-starved Americans. The magnitude of the assault on our immigrant brothers and sisters – some of whom are my students and their families — is staggering as is the breathtaking determination of this administration to get the job done. What must we do in a time like this? I tend to spend part of the summer’s day with my hands plunged deep in the dirt of our social justice community garden and surrounded by the murals of the Dan and Phil Berrigan, Liz McAlister, Harriet Tubman, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on the walls surrounding the garden. I often come into the social justice house covered in mud, but I would not have it otherwise. It reminds me that we are rooted in the breadth and bounty of our good earth, and in rhythms of life that transcend and endure beyond the four to the eight-year tenure of each administration. It allows all of us who work in the social justice garden and community one of the key points in Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si: the same system that created a disposable earth has created disposable people. We must instead, as he stated in a recent TED talk, foment a revolution of tenderness. Nourished by this daily experience of muddy hands, hopeful hearts, and readings shared in the community, our community keeps going.
The Bomb and Our Workmen’s Shoes
I find that I keep re-reading and meditating on the first thirty pages or so of Ten Commandments for the Long Haul. In these pages, Berrigan speaks to the central importance of an inner life, a life that allows him “to obey rhythms which neither America or I can set in motion, cancel out (Abingdon Press, 1981,13).” When then questioned as to how one might become an activist, which is something one might well ask today, Berrigan responds: “But that is not the question at all. Here’s a better one: ‘Can we uncover the contemplative springs that are the source of our humanity (Abingdon Press, 1981,14)?’” As I reflect on some of my responses to everything from “the political situation” to my daily calls to Congressional staff persons, I quickly see what Berrigan is pointing to in his insistence on the discipline of an inner life. I find that it is so easy to muck about in the acrimony of what passes for political conversation these days, to smolder in a self-righteous anger, and to even speak to others rudely and insultingly. To see this helps me to see something else, a phrase that caught my eye in these early pages of his book. Berrigan says of the monk and his dear friend Thomas Merton that “in a biblical sense, he moved through life with such ease and courage and persistence that he dissolved the out-in impasse. He kicked over the Bomb with his workman’s shoes: it had no power over him(Abingdon Press, 1981,14).”
I think that I might still be working on Berrigan’s description of Merton as if it were some puzzle that needed to be solved had it not been for a daily practice of Zen meditation. At Saint Peter’s University, we are most fortunate to have Robert Kennedy in residence. Kennedy is both a Jesuit priest and a Zen Master. He maintains the Morning Star Zendo across the street from the University, sits with whoever shows up six days a week from 5:30 a.m until 7:00 a.m., and is always meeting with his students to guide their practice. Like Berrigan, he remarkably embodies the practice he teaches. After the meditation period, the community eats breakfast together. The stillness and energy of peace that abounds in the zendo, even at the crack of dawn, is an experience that helps me to at least glimpse why the Bomb had no power over Merton, and no power over us either. Sit still, Kennedy Roshi tells us, learn how to see rightly and all will flow from that. He’s right. I recall telling Roshi that even though I know that economically, politically, environmentally, and socially we are in a state of great crisis, fundamentally all things are well. The work at hand is how to live that insight, courageously, with all I’ve got, and always in community.
Follow the lead of your students
I have always loved the encounter between a “woman of little faith” and the Elder Zosssima in Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brother’s Karamazov. How many of us have seen ourselves in that woman, especially in these dark days of the political present? How many of us have cried in despair instead of working within the fiery furnace of love-in-action, the place where true work is done without hope of public acclamation. Above all, says Zossima, do not lie to yourself, or, as we might say today, “Get and stay woke!” Some of the wokest people I know are our recent Saint Peter’s graduates who are immigrants and organizing with Cosecha. Cosecha is an activist community working for the dignity and protection of all immigrants, both documented and undocumented. They live simply and in the community so that they can devote all of their efforts to their nonviolent organizing work. They are fearless in standing up to and confronting a regime that is fixated on detaining and removing mass numbers of people. In the coming weeks, these students will risk everything by committing an act of nonviolent civil disobedience in Texas to protest the numerous and egregious injustices faced by immigrants. They are the true leaders of our country, in my estimation. They are the ones who are willing to give up their own safety and security so that others may live with dignity and so that our nation will be one that truly affirms rather than destroys life. As the recent quinceanera protest against SB4 in Texas demonstrated, these young students are the ones who are both following in the footsteps of the ancestors and who are creating their own way now. How wonderful it is for me to be a student in the midst of these great teachers! Along with them, we move as a community into the realm of hope.