Americans are largely unaware of the vastness and lethality of U.S. nuclear weapons stockpiles, say Sisters Ardeth Platte, Carol Gilbert and Jackie Hudson, the three nuns who did time in federal prison for breaking into the N-8 Minuteman missile site in October 2002.
Now that the sisters are all back from prison, they spent some time with me to explain how their religious commitment and civic duty led them to become activists for nuclear disarmament.
In 1978 after Sisters Ardeth and Carol first heard Helen Caldicott's message on the dangers of nuclear weapons, they decided to work for the Nuclear Weapons Freeze Campaign in Michigan, their home state. At the time, Michigan held the sixth largest cache of nuclear weapons in the country. The two sisters helped to organize a statewide ballot initiative for the Freeze in 1982, which passed at 56 percent.
They continued to work to free Michigan of all nuclear weapons until the Defense Closure and Realignment Commission (BRAC) inactivated the Wurtsmith Air Force Base near Oscoda in 1993 and the K. I. Sawyer Air Force Base near Marquette in 1995.
Continuing to feel the intensity of their call to eliminate nuclear weapons, Sisters Carol and Ardeth then joined Jonah House in Baltimore and became members of Plowshares. The worldwide peace organization spotlights the dangers of militarism and weapons of mass destruction through symbolic acts like their blood-spilling on the N-8 missile site.
Sister Jackie began her activism against nuclear weapons after being inspired by Sister Marjorie Tuite (1922-86) who talked about the "burden of knowledge" that doesn't allow a person to know what's going on in the world and not do anything about it. This burden calls for a "revolutionary integrity" that challenges one's morality and calls for a continued commitment of the gospel's message of "doing justice."
"You can educate others and you can act," said Sister Jackie, 73, who served 30 months at the Victorville Federal Prison Adelanto, Ca. "This is not always easy because there are consequences. However, when the consequences come, there is something that happens within that is deepened."
Sister Jackie dedicated herself to the Ground Zero Center in Bremerton, Wash. near Seattle where she has lived since 1993. The center is located adjacent to the Trident submarine base where 2,000 nuclear warheads are stored. Peace activists regularly protest at the base and advocate its closing.
In 1996 the U.S. military stepped up its strategic capacity with Vision 2020, a plan to exploit and dominate outer space by linking all land, sea and air bases.
"Most people have no clue about Vision 2020," said Sister Carol, 59, who spent 33 months at women's prison at Alderson, W. Va. "Such a plan, if enacted, would lead to the utter devastation of the planet. So in 2000 we rang a bell saying that this was happening in our country and we must stop it."
The sisters' action against Vision 2020 occurred at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Co. where they poured their blood on a communications satellite and hammered a grounded fighter jet prior during an air show exhibit there. They did this because both presidential candidates that year had endorsed Vision 2020. The sisters were subsequently released without punishment.
"Nuclear weapons are the taproot of all violence," said Sister Ardeth, 71, who served 41 months in the Danbury Federal Correction Institution in Connecticut. "Because we have these weapons of mass destruction and see ourselves as the remaining superpower nation, we proceed to intervene in other nations, claim other's resources, and set up our military bases in their countries."
She cited our war in Afghanistan, where we wanted to build an oil pipeline, and in Iraq, where we wanted their oil.
"The U.S. is obliged to abide by the non-proliferation treaty, to dismantle all of these weapons, in order to gain partnership with others and begin to work together," said Sister Ardeth. "This is for our future survival, the survival of all people, of creation and the planet, herself."
Sister Ardeth noted that since 1945 the United States has spent $20 trillion on military weapons. Meanwhile, millions of people in America and throughout the world are poor, sick and hungry because they lack even a fraction of such resources.
"When I learned about how poverty and racism work from the people who experience them, I saw that these things injure Mother Earth, too," she said. "And I thank God in understanding the connection of all these violences. I thank God for the consciousness to say no to war and all violence."
The sisters consider their action at the N-8 to be their citizen duty aimed at exposing the truth about weapons of mass destruction and the country's unmitigated and bipartisan support for them.
They didn't expect to go to prison nor did they think their sentences would be so severe, however, given heightened 9/11 security concerns, the prosecutor's case against the nuns was probably used a deterrent to others who might want to plan future "symbolic" demonstrations.
Nevertheless, the sisters regard their prison time as "sacred time" not only because they "sacrificed" themselves for the cause of justice and nonviolence, but because their case received a lot more publicity than it might have. Their aim was to attract attention to the dangers of our country's WMD as we were marching toward war over Iraq's WMD.
The sisters recognize that not everyone can or is willing to go to prison as they did. As nuns they have the freedom to engage in public protest and to serve time in prison without disrupting family life.
"How could we not?" said Sister Carol without hesitation.
Actually, going to prison gave them the opportunity to "wash our hands of our complicity" with the military industrial complex.
Although the sisters' religious status (and earning capacity) does not require them to pay income taxes, they do pay sales taxes on consumer goods and services. In other words, it is nearly impossible for them or any American citizen to avoid supporting the country's war machine simply because everyone pays some kind of federal tax.
One might wonder if the sisters regard their effort and their prison time as worth it, especially as the Iraq War is nearing its fifth year and the president has been rattling sabers with Iran.
"We decided that our work is to end the war, to dismantle all WMDs, to stop all killing," said Sister Ardeth. "At every Mass, in every prayer, we ask for this. It is programmed into us."
"I don't ever want a child to say that we did nothing," said Sister Carol.
"I have a strong belief in life and love and lived to the best of my ability to practice those beliefs," said Sister Jackie.
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PLEASE NOTE: A new film titled "Conviction" by Brenda Truelson Fox of Boulder, CO, illustrates the sisters' commitment to disarmament. Copies of the 43-minute film are available through Zero to Sixty Productions: www.ztsp.org.
Olga Bonfiglio teaches a peace class at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Michigan. She is the author of Heroes of a Different Stripe: How One Town Responded to the War in Iraq and writes on the subjects of social justice and religion. Her website is www.OlgaBonfiglio.com. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.