We Came To Be Arrested: The Catonsville Nine & William Stringfellow as Incarnational Criminals
Unfortunately, history is written by the victors: culturally, politically, racially, militarily, religiously, and psychologically. In relation to this, George Mische, member of the Catonsville Nine, wrote, “we should write our own movement’s history. Because if we don’t, somebody who was not part of it will come along with preconceived notions and their own agenda — and get it wrong(1).” An arguable case for this statement is the very existence of the Catonsville Nine, which is a lesser known group of nine self-proclaiming Catholics who protested the Vietnam War by burning draft files with homemade napalm – all in the name of Jesus Christ. In fact, the Catonsville Nine, in conjunction with supporters such as William Stringfellow, changed the way antiwar demonstrations would be enacted for generations to come.
1968 was a year when the Vietnam War, under the supervision of president Lyndon B. Johnson, was at its height. In January, the infamous Tet Offensive occurred, which horrified thousands by being displayed on television screens(2). During this event, over 500,000 American troops were in Vietnam(3), quite needlessly, according to many antiwar protesters, especially considering that most of the soldiers were drafted. As many as 35,000 men were being drafted per month as of 1965, all the while the trend continued to rise in the coming years.(4) These monstrous facts outraged many people, which led to frequent manifestations of antiwar protest, generally in the form of nonviolent and nonvandal marches.
It was amidst this growing antiwar movement that in the spring of 1967, a Josephite priest, Philip Berrigan, wrote in a letter to Walt Whitman Rostow, a special assistant to the president, that he and his colleagues “believe[d] the Vietnam war to be an enormous moral, political and economic disaster to both Vietnamese and Americans, and a criminal threat to world peace(5).” Eventually this belief inspired him to, in the fall of 1967, transform his abstract Catholic confessions into creative practical action by seeking new, more emphatic ways of protest. With Jesus Christ as his anchor point, he gathered three other Catholics in Baltimore, Maryland: Tom Lewis, David Eberhardt, and James Mengel. Their goal was to craft a plan to protest the draft in such a way that a peaceful, loving statement would be made, that would, at the same time, force the public to reconsider the war and approach to protests. The four decided to pour blood on draft files to ruin them and symbolically call out the political institutions that they viewed as responsible for the vast amount of pointless murder splattered throughout Vietnam. These four men, and their actions, became known as the Baltimore Four. The action made the front page on local newspapers, which is exactly what the Four wanted.(6) After the initial protest, the Four patiently waited to be arrested and tried for their crimes – they simply wanted their motivations to be properly understood. After the trial, the Four were eventually sentenced to prison for terms lasting from 2 to 6 years(7).
Eventually, Philip Berrigan was released on bail, and he, along with his friends George Mische and Tom Lewis(8), decided to continue the protest, while searching for more people to join them. Philip’s goal was to find people that “[were] privileged, middle class [and] that are viewed favorably by society…that is the type of person…that should act on civil disobedience(9).” Part of his reasoning for this was that he became convinced of “the uselessness of legitimate dissent,”(10) and therefore sought more drastic forms of protest that would effect lasting change. Eventually, Phil, Tom, and George gathered five more people: David Darst, John Hogan, Marjorie Melville, Thomas Melville, Mary Moylan(11). The eight conspired together the most loving and dramatic action they could throughout the course of the Spring. Their main goal: get arrested and burn draft files(12). The reasoning: an overly dramatic and theatrical trial would be a powerful platform to be heard and inspire others, and burning draft files would prevent the persons each file represented from being drafted(13). A few days before the act, Phil traveled to Cornell University in an attempt to recruit his brother, Daniel, for the action. He succeeded, and the group grew to its final number: nine(14).
