Swords Into Plowshares – A Conversation with Kristen Tobey

tobeyKristen Tobey is Visiting Assistant Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at John Carroll University. Her book, Plowshares: Protest, Performance, and Religious Identity in the Nuclear Age, examines the methods of Plowshares activists, a small group of Catholic radicals known for infiltrating nuclear weapons sites, smashing warheads with hammers, and painting the walls with vials of their own blood.

ECM: What is Plowshares activism, exactly?

KT: Plowshares activism is a strand of high-risk Catholic antinuclear activism consisting of civil disobedience actions (Plowshares activists prefer the term “divine obedience”). Participants trespass onto sites where nuclear equipment is manufactured or stored—such as the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, where a high-profile Plowshares action was carried out in 2012—in order to “symbolically disarm” the equipment.

Typically in a Plowshares action, symbolic disarmament involves pouring blood—the activists’ own—over the equipment and hammering on it with household hammers, in a nod to the Hebrew prophet Isaiah’s image of beating swords into plowshares (Isaiah 2:4) from which these activists take their inspiration and their name.

The first Plowshares action was conceived by Philip Berrigan and others as a way to continue the momentum of the Vietnam-era Catholic Left, but in a way that would be more truly faithful, riskier, and hence more efficacious. Actions are still taking place today, though far less frequently than in earlier decades.

Plowshares activists in the United States have never been acquitted of the charges brought against them, which include conspiracy, sabotage, and destruction of government property. They have received prison sentences of up to eighteen years. Because these actions carry such a high risk of legal consequences and bodily harm—many take place in deadly force areas—many in the larger Catholic Left regard Plowshares actions as virtuosic: Catholic resistance par excellence, so demanding that it is admired more than it is emulated.

ECM: You note that trespassing, blood, and hammers are the hallmarks of Plowshares activism. But there must be more innovative options available. Why stick to these three?

KT: That’s a polite way of putting it. The critique that what they do is ineffective and irrelevant—not only that their tactics are unproductive but that the nuclear issue is no longer a pressing one—comes at Plowshares activists from all directions—even, sometimes, from people who support the idea of religious resistance.

But in the Plowshares’ worldview, faithfulness to a Biblical ideal of nonviolent witness is the orienting value. Plowshares activists approach nuclear weapons as both a symbolic and a real threat, and they employ trespass, blood, and hammers as both symbolic and real means to disarm them.

On the one hand, Plowshares actions are willfully symbolic because nonviolence depends on it. On the other hand, activists do want to disable the equipment in a “real” way. They want to be destructive, but, as I discuss in the book, there are theological and social risks bound up with being too destructive, and there are no clear demarcations telling activists how much is too much.

Read the whole thing at Religion Dispatches.

About Eric

Eric Miller teaches in the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
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