The Plowshares activists are on trial for anti-nuclear protest. Theologians say the Gospel’s on their side.

Seven Catholics, calling themselves the Kings Bay Plowshares, are seen April 4, 2018, before they entered the Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia to protest nuclear weapons. (CNS photo/Kings Bay Plowshares) 

“We were speaking out against omnicide⁠—the destruction of all life,” the anti-nuclear weapons activist Dean Hammer said before a court in Norristown, Pa., in 1990. A decade before, Mr. Hammer and seven other Christian activists, known as the Plowshares Eight, trespassed onto a General Electric facility in King of Prussia, Pa., where they vandalized nuclear warheads in a nonviolent direct action. The eight, which included the prominent peace activists Daniel Berrigan, S.J., and his brother, Philip Berrigan, took seriously the command of the Prophet Isaiah: “And they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (2:4).

The protest at General Electric inaugurated the Plowshares movement, which for nearly four decades has led several dozen nonviolent actions in opposition to nuclear proliferation and the ever-present threat of war. On April 4, 2018, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., seven Plowshares activists illegally entered the naval submarine base in Kings Bay, Ga., staining the property with their blood and placing crime scene tape around the base. Now they are facing up to 25 years in prison.

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The $1.3 billion, 9,000-personnel base is home to several ballistic missile submarines and includes the Trident Training Facility, where sailors are taught how to operate the missiles.

On April 4, 2018, seven Plowshares activists illegally entered the naval submarine base in Kings Bay, Ga., staining the property with their blood.

In a joint statement, the Plowshare activists—Martha Hennessy, Elizabeth McAlister, Clare Grady, Patrick O’Neill, Carmen Trotta, Mark Colville and Steve Kelly, S.J.—said, “Nuclear weapons eviscerate the rule of law, enforce white supremacy, perpetuate endless war...and ensure impunity for all manner of crimes against humanity.” The group also called on the Catholic Church to take action: “We plead to our Church to withdraw its complicity in violence and war.”

Many church leaders, peace activists and theologians have voiced their support for the Kings Bay Plowshare activists. An international petition to dismiss the charges against the activists includes the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Mairead Maguire, Bishop John Stowe of Lexington, Ky., and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu of Cape Town, South Africa, among its signatories.

In advance of the Plowshares’ trial on Oct. 21, America spoke with two theologians—Jeannine Hill Fletcher of Fordham University and Harold W. Attridge of Yale Divinity School—to discuss where nonviolent opposition to nuclear weapons fits within the Catholic tradition.

“These folk were making a prophetic statement in line with Catholic teaching and in line with the Gospel message,” said Mr. Attridge, the Sterling Professor of Divinity at Yale Divinity School.

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“These folk were making a prophetic statement in line with Catholic teaching and in line with the Gospel message,” said Mr. Attridge.

Mr. Attridge considers nonviolence “a fundamental value of the Gospel message” that has been put into practice by Christians like Martin Luther King Jr. and the Berrigan brothers.

“At the heart of the Gospel message, you have [the] sayings of Jesus, things like the Sermon on the Mount, to turn the other cheek. That is, to not respond violently,” he said.

Ms. Fletcher, a professor of theology at Fordham, also sees the essential continuity between the anti-nuclear protest and Catholic teaching. “What I saw in the Plowshares action is a commitment to the Catholic tradition where the primacy of conscience, all the way back to Aquinas, [says] we should not be following unjust laws—human laws that break and go against the moral law,” she said.

After meeting Mr. Trotta and Ms. Hennessy, the granddaughter of Servant of God Dorothy Day, at the Catholic Worker in New York City, Ms. Fletcher was asked to testify in defense of the Plowshares activists.

In the pending legal case against the Plowshares, Ms. Fletcher said, the fundamental question is, “Is this action grounded in a deeply held religious belief?”

