Finding the Moral Courage to Say No to War: The Story of Harry Bury

Book Review: Maverick Priest: A Story of Life on the Edge by Father Harry J. Bury, Ph.D. Robert D. Reed Publishers, Bandon, OR, 2018.

By Alan Knight for World BEYOND War

Mark Twain once wrote that “it is curious that physical courage should be so common in the world and moral courage so rare.” This distinction between physical and moral courage is one we have all but lost sight of. Indeed, I would suggest that few people realize there is a distinction. We conflate the two, which makes us more susceptible to the seductive pull of the ‘just war’ narrative.

For the first 35 years of his life Harry Bury was a captive of this narrative. Born in 1930 into a strict Catholic family, educated at a seminary from the age of 15, ordained as a Catholic Priest at 25, a parish priest until 35, Harry accepted the authority and the worldview of his church, a church that endorsed the ‘just war’ theory and supported US wars, including the war in Vietnam.

And then, at 35, Harry was appointed to the Newman Centre at the University of Minnesota as an Apostolate. For 35 years he had lived in the almost hermetic world of the hierarchic and rule-bound Catholic Priesthood. Suddenly he was thrust into a world that was much more diverse, where daily interactions were not predominantly with those who shared your faith, where those without power demanded accountability of those who did, where conscience and critical thinking were valued more than dogma and where relationships were about connecting and not transacting. Harry did not shy away from this new world and turn inward, as might have been expected. He embraced it and opened his mind and his heart, sometimes naively, to all that was new to him. As Harry began to interact, understand and empathize with those on the social, intellectual and faith margins, he began to move from the mainstream to what he refers to as ‘the edge’.

He began to meet people who understood moral courage. Early on he met Daniel Berrigan, the Jesuit priest and member of the Catonsville 9, the 9 priests who used homemade napalm to destroy 378 draft files in the parking lot of the Catonsville, Maryland draft board in 1968. He began being asked by students to write letters in support of their applications for conscientious objector status. He did research. He built relationships. He wrote the letters.

In 1969, in support of the trial of the Catonsville 9, he went to Washington, DC and tried to hold mass at the Pentagon. He was arrested for the first time. Late in 1969, a friend had decided he could no longer sit on the sidelines and that it was time to act. He asked Harry to participate in the destruction of draft files at a number of recruitment offices in Minnesota. But Harry was not yet ready to act. He initially said no but then began to think it through and changed his mind. But when he finally said yes, it was too late. The group, the Minnesota 8, had been formed and were ready to act. They were of course caught and arrested. Harry made a speech during a protest at the courthouse during their trial. The protest was broken up by the riot police. Harry was arrested for the second time. He was ready to act.

In 1971 he went to Vietnam. He and three others chained themselves to the gates of the American Embassy in Saigon. They were arrested. On the way home he stopped in Rome where he tried to say a mass for peace on steps of the Basilica of St. Peter in Rome. He was arrested by the Swiss Guard. These acts of hard-won moral courage set the pattern for the rest of his life. He energetically organized and acted. Whether in Southeast Asia, India with Mother Teresa, Central and South America or the Middle East, where, at the age of 75, he was abducted at gunpoint in Gaza, Harry said no to war and yes to peace.

Two weeks ago I was in London and visited the Imperial War Museum. On the fifth floor is the Lord Ashcroft Gallery of Extraordinary Heroes. It describes itself as

“The world’s largest collection of Victoria Crosses, alongside a significant collection of George Crosses. . . . over 250 extraordinary stories of men, women and children who performed extraordinary acts of bravery to help other people in desperate need and who acted with courage and bravery.”

Near the entrance to the Gallery, there is a video screen playing a loop of short commentaries on heroism and courage by ‘just war’ luminaries. I watched as Lord Ashcroft talked about the physical and moral courage of the many heroes represented in the gallery. Thousands of young students troop through this museum for free every year. They listen to Lord Ashcroft and friends. There is no historical context. War is a given. This is how we have conducted it. There are no counter narratives. The language of the counter narrative is co-opted. Physical and moral courage are conflated. Moral courage is reduced to coming to the aid of your comrades in arms. There is no commentary on the morality of war.

In 2015, Chris Hedges participated in a debate at the Oxford Union. The question was whether or not Edward Snowden, the whistleblower, was a hero. Hedges, who as a journalist has seen much of war, and is an ordained Presbyterian pastor, argued in favor. He explained why:

“I have been to war. I have seen physical courage. But this kind of courage is not moral courage. Very few of even the bravest warriors have moral courage. For moral courage means to defy the crowd, to stand up as a solitary individual, to shun the intoxicating embrace of comradeship, to be disobedient to authority, even at the risk of your life, for a higher principle. And with moral courage comes persecution.”

Harry Bury understood the difference and was willing to be disobedient. For him, persecution was not a theoretical concept or a feeling of intellectual discomfort. It was the inside of a Vietnamese jail cell. It was being arrested in his own country for publicly challenging the war narrative. It was being abducted at gun point in Gaza.

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