From 1981: Father Carl Kabat of the Plowshares Eight on the risk of speaking truth
Editor’s note: This article first appeared as “Carl Kabat of Plowshares Eight" in the June 13, 1981 issue of America.
On Sept. 9, 1980, Oblate Father Carl Kabat and seven others walked into the General Electric Space Division plant in King of Prussia, Pa., and, using hammers, damaged two nuclear warheads. They also poured blood on the warheads and some documents they found nearby.
On March 6, 1981, the eight were found guilty of burglary, criminal mischief and criminal conspiracy. Sentencing is expected to take place in the next three months. The “Plowshares Eight” (they take their name from the biblical prophecy that “in the last days they shall turn their swords into plowshares”) face up to 25 years in prison. Father Kabat’s reaction to the verdict: “It was expected.”
“I’m not new at this,” Father Kabat says. Indeed he is not.
Seven and one-half hours later, 10 days after the trial had begun, the jury returned and delivered their verdict, several of them struggling with tears.
In 1978 Father Kabat was sentenced to one year in prison for attempting to chain shut the doors of the Pentagon. In 1979, he and others poured blood on the pillars of the White House, then in 1980 poured blood again, this time at the Pentagon. “The Pentagon sheds blood,” says Father Kabat in explaining the intended significance of the blood spilling. Those actions brought sentences totaling 11 months.
Why does Father Kabat insist on engaging in activism that inevitably leads to jail? In 1979, from a jail cell in Washington, D.C, he told the National Catholic Reporter: “When the state puts such resources into weapons of destruction, it’s a healthy thing for Christians to be in trouble with the state. The times being what they are, I believe it’s appropriate for a Christian to be behind bars.”
Not to imply that Father Kabat likes jail (”they’re all hell holes”), but he can practice his faith in them as well as out in the “free” world. Father Kabat describes the nearly a year spent in jail in 1978 as “the best year of my life.” Prior to his recent trial, Father Kabat and three of his fellow activists (the other four were released for various reasons) spent several months in the Montgomery County Prison in Morristown, Pa.
“Every day from 9:00 to 10:30 in the morning we had Bible study,” Father Kabat said in explaining their routine. “Then in the evening we had scriptural study from 9:00 to 11:00.” The evening sessions centered on the Gospel of St. Mark and were attended by only the four, one of them taking charge of preparations each night. The morning sessions, however, were joined by several other inmates; there would be singing and they would rehearse the Beatitudes.
According to Father Kabat, the sessions and the general change in atmosphere created by the four so disturbed prison officials that they asked the four to sign “some document,” and then they would be released. The four refused and finally “they just threw us out. We promised nothing, signed nothing.” Father Kabat laughs, “One day our bail was $125,000, and the next we were out on the street.” It was a happening unique in Father Kabat’s jail experience.
A Catholic priest of the Order of Mary Immaculate, Father Kabat is not the stereotypical “radical.” He is 47 years old; his short, somewhat curly hair is receding. He is soft-spoken, thoughtful, prayerful, friendly; he blushes easily when kidded. His personal history has not been one of radical cause-jumping; rather, his evolution as an “activist” has been gradual.
Early in his life Father Kabat had what he calls “hints” of his calling to “speak truth.” It was during seven years as a missionary, however, living and working among the poor in the Philippines and Recife, Brazil, that those hints began to focus into his present commitment.
"Christ broke the law. He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and took charge of the temple. He cured on the Sabbath, He plucked grain on the Sabbath.”
Father Kabat worked as a missionary from 1965-73 (he spent 1968 in a parish in Richfield, Minn.). When he returned to the United States “and saw my father (a farmer) getting paid not to grow food” he was convinced that it was here, in the United States, that fundamental changes needed to be made in order to help alleviate the daily starvation and poverty he had witnessed as a missionary. Of the warheads damaged in the G.E. incident Father Kabat asks: “How many have they killed already?” Papal documents clearly state, he says, that even when they are not used, arms kill by virtue of the money invested in them, money that could be used to help feed the poor.
