In ‘Transform Now Plowshares’, the legacy of Catholic anti-nuclear activists shapes our future

Is there reason for hope in these perilous times? As Russia’s war on Ukraine sparks an international conversation about the use of nuclear weapons, it is up to the citizens of nuclear nations to bring our countries to their senses. The Transform Now Plowshares did just that with their nonviolent action in July 2012. Transform Now Plowshares: Megan Rice, Gregory Boertje-Obed and Michael Walli. Author Carole Sargent has written an engaging and exciting book that can inspire us to unite again in the same hope.

Now transform the plowshares profiles the three sides of the action, Sister Megan Rice, Greg Boertje-Obed and Michael Walli, as well as the supporting cast behind the scenes. Plow shares — of which there have been more than 100 since the group’s inception in the early 1980s — are typically made up of four parts: discernment and planning; the action itself; the trial and the supporting activities surrounding it; and finally, imprisonment. In the 2012 Transform Now Plowshares action, the largest planning group became three who pledged to do the action, with many “unindicted co-conspirators” in the circle of support.

One of those co-conspirators was Sacred Heart Sr. Anne Montgomery, who had been a member of the first Plowshares group in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, in 1980, the brainchild of Philip Berrigan and the famous Jonah House. Montgomery met Sister Megan Rice during the trial for the latter of the actions of the former, and the two women bonded over their shared religious calling and passion for activism. Montgomery then connected Rice to Greg Boertje-Obed, and the rest is history.

Rice, Boertje-Obed and Walli chose to protest the “mother plant” of the nation’s nuclear arsenal: the Y-12 facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, a juggernaut that produces the deadly enriched uranium needed for weapons nuclear. As such, it is protected with high security; a report $150 million a year is paid to private contractors to ensure this is so.

After planning and praying, the three nonviolent resisters crossed the fences of the 150-acre compound and descended hills and ravines in the dead of night to reach the heart of the compound. They carried with them bolt cutters, flashlights, tiny hammers in which to symbolically “beat swords into plowshares”, spray paint, a Bible, bread, banners, candles and a declaration of intention. Their hope was to expose the world to the truth about nuclear weapons and, in particular, the spending of vast sums of our taxpayers’ money to build a new highly enriched uranium materials facility at Oak Ridge.

As unlikely as it may seem, the elaborate security system failed to stop the resisters. Sargent writes, “Whether you call it contractor incompetence, the Holy Spirit, or sheer luck,” the three activists marched unseen through areas no one should have been able to enter. They hung banners, spilled blood and painted slogans on the corner of a building and, when they arrived at the center, prayed, sang and waited for the arrest until the security guards finally arrived. Together, they used the imagination to transform the facility “into life-enhancing alternatives that solve the real problems of poverty and environmental degradation for all”.

This particular action by Plowshares has generated more publicity than any other due to the glaring security flaws. Y-12 was closed for two weeks. As reported by the Washington Post and elsewhere, security cameras have been fixed, a guard was fired and others suspended, officials changed, and congressional hearings took place. Sargent does a commendable job of detailing the often murky trial with clarity across multiple chapters. On May 8, 2013, within three hours, the jury found them guilty of depredation of property and sabotage (intent to harm the national defense system). After the defendants spent the ensuing long months in jail, they were sentenced to federal prison in February 2014. In May 2015, however, the sabotage conviction was overturned by a federal appeals court and resisters were quickly released from prison.

The book ends with a joint letter that Rice, Boertje-Obed and Walli wrote on the second anniversary of their action: “For the United States to negotiate nuclear disarmament in good faith, we say that it is essential to peacefully transform these same corporations so that they are no longer able to violate the most basic moral and legal principles of civilized society by deliberately precipitating planetary self-destruction.”

When read with care and prayer, Now transform the plowshares can move us from polite protest against nuclear weapons to non-violent action for their abolition, calling on our country in ever louder to abolish its arsenal and encouraging the citizens of other nuclear countries to do the same.

As I read through this book during the most dangerous nuclear moment since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, I felt both sobered and hopeful. Sobered because the new Y-12 nuclear bomb plant that these three Catholics risked their lives to protest against is still being completed and will still supply the enriched uranium they were protesting against. But full of hope because this present moment calls us all to action. Apathy is not an option; we must widen the circle and become conscientious resisters ourselves. Author Carole Sargent, a member of the beloved anti-war activist community, asks, “And if it’s not us, who?” His last words in Now transform the plowshares: No more war.

Angela C. Hale