May 17, 1968 was the fateful day of the protest. The nine members traveled to the Selective Service office in Catonsville Maryland. Upon making it to the second floor of the building, the group shocked a few employees and darted for the draft files stored along the wall. Forcing open the filing cabinets, each member loaded wire baskets full of A-1 draft files, and quickly ran out the building. In no time at all, the nine dumped the files out in a large pile outside the building, drenched the files in homemade napalm and set them ablaze(15). As David Arst said in regard to the homemade napalm, “we all had a hand in making the napalm used here today(16).” While the papers burned, the nine members held hands and prayed the Lord’s prayer. Phil Berrigan was caught on camera as saying, “we sincerely hope we didn’t injure anyone(17).” Daniel Berrigan, in explaining the motivations of the group on film said, “we have chosen to be powerless criminals in a time of criminal power. We have chosen to be branded as peace criminals by war criminals…to be found guilty under the rules you worship is an honor(18).” He would later go on to say, “our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children…And yet, and yet the times are inexhaustibly good…the truth rules, Christ is not forsaken(19).” Dan’s words were sharp like a sword, and bombastic like napalm – but he, nor the rest of the nine, ever resorted to violence or the use of bombs. Although, for a time, Philip Berrigan flirted with the idea of using bombs as forms of protest, but eventually concluded bombs too violent(20).
Within a few minutes, a small group of police officers showed up and arrested the nine, amidst firefighters hosing down the fire with water. The entire protest action took less than fifteen minutes(21). The news of the napalm action spread around the United States like the fire induced by napalm in Vietnam. However, the press mostly focused on the two brothers: Philip and Daniel Berrigan, who became the poster children of the group. This is especially evidenced in Time magazine’s treatment of the event in its January 25th, 1971 issue, in which the Berrigan brothers overshadow the other seven members, despite the very late participation of Daniel Berrigan.
A major part of why Daniel Berrigan and his brother overshadowed the other members in the press coverage is that Daniel Berrigan was an extremely elusive man. While most of the Catonsville Nine, such as newlywed Melvilles, willingly turned themselves in after the trial, Dan refused to be imprisoned. Without telling his family or Cornell colleagues, he disappeared(22). Unlike most of the nine, Dan struggled with the notion of turning himself in because he wondered if that would tarnish and trivialize the statement the Nine made. Rather than showing the inferiority of the state, he feared such an action would only feed into the common belief the state was the end all be all(23). Within the first few hours of being an “underground” fugitive, Berrigan reflected on Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his nonviolent resistance to another political tyranny: the Nazi regime. Berrigan hoped and prayed he could maintain the same resilience that Bonhoeffer portrayed decades earlier.
Originally planning on turning himself in after ten days of hiding, Berrigan read his friend, Howard Zinn’s book Disobedience and Democracy, which influenced him to stay underground much longer than he anticipated(24). With such statements as “the slow workings of American reform, the limitations on protest and disobedience and innovation…are simply not adequate…the demands of our time will not be met by [a] narrow approach to civil disobedience,” one can see how Zinn’s book would have affected Berrigan’s thought at the time. Eventually, after almost a year of being on the run, Daniel went to Rhode Island to visit his friends William Stringfellow and Anthony Towne, whom he knew would willingly accept him, despite his fugitive status. With Stringfellow writing statements as, “it is unambiguous in each of the gospel accounts that Jesus Christ was a criminal….it is easy for us to gainsay the criminality of Jesus and to ignore entirely what his status as a criminal may mean for those who profess to affirm and to follow him…Jesus was….a criminal: not a mere nonconformist, not just a protester, more than a militant, not only a dissident, not simply a dissenter, but a criminal….from the point of view of the State and of the ecclesiastical authorities as well – from the view of the Establishment – Jesus was the most dangerous and reprehensible sort of criminal…a subversive,”(25) in articles with titles such as Jesus the Criminal which referenced contemporary civil disobedience protests such as the Catonsville Nine demonstration, Berrigan knew he could find a safe place. And find a safe place he did – upon his arrival at Stringfellow and Towne’s home, the two friends greeted him with a hospitable feast(26).
