Can We Turn Our Swords Into Plowshares?

Pair of open hands painted with map of the continents as doves fly above them in symbol of peace.
Despite two decades of continuous war, some people of faith are still trying to stop the production of war weaponry and urge resolving conflicts through non-violence.

Every once in a while, an experience I have causes me to rethink whether I’ve wasted much of my life failing to do the one thing necessary. Such was the case recently as I listened to people who have spent their lives working to replace war with peace, resolve conflict with non-violence.

They spoke as part of an online retreat I attended called “Finding Hope in Turbulent Times,” co-sponsored by the Coalition for Peace Action, the Sacred Heart Peace Community of Camden, NJ and the Catholic Non-Violence Initiative of Pax Christi USA.

“These were people who decided to do something, then did it.” said Sarah Ball, a psychiatric nurse by training who joined the Catholic Worker Movement a few years ago and now works fulltime for peace.

Saying that one works for “peace and justice” can sound rather nebulous to those of us, like me, who have never had to put our lives on the line for our beliefs. That’s why listening to Sarah and Kathy Kelly, her mentor in peace activism, was such a profoundly moving experience. Both traveled — voluntarily — to Afghanistan during the height of the conflict to show support for families caught in the crossfire.

Kathy was also in Iraq in 2003 as the fighting there raged. She told of staying at a family-run hotel in Baghdad during the “shock and awe” phase of the war. Kelly and colleagues from Voices for Creative Non-Violence festooned the hotel balcony with banners showing the faces of Iraqi children.

Just as they finished, a caravan of Marines riding in tanks, Humvees and armored personnel carriers trundled along the street out front.

Kathy and some of her co-workers brought cold water to the Marines while others posted signs along the balcony that said “Courage for Peace” and “Life Is Sacred.”

The Marines looked up at the peace workers, Kathy recalled, “as if to say where is the spaceship? Where did these people come from?”

An Australian minister and barrister named Neville Watson, brought out a CD player and played Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem,” with its famous lyric: “Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack, a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.”

Watson did something else too. For as long as the soldiers were present, he held up a sign that said “War = Terror.” He held that sign, Kelly said, for four straight hours.

It’s easy to dismiss such acts as the spiritual equivalent of tilting at windmills. And yet, peace workers like Sarah, Kathy and Rev. Watson remind us that Christianity isn’t meant to be comfortable. It isn’t a challenge for the faint-hearted. It means, Kathy observes, “to be in love with Jesus, who rejects terror, who rejects killing, and calls us to love of enemies.”

Some 801,000 people have died during the U.S. “War on Terror,” a Brown University study found — about 335,000 of them civilians. There’s handwringing among certain members of Congress over the price tag of a $1.6 trillion COVID relief package. We’ve spent nearly six times that amount on the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere.

Even in the midst of massive humanitarian needs caused by the current pandemic, the federal government is poised to spend more than $700 billion on defense, much of it for weaponry that will never be used.

Members of the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 who broke into a Trident submarine base in Georgia in 2018 to protest the immorality of nuclear weapons. From left are Elizabeth McAlister, Father Steve Kelly, SJ, Carmen Trotta, Mark Coleville, Martha Hennessy, Clare Grady and Patrick O’Neill. (Photo Courtesy of Plowshares)

As I sit down to my toast and tea this morning in my comfortable home, I think of the six members of the Plowshares peace group waking up in federal prison. Their crime: on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death, they illegally entered the Kings Bay Naval Base in Georgia, storage site of Trident nuclear submarines.

They poured their own blood on a Navy insignia, spray-painted “Love One Another” on the pavement, and took a hammer to a model of a Tomahawk missile on display.

They say they were exercising their religious belief in the immorality of nuclear weapons. As a defense, they invoked the Religious Freedom Restoration Act — the act some employers have cited to opt out of paying for birth control in employee health plans. A judge in the case rejected that argument.

For this victimless crime, they were convicted of conspiracy, trespassing, damaging and degrading federal property and sentenced to up to 33 months in federal prison. A survivor of Hiroshima spoke on their behalf.

The Plowshares activists included 81-year-old Elizabeth McAlister, the widow of peace activist and former priest Philip Berrigan. A former Catholic religious sister, McAlister first went to jail for peace activism during the Vietnam War. She spent 17 months in custody for her role in the Kings Bay break-in.

Still in prison are Martha Hennessy, 65, the granddaughter of Catholic Worker founder Dorothy Day, Father Steve Kelly, a 71-year-old Jesuit priest, Carmen Trotta, 58, Clare Grady, 62, and Patrick O’Neill, 64. All have long been involved in the Catholic Worker Movement, feeding and housing the poor. A seventh member of the group, Mark Colville, awaits sentencing.

The name Plowshares refers to the exhortation in the Book of Isaiah to “beat swords into plowshares.” After a half century of peace work in an era of nearly continuous war, Kathy Kelly still believes in that lofty goal.

“It’s up to ordinary people to say we’ve had it,” she says. “We aren’t going to fund the war profiteers anymore. We have to say, take the weapons out of the tool kit.”

In a letter he wrote from the federal prison in Elkton, OH, Plowshares member Patrick O’Neill told of giving up his food trays to fellow inmates on Ash Wednesday.

“You can really develop an appreciation for the Spirit of Lent in a place like this. God is really giving me a good tour of Purgatory,” he wrote. And yet, O’Neill says, “I really am appreciative of the gifts of Grace I am getting in this journey … Spiritual Growth is a Gift and Redemptive Suffering is a Gift as well.”

I doubt I could ever muster that kind of courage. Yet I know I am called to answer the summons for peace that these activists pose to all of us who consider ourselves people of faith.

I don’t yet know what form my answer will take. I am reminded of the passage in 1 Peter:

“God has given each of you a gift from the great variety of spiritual gifts. Use them well to serve one another. Do you have the gift of speaking? Then speak as though God were speaking through you. Do you have the gift of helping others? Do it with all the strength and energy that God supplies.”

To do nothing isn’t an option. In the meantime, we can value what each person does to further the cause of peace, even if it is not dramatic, and even if the outcome isn’t immediately evident.

As another longtime activist Jim Forest reminded those of us on the peace retreat, “God is weaving gold out of the straw of our imperfect efforts.”

To write to the Plowshares members in prison, visit www.kingsbayplowshares.org

For more information on peace and non-violent conflict resolution, visit www.nonviolencejustpeace.net and www.vcnv.org and www.catholicworker.org

Author of 4 spirituality books & 2 poetry collections. Award-winning reporter for Wall Street Journal, PBS-TV, Washington Post & 2 IL public radio stations.