The Church at the End of the World
In 2018, a group of Catholic anti-nuclear activists made national news when they broke into a naval base in Georgia. One of their members — a New Haven resident — now awaits his sentencing.
ark Colville is relaxed for someone expecting to be sentenced to federal prison in a few weeks. He stands in front of a stove, white hair sticking out from under his hat, cracking eggs on the stove and piercing the yolks with the shells. As he cooks, he talks about his expectations for the hearing, and how the COVID-19 pandemic has forced him to choose between traveling out of state for an in-person hearing or being sentenced via a virtual meeting. He rolls up the sleeves of his sweatshirt, flips the eggs, then adds slices of cheese and hot dogs. He’s not worried, he says as he glances up from the food, even though it’s a less-than-ideal situation. He’s been arrested as an activist so many times he’s lost count, and he has spent enough time behind bars that he feels prepared for what awaits him. He places the eggs and hot dogs between two bagel halves and wraps them in aluminum foil before handing them off to another man, who will distribute them to hungry people standing outside in the rain. Then, he cracks more eggs.
On April 4, 2018, Colville, who lives in New Haven’s Hill neighborhood, and six other Catholic activists who call themselves the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, broke into Kings Bay Naval Base in Camden County, Georgia. Among the activists were a Jesuit priest, a couple of grandparents and a journalist. Under the cover of darkness, they cut a padlock on a gate and replaced it with another to cover their tracks. They walked several miles by moonlight to a bunker that stores nuclear weapons and vandalized models of nuclear missiles. They were convicted as a group of three felonies and one misdemeanor — conspiracy, destruction of government property, depredation and trespassing. As of November 2020, six of them have already been sentenced. Colville expects to be sentenced in December.
“I’m worried about the end of the world,” Colville chuckled. “I’m not worried about going to prison.”
Colville outside his home in New Haven. (Regina Sung)
RESISTING AN IDOLATROUS ABOMINATION
Plowshares began as a Christian pacifist and anti-nuclear weapons movement in 1980, when Jesuit priest Daniel Berrigan and seven others protested nuclear weapons by breaking into the General Electric Re-entry Division in Pennsylvania, where vehicles for the Minuteman III missile were manufactured. There, they vandalized trucks and documents and prayed for peace. Since then, there have been over 70 Plowshares actions and protests around the world, according to research compiled by Arthur Laffin, an activist who has written two books about the movement.
Colville, who has been involved in peace and progressive activism his entire life, recounted that the Plowshares 7 began “whispering to each other about possibly doing an action” at Berrigan’s funeral in 2016. “I think part of my motivation was in fact Dan Berrigan’s death,” he said. “I felt like that was a good way to honor him, to take up the hammer again and do a Plowshares action.”
Colville believes that nuclear weapons and the United States’ nuclear policy are tantamount to religious idolatry.
“Nuclear weapons represent [a] perpetual posture of hostility … that amounts to a compulsory religion that us citizens are forced to abide by,” Colville said.
Anti-nuclear activism is not the type of action typically associated with Catholicism. In the United States, Catholic activism usually concerns pro-life or sexual ethics issues and has a politically conservative bend. But pacifist activism has a place in Catholicism, as evidenced by the Kings Bay Plowshares 7’s work, which represents just one group action in the Plowshares movement. In 1984, two members of the Plowshares movement were sentenced to 18 years in prison for breaking into missile silos and launch sites in Missouri.
“If you look at nuclear policy in this country, it does have all the elements of religion,” Colville said. “We’re talking about ultimate sovereignty that a nation claims over the whole planet, and to wield that power puts us into a situation of basically idolatry as a social practice in the United States.”
The Plowshares movement takes its name from a few verses in Isaiah, an Old Testament prophetic book in the Bible. Chapter 2, verse 4 of Isaiah states: “He [God] shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” A plowshare is a broad blade used to turn soil during tilling and plowing. The phrase “swords to plowshares” has been adopted by anti-war, anti-nuclearism and veteran advocates alike to represent the transformation of violence to nonviolence.
