by Deena Guzder
While most Americans were celebrating Independence Day by unfurling flags and setting off fireworks, over a dozen ex-convicts gathered in Oak Ridge, Tenn., to discuss the intricacies of weapons of mass destruction. These radical Christian pacifists want to dismantle bombs, not detonate them. More than 180 peace activists convened last weekend to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Plowshares movement, an anti-nuclear weapons movement spearheaded by religious pacifists. By clanging on the wings of fighter planes and the nosecones of nuclear weapons, Plowshares activists hoped to literally enact Isaiah’s prophecy: “They will hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never again will they learn war.”
In the 1980s, a small group of tenacious pacifists emerged from the Vietnam antiwar movement to pioneer the Plowshares movement by drawing on a long tradition of socially engaged Catholicism. Eight activists, including the outlaw priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan, strode into the General Electric Co. plant in King of Prussia, Pa., and, in Old Testament fashion, clanged on Mark 12-A missiles. These sanguine priests proceeded to destroy the nuclear facility’s sanitized image by splattering top-secret documents with vials of their own blood, a sacrificial plea to their county to cut back its defense department budget and increase spending on programs for the poor. The “Plowshares Eight,” as they were known in the media, told reporters that, as Christians, they refused to worship at the altar of a false god, a pagan idol: Mars, the god of war. “We choose to obey God’s Law of life, rather than a corporate summons to death,” stated the group’s press release. “In our action, we draw on a deep-rooted faith in Christ, who changed the course of history through his willingness to suffer rather than to kill.” Veterans of the Plowshare movement have served up to 10 years behind bars for their act of civil disobedience against nuclear proliferation, or what they call act of “divine obedience” to the Prince of Peace.
The American public reacted to the Plowshares Eight with a mixture of awe, confusion, and anger. At the height of the Cold War, few Americans genuinely thought a country enmeshed in political conflict with an enemy as formidable as the USSR was liable to change its nuclear strategy simply because members of the clergy decided to douse weapons with their blood. Similarly, the Church was not going to reevaluate its Just War position to appease a fringe pacifist movement dramatically proclaiming the Gospel message of nonviolence. Even sympathizers wondered if the activists were naïve for opposing that the country retained even a small nuclear stockpile as a credible deterrent against foreign aggression. Yet, the Plowshares Eight did prompt many Americans to wonder what drove otherwise respectable nuns and priests to risk a lifetime in prison.
The 30th anniversary celebration of the Plowshares movement came on the heels of President Obama’sNuclear Posture Review, which was released in April of this year. While some activists commended Obama for limiting first-use of nuclear weapons by the United States and publically stating his commitment to a nuclear-free world, most voiced disappointment that his administration’s fiscal year 2011 defense budget–even when adjusted for inflation–surpasses any Pentagon budget since World War II. Plowshares activists advocate a “born-again” economy in which military expenditures are channeled into programs assisting the destitute and sick. When not symbolically converting nuclear stockpiles into farming tools or, as they say, instigating “holy mischief, these troublemakers spend their days volunteering at soup kitchens, tutoring students in low-income neighborhoods, and organizing peace rallies.
Since the inaugural King of Prussia protest, over 200 people of faith have participated in nearly 80 Plowshares actions suffused with religious symbolism and heartfelt pleas for moral renewal despite widespread concern about nuclear weapons waning at the end of the Cold War. Plowshares activists regard their commitment to abolishing nuclear weapons as a higher calling to God — a God who they say promotes peace rather than warfare, bread rather than guns, and plowshares rather than swords. Before infiltrating nuclear facilities, participants join together to read the Gospels, pray for moral guidance, study the intricacies of nuclear weapons, reflect on the value of moral witness, review court transcripts from previous protests, enact skits dramatizing confrontations with potentially trigger-happy Air Force security patrol, prepare themselves to use their court trials to air their grievances against nuclear weapons, and build a community of supporters to sustain them while in prison.
During last weekend’s 30th anniversary celebrations, former cellmates warmly embraced one another and discussed pending appeals. Workshops included sessions on “International Law and Nuclear Weapons” and “Freedom Songs to Sing in Jail.” Participants donned T-shirts stating, “Blessed are the Peacemakers” and “Citizen Weapons inspector.” Japanese Buddhist monks partook in the festivities, joining audience members in singing, “No more Hiroshima, no more Nagasaki, never again.”
After three decades of trespassing onto nuclear facilities, activists admit the Plowshares movement has not curtailed the country’s burgeoning military budget. Nonetheless, they remain dedicated to their “prophetic witness”. Father John Dear, a Jesuit Priest who infiltrated the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in 1993 to hammer on a F-15 “Strike Eagle” nuclear fighter-bomber, is optimistic about the movement’s future. The priest said the movement will continue “because nuclear weapons continue, because the world continues to be at great risk of nuclear war, and because the Scripture mandates that you’re there –Isaiah mandates that you beat swords into plowshares, and Jesus says love your enemies — and because people know that the only way that social change happens is when some people take great risks and break bad laws and accept the consequences.”
Deena Guzder is freelance journalist based in New York City.