(RNS) — In April of last year, on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., a group of seven aging Catholic activists assembled outside the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in St. Marys, Georgia, and cut a padlock at a maintenance gate.
They were in no rush. It was nighttime. No one was around. And they knew from previous actions that stealing their way onto a nuclear weapons facility was actually quite easy.
So before cutting the padlock, they stopped to pray and to photograph themselves carrying three banners protesting nuclear arms. They proceeded to the next security fence, assembled for another photo and then, using bolt cutters, cut the fence.
At that point, they had broken into a U.S. Navy base that houses six Trident submarines carrying hundreds of nuclear weapons, many of which have up to 30 times the explosive power of the bomb that destroyed the Japanese city of Hiroshima in 1945. The activists split into three groups: One headed to the base's administrative building, where the members spilled blood on Navy insignia affixed to a wall and spray painted anti-war slogans on the walkway; another ran to a monument to nuclear warfare to bang the statuary with hammers.
The third group went to an area near a set of storage bunkers for nuclear missiles, where the activists prepared to cut the heavily electrified fence with bolt cutters fitted with rubber handles. At that point, roughly an hour after they first entered the base, emergency lights started flashing and they knew they had been caught.
The Kings Bay Plowshares 7, as they are known, each face a possible 25-year prison sentence, charged with three felonies and a misdemeanor. Next month (Aug. 7), they are scheduled to appear in federal court for oral arguments, followed by a trial at a later date.
At a time when many faith-based social activists have moved on to other issues — refugees, poverty, abortion and climate change — these Catholic pacifists aim to draw attention to the most ominous threat facing human civilization: nuclear weapons and the danger of global annihilation.
“What kind of world are leaving our children?” asked Patrick O’Neill, 63, one of the activists, who runs a Catholic Worker house in Garner, North Carolina, and is out on bail but wearing an ankle monitor. “Now is a good time to say, 'Don’t go to sleep. Don’t think these weapons are props.' We’re on alert 24/7.”
Crusading against nuclear weapons has become a lonely battle. For most Christians, like most Americans, it is a distant concern.
“Those who do take this seriously are few and far between and wouldn’t represent anything like a mass movement within American Christianity,” said Tyler Wigg-Stevenson, an Anglican priest who formerly chaired the World Evangelical Alliance's nuclear weapons task force.
“Then you have these incredible saints that believe so strongly they’re willing to do these prophetic acts.”
A vision of peace
The Kings Bay Plowshares 7 are part of a 39-year-old anti-nuclear movement called Plowshares, inspired by the pacific prediction of the biblical prophet Isaiah that the nations of the world shall “beat their swords into plowshares." Its activists have made a signature of breaking into nuclear weapons bases to hammer on buildings and military hardware and pour human blood on them.
They’ve been at it since 1980, when a group led by the brothers Philip and Daniel Berrigan, both Catholic priests, broke into Building #9 at a General Electric weapons plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. The Plowshares 8, as they were called, hammered on some missile nose cones and spilled blood on some blueprints. They were found guilty and sentenced to prison.
The Berrigans had first come to national attention during the anti-Vietnam protests of the 1960s for burning draft records. But by the 1980s, the era of direct nonviolent action had peaked, replaced by more conventional tactics such as rallies, petitions and media campaigns. Plowshares remained the one of the only groups to extend their confrontational but nonviolent tactics into the no-nukes activism.
All seven of the Kings Bay defendants are members of the Catholic Worker movement, a collection of about 200 independent houses across the country that feed and house the poor. Among them are the Rev. Stephen Kelly, 70, a Jesuit priest; Elizabeth McAlister, 79, a former nun; and Martha Hennessy, 64, granddaughter of Dorothy Day, who founded the Catholic Worker in 1933 and was an ardent pacifist.
The seven spent nearly two years plotting their invasion of the base, planning between rounds of prayer. There was no one event that prompted the group, though some have cited the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear weapons treaty and escalating tensions with that country as a factor.
