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Lamentations: From New York to Kabul and Beyond – Daniel Berrigan

June 4, 2016

LamI first read this book ten years ago but reread it when I heard of the author’s death. It is a reflection on the book of Lamentations, where Israel tries to come to terms with the sack of the Jerusalem temple in the light of 9/11. Whilst the biblical author seeks to find out why Israel had bought things on itself, the US RC Bishops backed the war against terrorism unreservedly. So much for ‘pro-life’.

On September 11, 2001 Daniel Berrigan sat at his desk in upper Manhattan writing a commentary on the Book of Genesis. As he explored the goodness of God’s creation, the terrible events of that day stopped him cold. He wrote, “In 2001, I turned eighty. That same year, the twin towers fell in Manhattan, and another American saga of revenge opened. The state mobilized mightily, the Church fell in line. . . . The world has fallen to a brutal scramble, more atrocious, more thwarting to sane understanding than when we began the work of peacemaking.”

The situation of the Jews after the fall of Jerusalem mirrors the plight of Americans after September 11 when people were wailing in grief over the loss of life and the discovery of their vulnerability to the forces of hatred. In Lamentations, there is disbelief over the Temple reduced to rubble, the city sacked, noncombatants murdered, and survivors sent into exile. Why did this happen? How could God treat us this way? The poet, then and now, answers: Because we sinned. And the offense: idolatry.

Berrigan steps back from the biblical text and shines its light on the revenge war in Afghanistan where the richest nation on Earth pulverized one of the weakest and poorest countries with smart bombs, rockets, tanks, and land mines. Of course, children died by the thousands but they were only seen as “collateral damage.” Civilians always die in wars, he observes: “War permits two categories of humans, two only: warrior and vanquished. Or another duet: survivors and the dead.”

Berrigan sees the American lust for power, money, and domination as a trinity of false gods who throw darkness on the face of the Holy One. What was done in Afghanistan is repeated in Iraq, with more might and firepower. But there is an alternative. Berrigan praises the gospel ethic of loving your enemies and practicing compassion. He salutes peace as a precious treasure worth so much more than all the furies of war.


The worst, the unimaginable. The month, date, hour, 9/11/9:30 a.m., are seared in the common memory.

But wait; is it possible that even the worst could further worsen?

It is possible, it came to pass. Within short weeks, retaliation and revenge were in the air, and the bombers took off in the night. Target, Afghanistan.

Fortified with the approval of the Catholic bishops and a Congress feverish with bellicosity, the president launched a new form of war. New, and by no means new. Shortly, his war is drowned in cliche and contradiction; a “war against terror.”

Thus in a notorious irony, the terror named war seeks out its mirror image, the terror named despair. Gorgon to Gorgon, face to face.

Could there be found another way than the headlong rush to reprisal? Appalled, I opened the Scripture and came on a poetry of grief, forged in the fires of disaster.

Tragedy evoked the verses. Under the hammer blows of an all but unpronounceable Babylonian tyrant, Nebuchadnezzar, the unimaginable befell. Jerusalem was besieged (the temple sacked, the indiscriminate killing and starvation and flight into exile), composed a series of Lamentations, the book at hand.

Here was a clue, another way. It was like a finger pointing, first to the text, then to ourselves.

Why, why did the awful event befall us? Why was the Temple reduced to rubble, the city sacked, noncombatants murdered, survivors driven into exile?

The answer was shockingly blunt. Because we had sinned, the poet insisted. Because long since we had fallen to idolatries, to worship of money and weaponry and domination and betrayal.

Hold the mirror, dare to look! In massive falling away, we came to resemble the idolatrous nations surrounding us. One of them, ourselves.

For this we had become “the unchosen.”

The twin towers fell to rubble. The twin powers turned to war.

“The sponsors of war closely resemble the weapons they create. And smart bombs, depleted uranium, land mines, rockets and tanks, rather than protect ‘widows and orphans and strangers at the gate,’ are designed precisely to create ‘widows and orphans,’ to transform strangers into enemies and enemies into corpses.”

After 9/11, did our Catholic community confess, repent sins of silence and complicity, greed and violence, homophobia, contempt toward women, racism, war-ism? Did we, through our bishops, speak a word of rebuke to the warmaking state?

Quite the opposite. The bishops’ document stuttered and plodded along. Political and military decisions were approved, with a (harmless) caveat, weightless in the context of the indiscriminate weaponry at hand and the will to launch it.

