The Berrigan Option

Olivia Paschal


Rod Dreher, The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation
Sentinel Press, 272 pp., $25.00

Jim Forest, At Play in the Lions’ Den: A Biography and Memoir of Daniel Berrigan
Orbis Books, 352 pp., $28.00


IN THE GOSPEL OF LUKE, Jesus tells a parable of two men who went to the temple to pray. One was a Pharisee, a member of an ancient Jewish sect that contemporaries considered pious and sanctimonious. The other was a tax collector, a social pariah reviled by all.

The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”

But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.

The account of the Pharisee and the tax collector captures a conflict that has divided Christendom since the time of Christ. On the one hand, we Christians (myself included) must show devotion to Christ’s commandments, which leads us to live differently, separately from the world around us. On the other, we must confess that we, too, are sinners, humbled by our own evils and the evils of our society. The former is elevated, upward-bound, the logic of the City Upon A Hill. The latter is downward-gazing, holiness-through-lowliness.

Both attitudes are, to varying degrees, isolationist. And both require the Christian to decide when to be witness and when to be humble. When, if ever, are we justified in assuming the moral superiority of the Pharisee to call attention to the Christian ethic? Is there sin so damnable that Christians must make a show of setting ourselves apart from the world, purifying ourselves from its stains? The church hasn’t settled on a clear answer. Christian orthodoxy has long been convinced that it is incompatible with America and Western modernity altogether—what then, should Christians do about it?

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Jim Forest and Rod Dreher are positioned on two sides of the orthodox dissatisfaction with modernity. Dreher, 50, a prolific blogger and senior editor at The American Conservative, lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Forest, 77, a lay theologian and longtime peace activist, resides in the Netherlands. Both were raised in Protestant households, converted to Catholicism and later to Eastern Orthodoxy. Both are fundamentally concerned with Christian community and the longevity of Christian theology in the modern world. And both have been advocates for a practice of living in some form of intentional Christian community. Yet their views on the greatest threat to Christianity—and the best way for orthodox Christians to engage with the world—could not be more different.

Dreher’s The Benedict Option doesn’t advocate for a total, monastic-like separation from modern society, as many of his critics have claimed. Rather, he searches for a way in which orthodox Christians can preserve tradition while still remaining a part of modern culture. Modeling his call to a communal orthodox lifestyle on the Rule of St. Benedict, Dreher points to certain tenets of the monastic lifestyle that orthodox laypeople should adopt: order, prayer, work, asceticism, stability, community, hospitality, and balance.

Daniel Berrigan—Forest’s biographical subject in At Play in the Lion’s Den—would seem to model precisely the commitment to Christianity that Dreher wants: a consistent witness against the faults of American modernity, a refusal to engage in parts of the political and social order that are against the Christian conscience, and a commitment to simplicity and Christian community. Examples like Berrigan might make Dreher’s prescription for a lay monasticism seem alluring—convincing, even. But, whether Dreher admits it or not, the foundation of his argument—that the fate of Christian orthodoxy relies on the church’s response to the Sexual Revolution—steers his Benedict Option into Pharisaic territory.

Berrigan is best known as a member of the Catonsville Nine, a team of anti-war activists arrested and jailed in the 1960s for burning draft cards in protest of the Vietnam War. But he was more than that. Berrigan was a teacher, a poet, an advocate for the poor and the homeless, a priest who lived in community with other Jesuits, and a man devoted to a “consistent life ethic” who opposed abortion and capital punishment alike. His life’s work was based in a conviction that an unquestioned acceptance of continuous and cruel violence is the greatest threat to the purity of Christian orthodoxy. His life, and the lives of others equally committed to such a position, form a model of what Christian witness should look like in an era of state-sanctioned violence.

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Orthodox Christianity is on life support. It faces the “barbarism” of secular modernity at every juncture. Or so Rod Dreher suggests in his grim polemic The Benedict Option. He argues that the continued secularization of the modern liberal order has brought orthodox Christianity to a point of crisis. The church, he writes, must recognize that it cannot preserve orthodox practices within modern society. Instead, orthodox Christians—“theologically traditional Protestants, Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox”—must focus on the internal structure of their own communities to ensure the longevity of their faith.

The Benedict Option, divided into two sections, first defines the “challenge” of modernity for orthodox Christians and then explains how to adopt the Benedict Rule in the face of modernity’s threats. Dreher mourns the declining influence of both traditional Christian theology and the Western canon, arguing through several paragraphs of tired and historiographically-vapid clichés that the “fall” of America and Western civilization (a term left undefined) mirrors the fall of the Roman Empire.