“I was asked to provide evidence that would support their petition for dismissal of the charges or reduction of the charges based on whether...the court would be able to see their action as aligned with the principles of the Restoration of Religious Freedom Act,” she said.

The Restoration of Religious Freedom Act of 1993 states that “governments should not substantially burden religious exercise without compelling justification.” Any action by the government that would infringe upon religious freedom therefore faces “strict scrutiny.”

In the pending legal case against the Plowshares, Ms. Fletcher said, the fundamental question is, “Is this action grounded in a deeply held religious belief?”

While the individual histories and written statement of the Plowshares certainly reveal a depth of faith, the movement’s methods, including breaking the law and the pouring of blood, remain a point of contention for some.

In an article in the journal U.S. Catholic Historian in 2009, titled, “Disruptive Action and the Prophetic Tradition: War Resistance in the Plowshares Movement,” the sociologist Sharon Erickson Nepstad notes mixed reactions, even among Catholics like Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, to the illegal burning of draft files by the Catonsville Nine in May 1968. “Although there was little agreement within the Catholic peace movement about the legitimacy of this tactic, it stirred significant debate and dialogue,” writes Ms. Nepstad. She further references how opposition to Plowshares actions in the past have stemmed from a concern that such methods “could backfire by alienating potential sympathizers.”

Ms. Fletcher refers to the Plowshares’ protest at Kings Bay as “a sacramental action,” in which blood functioned to bless a space profaned by nuclear arms.

“There’s going to be a difference of opinion among Christians on how a prophetic ministry ought to be conducted,” said Mr. Attridge. “It’s one thing to say, ‘Oh, let’s not confront violence with violence.’ It’s another thing to say let’s take a stand against the structures that support and foster violence. And nuclear weapons certainly are structures that support and foster violence in a major way.”

Ms. Fletcher refers to the Plowshares’ protest at Kings Bay as “a sacramental action,” in which blood functioned to bless a space profaned by nuclear arms.

When asked about those who might take offense at the tactics of the activists, she responded: “You’re scandalized by the sprinkling of blood. How come you’re not scandalized by the potential of these bombs to actually spill blood around the globe?”

Like Mr. Attridge, Ms. Fletcher also sees a prophetic character in the Plowshares’ protest, calling it “public” and “over the top,” akin to the ministry of prophets in the Hebrew Bible. She points to the writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, who understood the biblical prophets as not exclusively clairvoyants or soothsayers but as disruptive instruments of God. “The prophet’s task is to convey a divine view, yet as a person he is a point of view,” Rabbi Heschel wrote in his 1962 book The Prophets.

“I want to witness to justice and peace, and I want that to be a gift to my offspring but also to all our offspring,” McAlister said.

In the face of possible imprisonment, the Plowshares have not stopped their ministry. On Sept. 29, all of the Kings Bay activists except Father Kelly and Mr. Colville attended a Festival of Hope at the Holyrood Episcopal Church in Washington Heights in New York City. The afternoon gathering gave over 250 supporters, including the journalist Amy Goodman and the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Tom Chapin, an opportunity to hear directly from the activists. A banner at the front of the altar announced its cause: “For A Nuclear Weapon Free World.”

Bud Courtney, who lives at the St. Joseph House Catholic Worker in Manhattan’s East Village, read aloud a letter from Father Kelly, while Mr. Colville called into the celebration from jail, where he has been awaiting trial since his arrest in April 2018. (He was released Oct. 1 on bond.)

“What am I doing here?” said Mr. Colville via phone to the congregation. It is a question Mr. Colville has asked himself many times since his arrest. “I think it’s particularly a relevant question in the weeks ahead when we go into the courtroom,” he said. Ms. Hennessy made a similar comment of uncertainty coupled with great conviction. “I still don’t know if I’m prepared to continue in this effort, but here I am,” she said.

Ms. McAlister, the wife of the late Philip Berrigan, said she was inspired to take part in yet another Plowshares action because she “wanted [her] life to have some sense of meaning.”