Who among the authorities were listening anyway, who gave a damn for noncombatants, refugees, women and children, the aged—wherever these might dwell in ruined Afghanistan?

And perhaps most damaging of all, a naive assumption, common among the elite, that come what may, come war and greed and cruelties against the victimized—God was “on our side.”

The conviction was simply taken for granted—irrefragable.

And why not? The Temple was a world wonder, the sacrifices spectacu­lar in their scope and artistry, song and dance and solemn proclamation of the law. World trade flourished, coffers of palace and Temple were full.

The sky was the limit, literally.

How lonely she is now, the once crowded city!… “How lonely . . .” We Americans are more and more isolated on the world scene. The Bush administration has rejected the Kyoto agreement on global warming, has rejected an agreement to regulate the trade of small arms, has distanced itself from the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, and the Biological Weapons Con­vention

Vietnam had endured fifteen years of American napalm and bombs. A number of us spoke up, wrote, marched, destroyed draft files, and went to prison. And the bishops were mum as a midnight graveyard.

In an ironic way, their silence was fitting. Quite literally, they had nothing to offer.

Her virgins sigh, she is in bitter grief….. And those “virgins,” who are they?

They are the innocents under fire, the children and the aged, the refu­gees, evicted, starving, freezing, the “collateral damage” of technological savagery.

As the bombers punish the innocent and destroy the ecology, we think of those who flee the snare and fall into the trap.

For the impoverished of Afghanistan, the choices are narrow as a gim­let; death from the air, death by starvation.

“The sponsors of war closely resemble the weapons they create. And smart bombs, depleted uranium, land mines, rockets and tanks, rather than protect ‘widows and orphans and strangers at the gate,’ are designed precisely to create ‘widows and orphans,’ to transform strangers into enemies and enemies into corpses.”

Many, many people wonder why so many of our bish­ops and cardinals are not expressing the same concern for defenseless human life in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, as they did in defending the lives of four-day old embryos.

Why are you and your brothers not invoking the prin­ciple of sanctity of life? Why do you not invoke the language of the option for the poor? Why do we not see any reference to . . . the Gospels? . . .

Would that we had a voice like Dorothy Day’s, which would remind you, our bishops, to remember what hap­pens when you not only fail to criticize but actually support the U.S. administration, as it wages a war that harms and kills many poor civilians . . . (James E Keenan, S.J.)

In chapter 3, one immediately notes a change of pace, a new stylistic device. In place of the simple acrostics of chapters 1, 2, 4, and 5, we have here an extension. Grief, lament is wracked, stretched out; instead of a single verse assigned to a Hebrew letter, we have three verses for each.
Our present chapter is the “unwobbling pivot” of the book.
Or it is like the probe of a surgeon. It searches every corner of grief, puts the shadows to rout, faces the ghosts of memory. It lingers over the interstices and tegument of sorrow—sixty-six verses in all.
The communal voice of the other chapters yields. No longer do “daughter Jerusalem,” “mother Zion” complain and plead. Here one mourner only, one voice lamenting.
We have met this figure of loss before. The one lamenting is the “I” of Job, or the suffering servant of Second Isaiah, or Jeremiah in the pit. He is Jesus in the days of His passion (Caravaggio, that errant genius, caught Him close).
Woman or man (woman more often abused, more deadly dealt with, more contemned and scapegoated)—eccolo, we have here the innocent of every time and place, walking the fires.
The innocents of our time and place, of the World Trade towers crushing their human cargo. The Afghan peasants fleeing, as the obscene bombers prowl like sharks of the upper air.
God forgive us.
+ + +
3:1—3 No ambiguity here, the plunge. The images are devastating, the tongue is of Job.
I am one who has known affliction from the rod of God’s anger; one whom God has in darkness, not in the light: against me alone again and again

“J’ accuse!” God is summoned to the dock. We hear a muffled drumbeat of affliction: “Against me
The rod, a forced march in darkness how dare the mourner utter such words?

Dangerous—and how distant we are from conventional religiosity!

This, the word of God? Summon the friends of Job and their deadly pieties, their suffocating deity of jot and tittle. Let them raise the cry: blas­phemy.+ +

3:4-6 Again, the haunting image of darkness and death. As though death would come (if only it would come!) as relief.

But alas for the elusive rescuer—death is long in coming.