Dreher is not proposing anything new, nor is he unearthing parts of traditional Christianity that have been lost to the test of time. As he points out, monks, ascetics, and clergy have committed themselves to these practices for hundreds of years—from hermits like the third-century saint, Antony of Egypt, whose temptations by demons in the desert were a favorite scene of Renaissance artists, to monastic orders like Cistercians, founded in the 12th century, whose members focused on work, prayer, and simplicity. Across modern America and the Western world, laypeople have committed themselves to intentional communal life as well. These communities can range from those entirely set apart—like the Bruderhof, an international Protestant Christian movement founded in the 1920s of communities which practice asceticism and common ownership—to those that integrate themselves into the world around them, like the Catholic Worker, founded in the 1930s by Dorothy Day, an international movement of autonomous communities that live among and provide hospitality to people on the margins of society. Such intentional communities have constantly stood as Christ-focused witnesses against the ethic of individualism.

Dreher correctly identifies this problem of modern Western liberalism: the creation of “the autonomous, freely choosing individual, finding meaning in no one but himself.” He doesn’t seem concerned, however, with the largest threat that individualism actually poses to the Christian ethic—a philosophical affirmation that the individual is no longer morally indebted or obligated to their larger community. Instead of translating his diagnosis into a prescription for healthy community life—in which Christians are charged with responsibility for our brothers and sisters outside the church, not just those within it—Dreher remains laser-focused on his version of the Christian sexual ethic.

This obsession with sex—especially his disparaging references to the LGBTQ+ community and the gay rights movement—pervades The Benedict Option. The Sexual Revolution, Dreher writes, is the greatest threat to the church’s ability to survive. Labeling the 1960s onward the “Triumph of Eros,” Dreher embarks on a diatribe against trans* people—an “elite movement” of people who “refuse to be bound by biology.” He begins a chapter titled “Eros and the New Christian Counterculture” with a rant against the legalization of gay marriage, calling it the “dethroning of Christian ideology,” and he rails against the gay rights movement and the churches that support it. “Christians who begin by rejecting sexual orthodoxy end either by rejecting Christianity themselves or by laying the groundwork for their children to do so,” he concludes apocalyptically. The Sexual Revolution, seen as a zero-sum game, necessitates “the advance of gay civil rights, along with a reversal of religious liberties for believers who do not accept the LGBT agenda.” Dreher marks the church’s response to this insidious development as more crucial than its response to slavery in the 19th century, to the Civil Rights movement in the 20th, or to nuclear proliferation in the 21st. His thorough moral disgust with one community of people blinds him to violent manifestations of sin that actually threaten most of humankind.

It’s a disappointing argument, but one consistent with Dreher’s constant contempt for queer and transgender communities. In the last two months alone, he has written eight blog posts tagged “LGBT,” including one referring to trans* folks as “loons” and another referring to “transgenderism” as a “social contagion.” “Above all [the Benedict Option] means being ordered towards love,” Dreher writes without a hint of irony. “We become what we love and make the world according to our loves. We should act from a place not of fear and loathing but of affection and confidence in God and His will.”

But what exactly does it mean to be ordered towards love and away from fear? Dreher claims that the Benedict Option lends itself to a position of love for community and for God. But he seems to be approaching it from a position of fear, from the high horse of the New Testament Pharisee for whom public self-congratulation of his own moral standards was the highest form of piety. By following the Benedict Option, Dreher says, orthodox Christians should prepare to be “poorer and more marginalized.” This is a bold statement to make in a book that glosses over Christians in the modern era who have actually been marginalized. Dreher would gain immensely from engaging with those Orthodox Christians in America who have faced death or physical harm for their beliefs—those who have embraced poverty, persecution, and imprisonment as necessary costs for witnessing to the world. What might an outward-oriented Benedict Option, one which focuses on hospitality and kindness to those most outcast by society, look like?