“Idols are to be smashed. That’s a basic call of faith in the Bible.”
Plowshares asserts that militarism and nuclear arms are equivalent to religious idolatry, arguing that the direct funding of weapons is a misappropriation of money that would better serve the poor. These ideas inspired actions such as the 2018 protest at a Georgia naval port where U.S. Navy submarines armed with Trident nuclear missiles are stored. The Trident missile is armed with thermonuclear bomb warheads, which are each a thousand times more destructive than atomic bombs. The U.S. Navy has a fleet of fourteen Ohio-class nuclear submarines that carry these missiles. In 2011, the Obama administration budgeted $70.5 million per Trident missile.
Plowshares believes in Martin Luther King Jr.’s teaching from a 1967 speech that the triplet evils of racism, poverty and war must be addressed holistically.
“I look in my neighborhood and see this place that has been laid waste by the military and this idolatrous commitment to funding this idolatrous abomination. That’s a direct theft from the poor,” Colville said. “My daily life and lifestyles revolves around trying to bind up some of the wounds that are caused by this unbridled commitment to militarism.”
This militarism, Colville believes, has been so pervasive throughout American culture that it must be actively resisted. “We’ve been living under the shadow of nuclear weapons for 75 years. It can feel like this is a permanent reality,” Colville said. “You can really start to absorb the idea that these weapons are approved of by God.”
CONVERTING DEADLY FORCE
The Kings Bay Plowshares 7 planned for their action in Georgia for about two years, Colville said. The planning involved discerning whether they should perform the action and training for how to diffuse situations.
“It was a long discernment process,” Plowshares 7 activist Martha Hennessy said. Hennessy is a retired occupational therapist, grandmother of eight and community worker who has been arrested and imprisoned several times for protesting nuclear power, drone use, the torture of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay and the use of starvation as a weapon of war in Yemen. “I’ve grown up with this nuclear threat. It’s imperative that we pay attention to this nuclear holocaust.”
Building community beforehand was integral to the protest. “I was scared to death,” Colville said. “But again, we do it in community. We spent two years discerning this as a group.”
Community as the foundation of progressive Catholic thought goes back to Dorothy Day, an American anarchist and Catholic convert who was influential in Catholic pacifism. In 1933, she started the progressive Catholic Worker Movement, which was centered around building local communities. Those involved in the movement live together and dedicate their time to local social justice causes. Day also wrote prolifically in support of pacifism. Today, the Vatican is considering Day for possible canonization into sainthood — in Catholicism, saints are people recognized for their holiness and closeness to God, and they are the only people the Catholic Church confidently and officially claims are in Heaven. Hennessy is Day’s granddaughter.
Hennessy said her participation in Plowshares was driven by the work of her grandmother. When Hennessy was a teenager, Day gifted her the book Hiroshima by journalist John Hersey, which documents the lives of Hiroshima survivors in the wake of the 1945 atomic bombing. This helped Hennessy prepare to take part in the Plowshares movement, she said.
As the day of their action rapidly approached, Colville felt strangely calm. It was Colville’s third time participating in a Plowshares action, and he felt somewhat ready.
“I kind of knew what to expect,” he said. “But I was, particularly because of the deadly force zone, trying to bargain with God. ‘Let this night end in a jail cell and not a morgue or a hospital.’”
The Plowshares group entered the Kings Bay Naval Base near a dirt road at what looked like a disused gate. They broke the lock at that gate and replaced it with another one to avoid being detected. Then, they followed the road for several miles in the dark before splitting up.
“Every 10 or 15 minutes you got this recorded announcement saying you were in a deadly force zone,” Colville recalled. “It was just really chilling to hear that announcement. Our group, we pray a lot. On the walk we were praying the rosary, a litany of the saints, a lot of traditional Catholic prayers. That was a real calming sort of thing for all of us.”
Colville and Patrick O’Neill, a hospital chaplain in North Carolina, parted from the group to see what they perceived as a shrine to nuclearism — a collection of missile models on the base. It was still dark, but they soon found themselves on a busier road in the base. Cars passed periodically.
