Kevin ClarkeAugust 06, 2021
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. The group includes, from left, Clare Grady, Patrick O'Neill, Elizabeth McAlister, Jesuit Father Steve Kelly, Martha Hennessy, Mark Colville and Carmen Trotta. (CNS photo/courtesy Kings Bay Plowshares)

Steve Kelly, S.J., is trying to remain “discreet” about his precise whereabouts just now—it seems there is a warrant out for his arrest. He had already explained to the judge who freed him in April after nearly three years behind bars: He had—and has—no intention of cooperating with any of the stipulations of his supervised release. It took him no time at all to begin pushing against those stipulations.

He was ordered to report at a federal probation office within 72 hours of his release. He has not done so. It is the kind of obstinance that is likely to get a fellow sent back to jail sometime. Father Kelly is on probation after serving time for his most recent acts of civil disobedience in protest of the U.S. nuclear weapons regime.

If he is “just incidentally arrested” at a demonstration or picked up during a traffic stop, he expects to be dragged back to a Georgia federal court, where he would face an additional four to 15 months behind bars. Father Kelly seems completely at peace with the prospect.

“I kind of make like a monk when I’m in jail,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to be in there for life, of course, but it’s not a big price to pay, at least for myself.”

Wire-cutting in Georgia

A member of Kings Bay Plowshares 7, Father Kelly was convicted for his part in a protest at the Kings Bay Navy base in St. Marys, Ga., home port for six of America’s 14 Ohio-class nuclear submarines. These each carry 24 Trident nuclear ballistic missiles.

Steve Kelly, S.J.: “I kind of make like a monk when I’m in jail. I wouldn’t want to be in there for life, of course, but it’s not a big price to pay, at least for myself.”

On April 4, 2018, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Father Kelly and six other protesters organized through the Plowshares disarmament movement used hardware-store wire cutters to break into the base.

Father Kelly describes the day’s action as a coordinated three-pronged attack on the nuclear weapons regime at Kings Bay: Martha Hennessy and Clare Grady went to the Strategic Weapons Facility Atlantic offices, where they put up crime scene tape and poured vials of their blood on the sidewalk; Mark Colville and Patrick O’Neill went to the “missile shrine” to neutralize the missile replicas with biblical passages; and the rest of the team, Father Kelly, Elizabeth McAlister and Carmen Trotta, cut through razor wire and cyclone fencing at the nuclear warhead bunkers where they unfurled a banner: “Nuclear weapons: illegal & immoral.”

He recalls that “the bunker is lit up and double-fenced and guard-towered like a prison…[and] patrolled by Marines with lethal mandates.”

Instead of receiving a reward for revealing the incredibly poor security at one of the nation’s premier nuclear weapons storage sites, they were promptly arrested.

Like other Kings Bay Plowshares 7 protesters, Father Kelly declined to apply for bail, waiting behind bars for trial. That meant at his sentencing in Octoberhe was released for time served.

Among the court orders he is ignoring, Father Kelly is declining to pay his share of $33,000 in restitution ordered for the damage at the submarine base: “Why would we want to pay for such idolatry?” he asks. “I’m indigent and I’m itinerant, so I’m just not going to allow donated money to pay for nuclear weapons.”

Paying the restitution and accepting the court supervision seem the path of least resistance. Why risk the additional jail time?

“This is the same authority that has been legitimizing nuclear weapons, so I just cannot in conscience cooperate,” he says.

“My beef is with the U.S. policy of nuclear weapons, so I am a political prisoner. Now, I’m not going to be recognized as a political prisoner by the Bureau of Prisons, nor the executive branch, probably by any branch of the U.S. government, but I still have to assert that; I have to humanize myself,” Father Kelly says.

“I assert my innocence; I assert the political nature of it, and I'm a conscientious objector to all that nuclear weapons represent.”

Like other Kings Bay Plowshares 7 protesters, Father Kelly declined to apply for bail, waiting behind bars for trial. That meant at his sentencing in October he was released for time served.

That commitment to comprehensive noncooperation pertained during his months in a federal lockup, where Father Kelly refused to do prison work or accept a gamut of standard policies behind bars. For an inmate, that position is not risk-free. “I don’t get any privileges...I lose ‘good time’; I lose visiting; I lose phone; I lose the greater part of commissary [access], all those kinds of things.”

