“Members of the jury, you have just found Jesus Christ guilty”: Remembering the Catonsville Nine


W.J. Astore

In May 1968, nine Catholic activists set fire to draft records in Catonsville, Maryland, in a deliberate act of sabotage and protest against the Vietnam War.  For the crime of destroying government property, a crime they freely admitted, they were tried in federal court in Baltimore and found guilty.  I’ve been reading the edited trial transcript (with commentary) by Daniel Berrigan, one of the Catonsville Nine and a Catholic priest.  What unified these nine people was their moral opposition to the Vietnam War, a moral revulsion to the acts their country was committing in Vietnam, a revulsion that drove them to burn draft records with a weak brew of homemade napalm so as to gain the attention of their fellow citizens.

On this Easter Weekend, I would like to focus on a few of the statements made by the Catonsville Nine, as recorded by Daniel Berrigan in “The Trial of the Catonsville Nine.”

Statement by Philip Berrigan

We have been accused of arrogance
But what of the fantastic arrogance … of our leaders
What of their crimes against the people … the poor and powerless
Still no court will try them … no jail will receive them
They live in righteousness … They will die in honor
For them we have one message … for those
in whose manicured hands … the power of the land lies
We say to them
Lead us … Lead us in justice
and there will be no need to break the law
Let the President do … what his predecessors failed to do
Let him obey the rich less … and the people more
Let him think less of the privileged
and more of the poor
Less of America and more of the world
Let lawmakers … judges … and lawyers
think less of the law … more of justice
less of legal ritual … more of human rights …

Statement by Thomas Lewis

We were speaking as Americans
We were proud to be Americans
Yet we have representatives in Vietnam
who do terrible things in our name
We were saying to the military
This is wrong … This is immoral … This is illegal
And their response to this was
they were only obeying orders

Question from the Judge: But they did respond to you, did they not?

Thomas Lewis: It was an atrocious response.

Statement by Marjorie Melville

I know that burning draft files
is not an effective way
to stop a war … but
who has found a way
of stopping this war
I have racked my brain
I have talked to all kinds of people
What can you do
They say yes … yes
But there is no answer
no stopping it
the horror continues

Statement by Thomas Melville

I hear our president … confuse greatness with strength
riches with goodness … fear with respect
hopelessness and passivity with peace
The clichés of our leaders
pay tribute to property … and indifference to suffering
We long for a hand of friendship and succor
and that hand
clenches into a fist
I wonder how long we can endure

Statement by George Mische

We were not out to destroy life
There is a higher law we are commanded to obey
It takes precedence over human laws
My intent was to follow the higher law
My intent was to save lives … Vietnamese lives
North and South American lives
To stop the madness
That was the intent

Statement of Daniel Berrigan

Question from the Judge: You say your intention was to save these children, of the jury, of myself, when you burned the [draft] records?  That is what I heard you say.  I ask if you meant that.

Daniel Berrigan:

I meant that
of course I mean that
or I would not say it
The great sinfulness
of modern war is
that it renders concrete things abstract
I do not want to talk
about Americans in general ….
I poured napalm [on the draft records]
on behalf of the prosecutor’s
and the jury’s children

Closing Statement by Daniel Berrigan

When at what point will you say no to this war?
We have chosen to say
with the gift of our liberty
if necessary our lives:
the violence stops here
the death stops here
the suppression of truth stops here
this war stops here
Redeem the times!
The times are inexpressibly evil
Christians pay conscious … indeed religious tribute
to Caesar and Mars
by the approval of overkill tactics … by brinksmanship
by nuclear liturgies … by racism … by support of genocide
They embrace their society with all their heart
and abandon the cross
They pay lip service to Christ
and military service to the powers of death
And yet … and yet … the times are inexhaustibly good
solaced by the courage and hope of many
The truth rules … Christ is not forsaken …

At the end of the trial, as all nine defendants were found guilty, a “member of the audience” cried, “Members of the jury, you have just found Jesus Christ guilty.”

That last statement, and the words of the Catonsville Nine, give us much to ponder on this Easter Weekend.

14 thoughts on ““Members of the jury, you have just found Jesus Christ guilty”: Remembering the Catonsville Nine

  1. Thank you. Your remarks are timely and appreciated. I was draft age during the VietNam war. I was tear gassed by Mayor Daley’s police during a protest. I get ill thinking how little progress we’ve made. There seems to be only one Presidentail candidate with the moral strength to say “no” to the American war machine as did the Catonsville Nine.


  2. At long last! Easter! This year, according to the legal doctines of President Barack Obama, Jesus and all the other blameless victims of America’s imperial presidential murders will now have the opportunity to “posthumously prove their innocence.” Clearly, though, this mass resurrection and public trial by a jury of one’s peers will have to take place in a country that actually has a legal system in which every citizen enjoys the presumption of innocence as a basic right. Naturally, this stipulation of fundamental legal principles rules out the Corporate Oligarcy of America where, as in George Orwell’s Oceania, “there is no law” (for the Corporate elites) and Big Brother simply marks down undesirable proles for quiet and unnoticed elimination.

    “Members of the Easter Jury, you have just found multitudes of dead people innocent and therefore undeserving of their untimely deaths by extrajudicial presidential murder. When can we expect them to have their lives restored so that they may live again and walk among us as they once did, in full enjoyment of their presumption of innocence and with the entire burden of proving otherwise residing solely with their — in many cases invisible — accusers?”

    If not this Easter, then I wonder when the first of President Obama’s postumous innocence trials will begin?


  3. Thank you. It is so important to remember the courage of these people. I grew up Catholic in the 60’s and 70’s but have only learned about this and about the profound depth of Catholic social teaching as an older adult. Perhaps this would have been different if I had attended a Catholic college–but maybe not. I listened to this podcast recently– http://www.onbeing.org/program/nathan-schneider-the-wisdom-of-millennials/6911

    Nathan Schneider joined the Catholic Church as a teenager because he was attracted to social justice teachings and monasticism but was surprised to learn that most of the people in the pews knew nothing of these things.

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  4. No finer tribute for a man dedicated to justice. I was at Cornell, and his quote about the sinfulness of modern warfare was painted on the engineering school building. It would be cleaned off, but somehow magically reappear. May he and his brother live on in our memories and actions. May they magically reappear in our hearts and minds when we need courage to do the right thing.


  5. Stunning words from long ago and so applicable to today’s environment. For many years, I taught in an Ursuline high school in Ohio. The good sisters were so informed and dedicated to peace and justice, championing it and living it.


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