Figures of Religious Resistance

December 7th, 2006

By Brian Karafin

Inside Annabel Taylor Hall at Cornell University a few charred remains of an old altar are on display. They are a curiosity to a new generation of students, to whom the reality of wars overseas is a distant abstraction. To these upwardly mobile twenty-somethings studying in the sedate landscape of Cornell, the military is a volunteer proposition, international news is on a sound-bite or niche-blogger basis, and while a kind of apocalypticism buzzes in the background of contemporary life, there are pharmaceuticals to help when things get out of hand.

It wasn’t always this way. Those with longer memories look at Cornell’s Willard Straight Hall and think 1969 take-over by armed black students. They look at Annabel Taylor Hall and remember the fire-bombing that destroyed the chapel and left behind these charred pieces. The chapel has been re-built, but the burnt pieces are a reminder of a past that is difficult for some to understand. Why would the chapel of an Ivy League college be blown up?

The short answer: Father Daniel Berrigan, the Jesuit priest and anti-war resistor, was the Catholic chaplain at Cornell in the late’60s. Along with Protestant and Jewish colleagues, he was counseling draft resistors, teaching crowds of students about the history of non-violent direct action, and planning demonstrations and other anti-war actions out of a base in the offices of Annabel Taylor. The bombing was a strike against one of the anti-war movement’s most famous leaders and centers.

If religion has often been seen as one of the primary roots of violence in global history, religion has also been a significant part of the resistance to violence and war. Berrigan was (and is) one of a number of religious leaders active in protest movements of the past five decades. He and his friends Thich Nhat Hanh and Thomas Merton participated in the anti-nuclear and civil rights movements of the ‘50s and continued their activism through the Vietnam Era and beyond. They looked to each other for insight, and, in a dialogue across different traditions, saw spirituality as a call to resistance.

In 2004, almost 40 years after leaving Cornell to engage in the civil disobedience that would send him to prison for several years, Daniel Berrigan returned to talk about war, religion, and resistance. It was the second year after the invasion of Iraq and the war was the main theme of his talk. But in the question and answer period a young woman asked, “What does the term ‘God’ mean to you?” Berrigan immediately began talking about several months he spent in Paris during the Vietnam War, in which his main occupation was engaging in a series of dialogues with the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh. (These conversations were later published as a book, “The Raft is Not the Shore: Conversations Towards a Buddhist-Christian Awareness.”)

Talking with Thich Nhat Hanh, Berrigan said, made him realize that what he as a Catholic meant by “God” and what Nhat Hanh as a Buddhist meant by “mindfulness” were not essentially different. Mindful awareness of the arising phenomena of the universe, in the mind and in the world, constituted a kind of open space of conscious presence. “God” was a directional pointer to such a space.

Berrigan’s answer seemed to be strategic: these days, if you ask a radical Catholic priest about God he’ll talk about Buddhist mindfulness. But Berrigan’s insistence on the compatibility of Buddhism and Christianity through meditation was also indicated earlier in the evening, when he briefly mentioned the American Catholic monk, Thomas Merton. Even 36 years after his death, Berrigan said, Merton guided the direction of his thought about religion and politics.

On one level, Merton was an unlikely teacher for an activist priest like Berrigan—Merton had entered a cloistered contemplative monastery in Kentucky at the age of 26 and proceeded to live a rigorously meditative life, largely in silence, for the next 30 years. But Merton, using the monastery as a base, was the most significant figure in the American religious life of his time in two main areas: dialogue with eastern religions, especially Buddhism, and reflection on Christianity as a radical critique of economic exploitation, racial oppression and war. Merton studied the world religions intensively; he also studied the world, and from the perspective of the monastery wrote a stream of books, essays and letters, calling on people to be critical of the use of religion to legitimate injustice and violence. The true teachings of the great prophets and spiritual teachers, he argued, unanimously called for the renunciation of violence and a cultivation of peaceful methods towards the creation of a just society.

On one of his few trips outside the monastery Merton went to New York City to meet the 90-year-old Japanese scholar of Zen Buddhism, D.T. Suzuki. After three days of drinking tea and exchanging views on the relationships between such Christian mystics as Meister Eckhart and the teachings of the Buddha, Merton said that he felt closer to the Buddhist Suzuki than he did to most Christians. His dialogue with Buddhism led to a realization: the religious divides between people came less from differing traditions (Buddhism versus Christianity) than from different approaches to those traditions. A mystical and open-minded Christian like Merton felt that he and Suzuki shared a vision that Merton’s fellow Catholics may not appreciate.

Merton’s openness to a religion like Buddhism speaks to the political aspects of his writings that influenced Berrigan. The same Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, that Berrigan spoke with in Paris had met Merton years before at the monastery in Kentucky. In some sense, this meeting had propelled him to global prominence. Merton embraced Thich Nhat Hanh as a fellow explorer of world religions (Hanh had studied comparative religion at Columbia University in the early ‘60s), a practitioner of the meditative tradition that increasingly called to Merton, and a worker for social justice and against the war in Vietnam. After their meeting, Merton wrote an essay, “Nhat Hanh is my Brother,” which was widely circulated across the U.S., especially in the circles of the Catholic anti-war left. Thich Nhat Hanh traveled across the country, trying to arouse the American conscience against the war, moving through the network of Merton’s friends and co-workers.

In 1968, Merton finally took an extended trip outside the monastery, traveling to Asia to meet Buddhists and to attend a monastic inter-religious dialogue conference in Thailand. He met the Dalai Lama in India and other Tibetan lamas who he planned to study and practice with further in the future. But shortly after the beginning of the conference in Thailand, Merton was suddenly electrocuted by a faultily-wired fan standing in the bathroom of the bungalow where he was staying. The Thai police arrived and removed all evidence from the death-scene.

Many people who knew Merton will tell you that his death was an assassination. Months earlier he’d been involved in talks with antiwar activists, planning a trip to North Vietnam where prominent Americans would exchange themselves as hostages in return for the release of some American prisoners of war. That year was the turning point of the war in Vietnam and also the year that the C.I.A.’s Phoenix program became more active in a campaign of assassination in Vietnam and surrounding countries. While there is no proof, it is possible that the most famous writer in American Catholicism at that time was killed through this program.

Nhat Hanh did not return to Vietnam for almost forty years (he went back on a tour for the first time in the winter of 2005); he was in danger from both sides, communist and capitalist, who equally saw him as a traitor to their cause. The American-supported government was angry that he’d called for a withdrawal of American troops and the communist insurgency was angry because he’d called for a cease-fire rather than victory in the guerilla war. He moved to France and used a rural estate there as a base for decades of work as a meditation teacher and social activist, which continues until today.

Berrigan, now in his 80’s, remains more politically active than most people in his grandchildrens’ generation. Merton is still widely read (most of his books are still in print), a kind of underground witness for religious resistance to war and injustice and for a widely-informed spiritual life. Thich Nhat Hanh has become one of the most famous religious teachers in the world, and he is often mentioned as the chief originator of “socially engaged Buddhism,” the form of Buddhist practice that insists on socio-political responsibility as a necessary embodiment of compassion in the world. More than just heroic individuals, Berrigan, Merton and Nhat Hanh, followed as they are by streams of people interested in them, are symbolic figures of an alternative spiritual-political vision—figures of resistance.

Brian Karafin is a religion and philosophy professor who likes his religion with a shot of activism. Email him at karafin@ithaca.edu.

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