“I said to Patrick, ‘I need a rest.’ I needed a psychological break before going forward, I needed to really get my head and my heart into this before we went further,” Colville said. “We sat down, did a little talking and strategizing, a little prayer, had granola bars. Then when I was ready, we ran across the street and hid behind a tree and waited for the right moment. And then we went over there. Once we got there and pulled out our tools and started doing the action, that’s when I found my legs and it became a lot easier once we got there.”
After writing “Thou shalt not kill” and “blasphemy” on the missile replicas with markers, they prayed and waited to be arrested. Other members of the group entered a bunker where nuclear weapons were stored, as well as an administrative building, where they left a copy of The Doomsday Machine, a book by Daniel Ellsberg, the whistleblower who released the Pentagon Papers.
The Plowshare members’ real fear — aside from being killed — was being arrested before they could complete their protest, Colville said. In this case, they were able to reach each location before they were arrested. According to Colville, their protest was so markedly peaceful that officers waited until they finished vandalizing the last model to make arrests.
“We go into these actions with the intent of doing conversion, converting swords into plowshares,” Colville said. “So, it’s not like we were trying to make trash out of these things. We were symbolically converting them into something useful for life.”
O’Neill, who is garrulous and good-natured even over the phone, struck up a conversation with one of the officers who arrested their group. Their conversation reached significant depths, with the officer sharing that he had experienced the death of his two-year-old son. O’Neill believes he was able to “convert” part of Kings Bay and transform it into something other than a base for nuclear weapons.
“The site … was really not a deadly force zone,” Colville said. “We converted it into something other than a deadly force zone, at least for those moments.”
Hennessy, O’Neill and Colville all believe that in court, these details were brushed aside in favor of a narrative that depicted them as criminals rather than activists. They spent varying amounts of time — for Colville, over a year — in the Camden County Jail in Georgia.
“I do time well,” O’Neill said. “I look at it as an opportunity to do ministry. I make friends, I like to read, I like to write, I run every day. I don’t get bored in prison. I make the best of it.”
In the Camden County Jail, O’Neill was popular, and he ministered to other inmates. Once, he taught them the Richie Havens song “Freedom” at a “party” he threw in his cell. Still, O’Neill thinks that the group’s sentencing was affected by their depiction as malicious criminals rather than activists. Judge Lisa Godbey Wood, who sentenced O’Neill, was “cold,” O’Neill said, but he added that she showed him mercy by giving him a shorter sentence than the probation department recommended.
“She’s sentenced literally hundreds of people to thousands of years in prison,” O’Neill said. “To be in a job where you do that — I think it’s hard not to see the person on the other side of the bench as being someone you have to punish, and they need to be punished, and all of that is in the interest of justice. So she [sent] a hospital chaplain with eight children, whose youngest child has Down’s syndrome, who runs a Catholic Worker house and works with the poor, and basically devotes his life to peace and justice work … to prison for a year and two months. She still had to punish me pretty severely for what I did.” O’Neill’s daughter provided character testimony in her father’s defense.
The Kings Bay Plowshares 7 activists faced up to 20 years in federal prison for their action. So far, the longest sentence given to any of the Kings Bay Plowshares 7 activists has been 33 months in federal prison for Fr. Steve Kelly, a Jesuit priest. Of the 20 years O’Neill could have been sentenced to, he was only given 14 months. Colville expects to receive between 21 and 27 months in prison, plus restitution, which he says he will refuse to pay.
“Hopefully I’ll get to go along for the canonization [ceremony for Day] and not go to federal prison for too long,” Hennessy said. On Nov. 13, Hennessy was sentenced to 10 months in prison, the lightest sentence received by any of them so far.
WAR, DOGMA AND CATHOLIC LIFE
Plowshares actions are not explicitly condemned or condoned by the Catholic Church, though the Church views nuclearism unfavorably. In 2004, the Church published the “Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church,” which stated that nuclear deterrence must be replaced with disarmament. According to Carlos Eire, the Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale, every pope since the invention of nuclear weapons has stated that they should not be used. While popes’ condemnations of nuclear weapons aren’t rigidly dogmatic, they should have great moral weight to the beliefs of Catholics. This moral weight resonates deeply with Colville.