More than anything, the group wanted to bring renewed attention to an issue that no longer inspires much public concern: the very real possibility of a nuclear weapons catastrophe, whether through war, terrorism or human error. The seven set their sights on Kings Bay, about 40 miles north of Jacksonville, Florida, because it houses a quarter of the nation’s nuclear weapons cache and because there had never been a Plowshares action there.
"I have no doubt that nuclear weapons will be detonated," said O'Neill. "I don’t know if it’s going to be by a terrorist or by accident. How do we wake people up?"
Several said they had no regrets. All seven had been jailed before and were fully aware they faced years-long prison sentences this time around, too.
“There’s never been a single case in which I’ve been arrested that I’m not proud of what I’ve done or would not defend to this day,” said Carmen Trotta, one of the seven who has participated in numerous civil rights demonstrations. He helps run the St. Joseph Catholic Worker House in New York, one of the original sites established by Day in the area of Manhattan historically known as the Bowery.
Facing jail time
To these Catholics, the teachings of the church on nuclear weapons are clear: They are morally unacceptable. The group welcomed Pope Francis’ recent statement in which he appeared to say that even possession of nuclear weapons for deterrence purposes was wrong.
“Do we really want peace?” Francis tweeted last year. “Then let’s ban all weapons so we don’t have to live in fear of war.”
So determined is the group that three of the seven activists — Kelly, McAlister and Mark Colville — declined to accept the conditions of the bail offered them (an ankle monitor and $50,000 bail) and have remained in the Glynn County Detention Center in Brunswick, Georgia, since the break-in 15 months ago.
That’s not to say they welcome their prison sentence. They have asked for dismissal of the charges because they say nuclear weapons are illegal under U.S. treaty law as well as international law and, using the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, they argue the government must take their claims of sincere religious exercise seriously.
Judges have never imposed maximum sentences against Plowshares activists, and the defendants are praying for the same leniency this time. With the exception of Trotta, who is 56, the others are in their 60s and 70s and dealing with various medical problems.
"I’ll be relieved if I get one year," said Trotta. "Two years is a lot harder. Three years is hard to imagine. Five years is unimaginable. But it’s quite possible. "
Still, they view any prison sentence as a form of witness to what Colville called the “criminal justice industrial complex” and as a way to minister to those confined in it.
Prison, wrote Colville in a letter from jail, “provides the incredible daily privilege of walking with Jesus in the person of the prisoner, and of seeing the world the way He did: from the perspective of the bottom.”
Prophetic witness or pride?
Plowshares actions — there have been about 100 — take planning and volunteer expertise.
“You can’t pull it off just the seven of us,” said O’Neill. Others helped with logistics, too, but the defendants deflected questions about details, careful not to tip off the government to their conspirators.
They took equal care in every detail of the action.
Hennessy carried a copy of Pentagon-official-turned-peace-activist Daniel Ellsberg’s 2017 book, “The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner,” in her raincoat pocket. As planned, she left it in the base’s administrative building.
O’Neill secured hammers from Christian social activist Shane Claiborne that were made of steel melted down from guns returned through law-enforcement exchange programs. O'Neill used one on the nuclear monument display at the base, which he refers to as a shrine to an idol.
Even the words the activists spoke as security forces arrived to arrest them were carefully selected and memorized: “We come in peace. We mean you no harm. We’re American citizens. We are unarmed.”
All seven served two months in jail after their arrests on April 5, 2018, before the federal courts allowed them the option of bail.
Now they turn their sights to the upcoming trial.
Magistrate Benjamin Cheesbro of the Southern District Court of Georgia has recommended that the motions to dismiss the charges, including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act argument, be denied. The seven are appealing.
O’Neill, who is representing himself, said he doesn’t want an adversarial relationship with Cheesbro. And when he meets U.S. District Court Judge Lisa Godbey Wood prior to their trial, he'll tell her what he told Cheesbro:
“The way I feel is, there’s a fine line between prophetic witness and pride. If what we have done is prophetic witness, then it’s of God. But if it’s a matter of pride, then this whole act was fraudulent,” he said. "I spent a year and a half with these people prayerfully preparing for this action and I believe our intention was to serve God.”