Swords Into Plowshares: Fr. Daniel Berrigan’s reflections on the Plowshares 8 nuclear disarmament action

On September 9, 1980, six men and two women walked into a G.E. factory in Pennsylvania and smashed re-entry cones for nuclear missile warheads with hammers and poured blood on blueprints. Thank you, Dean Hammer, Fr. Carl Kabat, Fr. Daniel Berrigan, Philip Berrigan, Elmer Maas, Sr. Anne Montgomery, Molly Rush and John Schuchardt – the Plowshares Eight – for your vision and participation in the inaugural plowshares action. Elmer, Phil and Anne, Presente!

from the book Swords Into Plowshares: Nonviolent Direct Action for Disarmament (1987), edited by Art Laffin and Anne Montgomery


images-5by Daniel Berrigan, S.J.

September 27, 1980, marked my first visit to the monastery at Gethsemane, Kentucky since the death of Thomas Merton in 1968. I was asked to offer the homily at morning Mass; the text was from Matthew 11:25-30 (JB), for the feast of St. Vincent de Paul:

I bless you, Father of heaven and earth, for hiding these things from the learned and clever, and revealing them to the children…

And Matthew continues, with unexampled solemnity more typical of John:

…No one knows the Son except the Father, just as no one knows the Father except the Son – and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him.

Then a glance descends; face to human face, he take us in:

Come to me all you who labor and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke, learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart and you will find rest for your souls. Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden light.

In Jesus we learn of the modesty of God. I set this down in a time of promethean muscle-building, muscling in, a time of no limits, a time when literally everything is allowed: genetic splicing, abortions on demand, nuclear warheads pocking the landscape. We learn too well the sad litany of human excess; a national political campaign, for example, in which the nuclear arms race is simply not an issue, the only question being how much more how quickly. Death always inflicted elsewhere, the artificers of death presumably safe and sound in a nuclear free fire zone? We are gently driven mad.

To be alive to the future, one had best poke about in the past, at least now and then. I went to the monastery to seek a measure of light on why I had gone, some weeks before, to King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. And there, in the words of our statement,

… beat swords into plowshares… exposed the criminality of nuclear weaponry and corporate piracy…. We commit civil disobedience at General Electric because this genocidal entity is the fifth leading producer of weaponry in the U.S. To maintain this position, GE drains $3 million a day from the public treasury, an enormous larceny against the poor.

We wish also to challenge the lethal lie spun by GE through its motto, “We bring good things to life.” As manufacturers of the Mark 12A reentry vehicle, GE actually prepares to bring good things to death. Through the Mark 12A, the threat of first-strike nuclear war grows more imminent. Thus GE advances the possible destruction of millions of innocent lives.

If a plumb line could lie horizontal, in time rather than space, then the line, tight as a bowstring, would lie between the monastery and General Electric. I do not know how to put matters more simply. Somewhere along that line we stand (if we are lucky, it is literally a lifeline). We touch it; the line is not dead at all, inert. It vibrates with the message of a living universe. At one end, a monastery, a hive of stillness and listening and strength. And at the other, an unspeakable horror, a factory of genocide. To taste death and life, you go to headquarters; you listen and learn from the experts.

No sylvan setting for General Electric, no fooling around. Austerity, efficiency, cost value, big bang for big buck. You drive into an industrial park, down a broad macadam highway; building after building, anonymous, walleyed, abstract. A campus of world experts in the science and practice of abstract death.

September 9, 1980. We rose at dawn after (to speak for myself) a mostly sleepless night. In and out of dream, in and out of nightmare. The refrain was part nuptial chant, part dirge; the latter theme dominant, the former a minor key indeed. Brasses, kettle drums, and now and again, the plaintive flute in obligato, the cry of an infant in the river reeds…

images-4We had passed several days in prayer together, an old custom indeed, as old as our first arrests in the late sixties. We were mostly vets of those years, survivors too, survivors of the culture and its pseudos and counters, survivors of courts and jails, of the American flare of conscience and its long hibernation, survivors in our religious communities, in our families (they have survived us!). By an act of God and nothing of our own, survivors of America – its mimes, grimaces, enticements, abhorrences, shifts and feints, masks, countermasks. Survivors (barely) of the demons who, challenged, shouted their name – Legion!