“I have to go to the site where sins are committed, where idolatry is practiced,” Colville said. “Idolatry isn’t to be avoided or argued against or simply ignored. It’s not about nonparticipation when it comes to idolatry. Idols are to be smashed. That’s a basic call of faith in the Bible.”
For issues not dogmatically defined by the church, individual Catholics are able to form their own opinions in good conscience with church teachings. The Catholic Church teaches that there is such a thing as “just war,” and Catholic theologians like St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas developed early versions of just war theory. But during the Vietnam War, opinion began to shift. Some Catholics, like Berrigan, were imprisoned for burning draft cards.
“There are plenty of Catholic clergy who have been arrested, and not just for the nuclear weapons issues, but other issues that fall in the area of ethics,” Eire said. “People are on a spectrum in the Catholic Church, and they don’t have to match up.”
But the idea of just modern warfare is waning among Catholics, even those at the head of the church. In his October encyclical “Fratelli Tutti,” Pope Francis wrote, “We can no longer think of war as a solution, because its risks will probably always be greater than its supposed benefits. In view of this, it is very difficult nowadays to invoke the rational criteria elaborated in earlier centuries to speak of the possibility of a ‘just war’. Never again war!” Whether opposition to nuclear weapons justifies breaking a nation’s laws, however, remains undetermined by the Church.
“To be a Catholic in this country naturally means that we must resist this government,” Colville said. “It’s imperialist, violent and incredibly racist. As a Catholic, I have to have a response to that.”
Pacifism, anti-militarism and advocating for the disadvantaged can exist alongside more traditional Catholic stances of being pro-life, anti-euthanasia and anti-death penalty, Eire explained, and holding these beliefs has been described by Catholics as a “seamless garment” of views of the sanctity of life, or “consistent life ethic.” Pope St. John Paul II stressed the importance of a consistent life ethic but upheld just war theory after witnessing the Nazi invasion of Poland as a young man, Eire added.
Conservative critics of Catholic pacifism have argued that war is necessary in cases of terror states and in cases of religious persecution. Others sympathetic to Plowshares’ goals worry that its confrontational methods alienate potential supporters. Still, Plowshares activists view their efforts as intertwined with their faith and as actions they are morally obligated to carry out.
“I like to study the works of mercy, the spiritual works of mercy, relating to resistance,” Hennessy said. “Admonish the sinner, instruct the ignorant, counsel the doubtful, comfort the sorrowful, bear wrongs patiently, forgive all injuries, pray for the living and dead. And then of course the seven corporal works of mercy, which is what we do at the [Catholic Worker] house: feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the imprisoned, visit the sick, bury the dead.”
Hennessy, O’Neill and Colville are all involved in Catholic Worker communities and live according to these spiritual works of mercy. Colville lives in the Amistad House, a Catholic Worker house in the Hill neighborhood of New Haven, where he, his wife Luz Catarineau-Colville, and others cook and distribute meals for over 60 people a day.
“The experience of running a Catholic Worker is all about day-to-day living, trying to simplify your lifestyle and voluntary poverty, looking for peace and justice for all,” Catarineau-Colville said.
In many ways, Colville’s work and Amistad House seem to embody the most radical interpretation of Catholicism. But Colville, Hennessy and O’Neill view the Catholic Worker Movement, as well as the actions of Plowshares, as the correct mode of living according to Catholic principles in this age.
Colville opens another carton of eggs and cracks them onto the stove. The oil sizzles and sputters, and he cracks the yolks with the shells. Later today, he will repeat this for lunch for the people who gather outside of Amistad House. Whatever tomorrow may hold for him, he isn’t concerned. The two greatest commandments, after all, are to love God and to love your neighbor as yourself — Colville leads a life oriented around these missions. He wraps another sandwich in foil and hands it off.