“I want to witness to justice and peace, and I want that to be a gift to my offspring but also to all our offspring,” she said.

The Rev. Luis Barrios, the pastor of Holyrood, paraphrased this June 1963 quotation by Martin Luther King Jr. in Detroit: “And I submit to you that if a man has not discovered something that he will die for, he isn’t fit to live.”

This is how Ms. Fletcher understands the actions of the Plowshares. “It seemed to me, as a theologian, that if we’re looking for work in the world that is carrying out this vision of blood being meant for life, that the Plowshares were willing to do that work—with their own blood, with their own lives,” she said.

Jury selection for the trial of the Kings Bay Plowshares begins at 9 a.m. on Oct. 21 in Brunswick, Ga.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
JR Cosgrove
1 month ago

No one should be for nuclear weapons but if only one power hungry group has them then the rest of the world will be held hostage and enslaved. Catholics will not prosper in such a scenario.

Aside: nuclear power is the only way we know to provide carbon free power to the world. There is a process that would supply the entire world with power for tens of thousands of years that does not require nuclear enrichment and would eliminate the fuel for nuclear bombs.

JR Cosgrove
1 month ago

It will always be possible to find a theologian who will support any position one comes up with. For example, pacifism leads to massive killing but is justified by many theologians.

A recommendation to Mr. Di Corpo, cover the speech by AG Barr at Notre Dame on the new secular religion. It is much more relevant than Plowshares http://bit.ly/33GAyVz

JR Cosgrove
1 month ago

Aside: In the photo above, what does racism have to do with nuclear weapons? Are we to assume that with the lack of genocide in the United States, there is no racism in our country? Or is the abortion of several million black babies, an example of genocide and the racism of white liberals? The poster is being held by 7 white liberals. Isn't that ironic?

M H
2 weeks 6 days ago

I believe the solution lies in a photo I came across that appears to have been snapped at the same time: https://www.newcoldwar.org/trident-is-the-crime-kathy-kelly/.

It shows them holding a sign that says: The Ultimate Logic of Trident is Omnicide. I'm guessing that the banner is two-sided, with the Martin Luther King Jr. quotation on the other side. Thus (whether one agrees with them or not) they're drawing a parallel between the dynamics of the two views.

Christopher Lochner
1 month ago

They wouldn't protest anything if they were not able to clothe themselves in their own personal glory. The pre-protest selfie was an example or this. And, once again, everyone's favorite Servant of God and Avowed Anarchist Dorothy Day is mentioned. I'm beginning to wonder if the concept of a professor of theology is actually just a sham. Is it really about God or is it all about the professor? The actions of Ms Fletcher are the answer and are quite clear. Mega-sham but I'm sure it pays well.

Gene Roman
1 month ago

The original draft card burning action of the Catonsville Nine troubled both Merton and Dorothy Day. Merton expressed concern about elements of the Catholic peace movement degenerating into the violent terrorism of groups like the Weather Underground. “Now non-violent, now flower-power, now burn-baby, all sweetness on Tuesday and all hell-fire on Wednesday,” he wrote in his journal. Dorothy spoke at a gathering of Catonsville Nine supporters in the basement of St. Ignatius Parish in Baltimore. When she returned to NY months later, she wrote that "these actions are not ours". This did not stop her from remaining friends with Danny B. and others. His first mass after release from prison was celebrated at The Catholic Worker with Dorothy sitting in the front row. https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/postscript-daniel-berrigan-1921-2016

Michael Bindner
1 month ago

Henry David Thoreau advocated staying in jail. Jesus advocated martyrdom. Only the members of the Eleven were caught and released, until they too are martyrs. When Paul and the Baptist were arrested, they never got out. This is what the Gospel asks. That modern Christianity seeks State Department aid in avoiding martyrdom, rather than embracing it as a witness, is not what Jesus did.

