Nicholas Kristof wrote a great column in the NYT on Saturday about American Catholic sisters. Part of his op-ed focuses on Sr. Megan Rice, age 82, who is spending 3 year in the federal pen for exposing U.S. nuclear hypocrisy. Watch for Dan Zak’s new book coming out about “The Prophets of Oak Ridge,” including Sr. Megan. (Editor’s note: This Washington Post article series by Dan Zak should be a required Bible study for all U.S. Christians.)
Here’s an excerpt from Kristof’s column:
IN an age of villainy, war and inequality, it makes sense that we need superheroes. And after trying Superman, Batman and Spider-Man, we may have found the best superheroes yet: Nuns.
“I may not believe in God, but I do believe in nuns,” writes Jo Piazza, in her forthcoming book, “If Nuns Ruled the World.” Piazza is an agnostic living in New York City who began interviewing nuns and found herself utterly charmed and inspired.
“They eschew the spotlight by their very nature, and yet they’re out there in the world every day, living the Gospel and caring for the poor,” Piazza writes. “They don’t hide behind fancy and expensive vestments, a pulpit, or a sermon. I have never met a nun who rides a Mercedes-Benz or a Cadillac. They walk a lot; they ride bikes.”
One of the most erroneous caricatures of nuns is that they are prim, Victorian figures cloistered in convents. On the contrary, I’ve become a huge fan of nuns because I see them so often risking their lives around the world, confronting warlords, pimps and thugs, while speaking the local languages fluently. In a selfish world, they epitomize selflessness and compassion.
There are also plenty of formidable nuns whom even warlords don’t want to mess with, who combine reverence with ferocity, who defy the Roman Catholic Church by handing out condoms to prostitutes to protect them from H.I.V. (They surely don’t mention that to the bishops.)
One of the nuns whom Piazza profiles is Sister Megan Rice. She earned a graduate degree at Boston College and then moved to Nigeria in 1962 to run a school for girls she had helped establish in a remote area with no electricity or running water. After eventually returning to the United States, she began campaigning against nuclear weapons.
In 2012, at the age of 82, she masterminded a break-in of a nuclear complex in Oak Ridge, Tenn., to call attention to the nuclear threat. As she was handcuffed by armed security guards, she sang “This Little Light of Mine.” She is now serving a prison sentence of almost three years.
“Resistance” is the secret of joy, wrote Alice Walker in Possessing the Secret of Joy. In the great 20th century experiment of nonviolent civil disobedience, there are currently two cases worth keeping an eye on, reading about, and providing prayerful and material support to those involved.
1. Dennis Apel, longtime Catholic Worker, founder of Beatitude House in Guadalupe, Calif., and organizer of the peace witness outside the Vandenburg Air Force base, recently had his case heard before the U.S. Supreme Court. [Send donations to support Beatitude House here: 4575 9th St., Guadalupe, CA 93434]
Issue: When a military installation share custody over a public highway and designated “protest area,” can the base commander bar someone from that area? In what cases is a “public road” a “military zone”?
Judgment: Yes, a “military . . . installation” for purposes of § 1382 encompasses the commanding officer’s area of responsibility, and it includes Vandenberg’s highways and protest area.
Justice Ginsburg and Sotomayor concurred with the judgement. But, they said, “a key inquiry remains, for the fence, checkpoint, and painted line, while they do not alter the Base boundaries, may alter the First Amendment calculus … it is questionable whether Apel’s ouster from the protest area can withstand constitutional review.”
It’s likely that Dennis’ lawyer will bring the case again, this time making a constitutional argument. Read more on this case here.
2. Greg Boertje-Obed (age 58), Sister Megan Rice (age 84), and Michael Walli (age 65), Catholic peace witnesses, were sentenced last week to federal prison for roughly 5 years for Greg and Michael and 3 years for Sister Megan, for crossing the property line of the Oak Ridge, Tenn., nuclear weapons facility and spray painting bible verses and religious slogans on the outbuildings. (Read Washington Post reporter Dan Zak’s groundbreaking coverage.) [Send donations to assist the Transform Plowshares here: Dorothy Day Catholic Worker 503 Rock Creek Church Road, NW, Washington, D.C. 20010]
Their public witness was called Transform Now Plowshares. It is part of the faith-based Plowshares Movement, an effort by people of faith to transform weapons into real, life-giving alternatives, to build true peace. Inspired by the prophets Micah and Isaiah, Jesus and Gandhi, Transform Now Plowshares began a symbolic conversion of the Y-12 Highly-Enriched Uranium Manufacturing Facility on July 28, 2012.
