As this evening approached, I was anticipating feeling what I am in fact feeling now: that tonight I’d be in a place where it would be better to do more listening than talking. This room is filled with the kind of wisdom that flows from collective struggle, sacrifice for the common good, devotion to people and communities and the earth, and immersion in movements for justice- which, as our dear brother Cornel West teaches us, is what love looks like in public.
Clearly, my voice need not be centered here, and so maybe the best way to show my respect for the wisdom in this room is by being brief, and then inviting or inciting a discussion. But that being said, I am delighted to be representing my six co-conspirators, the six loved ones who make up the rest of the Kings Bay Plowshares community, as well as the Plowshares Movement itself- now into its 42nd year,- in accepting this award.
On behalf of Liz McAlister, Father Stephen Kelly, Clare Grady, Martha Hennessey, Carmen Trotta and Patrick O’Neill, thank you.
First, a jail story… I was released from the federal lockup in Brooklyn New York on September 10 after completing a 21 month sentence for my part in the Kings Bay Plowshares action.
But the story that’s on my mind tonight comes from another jail, and another time- almost twenty five years ago. What happened one day in the Cumberland County Jail in Portland, Maine, in 1997, seemed a bit silly and innocuous at the time, (and it may in fact seem so to you now), but it has since become one of the guiding parables by which I’ve tried to live, and to this day it is never far from my consciousness. Here’s what happened:
Like most county jails, the population of this one would swell over the weekend, as people would be brought in for the typical DUI or drug-related offenses, and usually have to wait a day or two to get before a judge for a bail hearing. Late on a Saturday night they brought in a young man who looked quite disheveled, disoriented, and possibly ill from addiction withdrawal. I don’t recall having seen him the following day on the cell block, but on Monday morning he and I were both up early. Since the jail was fairly close to the main thoroughfare into the city, and inmates in orange jumpsuits are considered an eyesore, we had no access to an outdoor recreation yard. Our only chance at daily exercise was to join the queue that once a day would be escorted to a large gymnasium in the center of the jail complex. To get there, we had to follow a sleepy guard down a maze of hallways which were sectioned off by a series of five or six electronically-controlled, remotely operated steel doors. Every fifty yards or so we would halt at a door, the guard would wave to a security camera, a lock would be tripped from a control room somewhere, and the trek would continue. So, as a dozen or so of us were making our way to the gym that morning, I noticed that each time the throng was stopped at a door, this guy would move up to the front, try the door handle and give a good push. Still in my pre-coffee stupor, I was immediately annoyed, then began to chastise myself, giving way to a mild sense of pity for this young man who seemed obviously to be struggling with his grasp on reality.
At any rate, we all made it to the gym, ran around on a basketball court for an hour, and then got in line to head back. And sure enough, he kept it up: each time we stopped at a steel door, electronically operated by remote control, this guy would grab the handle and push. By now, internally, my sarcasm was starting to take the wheel. All the way back to the cell block I was trying to think of something witty to say. When we got to the last door and he gave it a futile shove, all I could come up with was, “Did you really expect that door to be open?” And he looked me straight in the eye and said: “I refuse to go through my life expecting every door to be locked.”
Watching the developments this week in Glasgow, at the COP 26 Summit, I see that parable from the Cumberland County Jail once again being played out in a socio-historical context. On full display there, we see once again our man-made, temporary, artificial systems of domination and oppression- in this case, the fossil fuel companies and their subservient governments- flailing about, still frantically, pathetically, absurdly trying to impose boundaries on what changes are possible and impossible, permissible and impermissible, carefully gauging the comfort level of their stakeholders and shareholders, AS THE EARTH BURNS.
The halls there are of course heavily sprinkled with lobbyists, war criminals, international liars and thieves. And in the streets the global community keeps vigil- hammering on those impenetrable, electronically-controlled and remotely operated steel doors. As one commentator lamented, our leaders apparently still want to pretend we can save ourselves by turning greenhouse gas emissions into a commodity to be bought and sold on the global market, without even mentioning the scientific consensus that essentially calls for an immediate moratorium on fossil fuel extraction.
Can we as a people recover the hope, the imagination, or even the basic grounding in reality that will be necessary to kick those steel doors of obstruction down? It increasingly appears as if our survival will depend on the answer that our collective resistance brings to that question.