Primacy of conscience

In his pre-sentencing declaration, he described nuclear weapons as “flying extermination ovens,” comparing civil disobedience against U.S. nuclear weapons policy to resistance to the Nazi regime and the Holocaust it pursued. “In conscience,” he told the judge, “I can’t let any court order or threat restrict me from imitation of the Good Shepherd, Jesus, when he placed himself, laying down his life, between the wolf, the thief and the flock.

“In this case, the wolf is the Trident aimed at millions and the thief is the larceny from the poor predicted by Eisenhower in his Oval Office departure.”

Father Kelly has now been jailed for two nearly three-year sentences twice because of his witness against nuclear weapons. Each time he was forced to overcome some serious culture shock at his release. His first long tour of jail duty ended in 2002, just as the clergy sex abuse crisis was commanding headlines everywhere, “and of course, after 9/11 happened.”

It took some getting used to the changed America he was confronted by then. Last October Father Kelly once again emerged into an America deeply altered, this time a cultural landscape completely reconfigured by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“It still feels very strange to be so distant from people, literally, figuratively, not being able to just walk right up and shake hands with somebody or hug an old friend.

“I forgot all about it, walked up to a Jesuit that I had not met before…to shake his hand. And he just said, ‘You know, we haven’t been doing that for the past year.’”

Steve Kelly, S.J.: “My beef is with the U.S. policy of nuclear weapons, so I am a political prisoner. Now, I’m not going to be recognized as a political prisoner by the Bureau of Prisons...but I have to assert that.”

While the pandemic raged outside his cell, Father Kelly did not see much going on in the prison to suggest the seriousness of the menace sweeping the country. That was a bit of a surprise. “You would think with a concentrated population that the shots would have come early,” he says, at least out of a concern for the guards if nobody else.

There were no Covid-19 cases recorded in Georgia during his detention there. “But after I left, about 16 people came down with the virus,” he says. “It was pretty scary.”

A unique Jesuit community

This is not the first time he has been low-key on the run from federal warrants. He remembers an attempt to corral him in New York in 1996 when he was living at the Jesuit community on 98th Street, one described in a letter to the general superior in Rome as “unique in the annals of Jesuit history.”

“There were four former felons living in the house then: Dan [Berrigan] and myself, John Dear and…Ned Murphy.”

It is possible the federal marshals who tossed the entire community looking for Father Kelly did not appreciate that uniqueness. His attorney, the late Ramsey Clark (who was Attorney General of the United States under President Lyndon B. Johnson), wrote to the head U.S. marshal to complain that the search warrant for 98th Street had been “overextended.”

“Their warrant was only good for one apartment,” he explains, “but they went through the entire Jesuit community trying to locate me.”

After Clark’s admonishment, “they didn’t come into the building anymore.”

Father Kelly is not too worried about getting picked up now. Federal marshals no doubt have bigger priorities. “I’m small potatoes,” he says.

“I guess while there’s still strength within me, while there’s still the ability in me, I would like to be participating” in resistance to nuclear weapons.

Father Kelly’s time behind bars taught him a lot about the American criminal justice system. He marvels at its peculiar focus on punishment and slapdash approach to post-incarceration restoration.

In prisons, you “encounter this tremendous misery of people,” he says. “What I’ve seen when I've been locked up is a lot of people who have a loved one or a son or a daughter or parent or spouse or whomever, all doing time with that [incarcerated] person.”

He has come to support experiments in restorative justice, pointing out that two-thirds of the people incarcerated in the United States have been imprisoned for nonviolent offenses. “As we're speaking, there's two and a quarter million people behind bars, and then there's another six million people who are on some form of probation or supervised release.”

He sees cultural connective tissue from that eagerness to enforce the violence of incarceration to the willingness to do gun violence in the streets, finally to the “right to defend freedom” by global violence through nuclear weapons. To him, all are thoroughly American impulses in contradiction to the gospel.

Since his release, Father Kelly has embarked on a campaign to bolster communities of resistance to nuclear weapons around the country.

“There’s a number of places where the research and development [on nuclear weapons] is continuing and we’re trying to just have an ongoing rejuvenation of our response.” The United States, like other world powers with nuclear weapons, is planning to modernize its nuclear arsenal. The Pentagon intends to spend some $1.5 trillion over the next three decades, retiring old weapons and developing new nuclear weapons technologies, reserves and delivery systems. It is a vast threat to life everywhere and a gross theft from the poor, Father Kelly says. He wants the U.S. Plowshares movement prepared to confront it.