In conjunction with the hospitality, Anthony Towne offered sharp criticisms of Berrigan’s treatment of the whole situation. Towne said, “the movement badly [needs] depersonalization….from the time of the Catonsville action the movement [has] depended too much upon the personalities of [you and your brother], and during [this] fugitive era it depended almost entirely on [your] personality.” Towne thought that if the FBI were to capture Dan, the entire movement and momentum would be decapitated and stunted(27). Despite the strong desire of both Stringfellow and Towne to protect Dan, staying with his two friends would eventually be his ruin. On August 11, Stringfellow noticed a strange man on the property. After a brief conversation with the man, he stated he was there for Berrigan. Dan, who made no effort to flee, exited the house and said, “I suppose you’re wondering who I am. I am Daniel Berrigan(28).” He was immediately frisked, handcuffed, and arrested. As he entered the car to be taken away, he lifted his handcuffed hands in a gesture of endearment to his friends and said, “God bless.” He kept his peace and graciousness amidst the whole situation.
Despite his capture and the imprisonment of the Nine (minus Mary Molan who stayed underground for nine years and was never caught…rather, she turned herself in), the legacy of the Catonsville Nine lives on. With such protest acts as the DC 9, the Beaver 55, the Boston 8, and the Milwaukee 14, the Catonsville Nine influenced many people and organizations to not only think more intently and creatively about protest, but also about war, life, and death. The dramatic narrative of the Nine can also be experienced in the form of a play, The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, as a documentary in Hit & Stay, and in historical literature in The Catonsville Nine.
The theological, biographical, and philosophical elements continue on in the work of William Stringfellow and Anthony Towne who co-authored a book called Suspect Tenderness: The Ethics of the Berrigan Witness about the time Daniel Berrigan spent with them before his arrest. The Catonsville Nine also greatly influenced William Stringfellow’s seminal piece, An Ethic for Christians and Other Aliens in a Strange Land, which he was writing upon the eve of Berrigan’s arrest at Stringfellow’s home(29). This became the book that Daniel Berrigan later recommended to students at Union Theological Seminary, amidst plans to launch an underground seminary(30). Stringfellow’s An Ethic also played an integral role in the overall work of political theologian Walter Wink, meaning that many aspects of contemporary political theology can be traced back to the protest of nine Catholic priests(31). The Catonsville Nine and the Berrigan hospitality incident also indirectly influenced Stringfellow’s work, Conscience and Obedience: The Politics of Romans 13 and Revelation 13 in Light of the Second Coming, which he wrote specifically because of a conversation with an FBI agent who was interrogating him about Berrigan. The agent asked, “Doesn’t the Bible say you must obey the Emperor?” Conscience and Obedience is Stringfellow’s response to his question. Stringfellow wrote in the preface that he “could not concede the simplistic premise about the Bible that [the agent’s] question assumed, and rebuked him about [it], taking perhaps forty-five minutes to do so(32).” Traces of the occurrence can be seen throughout other works published under Stringfellow’s name, such as The Politics of Spirituality.
Berrigan and the Catonsville Nine have also received acclaim from intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, the latter of which said, “in this modern world we have this fetish about property and about things much more than we have about people….people are more important than pieces of paper – people are being burned and killed(33).” To Zinn, the Catonsville Nine offered a proper perspective and revaluation of human life. Even Bill Ayers of the Weather Underground said, “religion is boring and kind of a bummer, but these folks are different. One of the reasons is because they carry out their politics, their faith, and their moral principles in action. It’s the action that makes their principles comes to life(34).” While it remains up for debate, the evidence is strong that the Catonsville Nine did more than prevent a few hundred potential draftees from being forced into combat. They created a monumental shift in the realm of theology and Christian thought (whether the recipients of the legacy realize it or not). Not mere abstract academic theology – but pragmatic, down-to-earth, gritty, incarnational theology. In some respect, the Nine brought a little bit of the Kingdom to Earth(35).
A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn p.477
The Portable Sixties Reader; The Sixties: A Chronology, p. xxx
Hit & Stay documentary.