Issue: The U.S. government charged the defendants with willful injury of a national defense premises with intent to harm the national defense (“Count One”) and willful injury or depredation of property of the United States in excess of $1,000 (“Count Two”). On May 10, 2013, Thapar cited the definition of “federal crime of terrorism” to rule that the protesters must remain in jail until their sentencing. The charge of sabotage – which could have brought a life sentence – was brought forward, discussed, and ultimately dropped.
Judgement: Judge Thapar sentenced Megan Rice to three years in prison for breaking into the U.S. nuclear weapons complex and defacing a bunker holding bomb-grade uranium, a demonstration that exposed serious security flaws. The two other defendants were sentenced to more than five years in prison, in part because they had much longer criminal histories. Judge Thapar said he was concerned they showed no remorse and he wanted the punishment to be a deterrent for other activists. They were also charged with more than $50,000 in fines.
Quotes worth noting:
A. “What is the national defense the three are accused of sabotaging? The answer to that question is not defined in the statute. The prosecution wishes to punish the defendants for interfering with national defense without 1) defining what national defense is and without 2) defining what part of their definition of national defense was interfered with by defendants.
The prosecution wants to use the vague sabotage charge as a blunt instrument to prosecute defendants and also as an impregnable shield to avoid admitting that there are preparations for a nuclear war going on at Y-12. The prosecution wants to proceed without admitting that materials for nuclear weapons are prepared, refurbished and stored at Y-12 or allowing defendants to put on any evidence about those weapons. There is a very good reason for the reluctance of the prosecution – the weapons themselves, thermonuclear warheads produced or refurbished at Y-12 are designed solely to reliably and effectively unleash mammoth amounts of heat, blast and radiation. The uncontested fact is that these weapons, as the prosecution well knows, cannot discriminate between civilian and military and are uncontrollable in space and time. They are designed to cause such massive damage that they necessarily would inflict unnecessary and indiscriminate suffering upon non-combatants and thus violate 18 U.S.C. § 2441. Likewise, the planning, preparations or threat to commit the war crime in 18 U.S.C. § 2441 are crimes in themselves.
B. “[Judge] Thapar said the recommended sentences seemed extreme given the circumstances and did not distinguish between saboteurs and peace protesters. “Here, it seems like overkill,” Thapar said of Rice’s recommended sentence. “Six-and-a-half years for Megan Rice? Isn’t it supposed to be sufficient but not greater than necessary?”
Announcing the shorter sentences, the judge cited Rice’s decades of service and Walli’s military history, among other things. And he said he gave similar sentences to Walli and Boertje-Obed to avoid sentencing disparities. Even while emphasizing the importance of deterrence, though, Thapar acknowledged the good works of the defendants, which have ranged from volunteering in soup kitchens to teaching science in Africa.
“The court can say it is generally distressed to place good people behind bars,” Thapar said. “But I continue to hold out hope that a significant sentence may deter…and lead (the defendants) back to the political process that they seem to have given up on. Without question, the law does not permit the breaking and entering into the secure facilities of the United States.” Thapar urged the trio to use the political process and their community of supporters to go to Washington, D.C., to try to abolish nuclear weapons.”–Oak Ridge Today
C. Also fascinating is the “Heartland” Amicus brief and response by the defense on federal sentencing guidelines. Judge Thapar asked for guidance on whether he had to use the federal sentencing guidelines for “terrorism” in judging a nonviolent peace witness and how much he could take into account a defendant’s “good works” and contribution to the community.
Both cases remind me of practices in the early Christian church. A 3rd century Christian manual, called the Didascalia, reads as follows:
You shall not turn away your eyes from a Christian who for the name of God and for His faith and love is condemned to the games, or to the beasts, or to the mines; but of your labor and of the sweat of your face do you send to him for nourishment, and for a payment to the soldiers that guard him, that he may have relief and that care may be taken of him, so that your blessed brother be not utterly afflicted.