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When Father Daniel Berrigan went underground in ‘The Holy Outlaw’

After being sentenced to three years in prison for his part in the 1968 burning of stolen draft files in Catonsville, Maryland, Rev. Daniel Berrigan went underground, evading capture by the FBI for four months. During that time, Berrigan — who passed away on April 30 at the age of 94 — was interviewed for a television documentary called “The Holy Outlaw,” which aired in September 1970, one month after he was finally apprehended.

The documentary, directed by Lee Lockwood for PBS-precursor National Educational Television, has been hard to find over the years, relegated to clips on Democracy Now! and the odd showing at Berrigan-related events. However, thanks to a copy of the film saved by his longtime Jesuit community, Waging Nonviolence is able to share this incredibly rare and important chronicling of Berrigan’s trailblazing act of civil disobedience.

In addition to candid interviews with Berrigan, the film features prominent commentary from renowned historian Howard Zinn, who gives poignant context to Berrigan’s act of defiance, saying, “The law, what we call the law, hunts down some of the best people in society — the people we need to build the kind of country that we need.” Berrigan’s mother, theologian William Stringfellow and members of the Milwaukee 14 also appear in the film, offering support to the self-proclaimed “peace criminal” and “refugee of justice.”

At one point, Berrigan appears in a Philadelphia church to give an impromptu sermon. After being introduced by John Raines — who, along with his wife Bonnie would take part in the infamous Media, Pennsylvania FBI office break-in a year later — Berrigan told churchgoers, “There are a hundred nonviolent means of resisting those who would inflict death as the ordinary way of life… Peace will not be won without such serious and constant and sacrificial and courageous actions on the part of large numbers of good men and women.”

Toward the end of the film, Lockwood asks Berrigan if he has any knowledge of whether his actions have helped make a change. Berrigan responds by saying, “The first evidence of anything really occurring in the lives of others is some evidence that some change has occurred to one’s self, and I’m quite certain that that has occurred.” This particular line reveals the true purpose — and lasting legacy — of the film: to depict a man in transformation.

In the final scene, Berrigan is in handcuffs, being hauled away to jail by disgruntled FBI agents — all while wearing a smile on his face. A reporter asks, “What are your future plans?” After pausing a moment, the answer becomes clear to Berrigan: “Resistance!” It’s the final word spoken in the film, but one that Berrigan would speak many times over the rest of his life.