What remains is death as mirage, metaphor. God has gone ruthlessly counter: God has worn away my has broken my bones,  has beset me round about with poverty and weariness, has left me to dwell in tn the darkness like those long dead.

What does not fail is the fierce, primal vitality of the poetry.

The images shift. They bespeak prayer lost in a whirlwind of chaos. Or they summon a prisoner, boxed in. Or one bedeviled, bewildered, whose paths have twisted into a labyrinth, with no out.

Does he pray for deliverance? He does, and to no avail. He cries out in the teeth of contrary winds. They mock his anguish, make sport of his plea.

Has the human plight—the plight of the just—been explored more ter­rifyingly, even by Job?

God has hemmed me in with no escape, weighed me down with chains; even when I cry out for help, God stops my prayer, blocks my way with fitted stones, turns my paths aside.

+ + +

3:10-11 Make no mistake, this God is like a ravening beast on the prowl. He (sic) would kill, consume me utterly.

I must evade His lethal will, must feint and weave about, lost. Another kind of death! He leaves me bewildered, unsure of the right way.

JPS is relentlessly physical:

He has forced me off my way, and mangled me. A lurking bear He has been to me, a lion in ambush!

He deranged my ways, set me astray, left me desolate.

+ + +

3:12-13 Losses, losses—and this surfeit of poetry. Surely the images are meant to be drawn on again and again, waters from the deep well of grace, as we make our sorry way through a Fallen creation.

Be it noted too, that the technological supermen are lacking in a cru­cial skill. To such, our book is a hieroglyphic; they know nothing of lamentation. Grieve, for what, for whom? Ours is a just cause . . .

Moral boundaries have dissolved. They own creation and human lives to dispose of or to spare, as it serves their interests.

They inflict violent death on multitudes, and call the crime “collateral damage.” And the creation languishes under their bombings and assaults

+ + +

Our poet, thank God, knows much of lacrimae rerum, “the tears of things.”

Tell us more then, crowd the page with living images!

Who is this God? Help us, poet!

God cannot be thrown off; the tracking, the pursuit goes on. God is a warrior, an archer; and I alas, the prey. Skilled, sure, God is a pathfinder, silent as an Iroquois scout.

The pain pierces to the gut, just short of lethal. The seer lives, but barely to

tell of it.

God has allowed this? Let us syncopate the assault: God has wrought this:

God bent the bow and set me up as target for an arrow.

God pierces my sides with shafts from the quiver.

+ + +

The “light unto the nations” is quenched. And what of that one who shall

bring forth justice to the nations? What of that promise, spoken to the chosen:

God, have called you for the victory of justice I have grasped you by the hand, I   formed you, and set you as a covenant  of the people,  a light  for the nations. . . (Isaiah 42:6)
+ + +
3:14—19 Nothing remains of this noble vocation of bearing the truth of God’s justice on winds of time. Nothing. The promise is in tatters, fortune is reversed, lamentable, total.
Demoralized, what now can one offer the nations? Life is a poisoned cup. Drink to the lees!
Or perhaps one seeks solid nourishment? No manna for you, no storm of sweetness and plenty.
The skies are a tabula rasa. Fall to ground, eat the stones your foot falls on: I have become a laughingstock for all nations, their taunt all the day long.

God has sated me with bitter food, made me drink my fill of wormwood.
God has broken my teeth with gravel, pressed my face in the dust.

+ + +

Hands drop. The images fall short in the telling.
Before our eyes is a poetry of exhaustion, ever so slowly traced by a failing pen. The soul wanders in its dark night.
Darkness-soul, one substance.
And who can know the true way, or walk there?
Walk where? Its name is—Nowhere. At wit and wisdom’s end, you barely stand, barely exist.
Concede it. Surrender. Dare embrace it—near nothing. Yourself.
My soul is deprived of peace,
I have forgotten what happiness is.
I tell myself, my future is lost,
all that I hoped for from God.
“All I hoped for.” This is our own story, necessarily in past tense, this delay, this hope deferred, lifelong. We hoped for peace, we wrote and belabored the theme, we longed for nothing else, years and years. We vigiled and marched and crossed lines and were arrested, tried and disposed of in kangaroo courts and jails across the land.
In 2001, I turned eighty. That same year, the twin towers fell in Manhattan, and another American saga of revenge opened. The state mobilized mightily, the Church fell in line.
“All I had hoped for.” The world has fallen to a brutal scramble, more atrocious, more thwarting to sane understanding than when we began the work of peacemaking.
And our beloved Church? It has become the spiritual arm of thuggish warmongers.
Surrender. Dare embrace it. Near nothing. Yourself.

