Fig Trees and Vineyards
“The Feast of Carrion”
a chapter from Daniel Berrigan’s book,
The Nightmare of God
Daniel Berrigan, Jesuit priest and outspoken opponent of US wars, has died at the age of 94. Berrigan was jailed numerous times–initially in the 1960s when he broke into a draft board office in Cantonsville, Maryland, and later on in the 1970s and 80s for his anti-nuclear activism.
Berrigan and his younger brother, Philip Berrigan, who was also a priest, were in some respects your quintessential liberation theologians. They were in fact forerunners to the Liberation Theology movement, rising to national prominence with an act of civil disobedience in 1968 that made national and international headlines. Here is a bit from the New York Times’ obituary for Berrigan. It’s actually rather well stated:
The catalyzing episode occurred on May 17, 1968, six weeks after the murder of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the outbreak of new riots in dozens of cities. Nine Catholic activists, led by Daniel and Philip Berrigan, entered a Knights of Columbus building in Catonsville and went up to the second floor, where the local draft board had offices. In front of astonished clerks, they seized hundreds of draft records, carried them down to the parking lot and set them on fire with homemade napalm.
Some reporters had been told of the raid in advance. They were given a statement that said in part, “We destroy these draft records not only because they exploit our young men but because they represent misplaced power concentrated in the ruling class of America.” It added, “We confront the Catholic Church, other Christian bodies and the synagogues of America with their silence and cowardice in the face of our country’s crimes.”
America’s crimes continued to be very much on Berrigan’s mind even after the Vietnam War ended. In 1980, he and Philip founded the Plowshares Movement. One of their most notable acts of civil disobedience was entry into a General Electric nuclear facility in Pennsylvania where they damaged equipment and poured blood onto documents and files. The entire group was jailed. It was while behind bars that Berrigan wrote an interesting little book, basically his take on the Book of Revelation, which he entitled The Nightmare of God.
The book was published in 1983. In it, Berrigan takes his own country to task for “preparing for ever more lethal incursions” against other countries and peoples, while also issuing a withering criticism of biblical scholars: “To most scholars of the Bible, the crimes of the U.S. Air Force are forever beside the point. Thus does crime multiply and scholarship rot.” The Apocalypse, in his view, contains a “social bias” in favor of the victims of oppression, unlike America, which he felt was bent upon “carving the earth” through war. “Bellicose, selfish, self-deluded, icy, absolutely resolute—behold the Rome of the Book of Revelation. Behold also America?” For Berrigan there was only one choice: “resist the state.”
Berrigan continued resisting the state all the way up into his senior years. You can click here to read an amusing anecdote about his appearance at New York’s Zuccotti Park during the Occupy Wall Street protest in 2011.
Berrigan died Saturday, April 30, at a Jesuit health care facility at Fordham University following an extended illness. According to a spokesperson for the facility, he died peacefully.
Below is an excerpt from The Nightmare of God, taken from Chapter 7, which is entitled “Feast of Carrion.” In this section of the book, Berrigan provides a commentary on a rather strange passage from the Book of Revelation 19:17-18:
And I saw an angel standing in the sun, who cried in a loud voice to all the birds flying in midair, “Come, gather together for the great supper of God, so that you may eat the flesh of kings, generals, and the mighty, of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all people, free and slave, great and small.
Here is a section from Berrigan’s exegetic commentary on the text:
The passage is shocking in the extreme. It seems as though God has become a savage carnivore. We recall with a pang the gracious eucharist: “The one who eats my flesh and drinks my blood, has life eternal.” (Jn. 6, 54) But now, an anti-eucharist is announced. We recall also the lovely simile: “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who has a feast for his son’s wedding.” (Mt. 22, 2). A wedding feast is a foretaste of glory. But now it is the great ones of the earth who make up the menu of a nightmarish orgy. What can this mean?
A cosmic principle is at work here. The karma of the universe demands some final righting of wrongs. This is the law of the ecological web, along which we exist, which we rend or enhance. Living nature is to be avenged for crimes committed against it.
Most important, murder is not forever to be legal. In Revelation, it bears repeating that God enters the scene as one who unmasks and hastens moral process. “Quickly” is a great word with Him; “come quickly,”…”I am coming quickly…” (12; 12, 20).
Moral and physical process interact, inevitably. So the earth recoils from crime, as people wreak their fury and hatred on the earth and living things. Every war is a war on ecology as well as on community; after a given time, the ground no longer supports our criminal weight.
The ultimate consumers (warmakers) eat people. That is why a loathsome banquet seems a weirdly fitting image for the end of things, the end of those who consumed the people and the earth. No God eats them.
This image bears comparison also with the “hell fires,” or the Sartrian metaphor of hell as boredom, or the circles upon circles of Dante or Solzhenitsyn. Since hell is a state of spirit, we can grasp it only by imagining it. Here the violent, the deceitful, the envious, the truly sinful, prepare the banquet themselves, cook it, choose the guests. But it is all ultimately self-consuming. They do not know it, but they themselves are the menu. The goal of “life” is–extinction. Ultimately, self-extinction.
After the banquet, what? The void. Americans held such a feast time and again during the Vietnam war; a daily body count, a menu which may have as well been venison or wild birds. People literally cannibalized others. But at the end of the war the tables were turned, so to speak. A prelude, a revelation.
War is a kind of cannibalism. The “last day” scene is not only a banquet hall; it is a battlefield. The scene is a stereotype of history; the birds of the air come to eat the flesh of men and horses, after the battle. An obscene cleanup occurs. Those announced as the “menu” are clearly enumerated, as is often the way in Revelation. “All, both free and slave, small and great.” No matter what their estate in the world, all are doomed, are equally grist for the grinder. The sole exception (v. 20) are those who have not worshiped the beast, or worshiped its image, or borne its mark. This exceptional vocation, to life rather than death, has been insisted on before. So has its price; but the price is not this noisome scene of horror.
The act of eating is an image dear to John. He had been told by the angel to “eat the little scroll;” it would be “bitter in his guts and sweet on his tongue.” (10, 8) For some, Christianity is a tasters’ choice; for others, a bitter pill. But “eating” is knowledge, assimilating the truth (I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never be hungry; he who believes in me will never thirst, John 6, 35). (Just as in Genesis; only there it was false knowledge.) But now on the battlefield, the scene is excoriating, random, meaningless, an orgy of the carnivorous birds of the air. Because the truth was never in this air. Now the truth is pure weapon, the blade is keen; they are slain by the “sword (word) that issues from his mouth” (John 18, 37). They have sinned against all four elements; now fire and water conspire to destroy them; they are thrown into “a lake of fire.”
Indeed war is an act of cannibalism, and the Israelis are certainly “cannibalizing” Palestine as we speak. And coming up in two weeks, on May 15, the Palestinians will be marking the 68th anniversary of their Nakba. War criminals of every type, both those in Israel as well as their counterparts here in America, will, I suspect, find themselves on the “menu” at some point. And truth, as Berrigan points out, is a pure weapon whose blade is keen, and as people continue speaking the truth about Israel, the Great Supper of God will draw closer on them.
And what afterwards? Well…maybe it will be as John envisioned it: a new Jerusalem, where crystal waters will flow past the tree of life, and the leaves of the tree will be for the healing of the nations.