We knew for a fact (the fact was there for anyone who bothered to investigate) that General Electric in King of Prussia manufactures the reentry cones of Mark 12A missiles. We learned that Mark 12A is a warhead that will carry an H-bomb of 335 kilotons to its target. That three of these weapons are being attached to each of three hundred Minuteman III missiles. That because of Mark 12A accuracy and explosive power, it will be used to implement U.S. counterforce or first-strike policy.

We knew these hideous cones (“shrouds” is the GE word) were concocted in a certain building of the General Electric complex. The building is huge: we had no idea exactly where the cones could be found.

Of one thing we were sure. If we were to reach the highly classified area of shipping and delivery and were to do there what we purposed, Someone must intervene, give us a lead.

After our deed, a clamor arose among the FBI and state and county and GE (and God knows what other) police who swarmed into the building “Did they have inside information? Was there a leak?” Our answer: Of course we had Inside Information, of course there had been a Leak. Our Informant is otherwise known in the New Testament as Advocate, Friend, Spirit. We had been at prayer for days.

And the deed was done. We eight looked at one another, exhausted, bedazzled with the ease of it all. We had been led in about two minutes, and with no interference to speak of, to the heart of the labyrinth.

They rounded us up, trundled us out in closed vans. We spent the day uncommonly cheerful in that place of penitence, in various cells of police headquarters. We underwent what I came to think of as a “forced fast,” the opposite of forced feeding and undoubtedly less perilous to life and limb. Around the corridors of the spiffy new building (we were in GE country, the local economy is 40 percent GE, GE brings good things to life) the atmosphere was one of hit-and-miss, cross-purpose, barely concealed panic. How the hell did they get into the building so easily? How about the jobs of those of us who were purportedly guarding the nuclear brews and potions?

Lines to Justice Department, Pentagon, FBI were red hot. Why can’t you get your act together up there? And what are we to do with these religious doomsayers? Let them go, let them off light, let them off never? Please advise!

About noon another ploy got underway. They loaded us in vans again; back to the scene of the crime. It was like a Mack Sennett film played backward; first you were sped away in Black Maria, then you were backed freakishly into the same doorway. (It devolved later they wanted identification by the employees.) But they wouldn’t talk, so we wouldn’t walk.

They carried four of five of us out of the van into that big warehouse room with the bloody floor , the bloody torn blueprints stamped “Top Secret.” And then the missile cones, broken, bloodied, useless. No more genocide in our name! And the wall of faces, police, employees, silent as the grave, furious, bewildered, a captive nation.

Under shrill orders from somewhere, the charade was halted. The procedure was illegal. A District Attorney said it might endanger their whole case. Indeed.

So back to durance vile. They locked us up, they kept saying: “Sure we’ll feed you, presently we’ll charge you.” And nothing happened. By 5 p.m. the more inventive among us were ready to close their eyes, strip their shoelaces, and pretend we were eating spaghetti Rossi in the West Village.

Then something happened. One by one we were led out. Take off your shoes. And (to the six males) take off your pants.

It appeared that, these objects being stained with our blood, they were severely required as evidence.

So, like the bad little boys in the fairy tale, supperless and shoeless, we were led off to our destiny by Stepmother State.

An intuition that we and others have been pondering for a long time grows on us, presses closer.

To wit: In a time of truly massive irrationality, one had best stop playing the old academic-ecclesial game of scrabble, as though merely putting words together could make sense of moral incoherence, treachery, and meandering apathy, could break that spell.

Rationality? Reason? If these were ever in command, they had certainly fled the scene during the Vietnam War. I would be willing to venture that sanity and reason have never sat in the catbird seat again.

In the saddle of power and decision we have instead a kind of “Eichmania” analyzed by Merton, a tightly hierarchical, spiritually captivated, ideologically closed insanity. In it are caught the multi-corporations and their squads of engineers and planners, on and up to the highest responsible chairs of command – the Pentagon and White House. All, so to speak (so to doublespeak), to “bring good things to life.”

And then outward into society the malaise touches all with a leprous finger; meandering apathy, at least as complex an illness as rotten power. Apathy, the natural outcome of such authority so used.

