Away from Apartheid
A Previously Unreleased Letter from Fr. Daniel Berrigan
By Eric Martin \ 2019-06-02
The letter below comes from the Jesuit priest and poet Daniel Berrigan in 1965, three years before he became famous for pouring napalm on draft files and burning them with a Catholic group that became known as the Catonsville Nine. Berrigan had for several years been trying to immerse himself in the civil rights movement, especially in his effort to join the Freedom Rides, but had been stopped at almost every point by his religious superiors. When he was relieved of his position as a professor of Dogmatic Theology at Le Moyne College in 1963 and sent to France for a year, he took the opportunity to instead investigate the links between Marxism and Christianity by spending the majority of the year meeting with Christians in Eastern Europe. During this time, he visited South Africa in March and April of 1964, where he reflected deeply on the links between white supremacy in South Africa and the southern United States.
He was invited by The Grail, a women’s lay group leading the white Catholic effort against apartheid, and Archbishop Denis Hurley of Durban, with whom he became fast friends. (“The liquor was solid,” he wrote of Hurley’s reserve, “a sure way to win my heart.”) He spent most of his time in Johannesburg and Durban, preaching against apartheid and meeting with Catholics and Marxists working against the government. He wrote home with admiration for Black South Africans struggling (“a most persecuted and deprived majority… the heroic element of the Cath. population”) and disappointment with the bishops of Cape Town and Johannesburg (“two old very nearly useless men in purple sox and big rings who have nothing to say but profound abstractionisms”). He returned home convinced that the U.S. government’s economic support of South Africa constituted a crime that a better church would be denouncing.
Berrigan wrote the following letter the day after returning home from Selma, Alabama, where he had gone to support the voting rights drive that culminated in police brutally beating marchers on the Edmund Pettis Bridge the week before. When he landed in New York on March 18, he found a letter from Mary Catherine Pearson, an Urusline Generalate in Rome who had heard about Berrigan from activists moved by his preaching in South Africa. Her brother, she explained, had been sentenced to death by the government for blowing up a white train station in protest against apartheid, killing one person. She requested that he intervene on behalf of her brother, John Harris, by writing a plea to South Africa’s State President Charles Robberts Swart to stay his execution.
Written under the letterhead of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, the letter addresses Swart from one Christian to another and provides a glimpse into how he understood the connections between faith and racial privilege. Amid a legacy of white Catholics in the U.S. wielding a condemningly thin record in the civil rights movement and today’s movements against white supremacy, it provides a limited but useful resource for those looking to reject such an inheritance.
45 East 78 Street, New York, NY March 18, 1965
The State President Capetown South Africa
I am addressing you in regard to Mr. John Harris, condemned to death last November for sabotage activities in which he had engaged in protest against government racial policies in your country.
May I speak as one who has had the privilege of visiting your country, after a considerable experience with the racial problems which the United States is experiencing. I have returned only yesterday from a two day vigil in Selma, Alabama. I presume the press of South Africa has carried the story of the violence and brutality worked against the Negro population there, and of the spontaneous reaction of horror which has brought hundreds of Americans to our southland in protest.
There is of course no intention, in writing to you, to cast stones in the direction of your country. Our own history allows us no such questionable privilege. Our crimes against our own citizens extend all through the last hundred years, leaving a bloody and shameful mark on our national history. The repairing of these crimes by positive acts of love and justice, must be the work of many generations ahead.
But it must be said, even while we admit our crimes, that we have begun to repair them. Our awakening has been tardy and unwilling in many cases; indeed, it has been brought about by the greatness and the moral passion of the Negroes themselves, as our President stated before the Congress and the nation this week.
For this gift, offered by the Negroes to the national conscience, we can only be deeply grateful; it is a grace from God Himself, Who has not withheld His love from us in spite of the enormity and constancy of our crimes. Truly, the black man has been a holy sign that God has not abandoned our society to its obsessive sin of racism, a sin that is imbedded in our past, inherited by sons from fathers, and finally must be termed ineradicable – as long as the white man stood alone. He has not stood alone. The Negroes have offered their bodies before our brutal police, our courts, our vicious tortures – in the unkillable conviction that even White men might someday be redeemed.
It is in the light of these experiences of our country that I am writing Your Excellency. Indeed, it is the Negroes who are responsible for my writing you at all, for it is in the light of their mercy toward me, a white man, that I am urging mercy for a white man of your country. Has not the time come for a magnanimous gesture from the highest executive power of your Republic, in favor of one of your own citizens – an act of mercy that would show the world that the government of South Africa has taken a new direction, away from apartheid?
I am solemnly convinced that the hour has struck for your country, as it has for ours. Our scripture, which you and I reverence as God’s word judging our lives, assures us that He attends to a contrite heart in an acceptable hour. Could we not say, that before the world community and before the gaze of God, this is the acceptable hour?