We identify ourselves not by what we know, but by the questions we ask. Both individually, as well as in our collectives and movements, we locate ourselves in the world by the demands we make of it- and maybe even more so by what we’ve stopped demanding, what we’ve determined to be unreachable or unwinnable, and that which we no longer choose to exert the hope and imagination to make part of our struggle. For those like my co-conspirators and I who claim adherence to a religion, faith is expressed so much more by what we refuse to surrender to than by what we say we believe about the god to whom we claim to bow.
To paraphrase what the great Jesuit and cosmic theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin proclaimed almost a hundred years ago: Humanity has entered an age in which faith is not determined by whether one believes or does not believe in God, but by whether one believes or does not believe in the future of the world.
In that spirit, listen to what Arundhati Roy says about that which in our sufficiently vague political discourse we have somehow learned to refer to as “the nuclear threat”:
“It is such supreme folly to believe that nuclear weapons are deadly only if they’re used. The fact that they exist at all, their presence in our lives, will wreak more havoc than we can begin to fathom. Nuclear weapons pervade our thinking. Control our behavior. Administer our societies. Inform our dreams. They bury themselves like meat hooks deep in the base of our brains. They are purveyors of madness. They are the ultimate colonizer. Whiter than any white man that ever lived. The very heart of whiteness.”
This sister’s words capture on some level nearly all of the deeply held convictions that compelled me to venture from the common table in my neighborhood to Kings Bay Naval Sub Base on April 4, 2018.
As a lifelong activist and organizer, I‘ve come to see that there is no issue that we can take up in our local communities; there is no injustice or state-sponsored form of violence or theft or deprivation or racially-motivated assault inflicted on our neighborhoods that is not somehow rooted in nuclearism- this standing terroristic threat to murder our own children along with those of our perceived and propagandized enemies.
Unless we come to squarely confront and abolish that suicidal consensus, any mass movement toward social justice is pre-programmed for failure.
Nuclearism is a demonic, murderous, poisonous enterprise, operating beyond the reach of the law and the consent of the human community. It craves secrecy. It breeds impunity. By enslaving the human psyche to the idolatry of power, nuclearism underwrites all of the other forms of state-inflicted mayhem on the planet, from the border, to the jail, to the drone base, to the sweatshop, to the oil pipeline, to the toxic waste dump, to the permanent war economy.
Make no mistake, then: nuclearism is a religion.
It binds us to the national security state as the arbitrator of life and death; it commands that we place our ultimate security in the absolute power to kill, which is not only antithetical to any form of biblical faith, but also provides the most fertile ground in our nation for the moral disorder called fascism to flourish.
The development, construction and possession of nuclear weapons epitomizes idolatry- the compulsory worship of false gods- as a social practice. Nuclear weapons are the idols of white supremacy, and the idols we worship as a nation are not sleeping. They demand sacrifice. The god of the national security state feasts upon the blood of the poor.
What the Plowshares movement offers to the world is not to be understood as a social action campaign with a roadmap for success. It is a spiritual struggle. It is a communal attempt to name the evil under which we labor, against which we cry out, and in which we find ourselves complicit, as a way of gaining power over it, a power that we hope and trust will unleash healing on all of our neighborhoods and place us again in right relationship with the earth. For me, a Plowshares action is an unmasking of the demon of militarism that every day lays waste to my neighborhood.
There is a maniacal ethos that has taken hold in the land, and creation is groaning under its violence. To stand, and to stand up, where death asserts its logic and extorts our allegiance-this has become the most expedient spiritual practice of our time.
I honor all of you here tonight who have made that your practice in your own places, and am grateful for having been carried to such a place by the Kings Bay Plowshares community.
To close, I’d like to share the brief statement I made by video conference to the judge in Brunswick Federal court before she pronounced sentence on me last April. It is the same court in which the racists who killed Ahmaud Arbery are presently defending themselves. So I wish to honor the memory of Mr. Arbery and express my sorrow and support to all of his loved ones.
Good Morning Judge Wood:
I am speaking to you from land that was taken from the Momauguins, members of the Quinnipiac Indian Tribe, here in what is now called the Hill Neighborhood of New Haven, Connecticut. So to begin, I wish to acknowledge them, and bow to the spirits of a people who treated this territory with reverence, as the sacred space that it is.