+ + +

3:20 We have seen it, endured it, the questioning of God, of the worth of our own existence. Where to venture, to turn?
A low mood, mulling things over and over. And there comes neither respite nor relief. Something other—bitterness on the tongue. One has tasted obscenity:

The thought of my homeless poverty is wormwood and gall, remembering it over and over leaves my soul downcast within me.

+ + +

Then, at long last there comes, amid the doom and gloom of actual life (and of our Lamentation)—such relief as brings tears. Relief in a landscape long devoid of hope.
A pendulum swings; the absence of God, the killing darkness, the Hand that withholds and pummels—these yield to the Presence, the Consolation. Start the litany. God is palpable. God takes sides. God stands with the just. God witnesses. God promises. Better, God is Promise.
+ + +
Throughout the threnody, we had not heard much of hope. What we heard was so tenuous and meager, so aligned with its dark opposite, so beyond touch or reach—we had all but jettisoned the word as a chimera, a no-thing.
Alas for Jerusalem! Every worldly support failed.

The temple became a befouled nest of idolciters, the palace harbored
deeds of infamy.
Both must come down.
But this is penultimate, as Jeremiah was instructed. First things first:
This day I set you over kingdoms and over nations, to root up and to tear down,
to destroy and to demolish.
That harsh instruction is preliminary. The “No” is to be followed
by an even more emphatic “Yes”; to build and to plant. (1:10)
4.4. +
Yet another image is dear to the Psalmist, to Isaiah and Amos: the
Promise of return.
Images abound; teeming harvests, favor resting on the land and its
people. Chastened by exile they return and reclaim the heritage: Look, a time is coming, declares God— when the plowman will overtake the reaper, the treader of grapes the sower. The mountains will drip wine, and all the hills
will melt. (Amos 9:13)
+ +4.
Talk about hyperbole—that nice final flourish, as the “mountains drip” and the “hills melt” under a cascade of wine and fruits!

Promise, the Promise! God repeats it to Isaiah: For with You As I pour water is the fountain on parched ground, of life, rivulets and on dry land, in Your light I will pour My Spirit on your seed, light. My blessing on your offspring.
Promise, the Promise! God repeats it to Isaiah: As I pour water on parched ground, rivulets on dry land, I will pour My Spirit on your seed, My blessing on your offspring. And they will sprout from amid the grass like willows by streams of water. (44:3-4)

And here, the confident confession of one who has met doubt and darkness face to face, and overcome: 0 God, your kindness reaches to the heavens, Your faithfulness, to the clouds. Your justice is like the mountains of God; Your judgments, like the mighty deep. How precious is your kindness, 0 God! The children take refuge in the shadow of Your wings. They have their fill of the prime gifts of Your house

From Your delightful stream You give them to drink.For with You is the fountain of life, and in Your light we see light. (Psalm 35:6-10)

3:21-30 To our text. And suddenly, words are composed of pure light.  No more lamenting—now the mourner can scarecely credit the whispering of his own heart, the words forming under his pen.  Words of joy, relief, hope, and the poet transformed.

+ +In verse 21 he begins tentatively, like a little child essaying a first step:  or why not?—a second: to mind as my reason to have hope…

Then on and on, he breathes freely, confidently. Imagination is in fu;; play.  As he walks, he plucks from thin air images, truths: are not exhausted, God’s mercies are not spent; they are renewed each morning, so great is God’s faithfulness. (3:22-23)