Father Kelly’s time behind bars taught him a lot about the American criminal justice system. He marvels at its peculiar focus on punishment and slapdash approach to post-incarceration restoration.

He considers himself on standby for another Plowshares action should other activists be willing to join him. “I wouldn't do one by myself,” Father Kelly said, “but if there were people that came forward, that would be a tremendous influence [on] me, and I would be praying about that and discerning with them as we went along about the timing and about the place and about the right combination of factors to discern if that’s God’s will or not.”

That would, of course, likely mean another stretch in a federal prison in his future. Father Kelly struggles a bit trying to add up how many years of his life have been spent in jails and prisons. “I suppose you kind of almost need a chart,” he finally says after mentally scrolling through a number of arrests and trials. In all, he thinks he has spent about 11 years behind bars in balance for his witness against nuclear weapons.

Retirement account

After such a deep sacrifice of years of his own life, is it time for him to consider a pacifist’s retirement? To withdraw from the active struggle and allow others to pick up the burden?

He recalls hearing the same questions put to one of his mentors, Philip Berrigan, who passed away in 2002. (Elizabeth McAlister, Berrigan’s wife, is one of the Kings Bay Plowshares 7.) “‘You’re getting older now; why don't you just retire and let the younger people take over?’”

He shares Berrigan’s attitude about it. “I guess while there’s still strength within me, while there’s still the ability in me, I would like to be participating in this.”

“The main thing is,” he says, “if the witness has any quality to it. We leave that up to God. God just kind of pulls us forward. We make our ‘yes’; we do the best we can in the symbolic activity, and I say, let God do the rest of it.”

Father Kelly says he maintains tremendous hope that “people will pick up this mission” when and if he finally concludes his activism for peace.

To some, acts of civil disobedience like the ones orchestrated by Plowshares may reek of 1960s nostalgia, but Father Kelly considers the effort to rid the world of nuclear weapons very much of this time and this place. “This is the same kind of thing that took place in the previous century when we did away with slavery,” he says. “Anyone [then] would have told you, ‘Wow, no, slavery is here to stay. It’s an economic reality that has been around for thousands of years. You're not going to undo this.’”

He believes that nuclear weapons will one day soon be similarly recognized as “God’s nightmare.” There has, in fact, been much recent progress on ridding the world of nuclear weapons.

Through a number of treaties over decades that have eliminated entire classes of nuclear weapons, the United States and Russia (and its predecessor Soviet Union) made huge reductions in the number of nuclear weapons in their arsenals. From a Cold War high of more than 70,000 nuclear warheads, that mutual global arsenal has been reduced to about 14,000 weapons. The United States alone reduced its arsenal by 87 percent, from 32,000 warheads in 1967 to about 4,000 operational and reserve weapons today.

Last year, the United Nations ratified an abolition treaty that outlaws nuclear weapons as a moral and existential affront. The abolition movement has failed, so far, to persuade any of the nine members of the nuclear weapons club to completely abandon their programs, but Father Kelly remains optimistic about Plowshares’ odds in this countercultural fight.

He notes the movement of the church under Pope Francis away from what had been a qualified acceptance of nuclear deterrence to an absolute rejection of the moral acceptability of any possession of nuclear weapons. “We knew that the church was very much opposed to nuclear weapons,” he says, “but to be able to have something that official, that coordinated, to be able to speak with one voice is just a tremendous help.”

Father Kelly says he maintains tremendous hope that “people will pick up this mission” when and if he finally concludes his activism for peace.

“That's what it's going to take, I think. The politicians will follow the people,” he says.

“Maybe I might not see it in my lifetime, but I think the days [of nuclear weapons] are numbered.”

More from America:

The latest from america

March for Life participants demonstrate near Union Station in Washington Jan. 29, 2021, amid the coronavirus pandemic.
If the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade and sends the abortion issue back to the states, will there still be a need for the annual rally and march in Washington?
“Having the most powerful political leader in the world and the greatest moral voice of our time talking together about climate change is extremely powerful.”
Kevin ClarkeOctober 28, 2021
On "Inside the Vatican," Colleen and Gerry dig into the issues that President Biden, President Moon and Prime Minister Modi are likely to bring up with Pope Francis.
Inside the VaticanOctober 28, 2021
The Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square this year will have a distinctly Indigenous, Andean look to mark the 200th anniversary of Peru's independence.
Catholic News ServiceOctober 28, 2021