My appeal is for mercy on behalf of John Harris. In a bitter time, he joined a desperate program of sabotage which took a human life. This has been established in court, and must be acknowledged with the greatest sorrow. But do not circumstances always have the power of modifying the facts, however damning? Indeed, good men despair in desperate times, and an atmosphere of violent repression always engenders despair and counterviolence in the persecuted. It must at the very least be said of John Harris that he chose to stand with the victims of apartheid. After the long years of progressive segregation which he and so many others have endured, even the best of men cannot be expected to act wisely.
I plead for him also because of his young wife and child. Over their future, hangs this cloud of tragedy. They are among the innocent whose cries must arise to the Father of mercies, with the plea that men may also arise to mercy.
Does not the Old Testament, to which the Church of South Africa pays reverence, tell us that God is a God of justice as well, and that He will arise to defend the innocent? And how cruelly history testifies that blood demands blood! Those who can discern world currents today know beyond doubt that the present course of policy in your country will bring down upon all, guilty and innocent, a furious storm whose outcome no man can predict. The false peace, built on the enslavement of the majority of your citizens, cannot be expected to endure for long. There, as here, the winds of change are blowing so furiously that even the most benighted can read the signs. They tell us that a society, whether it be American or South African, that is built on exploitation and repression, seals its own ruin. More than this, such a people cuts itself off from the mercy and healing of God.
An executive order commuting the sentence of John Harris, would have the most powerful symbolic effect, both in your country and before the world. It would undoubtedly grant you and the others responsible for your country, further light for further crises. It would also grant some measure of hope to the Colored and African peoples of your country, would stir the conscience of the Whites, would break the silence that veils most pulpits, would assure the skeptical that South Africa is capable of moral activity, would disarm your enemies abroad, and would, finally, bring a measure of sanity to the troubled and uneasy world scene.
All of us know, from bitter experience, the results of hatred of our brothers. We know that such a course of things breeds violence like a plague, that it denies the God of Mercies, that it allows a larger and more malignant field of action to the ‘powers and dominations’ who would seize on the world in denial of God. We know all this from Selma and Sharpeville, from Viet Nam and Berlin and Hiroshima and from a hundred other places on our geography of horrors.
But practically no one of us, we must say with contrition and chagrin, knows what the results of mercy and nonviolence would be. We do not know because we have never tried to know. And to live and die without having acted mercifully, is very nearly the final curse upon human life. It is in effect, the will to exile the God of Mercy from our lives, from our societies, from our world.
All this must be said, no matter what our Churches say, and no matter what they refuse to say. How terrifying it is to reflect that it is the Christian nations of the world who have led the historic wars upon their brothers of other colors and faiths. It is we who stand now, before the new nations of the world, not as communities of peace and reconciliation, but as the terrorists of history, our past stained with the disease of colonialism, violence and enslavement.
But the hour of justice is very near. To that hour, my nation will be summoned as well as yours. Before the God Who judges, Americans and South Africans must stand accused and render account. And to speak of ourselves, it is clear that we must stand accused not only of our hundred years of shame, but of our involvement in South African apartheid as well. Our massive investments in your economy has helped apartheid justify itself as a workable, even enviable social system, supporting a prosperous and expanding economy – supporting also the [apartheid] system which invites shame.
Excellency, it is not given to many men in history to stand where you stand. Many men can plead, as the Germans are now pleading, that they were helpless in the crisis which overwhelmed them, that they owed obedience to the state, that the truth was withheld from them, that they acted in good faith. But the leaders of those governments who have initiated or legalized intolerable social systems, can make no such plea. They must render account, both for their actions, and for their refusals to act. They must account not only for the ruin of their victims, but for the corruption of their allies; not only for those who lived in despair and died in disgrace, but for those whose consciences were destroyed by an inhuman and slavish obedience.
When a society exists, in which the destruction of man, in one form or another, is the inevitable rule, it is not difficult to see one’s own way, and to take one’s stand. Our faith, yours and mine, calls on us quite simply to die, rather than to suffer the death of our soul, or to inflict death on the innocent. In such a society, one can only envy John Harris – not, most certainly, for his crime – but for the moral passion which has brought him to this bitter hour. One can only stand at his side, and at the side of all those South Africans, White and Black, who have paid the supreme price of witnessing to conscience, and who one day will be revealed as the heroes of your country.
Will you also be known one day as a hero of your country? I pray God you will. I pray that light may enter your conscience, and compassion your will. I pray that the tears and blood of the innocent may bathe your decisions in the forgiveness of God. I pray that mercy paid to John Harris may begin a new course for your country. I pray that you may stand in history as one whose moral courage turned the nation away from the paths of violence, into God’s ways, which are the ways of peace.
(Rev.) Daniel Berrigan, S.J.
[On April 7, Mary Catherine Pearson wrote to thank Berrigan for his efforts and notify him that her brother had been executed. She sent a Mass offering in Harris’ honor, requesting that Berrigan perform the ceremony himself.]
This letter is from the Daniel and Philip Berrigan Collection, #4602. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library. Used with permission of the Daniel Berrigan Literary Trust.
Eric Martin is an editor at The Flood, is pursuing a doctorate of theology, and will soon be defending his thesis on the life of Fr. Berrigan. He is also the co-editor of The Berrigan Letters (2016, Orbis Books).