The Berrigan Letters

Personal Correspondence Between Daniel and Philip Berrigan

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Daniel Cosacchi, Eric Martin
  • Maryknoll, NY: 
    Orbis Books
    , May
     2016.
     304 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781626981645.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The Berrigan Letters features the personal correspondence exchanged between two brothers, Daniel and Philip Berrigan, described by editors Daniel Cosacchi and Eric Martin as “the first Roman Catholic priests arrested for antiwar activity in the United States” (xvii). The Berrigan brothers wrote to one another on a weekly basis from 1940 to 2002, and this collection contains passages from nearly one-fourth of those letters, organized chronologically. Cosacchi and Martin note the historical significance of this collection: “the first letter appears in 1940, the year before Pearl Harbor was bombed and America entered World War II, and the last appears in 2002, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. What this book provides, then, is a view of American history from the nation’s rise as a superpower to its moment of national rupture and vulnerability, filtered through the writings of two brothers” (xxii). But the editors’ ultimate aim is to “look beneath the historical events—the napalm-fueled pyres and the blood-stained warheads—to the hard-fought struggle for faith that founded such radical acts” (xxiii). This book is intended for “those who work for the justice, peace, nonviolence, love, healing and mercy of the gospels,” and the Berrigan letters are presented as “spiritual resources” to help sustain activism (xxiii). To allow the letters to speak for themselves, Cosacchi and Martin have kept their editorial notes to a minimum.

Cosacchi and Martin nonetheless selected certain passages and letters over others. This process was assisted by clear criteria, which include an attempt to highlight the Berrigans’ activism: their plans, their leadership, and their reflections. And because the brothers spent a great deal of time in jail (especially Philip), publishing letters that described the conditions of these prisons—including the inspection processes the Berrigans’ mail was subject to—was a top priority. Daniel and Philip Berrigan’s relationship with the church and the Eucharist is a constant theme, as are the familial bonds of love and conflict, and never-ending meditations on death and dying. Aside from these criteria, readers will also note frequent references to the Catholic Worker Movement, the FBI (who accused Philip of planning to kidnap Henry Kissinger), and American film actors Martin Sheen and Robert DeNiro.

Most delightful was learning what else the Berrigan brothers stuffed inside their envelopes. Cosacchi and Martin found newspaper clippings, brochures, pictures, book reviews, glitter, and an occasional odd object. Daniel routinely decorated “the awful prison paper” with pictures, poems, and improvised designs. The editors chose to retain the brothers’ unique spelling and grammar, and included a number of poems, highlighted portions of attached newspaper clippings, and even a copy of an old exam Daniel Berrigan authored and administered to students during his time at Berkeley. These extra materials were “a fitting symbol of joyful irreverence in a silent, orderly space that fit the brothers’ personality” (xx).

This book makes a significant contribution by bringing these letters out of the archives, and reproducing them in a highly accessible format. The Berrigan letters are not only a resource for activists; historians too will be intrigued.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Megan Leverage is a Ph.D. candidate in American Religious History at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
October 4, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Daniel Cosacchi is a doctoral candidate in Christian ethics at Loyola University, Chicago. He is currently writing his dissertation entitled "Earthly Destruction: War, the Environment, and Catholic Social Teaching."

Eric Martin is a doctoral student in modern historical theology at Fordham University in New York City. He has taught courses on ethics, environmental ethics, and the religious and political thought of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Keywords: 

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