Guillermo Nery
1 month ago

I think that there is no justification for killing a child. Not if other children will die. Not if more children will die. Math is not applicable here. There is no justifying the use of a nuclear weapon when there is a chance a child will be killed, or any other innocent. Carpet bombing of WW II is the same. Even if the child were pointing a loaded gun at me with intent to kill, it would be difficult for me to respond in kind. We must place limits on ourselves. We must protect them.

Terry Kane
1 month ago

Catholics used to support war when it was US vs fascism. That war led to the nuclear age.
Now, Catholics are expected to be nonviolent, yet the article oddly claims, "they vandalized nuclear warheads in a 'nonviolent' direct action". Violent is defined as, "marked by the use of usually harmful or destructive physical force." Breaking in and damaging things not belonging to them would certainly qualify as violence.
Plowshares members contend, “Nuclear weapons eviscerate the rule of law, enforce white supremacy, perpetuate endless war...and ensure impunity for all manner of crimes against humanity.”
How that belief was arrived at is incomprehensible. We have nuclear weapons, but how do nuclear weapons eviscerate the rule of law? We have those weapons, but where is the endless war? What does white supremacy have to do with nuclear weapons? (Are China, India, No. Korea, etc. white???) How do nuclear weapons "ensure impunity for all manner of crimes against humanity"? This whole article is a foolish absurdity.
This is such a befuddled pack of nonsense which tries to make it seem that lawbreaking the Catholic thing to do.
According to the reasoning of Plowshares members, Catholics should raid every Planned Parenthood center and vandalize the abortion equipment. Is that an honorable Catholic thing to do?
What do the Jesuits think of Catholics' intelligence?

Kevin Murphy
1 month ago

I noticed the white supremacy comment too. It's all the rage, bashing white people. Gotta stay current with the latest progressive fads.

Esperanza Y Paz
1 month ago

Illegally entering a military installation, and defacing and vandalizing property, regardless of the underlying motives, are criminal actions and should be dealt with accordingly. Being a Catholic plowshares activist does not exempt from the consequences. It's as simple as that.

It should be noted that they are not on trial for an antinuclear protest. They are on trial for charges of conspiracy, destruction of property on a naval installation, depredation of government property and trespass.

E.Patrick Mosman
1 month ago

Why don't these protestors take their protests to Russia,China,North Korea, India,Pakistan the other nuclear powers and the wannabe Iran? See how they treat protesters.

Guillermo Nery
1 month ago

They probably should go, particularly to post-USSR countries which, besides the US, have the largest M.A.D. stockpikes of nuclear weapons in the world. Others should then take their place in the US and continue their work here.

Guillermo Nery
1 month ago

They probably should go, particularly to post-USSR countries which, besides the US, have the largest M.A.D. stockpikes of nuclear weapons in the world. Others should then take their place in the US and continue their work here.

Stanley Kopacz
3 weeks 6 days ago

Thermonuclear devices may be needed in the future for asteroid deflection. The requisite materials should be securely stored separately under international guard. But we need to disassemble the weapons. If we don't, they will be eventually used on purpose or by accident. Funny how communism collapsed but the nuclear threat is still there. And now we have a dingbat-in-chief with "the football". Oh well, a nuclear war would destroy Trump property. I feel better now.

M H
2 weeks 6 days ago

Speaking as a Catholic Worker, I agree with Dorothy Day's view that "these actions are not ours." (See Gene Roman's comment here on DD, TM, and the Catonsville Nine.) If the aim of prophecy is to change hearts, then I believe that Plowshares actions backfire.

Nevertheless, I know and love more than one Plowshares activist. I also say in their defense that they engage in only token destruction.

Thus, in answer to those who categorically condemn these women and men: Nobody undertakes these actions without first doing profound discernment. People who are willing to do 25 years deserve respect for their serious-mindedness, their integrity, and the undoubted depth of their faith.

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