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It might look something like Daniel Berrigan—who beginning in 1984 spent twelve years working with and housing AIDS patients at a time when most Catholics would not have dared to associate with them. In At Play in the Lion’s Den, Jim Forest follows Berrigan’s life from his beginnings as a young Jesuit priest through his lengthy career as an anti-war activist. Berrigan’s devotion to his interpretation of orthodoxy becomes evident from those who knew him and through his own words, like one excerpted speech from 1965 speech, the beginning of Berrigan’s antiwar activism:  

It is astonishing to reflect how in time of war, the word of God tends to become complicated and diffuse…The powers of the state show a mysterious concern for the integrity of the word of God. They issue their own tracts and texts. Believers must see that the God of all has suddenly taken sides for and against. A universal Love has narrowed itself to accept hate and to command hate. The message of peace is interpreted in favor of nationalism, of the ideologies of the moment, of the frenzies of human causes.

Father Berrigan is exactly the type of person to whom Dreher could have looked for examples of courageous witness in the face of violent modernity. Berrigan, who died in 2016, lived out a commitment to many of the same principles for which Dreher lauds the Rule of St. Benedict—hospitality, asceticism, community, order. He was committed to orthodoxy and to the Christian life—and he also dissented, loudly and vocally, from the evils present in the sociopolitical order: from fighting for Civil Rights and against the Vietnam War in the 1950s and 1960s to advocating on behalf of abjectly poor and marginalized people, in particular the homeless.

His commitment to the Christian witness led him to more radical, controversial forms of activism as well—he broke into a number of federal buildings, destroying draft cards and damaging nuclear warheads, and went underground to evade FBI arrest for several months. These forms of protest have themselves been criticized as forms of violence—but Berrigan and his fellow activists argued that violence is only violence when it is directed against human beings. Destruction of property and evading the law, they might say, is necessary to an effective Christian witness against the violence of the state.

Berrigan is most known for civil disobedience and resistance in the name of peacemaking. “His was a life of lived-out translations of such biblical commandments as ‘Thou shalt not kill’ and ‘Love one another,’” writes Forest. His refusal to bend his orthodoxy to the whims of the American government or the opinions of the American people cost him 250 arrests, a two-year stint in federal prison, and relentless ideological persecution from all sides of the political spectrum and church hierarchy. This relentless commitment to principle ran in the family, too. His brother Philip, himself a former priest, was a dedicated activist from the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s until his death in 2002, and spent 11 years in prison for his convicted witness.

The Berrigans show an uncommon devotion to religious tenets in a political order that did not accept them, and Forest is a deft chronicler of both the great joy and the great struggle that such a devotion creates. Berrigan, Forest shows, was not preordained for grandeur. His entrance into the peacemaking movement was not so much a choice as a duty, one to which he felt inescapably called by his faith in Christ and the church.

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Even the Berrigans had an element of the Pharisee in them. Their theatrical acts of civil disobedience, meant to draw attention to the sins of the state, were orchestrated out of a conviction of moral authority. But the Daniel Berrigan depicted in Forest’s writing, unlike Dreher, is unconcerned with trumpeting his own superior understanding of and devotion to Christian morality. Rather than tout his own personal piety—Dreher’s preferred mode— Berrigan was far more concerned with drawing society’s attention to the immoral violence of the state. That violence, in his view, was the true scourge of modernity.

Berrigan’s humility and concern for the society’s marginalized and reviled, modernity’s lepers and tax collectors, positions him outside of the Pharisaic trap. His work with the AIDS-afflicted, whom he embraced, ministered to, and invited to live in his home, is the polar opposite of Dreher’s fear-mongering over the “LGBT agenda.” His anti-war activism and peacemaking work was done out of his commitment to love people around the globe, not out of a selfish and misguided desire to preserve his particular sect of Christianity.

Why does Dreher ignore the narratives of Berrigan and people like him? Perhaps because they are typically aligned more with the political Left than with the Right. Though Dreher reads the same Bible, the same monastics, the same theologians as Berrigan and others like him, his comprehension of Christian orthodoxy is confined to conservatism, committed almost solely to the culture wars of “abortion and religious liberty,” and suffused with nostalgia. He becomes too narrowly-focused on Christians who live out their morals from fear of the non-Christian world. Instead, he ought to turn to the example of those who practice Christianity out of a truly deep-seated love for those outside of the church.

Ultimately, Dreher’s ignorance of orthodoxy as practiced by Berrigan and Forest contributes to his all-too-narrow view of who constitutes Christ’s community. Like the Pharisee who thanks God that he is not like “other people,” Dreher’s self-assuredness that he has it right and the rest of the world has it wrong serves only to distance him and his Benedict Option from the fullness of Christian life—humility, hospitality, and radical unwavering love.