By Eric Martin
Three Christian, nonviolent resisters of an illegal program with the capacity to end all human life, and perhaps all life on the planet, have been sentenced to lengthy prison terms. This should give us serious pause.
Michael Walli and Greg Boertje-Obed received 62-month sentences and 84-year-old nun Megan Rice received a 35-month sentence on Tuesday. The three, known collectively as the Transform Now Plowshares, were found guilty of depredation of property and sabotage for entering the Y12 Nuclear Weapons Complex in Oakridge Tennessee in July of 2012, pouring blood on the wall for those who have died and might die in the future from nuclear weapons, spray-painting “The fruit of justice is peace,” and symbolically chipping a corner of the wall with a hammer. A guard found them singing songs and offering to break bread with him.
Their act was a religious one, inspired by the quote from Isaiah, “They shall beat their swords into plowshares,” and in line with the Plowshares Movement that began in 1980 aimed at resisting the creation and storing of nuclear weapons. Much of the coverage has focused on either the fact that a peaceful nun is in prison or the outrage that three citizens, the youngest of whom is 58, could enter into the heart of a nuclear weapons plant unnoticed for hours. I instead want to say a bit about my friend, Michael Walli, and question what this event means for American Christians.
I first saw Michael Walli in 2011 while approaching the Dorothy Day House, Washington, D.C.’s Catholic Worker house of hospitality. As I walked up the steps to knock on the door I saw a lean but muscular figure bending down and tending to a well-kept garden. I called out a greeting to him and he responded, as he would every week for the next two years, “Hey, buddy!”
I arrived that day at the advice of a priest. I told him I sought a community working authentically for peace and justice in a spirit of faith and love. Expecting only a patient ear to hear my utopian frustration, I was surprised when he gave me an address and said, “You’ll find your people at this place.”
The priest was right, and Michael is an integral part of that community’s witness. I saw him every Thursday as he would come to compost the food scraps while the house prepared warm and hearty food for the hungry who lined up in view of the White House. Sometimes he would stop to talk, and our conversations were unlike any I have ever shared with anyone.
Another Worker at the house said Michael reminds her of Peter Maurin, who co-founded the Catholic Worker with Dorothy Day. Like Maurin, Michael would gain a seemingly unstoppable momentum once he began speaking. While cutting tomatoes I would hear about St. Paul, Abraham Lincoln, Oscar Romero, or whomever else he might have on his mind. He often quoted Dr. King to me and had a very distinctive way of asking questions once he got going. “Do you think Jesus has nuclear weapons in heaven?” he would lean in and ask me. “Probably not,” I’d say. “Well then why should we have them?” he’d reply. “Jesus didn’t resolve problems by stockpiling instruments of death and neither should we.” Even to someone who believes strongly in disarmament, the simplicity with which he approached the issue took me aback.
But while Michael’s faith is simple, his mind is far from it. He often kept me updated on the latest news from the UN or recent developments in Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond. He summoned quotes from Eisenhower, Nixon, or Carter at will. His ability to interpret complex political issues in light of the gospels fascinated me. That I could hardly get a word in some of our conversations did not bother me in the least because I was so intrigued by everything he had to say.
However, he refused to talk about the one topic I became most interested in: himself. Michael claimed it was not in keeping with the New Testament to focus on oneself in speech. Much more valuable, he said, if he spoke of God, those who did God’s will, and the obstacles to God’s Kingdom. I protested that hearing his own story could edify others, but he was not to be deterred. All he offered up from his past is that he fought in Vietnam and this only because it was a lens to focus on the evils of war.
I came to understand Michael through Kierkegaard’s assertion that “purity of heart is to will one thing.” Michael’s single-minded pursuit of discipleship rooted in the Gospels grounded his denunciations of American militarism and nuclear power. They were not out of anger but the purity of heart heralded in the beatitudes.
Fellow Catholic Worker Kathy Boylan took the stand in his defense at the trial and her powerful statement is worth reading in detail. A short segment captures Michael’s character better than I am able:
“Michael is a beloved member of our community and a servant of God. Every morning, we walk down the street to pray with our friends at the Assisi house. They sent a letter I would like to read. The letter explained that Michael joined in prayer every morning, and that was how they had come to know him. “He is an unwavering example of active nonviolence; generous, kind, helping in many ways, whether it is picking up litter or working in the garden. He is always willing to help others, especially those with special needs. Michael is a man of deep faith; he is a role model, a living example of the gospel.'”
There is a word we have for such people. Michael is a saint. He proclaimed the Gospel in a building threatening to destroy entire lives, communities, nations, and life forms. Daniel 12:1 describes St. Michael as the one who “stands watch over the children of your people.” He faces over five years in prison for doing so.
The Nuclear Situation
“The U.S. is in violation of the intent of the most important treaty we ever signed.”
This statement came from the lips of Ramsey Clark, who served as US attorney general – the highest law enforcement authority in the nation – under President Johnson. He was speaking about the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty as a defense witness for Transform Now Plowshares.
Clark’s testimony at the trial is astonishing. “Is it reasonable to believe that what is being refurbished at Y12 are weapons of mass destruction?” asked the defense attorney. Clark replied, “It’s an established fact.”
Clark would know. When he was seventeen years old material enriched at Y12, the Manhattan Project headquarters, killed over 200,000 civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki (not counting those who died from lingering effects after 1945). It continues to contribute to America’s arsenal of more than 5,000 nuclear bombs. “The life of the planet is at risk from this one plant here in Tennessee,” Ramsey stated.
This is a sobering testimony in a nation drunk on power. Just why do we have so many bombs? And why does our nation accept presidents that skirt the issue about whether they will use these weapons of mass destruction?
Clark specified Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, which states the US will pursue a “treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control.” When the judge retorted that America does not concern itself with international law – a striking admission in itself – Clark pointed out that this is a signed treaty, which according to Article VI of our Constitution is part of the “supreme Law of the land” along with the Constitution itself.
Not only is our nuclear stockpile against US law according to the man who used to be the highest enforcer of law in the country, but Kathy Boylan noted in her testimony that “there is a higher law than the one in this court. There is the law of God.”
Anyone with the slightest concern for human (and other) life must be scandalized by our stockpile of bombs. For Christians it is a moral and religious outrage. Boylan drew upon Christians who have seen them for what they are. Dorothy Day asked, ”If we wouldn’t put people in gas chambers, why would we fling gas chambers at them?” Martin Luther King claimed we must end the “negative nuclear arms race” and “harness [humanity’s] creative genius for the purpose of making peace” in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech. Gaudium et Spes called destruction of cities – which nuclear bombs cannot avoid – a “crime against God and [humanity] [it]self. Pope Paul VI declared our use of these bombs as “a butchery of untold magnitude.”
Theologian James Douglass said simply, “Nuclear weapons and life don’t go together.”
President Obama was asked shortly after his election whether he would prosecute George W. Bush for torture. “We need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards,” he replied. It is telling that he chose to apply this (strange) logic to pardon torture which has led to deaths but not Catholic, nonviolent peacemaking in defense of life.
Meanwhile, the courage of the Transform Now Plowshares should haunt Christians while the power to commit omnicide remains on the table.
As I type this, a book Michael gave me on St. Francis sits at my side. The book concludes that the tales of the saint show us a “living, moving, breathing image of Jesus Christ, and that alone draws people to God.” We are lucky to have such saints in Michael, Greg, and Sister Megan.
To what kind of God do they draw us? That is a question we should let fester.
Eric Martin is a doctoral student in historical theology at Fordham University in New York.