We had not heard the like before. We had heard only a single motif, exploring like a mournful violin every cranny of the stalled heart, a plenum of grief and loss.
Now we are subtly reminded—Lamentation is not the sole response of those who believe and are broken.
Or better—Lamentation also, though rarely and tentatively—smiles.
As here. Come, urges the poet, walk with me out of the night. God is still God, the Promise holds firm.
+ + 4
“In my end is my beginning.”
What a long way we have come, to arrive at the house where we were born, or reborn.
Events that seemed charged with a killing complexity, a labyrinthine illogic, inducing near despair—at last these are relieved.
Childlike, dare to love, and so embrace the mystery: My portion is God, says my soul. Therefore will I hope in God. (3:24)
Confess. Then with relief, fall to reflection.
Not to speculation, be it noted, nor to obsession with the ills befalling self or the world. Thankfully, we are done with that (at least for a time!).
While the blessed mood is on us, celebrate, give full play to the Good, suffusing the soul like a sunrise: Good is God to one who waits for God, to the soul that seeks God. It is good to hope in silence for the saving help of God. (3:25—26)
Let the paradox stand, fruitful, a dark night of the senses.
When nothing can be done, this can be done; this non-doing; “seeking hoping.. . in silence.”
+ + +
November 30, ‘01 marks the funeral of the 300th New York firefighter killed in the twin towers. By now, scalding grief has yielded to a blank, muted acceptance. What must be done, shall be done; due honors.
And the same day, a pastor phones from Connecticut. His voice is flat, discouraged. He confesses to being at rope’s end. Bush’s draconian decrees, war abroad and repression at home, have denied hope to a good man. Would I come to his parish, and offer hopeful reflections?
I would. And perhaps we have here in our text, a start.
Neither he nor I can unfix the mask of fascist authority. We must live through this, salvaging what decency and community we can muster; from bible, sacrament, one another.
We can “seek . . . hope . . . in silence . .
(And refusing to make the good the enemy of the better, we can state our convictions publicly, prayerfully. “No” to war, to scapegoating, to detention of suspects and military tribunals and the other paraphernalia of the titans!)
+ + +
Which seems a natural lead to our next strophe, standing unexpected and austere on the page.
It comes as a reminder; one’s humanity is not primarily an inheritance or a gift from on high. Living humanly has a price attached. Let us pay up, and gladly. Knowing as well that the opposite, living inhumanly, pays huge dividends in a crooked world.
Celebrate then, the burden.
Paul has named it as a wondrous oxymoron; pondus gloriae, “a weight of glory.” A glory to be sure, but a burden as well, as indicated:
It is good for one to bear the yoke from youth. (3:27)

The yoke of the law; of God’s law. And rightly understood, often in conflict with the law of the land.
Whatever of our humanity survives this terrifying century, one thing is certain. Sooner or later (later rather than sooner!), a few friends will be honored as mentors of the art of the human.
For the present, they are in official disgrace, imprisoned for nonviolent acts in opposition against nuclear war.
Upon these, the Plowshares prisoners, the yoke of God’s law weighs heavy. Years are exacted of them, they endure punitive courts, transport in chains, isolation from loved ones, denial of prisoners’ scant rights, solitary confinement.
Let this text be to them, noble women and men, both comfort and strength: Let [her] sit alone and in silence, when the yoke is laid upon [her] Let [her] put mouth to the dust; there may yet be hope. Let [her] offer cheek to be struck, let [her] be filled with disgrace. (3:28—30)

+ + +

Up, down, the pendulum of mood swings; and to our advantage. The movement is a sign of life; the one who suffers has not grown numb or calloused. Far from it, he embraces life at its most awful—and most wondrous.
Who is this God, what is God’s purpose for the world, for this life of mine? Why do I suffer? Am I caught in a net of guilt, a kind of “roundup” of presumed sinners? Is the image of God as “Fowler” to be accounted true, or a confabulation of low moods?
+ + +
3:31—34 Let me be jolted out of this unprofitable dudgeon. The God of the Bible, of the prophets, I know that One; God’s name is Compassion, Hope! For God’s rejection does not last forever. Though God afflicts, God takes pity in abundant kindness, has no joy in afflicting or grieving others, crushing underfoot all the prisoners of earth.
(In the last strophe, I follow JPS as both striking and original, rather than NAM, which attributes the “crushing” to wicked humans).
“All the prisoners of earth,” a startling synonym for humans as such. Are we prisoners of the Fall, of sin? Or does the name apply only to survivors of the destroyed city, those who were led off to exile? Intriguing.
+ + +
3:35—36 A hint once more of the “law of the land,” and its falling short of the justice of God.
Human law, national law, protect vast areas and weapons given over to works of death.
As for objectors to the system, they must be severely dealt with.
But the text speaks up on behalf of these, even as it overturns official tables, indicting judges, prosecutors, wardens, they and their apparatus of crime and punishment: To deny one’s rights in the very sight of the most High, to wrong one in his cause, this God does not choose.

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