Vox Populi

Vox Populi: A Public Sphere for Politics and Poetry

W. J. Astore: “Members of the jury, you have just found Jesus Christ guilty”

Remembering the Catonsville Nine

In May 1968, nine Catholic activists set fire to draft records in Catonsville, Maryland, in a deliberate act of sabotage and protest against the Vietnam War. For the crime of destroying government property, a crime they freely admitted, they were tried in federal court in Baltimore and found guilty. I’ve been reading the edited trial transcript (with commentary) by Daniel Berrigan, one of the Catonsville Nine and a Catholic priest. What unified these nine people was their moral opposition to the Vietnam War, a moral revulsion to the acts their country was committing in Vietnam, a revulsion that drove them to burn draft records with a weak brew of homemade napalm so as to gain the attention of their fellow citizens.

On this Easter Weekend, I would like to focus on a few of the statements made by the Catonsville Nine, as recorded by Daniel Berrigan in “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine.”

Statement by Philip Berrigan

We have been accused of arrogance
But what of the fantastic arrogance … of our leaders
What of their crimes against the people … the poor and powerless
Still no court will try them … no jail will receive them
They live in righteousness … They will die in honor
For them we have one message … for those
in whose manicured hands … the power of the land lies
We say to them
Lead us … Lead us in justice
and there will be no need to break the law
Let the President do … what his predecessors failed to do
Let him obey the rich less … and the people more
Let him think less of the privileged
and more of the poor
Less of America and more of the world
Let lawmakers … judges … and lawyers
think less of the law … more of justice
less of legal ritual … more of human rights …

Statement by Thomas Lewis

We were speaking as Americans
We were proud to be Americans
Yet we have representatives in Vietnam
who do terrible things in our name
We were saying to the military
This is wrong … This is immoral … This is illegal
And their response to this was
they were only obeying orders

Question from the Judge: But they did respond to you, did they not?

Thomas Lewis: It was an atrocious response.

Statement by Marjorie Melville

I know that burning draft files
is not an effective way
to stop a war … but
who has found a way
of stopping this war
I have racked my brain
I have talked to all kinds of people
What can you do
They say yes … yes
But there is no answer
no stopping it
the horror continues

Statement by Thomas Melville

I hear our president … confuse greatness with strength
riches with goodness … fear with respect
hopelessness and passivity with peace
The clichés of our leaders
pay tribute to property … and indifference to suffering
We long for a hand of friendship and succor
and that hand
clenches into a fist
I wonder how long we can endure

Statement by George Mische

We were not out to destroy life
There is a higher law we are commanded to obey
It takes precedence over human laws
My intent was to follow the higher law
My intent was to save lives … Vietnamese lives
North and South American lives
To stop the madness
That was the intent

Statement of Daniel Berrigan

Question from the Judge: You say your intention was to save these children, of the jury, of myself, when you burned the [draft] records? That is what I heard you say. I ask if you meant that.

Daniel Berrigan:

I meant that
of course I mean that
or I would not say it
The great sinfulness
of modern war is
that it renders concrete things abstract
I do not want to talk
about Americans in general ….
I poured napalm [on the draft records]
on behalf of the prosecutor’s
and the jury’s children

Closing Statement by Daniel Berrigan

When at what point will you say no to this war?
We have chosen to say
with the gift of our liberty
if necessary our lives:
the violence stops here
the death stops here
the suppression of truth stops here
this war stops here
Redeem the times!
The times are inexpressibly evil
Christians pay conscious … indeed religious tribute
to Caesar and Mars
by the approval of overkill tactics … by brinksmanship
by nuclear liturgies … by racism … by support of genocide
They embrace their society with all their heart
and abandon the cross
They pay lip service to Christ
and military service to the powers of death
And yet … and yet … the times are inexhaustibly good
solaced by the courage and hope of many
The truth rules … Christ is not forsaken …

At the end of the trial, as all nine defendants were found guilty, a “member of the audience” cried, “Members of the jury, you have just found Jesus Christ guilty.”

That last statement, and the words of the Catonsville Nine, give us much to ponder on this Easter Weekend.

Copyright 2016 W. J. Astore

Here are the Catonsville Nine:

Father Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest
Philip Berrigan, a former Josephite priest
Br. David Darst, a De La Salle Christian Brother
John Hogan
Tom Lewis, an artist
Marjorie Bradford Melville
Thomas Melville, a former Maryknoll priest
George Mische
Mary Moylan



Supporters during the trial of the Catonsville Nine, Oct. 5-9, 1968. Photo by William Morgenstern/ UMBC AOK Library

One comment on “W. J. Astore: “Members of the jury, you have just found Jesus Christ guilty”

  1. Daniel Burston
    March 27, 2016

    A fitting and forceful remembrance. And necessary too, given our present cultural climate. Hardly anyone under sixty has any inkling of the splitting and the turmoil that the Vietnam war caused in the Catholic Church is the USA during the late 1960s, or of the courage displayed by the Berrigan brothers and their associates.

    For a moving memoir of that troubled time, see James Carroll’s book An American Requiem, which won a National Book Award in 1996.

    Liked by 2 people

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