A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn, p.488
Dean Pappas in Hit or Stay documentary.
Philip Berrigan as quoted in https://sojo.net/magazine/january-2013/fracture-good-order
George Mische explained in the documentary Hit & Stay that each individual only had one draft file representing himself. If that file were destroyed, that man would not be able to be drafted. Thus, burning the draft files had a significant impact on many lives.
David Arst, quoted in Hit & Stay documentary.
Phil Berrigan as quoted on footage shown in Hit & Stay documentary.
Daniel Berrigan as quoted on footage shown in Hit & Stay documentary.
Daniel Berrigan quoted in https://sojo.net/magazine/january-2013/fracture-good-order
The Catonsville Nine p. 269
Jesus the Criminal by William Stringfellow, Christian Century
26 Suspect Tenderness: The Ethics of the Berrigan Witness by William Stringfellow and Anthony Towne, 1971.
The Catonsville Nine p. 283
28 Ibid. p. 284
From the Preface to Conscience and Obedience, William Stringfellow, 1977 p.15
From the Preface to William Stringfellow: Essential Writings, Bill Wylie-Kellermann, p. xii-xiii
Ibid, p. xiii
From the Preface to Conscience and Obedience, William Stringfellow, 1977 p. 16
As quoted in Hit & Stay documentary.
The Gospel According to Matthew, chapter 6 verses 9-13.
Charters, Ann. “The Sixties: A Chronology.” In The Portable Sixties Reader. New York: Penguin Books, 2003.
Hit & Stay. Directed by Joe Tropea and Skizz Cyzyk. United States, 2013. Film.
“Inattention to Accuracy about ‘Catonsville Nine’ Distorts History.” Inattention to Accuracy about ‘Catonsville Nine’ Distorts History. Accessed December 14, 2015. http://ncronline.org/news/peace-justice/inattention-accuracy-about-catonsville-nine-distorts-history.
Peters, Shawn Francis. The Catonsville Nine: A Story of Faith and Resistance in the Vietnam Era.
Stringfellow, William. 1970. “Jesus the criminal.” Christianity And Crisis 30, no. 10: 119-122. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed December 13, 2015).
Stringfellow, William, and Anthony Towne. Suspect Tenderness: The Ethics of the Berrigan Witness. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1971.
Stringfellow, William, and Bill Wylie Kellermann. William Stringfellow: Essential Writings. 2013.
Stringfellow, William. Conscience & Obedience: The Politics of Romans 13 and Revelation 13 in Light of the Second Coming. Waco, Tex.: Word Books, 1977.
“Tet Offensive.” History.com. Accessed December 14, 2015. http://www.history.com/topics/vietnam-war/tet-offensive.
“The Catonsville Nine File : Blood to Fire.” The Catonsville Nine File : Blood to Fire. Accessed December 14, 2015. http://c9.digitalmaryland.org/page.cfm?ID=4.
“The Catonsville Nine File : Collection.” The Catonsville Nine File : Collection. Accessed December 14, 2015. http://c9.digitalmaryland.org/artifact.cfm?ID=CUCN016.
“The Catonsville Nine File : Profiles of the Catonsville Nine.” The Catonsville Nine File : Profiles of the Catonsville Nine. Accessed December 14, 2015. http://c9.digitalmaryland.org/page.cfm?ID=36.
“The Catonsville Nine File : The Action.” The Catonsville Nine File : The Action. Accessed December 14, 2015. http://c9.digitalmaryland.org/page.cfm?ID=2.
“The Catonsville Nine File : The Beginning.” The Catonsville Nine File : The Beginning. Accessed December 14, 2015. http://c9.digitalmaryland.org/page.cfm?ID=1.
“The Fracture of Good Order.” Sojourners. November 27, 2012. Accessed December 14, 2015. https://sojo.net/magazine/january-2013/fracture-good-order.
Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States: 1492-2001. New ed.