False Gods, Real Men: A Tribute To The Revolutionary Life of Daniel Berrigan

On Saturday, Father Daniel Berrigan died at 94.  Berrigan was a priest, a poet, and a lifelong activist who first rose to national prominence protesting the US government’s draft of young men against their will to fight in the brutal invasion of southeast Asia in the 1960s.  Whether breaking into Selective Service offices to burn draft records, publicly preaching nonviolence while on the run from the FBI (whose extra-reactionary militarism policy placed him on the Top 10 Most Wanted list for two charges of vandalism), using hammers to damage nuclear missile warheads in factories, or negotiating with the Viet Cong to secure the release of American POWs abandoned by their own government, Berrigan’s entire life was dedicated not only to faith-based pacifism, but to a revolutionary pacifism that screamed against the imperial state and its many engines of injustice with a self-sacrificing militancy of compassion for human beings and the world that was impossible to ignore.  He wrote eloquently against American interventions in Central America, he spearheaded the movement for nuclear disarmament for over 30 years, and he was arrested at age 82 for protesting the Iraq War.  Berrigan wrote over 50 books, including over a dozen books of poetry.  This piece, about his and his brother’s arrest after using homemade napalm to publicly destroy stolen draft records, is taken from his 1998 compilation, And the Risen Bread: Selected Poems, 1957-1997

False Gods, Real Men by Daniel Berrigan

Our family moved in 25 years from Acceptable Ethnic

through Ideal American

(4 sons at war        Africa        Italy         the Bulge        Germany)

and Ideal Catholic

(2 sons priests        uncle priest        aunt nun        cousins

great uncle        etc.        etc.)

But now; 2 priests in and out of jail, spasms, evictions,


We haven’t made a nickel on the newest war

probably never again

will think, proper

with pride; a soldier! a priest! we’ve made it now!


What it all means is – what remains.

My brother and I stand like the fences

of abandoned farms, changed times

too loosely webbed against

deicide        homicide

A really powerful blow

would bring us down like scarecrows.

Nature, knowing this, finding us mildly useful

indulging also

her backhanded love of freakishness

allows us to stand.


The implication

both serious and comic;

wit, courage

a cry in the general loveless waste


than miracle

both more and less


…did conspire to enter, disrupt, destroy draft files of the American Government, on the 17 day of May…



Among the flag poles

wrapped like Jansenist


with rags

at half mast

(alas for sexual

mortmain) the wooden poles

on high but




We did yes we did your Honor

impenitent –

while legitimate cits

newts        bats        foxes

made congress

in formerly

parks and green swards

rutting earnestly drilling

tooth and claw

galling inserting

industrious inventive

nitroglycerin, nuclear




We fools and felons

went on a picnic

apples        quince        wines        hams        swimsuits

loaves        fishes        noonday        relics and traces

badminton        watery footsoles        infants all

thereafter impounded!


An FBI agent estimated at least 600 individual files were in the two huge wire baskets carried from Local Board No. 33 and set fire in the parking lot.

– AP dispatch



Then foul macadam

blossomed like rosemary

in the old tapestry

where unicorns deigned

to weave a fantasy

truer I swear than



Judge Mace his black

shroud his skeletal

body & soul

whose veins decant

vapors to turn the

innocent eye

dry as the dead.


When a United States judge sentenced two of the pacifists to six years in Federal Prison…he clearly ignored sound discretion.  The powers of the bench include the power to fix sentences on those found guilty, but they do not include the right to impose punishment out of all proportion to the crime.

– The New York Times




charged with creating

children confusion

legerdemain flowers

felonious picnics.

Jews in Babylon

we sit and mourn

somewhere in Mace’s

mad eyes’ space


“I have tried all the conventional and legal forms of protest to little or no avail,” says Philip, who argues that both Christ and Paul allowed the possibility of civil disobedience when man’s law counters God’s.






Compassionate, casual as a good face

(a good heart goes without saying)

someone seen in the street; or

infinitely rare, once, twice in a lifetime


that conjunction we call brother or friend.

Biology, mythology cast up clues.

We grew together, stars made men

by cold design; instructed


sternly (no variance, not by a hair’s

breadth) in course and recourse.  In the heavens

in our mother’s body, by moon and month

were whole men made.

We obeyed then, and were born.

berrigan cuffeda
Father Daniel Berrigan, 1921-2016

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