Of Plowshares and Protests: The Moral Obligation to Resist 1

Inscribed on a wall across from the United Nations in New York City are ancient words of incalculable yearning: 

“They will beat their swords into plowshares

    and their spears into pruning hooks.

Nation will not take up sword against nation,

    nor will they train for war anymore.” – Isaiah 2:4 

I’ve stood with activists in front of that same wall singing “Down by the Riverside,” a song foreseeing the day we’ll lay down our swords and shields “and study war no more.”  

Some observers have rushed to judge the protesters, highlighting the irrationality of looting and burning buildings in their own neighborhoods, ruining places that might even provide them services or jobs. Yet what could be more self-defeating and irrational than spending more money on nuclear weapons and possibly conducting nuclear bomb tests.

In memorably eloquent words spoken after the onset of COVID-19, U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres had this message for the world:

“The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war. It is time to put armed conflict on lockdown . . . [to] put aside mistrust and animosity. Silence the guns; stop the artillery; end the airstrikes. End the sickness of war and fight the disease that is ravaging our world. That is what our human family needs, now more than ever.”

Some of my closest friends now await sentencing for having embraced the call, quite literally, to “beat swords into plowshares.” On April 4, 2018, they entered the Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in St. Mary’s, Georgia, a U.S. naval base that houses “one of the largest known collections of nuclear weapons in the world,” a fleet of Trident nuclear submarines.

Once inside, the activists—Mark Colville, Clare Grady, Martha Hennessy, Elizabeth McAlister, Patrick O’Neill, Carmen Trotta, and Steve Kelly—prayed, poured blood, spray-painted messages against nuclear weapons, hammered on a replica of a nuclear weapon, hung banners, and waited to be arrested. 

Steve Kelly, a Jesuit priest, has been locked up in the Glynn County Detention Center in Brunswick, Georgia, ever since the night the seven entered the naval base. Now beginning his third year in jail, he writes that his cramped, dingy quarters are “a Twenty-First Century monastery.” He prays, reads, listens, learns, and writes. 

The Glynn County jail only allows correspondence on tiny pre-stamped postcards. Kelly (no relation to me) has mastered the art of condensing his thoughts into short messages. “Nuclear weapons will not go away by themselves,” he says.

Kelly’s co-defendants have served varying lengths of time in the Glynn County jail and several had to wear ankle monitors during home confinement. Liz McAllister’s scheduling hearing, by telephone, is set for June 8. The others are currently scheduled to be sentenced on June 29 and 30, although there is some talk of postponement. All face years in prison.

In October 2019, a jury found the Kings Bay Plowshares seven guilty of destruction and depredation of government property, trespassing, and conspiracy. Judge Lisa Godbey Wood ruled that the jury wouldn’t be allowed to hear expert witnesses or learn what motivated each of the seven to nonviolently resist nuclear weapons. She also refused to allow faith-based testimony.

In 2003, the Sisters of St. Brigid of Kildare, Ireland, asked me to speak at a retreat for people whose faith-based convictions motivated them to nonviolently resist the impending U.S. war against Iraq. During the retreat, I listened to the concerns of five people who felt they were ready to risk their lives and futures to join our Iraq Peace Team in Baghdad. 

But when I returned to Baghdad, I learned they had instead committed a Plowshares action at Shannon Airport in County Clare, Ireland.

Parked on the tarmac of Shannon Airport was a U.S. Navy warplane. Ireland is a neutral country, and the activists believed they were justified in trying to prevent an Irish airport from being used to stage a belligerent war in Iraq, against civilians already beleaguered by earlier U.S. attacks and thirteen years of economic sanctions. 

The activists easily reached the warplane and hammered on it. Harry Browne writes about the action in a book titled Hammered by the Irish.

Fortunately, the activists were represented by extremely talented lawyers. 

The judge wouldn’t allow expert witnesses, and in fact the only defense witness she would allow to speak was me, since the five said they resolved to take action after hearing me speak at their retreat. She also declared there would be no faith-based testimony in her courtroom. 

Although the judge insisted war was not going to be put on trial, she had to comply with Irish law, which allows lawyers to say anything they want in the final summation. Near the end of the trial, one of the defendants, Brendan Nix, (since deceased), a man sometimes referred to as the last of the great Irish orators, rose to speak.

Nix assured the judge and jury that the greatest pacifist of all time was Jesus of Nazareth and the greatest pacifist document ever written was the Sermon on the Mount, adding “and I’m about to read it to you right now!” 

Finishing the Beatitudes, Nix pointed to the defendants and described them as people who didn’t practice their faith as though they were at the delicatessen, choosing a bit of this or rejecting that. “They believe in their faith!” he said. 

Nix reminisced to the jury about how happy he’d felt, recently, listening to children at play in a park near his home. The children chased the geese up a hill and then the geese chased the children downhill. What could be more beautiful than the sound of children at play? 

Then he began telling about children in Lebanon, whose parents had taken them for a dip in the park the previous day. His face suddenly seemed to glower as he roared out that the children were dying in a pool of their own blood. He described an Israeli missile blasting into the swimming hole, killing them. And then it was as though he was putting all of us on trial. 

“Would you not try, if you could, to stop a Hezbollah missile from slamming into southern Israel?” Nix demanded. “Would you not try, if you could, to stop an Israeli missile from slamming into a swimming hole in Lebanon? The question isn’t ‘Did these five have a lawful excuse to do what they did!’ The question is: “What’s our excuse not to do more?! What will rise ye?!’ ”

The jury acquitted the five defendants on all five counts. The lawyers had been able to skillfully introduce a necessity defense, which U.S. courts typically do not allow. This defense holds that an action is justified if done in order to prevent a greater harm. 

The U.S. laws protect those who develop, store, sell, and use weapons. Those who call for disarmament and try to sound an alarm regarding the omnicidal consequences of nuclear weapons are tried narrowly on issues of property damage and trespass.

This past week, riots have broken out in cities across the United States as protesters have vented frustration and rage following the murder of George Floyd, a handcuffed black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes. Some observers have rushed to judge the protesters, highlighting the irrationality of looting and burning buildings in their own neighborhoods, ruining places that might even provide them services or jobs. 

Yet what could be more self-defeating and irrational than spending more money on nuclear weapons and possibly conducting nuclear bomb tests. Why squander resources on military capacity to burn other people’s homes and cities?  

The prophet Isaiah’s vision arouses action on the part of people longing to build a better world. Nix’s questions should be ours today: What’s our excuse not to do more? What will rise us?