Father Kabat then worked with the Justice and Peace Commission of his order in Bemidji, Minn., before joining Jonah House, a community of nonviolent peace activists in Baltimore, Md., in 1977. Two other members of the “Plowshares Eight” are also members of Jonah House—former priest Philip Berrigan and John Schuchardt, a lawyer and father of three children. The other five of the eight are: Molly Rush, director of the Thomas Merton Center in Pittsburgh, Pa., and mother of six; Anne Montgomery, a Sister of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, member of the Prayer House Community in New York City and a counselor at a refuge for young runaways and prostitutes on Times Square; Elmer Maas, a former philosophy and music teacher and founder of the Law Resistance League; Dean Hammer, a graduate of Yale Divinity School in New Haven, Conn., and one of the founders of Covenant Peace Community in New Haven; and Daniel Berrigan, a Jesuit priest and brother of Philip, author, teacher and lecturer. All eight are veterans of nonviolent resistance.
Father Berrigan, in an interview with The New Yorker Magazine, said: “The atmosphere today is poisoned for civil disobedience, but that’s a time when it’s even more important; it’s a kind of beckoning.” Father Kabat agrees with Berrigan’s appraisal: “Reagan got in. The emphasis is on law and order. Then (the Vietnam years) it was one country, now we might just blow the world apart.”
Why did the eight choose the G.E. plant as the site for their witness? “We knew what they make there—it’s not washing machines,” said Father Kabat. The Mark 12-A nuclear warheads damaged are first-strike weapons and have a destructive capacity up to 355 kilotons, or 28 times the power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.The warhead is triply-mounted on Minutemen III missies and will also be deployed, 10 warheads to a missile, on the planned MX system. Father Kabat also pointed out that the Plowshare Eight witness was not the first at the plant: “People in Philadelphia have had a presence (vigils and other nonviolent demonstrations) there for two or three years.”
Discussion concerning plans for their own peace witness began back in January of 1980. May was first projected as the month when the action would take place, but that date was postponed and postponed again until finally Sept. 8 was decided on. Then, when Father Berrigan became very sick with the flu, it was delayed one more day to Sept. 9. Father Kabat, because he was in jail much of the time, was able to participate in little of the planning. The eight conducted a four-day retreat of talk and prayer just prior to the walk-in.
As Father Kabat describes his role in the walk-in (”It wasn’t a break-in; the door was open and we just walked in”), he and Sister Montgomery went in first and engaged the security guard in conversation. While they were talking, the other six hurried in behind them. The guard saw them, decided he could not stop them himself and turned to use the phone. Sister Montgomery had her hand on the receiver; the guard removed it, and she went to join the six. Father Kabat hesitated, considered trying to depress the receiver button but did not. The guard dialed his call and Father Kabat went to find the others.
The seven, meanwhile, not knowing the layout of the building, by chance had come upon the room housing the warheads; “It was a very graced day,” Father Kabat says. As he neared the door to the room, he saw the guard coming behind him. Father Kabat knelt down, hoping to delay him. When the guard reached him, Father Kabat said to him, “That’s all right brother,” assuring him they were nonviolent. Like the others, Father Kabat had a hammer, but in delaying the guard he had not had a chance to use his. He said to the guard, “Please let me join the others,” but was not allowed to.
The other seven, after hammering the warheads and pouring blood on them, some papers, desks and floor, formed a circle and began to chant and to pray the Lord’s prayer. When more security police arrived they were arrested and taken into custody. It was not until the eight were together again in the police wagon that Father Kabat learned of their success: “We got them!” an elated Elmer Maas told him.
The trial was conducted in Montgomery County Court, Norrisstown, Pa., Judge Samuel W. Salus II presiding. The eight chose to act as their own defense, engaging three attorneys—Ramsey Clark, Charles Glackin and Michael Shields—as advisers. Although Father Kabat says the verdict was expected (”There was a faint hope that truth would be recognized but no great expectation of such”), the defendants were frustrated by the proceedings.
Father Carl Kabat: "The times being what they are, I believe it’s appropriate for a Christian to be behind bars.”
Judge Salus and Assistant District Attorney Bruce J. Eckel insisted at the outset on sticking to the “facts” of the case and not making it an issue of international law or conscience. When the jury was first selected, the defendants were allowed to pose questions to them. When Father Kabat asked one, “Do you think you should follow your conscience?” he was objected to and the objection was sustained. Father Berrigan took the stand in his own defense and was allowed to speak at length, but when Mr. Maas followed and proposed to talk about international law and nuclear technology, he was interrupted constantly and finally refused to proceed. Judge Salus would not allow seven of the defendant’s key witnesses to take the stand, ruling that their testimony would be irrelevant to the case. Those witnesses were George Wald, professor emeritus from Harvard and Nobel laureate; Richard Falk, professor of international law at Princeton University; Helen Caldicott, pediatrician, president of Physicians for Social Responsibility; Robert Aldridge, former aerospace engineer with Lockheed where he designed five generations of submarine-launched ballistic missiles before resigning; Robert Jay Lifton, professor of psychiatry at Yale University; Daniel Ellsberg, former Pentagon official and member of the Rand Corporation think-tank; and Bishop Carroll Dozier of Memphis, Tenn.