What I have to say today is simple, and it echoes the message I have borne from the first time I walked into your courtroom three years ago. My neighborhood, my family and I have a right to live without a nuclear gun on hair trigger alert held perpetually to our heads. That right is ours, both by birth and by law. It is neither granted by courts, nor denied by them, but this court’s refusal to defend that right- or even to recognize it- has now, with no fewer than 28 convictions against me and my companions, placed it firmly in a posture of criminality. On this the world agrees, as the international consensus prohibiting the building and possession of nuclear weapons became law, by ratified treaty, on January 21st of this year. I bow then, also, to the vast multitude of neighborhoods worldwide- beginning with Hiroshima and Nagasaki- whose people have been demanding to be free of this scourge for more than 75 years, and who now await our nation’s compliance.
This court was given a responsibility to all of those people, to all of those neighborhoods, and to me. It was a charge that the times demanded and still demand; an obligation that emanates directly from the conscience of the human community, and which the court ultimately refused to accept.
That responsibility was simply to allow the law to be applied beyond the fence at Kings Bay; that fence behind which this government, in its lawlessness, has hidden first strike weapons with enough firepower to kill 6 billion people; a fence that I and my loved ones, with much fear and trembling, freely answered the call of faith, the call of conscience, and the call of generations yet unborn, to breach.
I am no lawyer, but I have come to know enough about the law, about politics and about history, to say with confidence that there were two decisions already set in place before this court ever met me.
The first was that the secrecy that remains both the lifeblood of this murderous enterprise called nuclearism, and the most lethal cancer for democracy- would not be disturbed.
The second was that the legality of nuclear weapons was never to be questioned.
These two decisions essentially preordained the prospect that we would be subjected to a political trial, with little possibility of a coherent defense, before a jury that would be laboring under an enforced ignorance. The choice of this court to abide by those decisions has rendered it complicit in the crimes for which it has granted impunity to this government.
No wonder then, that when our jury- chosen from the very neighborhoods surrounding King’s Bay- asked this court if our testimony that nuclear weapons were being kept at the base was fact or speculation, the court refused to answer, asserting that the question was irrelevant.
Indeed, maybe one of the greatest tragedies laid bare by these proceedings is that our federal courts have lost sight of one of the most basic concepts of justice, borne out time and time again in this nation’s history: ultimately, in the formation and the deconstruction of law, it is the conscience of the human community that determines what is relevant, not the whims of a corporatized government or the dubious demands of a terrified national security state.
If ever there was a moment in history when we needed to recover this understanding, that moment has come.
Sitting here under judgement today, what I grieve most about this trial has nothing to do with a verdict or a sentence. It is this court’s absurd logic, which effectively maintains that the only proper time to subject these omnicidal weapons to any kind of `legal scrutiny is after they’ve been launched.
In a very real sense, then, this hearing today is itself irrelevant. The court has already pronounced a sentence on me, on my family, and on my neighborhood.
We are hereby condemned to live as members of a rogue state, which, in the face of a global consensus that outlaws nuclear weapons, has budgeted what amounts to $100,000 per minute over the next ten years to upgrade its stockpile of these useless, poisonous idols.
We are sentenced to bear quietly, obediently, the relentless human tragedy that this massive theft of resources wreaks on our community. We are ordered to resist any faith or conscience-based command to substantively reject the false security that this standing threat to murder all of creation provides.
For my part, I declare to you today that we will not comply.
In closing, I wish to acknowledge with deep gratitude the large number letters that you, Judge Wood, have received on my behalf. It is my sincere hope that you will consider them not as pleas for mercy, but expressions of the conscience of the community with regard to the words that Steven and I have spoken here today. And, in that same spirit, I would like to add this prayer from Pope Francis to the pile…
A PRAYER FOR OUR EARTH
All-powerful God, you are present in the whole universe and in the smallest of your creatures.
You embrace with your tenderness all that exists.
Pour out upon us the power of your love,
That we may protect life and beauty.
Fill us with peace, that we may live
as brothers and sisters, harming no one.
O God of the poor,
help us to rescue the abandoned and forgotten of this
earth, so precious in your eyes.
Bring healing to our lives,
that we may protect the world and not prey on it,
that we may sow beauty, not pollution and destruction.
Touch the hearts
of those who look only for gain
at the expense of the poor and the earth.
Teach us to discover the worth of each thing,
to be filled with awe and contemplation,
to recognize that we are profoundly united
with every creature
as we journey towards your infinite light.
We thank you for being with us each day.
Encourage us, we pray, in our struggle
for justice, love and peace.
—Pope Francis, Laudato Sí
“The only solution is love, and love comes with community.” Dorothy Day” See less
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