“50/500: A Season of Protest and Remembering,” by Ched Myers

Image: Fr. Phil Berrigan pouring blood on 1-A draft files at the Customs House, Baltimore, MD, October 27, 1967.

Today, October 31st, we prepare to embrace that great feast of remembering, the “Triduum of Saints”: All Hallow’s Eve, Saints and All Souls Day, or Dia de los Muertos).

As I have gotten older this season of the Saints has become my favorite time of year.   This morning Elaine and I sat and prayed at our table, pictures of parents and other missed loved ones spread out.  We both cried telling stories.  Tears always help.

This season is personal, but also political.  It reminds us that Movement history matters.  A few days ago, on October 27th, we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the “Baltimore Four” action.  And today is Reformation Day, which this year marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s famous protest, tacking 95 Theses onto Wittenburg’s door.

Luther was publicly naming what he saw as excesses and apostasies in his Roman Catholic Church (see more here), an action that eventually led to the world-historical changes of the Protestant Reformation, for good and for ill.  Later in 1521 when called before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms, Luther confessed: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God… Here I stand.  I cannot do otherwise.”

The Baltimore Four witness, while not nearly as famous, was perhaps equally consequential, inaugurating a series of more than 100 subsequent draft board actions across the country between 1967–72.  And it was just the second time in U.S. history that a Catholic priest was arrested for civil disobedience—the first being five days earlier, when Phil’s brother Daniel was arrested at the Pentagon in an anti-war protest.

Our mentors at Jonah House (co-founded by Philip Berrigan) write about this history:

In the picture (above), an astonished Selective Service attendant looks on as Phil Berrigan pours blood on draft files.  A second attendant eyes Phil even as she holds Tom Lewis with gentle restraint.  Other participants were Rev. James Mengel and David Eberhardt.  “How do we move from dissent to resistance?” This question was in the forefront of consciousness among anti-war activists of the 1960s.  As they watched young men refuse induction and go to prison, the question became critical among clergy and activists: “What about us? How can we encourage them if we ourselves are not willing to share in their risk?”  In their trial in Baltimore, all four participants were convicted.  Philip and Tom were sentenced to six years in prison; David to two years; and Jim Mengel to probation and mandatory psychiatric counseling.

The Baltimore Four action, like Luther’s protest, started a movement that still goes on, witnessing at the door of both church and culture (read more  in Michael Palecek and William Strabala’s Prophets Without Honor: A Requiem for Moral Patriotism, Algora Publishing, 2003).

It is an interesting convergence on the Eve of the Triduum of Saints, this 500th and 50th commemoration, one for the founder of Protestantism, the other for an animator of contemporary North American Catholic radicalism.  It reminds us that our Christian faith at its best is predicated upon conscientious protest, inspired by a moral imagination that in turn is informed by the gospel.

So let us remember, and carry on in this Way.  Martin Luther, Philip Berrigan, and all the Christian protesters who follow in their wake: ¡Presente!