Christian Soldiers

Selected for the Pushcart Prize series, 2019

Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison . . . the only house in a slave state in which a free man can abide with honor.
—Henry David Thoreau, Civil Disobedience

The death of Daniel Berrigan, a personal hero and one of the few men alive who was old enough to be my father, called up disturbing memories of a critical period in American history. One memory in particular. I was a fledgling journalist at Time magazine in New York, newly wed, and freshly radicalized by the terrible events of 1968, when Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated, Richard Nixon was elected president, and a misbegotten war in Vietnam divided this country as it has not been divided since—until, perhaps, at this moment of Donald Trump’s ascension. One of my colleagues was dating a tall, pretty young woman named Ann Berrigan. A few of us were drinking at her apartment one late-winter night in 1969. A guest looking for the bathroom started to open a door in the hall—and Ann jumped up almost screaming to warn him, “Don’t open that door—don’t!” Everyone was startled, and mystified when she made no effort to explain.

After her outburst, the evening ended on a note of embarrassment. Back in the street waiting for a cab, Ann’s boyfriend entrusted me with the story. Behind the bedroom door that night was her uncle, the Reverend Daniel Berrigan, S.J., a federal fugitive, a radical priest on the FBI’s most-wanted list for his part in the incineration (with homemade napalm) of Selective Service records in Catonsville, Maryland, the previous May. Ann was protecting not just her uncle, he explained, but her guests as well. Anyone who actually saw Father Berrigan or could confirm his presence was legally obligated to call the FBI or, like Ann, risk felony prosecution for harboring a fugitive.

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