Six weeks ago I planted a whole bed of collard green seeds and not a single one came up. For a Southern boy, this is the sort of thing that raises existential questions. I’m not interested in the why, which I suspect I know already. The more interesting question is about how, or whether, we’ll make it through late spring and summer without collards. If we do, will it be worth it?
Collards are not sexy like tomatoes. They’re not finicky prima donnas like melons. They just grow big dark green leaves, almost all year round in these parts. A little time is required for washing and picking and washing again, trimming the stalks and removing the bugs. But the pleasure of slow-cooked greens shared with friends is the payoff of the long hot days in the South. Or fast-cooked greens in a hot frying pan while they are still tender. Or baby leaves in a salad. Around here, some folks will fight for the pot likker, which is the broth that’s left after boiling them. The humble collard has an outsized place at our table, so big that the question of how we will survive without them seems not unreasonable as we discuss it in the April evening breeze.
I’m irritated. It is not the time that I spent, though there was that. Digging rows. Spacing the tiny seeds just right. Watering just enough when it did not rain. I’m irritated, and a little sad too. It feels like making plans with a friend who doesn’t show up. The table won’t quite be the same, though we’ll go on anyway.
So my collards didn’t come up this spring, and doggone it if Daniel Berrigan is not dead now, too, though he certainly has earned his blessed rest. Berrigan is the Jesuit priest who gave his life battling for peace in a world gone mad with war. He was a radical in a time when the world needed more radicals, which it still does.
Berrigan, his brother Phillip, a Josephite priest, and seven others walked into the draft office in Catonsville, Md., in 1968 and took hundreds of draft cards right out of the file cabinets. They burned them in the parking lot using homemade napalm. As they did it, Daniel Berrigan spoke: “Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children. … We could not, so help us God, do otherwise … thinking of the Land of Burning Children.” Later, the brothers, along with other friends, would found the Plowshares Movement. Seventy-one different times members have sought to beat nuclear weapons into farming equipment, taking great personal risk to witness to the goodness of the Prince of Peace.
Although he still has some enduring in the popular imagination, Berrigan’s dedication could not stop war. We are faced with the sobering fact that it seems to have made no difference at all. In a 2008 interview, he said, troubled by ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, that “this is the worst time of my long life.” This should not be read as resignation, though, but as a determined hope shaped by nothing less than the Cross. Berrigan’s writing and speaking is clear that in light of the life of Jesus: ‘”The good is to be done because it is good, not because it goes somewhere.” Or, as his New York Times obituary writer summarized of his work, “one has to keep doing the right thing, regardless of the near certainty that it will make no difference.”
We plant the seeds because the seeds need to be planted, in other words, and we need to be the ones planting them. The fruit of our labor may surprise us, and it often will not be what we thought we were hoping for. The struggle for justice, I’m learning, yields too little justice, and never soon enough. That is no reason to stop fighting. Formed in the fires of struggle is love, the kind of love that will lay down its life for friends, and for enemies as well. Love — fierce love, handcuffed love, suffering love — is what animates our sacred tradition. We keep on digging rows and planting seeds, trusting they will yield their fruit in their season (Ps. 1). But if not, getting our hands in the dirt together will be fruit enough.
The old folks in the South swear that the collards are good now, but the fall crop is better. We’ll sow again in late August, as they instruct us, and wait for the first frost to come six or eight weeks later. That first bitter night draws the sweetness into the leaves, they say. You’ll want to pick some soon after that. They’ll never be better.
Rest in God’s sweet peace, Father Daniel. The struggle goes on.