Fr. Daniel Berrigan, SJ, has spent much of his life as an activist and advocate for nonviolence and social justice. Among his many writings, one can find an abundance of wisdom that provides contemporary Christians and all people of good will with resources for considering the implications of our lived experience of community. For those who bear the name of Christ, the implications are in a sense starker because to be a disciple of the Lord requires a certain approach that is spelled out well in the Gospel. At the heart of this certain approach to life stands the position of nonviolence, something about which both the Jesuit Daniel and this Franciscan Daniel agree.

Here is a selection from an unpublished set of notes on nonviolence from a lecture he delivered in 1965. You can read it in its entirety and more in Daniel Berrigan: Essential Writings, ed. John Dear (Orbis Books, 2009).

The Alternative of Nonviolence

Maybe in a few statements we can sum up what we’ve been trying to say so far. First of all, a nonviolent movement proceeds from a personal conversion. Martin Luther King, Jr., has certainly adopted this. Many others have undergone profound personal conversions, either in the beginning or during the course of the struggle.

Second, nonviolence proceeds from an inspired faith of refusal into a positive stance in the world. So it insists on being within history, and will not allow itself to be shunted off into some sort of sectarianism or extremism before others. So it is constantly trying to keep its roots in the actual community even though it must in a certain sense stand apart by its refusal.

Third, this nonviolence sees itself at its best, as indivisible, and its least, as potentially universal; that is, as a way of life that is simply human. In the nuclear age, it is the only alternative to the escalation of genocide and universal incineration. So you always note among responsible people both a profound spiritual root and a profound political responsibility.

Fourth, a difficult point. A nonviolent movement must be content with long-range vindication and be conceived of as a long-range hope for change. Thus in the past we can see it identifying with the end of feudalism or with the hope of the workers in Europe or with the anti-colonial movement in Africa and the East. So we are speaking here of the mystique in action, a mystique which has become a public technique. We have to look not merely to the quality of the men and women involved, but to the realization that an idea has met its hour. This is the glory of nonviolent history, that it has had this kind of visionary sense of “The times they are a-changin,'” as the song goes, and what the change means, where it is leading, and where it can be invaded. Thus an individual, or a small group, must be seen, not so much in negative terms as people in jail or people on picket lines or people under the censure of society. They must be seen as a positive offering to history, as connected with the most profound political and social change, the amelioration of humanity’s despair.

Fifth, in societies founded on or dedicated to violence the technique of nonviolence becomes extremely difficult, if not impossible. And I suppose that that’s a judgment that has to be worked through by the people involved. I couldn’t find any of the younger people of South Africa, for instance, encouraged about any aspect of nonviolent witness. This was completely obliterated by the political system. Perhaps ten or fifteen years ago it would have been quite possible but things have worsened horribly since.

Photo: CNS/America Magazine


  1. Br. Daniel, thank you. For me to say this, especially publically (on a blog), there is something “a-changing” within me regarding non-violence approach. Don’t get me wrong, I am still and will be a retired Navy Chief and a Knight of Columbus – ready to defend the Faith, but I have been reflecting on some of your postings. I pray that the peace of Christ continues to fill your Spirit as you care for His broken and stiff-necked flock (us).

    1. Thank you for your comment, Matthew. I really appreciate it. We are all on a life-long journey of Christian discipleship, each of us at different stages along the way. May we all continue to be open to the Spirit at work in our lives! Peace and good!

  2. I take this opportunity to thank you for your inspirational life. May we all continue to work at figuring out how to live the non-violent life, recognizing the Divine spirit within each of us. Bless you, real good!

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