Finally four of the defendants—Father Kabat, Philip Berrigan, Elmer Maas and John Schuchardt—boycotted the trial, choosing rather to take part in a rally at the G.E. plant. The four defendants remaining told Judge Salus, “We cannot speak truth here,” then turned their back to him and stood in silence. About 25 supporters of the eight also stood with their backs to the court, and the defendant’s three advisers walked out of the courtroom. Judge Salus ordered those standing removed from the court. When after 15 minutes the boycotting defendants had not returned, Judge Salus adjourned for the day.
The following day all eight defendants were back in court, the four who had boycotted the previous day having been returned by sheriff’s deputies. While the eight stood silently with their backs to the court, Judge Salus began to charge the jury with the law. He said that property destruction could only be justified in a dire emergency and that “the defense of justification is not proper in this case.” The defendants had earlier claimed that their actions were justified, indeed obligated, under God’s law, international law and Pennsylvania law. Sections of Title 18 of Pennsylvania’s Consolidated Statutes permit “conduct which the actor believes to be necessary to avoid harm or evil to himself or another,” where “the harm or evil sought to be avoided. . . is greater than that sought to be prevented by the law defining the offense charged.” Such conduct may involve “the appropriation, seizure or destruction of, damage to, intrusion on or interference with property.” The eight claimed justification in that theirs was an attempt to prevent a worse evil, nuclear war, from taking place.
As Judge Salus made his presentation, several members of the audience again stood with their backs to the court and “someone began to hum, some peace song,” Father Kabat says. His mother and his brother, Paul, also a priest, were in the audience. Mrs. Kabat was sitting in front; she had not stood with her back to the court or participated in the humming and singing in the previous demonstrations and she did not now because “she wanted to be there for the trial.” As the humming continued. Judge Salus cleared the entire courtroom. Father Kabat laughs good naturedly, recalling his mother’s reaction. “She told me, ‘I was thrown out and I didn’t even do anything.’”
Father Kabat insists that “results” are not what his actions are about: “You do what you have to do and leave it in God’s hands.”
After Judge Salus had finished his presentation he released the jury to begin their deliberations. Seven and one-half hours later, 10 days after the trial had begun, the jury returned and delivered their verdict, several of them struggling with tears.
“They tried their damnedest to find us not guilty, “ Father Kabat says, “but they followed the judge’s instructions.” The verdict will be appealed. Father Kabat seems relatively unconcerned with their chances of “success.” “Mostly it (the appeal) is to try to keep them honest, to get the courts to follow their own laws so that others in that county are treated more justly.” Father Kabat said the court in Montgomery County is the worst he has ever been in.
Father Kabat will continue to “speak truth”; it is what he feels called to do. What advice would he give to others who also feel called to civil disobedience and other forms of witness? “First it must be nonviolent, that’s the only way.” Father Kabat said reports that there was any violence against persons in the G.E. witness are “totally false”; the eight were acquitted on all charges involving violence against persons. “And people should read. Gandhi, Tolstoy, King (Martin Luther), the Bible. Christ broke the law. He overturned the tables of the moneychangers and took charge of the temple. He cured on the Sabbath, He plucked grain on the Sabbath.”
Father Kabat also emphasized prayer and community. “Talk with others who have had experience in civil disobedience; work it through with people—your fears, thoughts, questions. You can do it individually, but community is best. Gandhi and Christ had folks around.”
Father Kabat insists that “results” are not what his actions are about: “You do what you have to do and leave it in God’s hands.” Still, if something were to “come of” all this, what would his hope be? “Get rid of all the damn nuclear bombs,” Father Kabat laughs, “at least stop making them.” More modestly, though, Father Kabat hopes that “more people will take responsibility to do whatever ought to be done. Risk a little. It’s difficult to say what that means. It might be putting a banner up in front of your church, or writing a letter to the paper, or handing out a leaflet on the comer. It’s different for everyone. Go at whatever level you’re at, but take some sort of risk to be speaking truth.”