We have evidence of such indifference to moral and physical disaster in other modern societies, societies whose citizens, under whip and lash, or under a rain of bread and a politics of the circus, stood helpless to win the nod of blind, deaf fate, to speak up, to force a hearing.

Such apathy shows face today in our inability to summon resistance against nuclear annihilation. Screen out the horror; a shutter comes down. Best not to imagine what might be, best to act as though the worst could not be.

The phenomenon before the catastrophe is remarkably like the phenomenon after the catastrophe. Many of the survivors of Hiroshima, afflicted with radiation sickness, conceal their illness as long as possible, “act as though” they are not stricken. They go so far as to falsify family history, conceal the fact that they were in the orbit of death on the day of the bomb.

No wonder that today Americans find it more plausible, more conducive to sanity to ignore our nuclear plight, to fight survival in areas where the facts are less horrid, the cards less stacked. Economic woes, job layoffs, inflation – we have enough trouble drawing the next breath. And you with your little hammers and bottles of blood go out against Goliath? Thanks. Good luck. But no thank you.

Blood and hammers. The symbolic aspect of our GE action appealed to some and appalled others. But almost no one who has heard of the action lacks an opinion about it, usually a passionately stated one.

In pondering these passions, so long dormant, newly released, one learns a great deal – not about passions in a void, but about vital capacities for survival, sociability, spirituality.

Some who hear grow furious; some of the furious are Catholics; Catholics also guard us, judge us, prosecute us. This is an old story that need not long detain us.

What is of peculiar and serious interest here is the use and misuse of symbols, their seizure by secular power; then the struggle to keep the symbols in focus, to enable them to be seen, heard, tasted, smelled, lived and died for, in all their integrity, first intent.

Their misuse. How they are leveled off, made consistent with the credo of the state. Thus, to speak of King of Prussia and our symbol there: blood. Its outpouring in the death of Christ announced a gift and, by implication, set a strict boundary, a taboo. No shedding of blood by anyone, under any circumstances, since this, my blood, is given for you. Blood as gift.

Hence the command: no killing, no war. Which is to say, above all, no nuclear weapons. And thence the imperative; Resist those who research, deploy, or justify on whatever grounds such weaponry.

Thus the drama; the symbol outpoured implies a command. Do this; so live, so die. Clear lines are drawn for public as well as personal conduct. Church and state, the “twin powers,” always in danger of becoming Siamese twins, are in fact kept from a mutually destructive symbiosis by imperative and taboo. More, they are revealed for what they in fact are – radically opposed spiritual powers, as in Revelation 13. Church can never be state; state is forbidden to ape or absorb church. And this mutual opposition, this nonaligment, this friction and fraying, erupts from time to time in tragic and bloody struggle. The church resists being recast as Caesarian icon. The state, robust, in firm possession, demands that the church knuckle under, bend knee, bless war, pay taxes, shut up. Church, thy name is trouble.

The choices are not large. Toil and trouble or – capitulation. In the latter case all is lost. The symbols are seized at the altar and borne away. Now the blood of Christ, the blood of humans, is cheap indeed; for what could be cheaper than blood the church itself has declared expendable? That blood is now a commodity, a waste. When Caesar speaks, blood may be shed at will, by Christians or others, it makes no difference. Which is also to say: There exists no longer any distinction in fact between armed combatants and citizens, between soldiers and little children. Killing has become the ordinary civil method of furthering civic ends. The sacred symbol of blood, whose gift urged the command “Thou shalt not kill” – that blood is admixed, diluted, poisoned. It is lost in a secular vortex, immensely vigorous and seductive, urging a different vision. Labor is commodity, the flag is a sacred vexillum, humans are productive integers, triage rules the outcome. Finally, a peremptory secular command: “Thou shalt kill when so ordered – or else.”

It seems to me that since Hiroshima, to set an arbitrary moment, this debasing of the sacred symbols into secular use and misuse has proceeded apace. To undo the blasphemy, what a labor.

We have been at this for years – dramatic events, deliberately orchestrated, arbitrary but intensely traditional, liturgical, illegal, in every case wrenching the actors out of routine and community life to face the music, face the public, face the jury.

Is it all worth it? In measure the eight who acted at King of Prussia have already answered the question. At least for themselves, and for one another. One of them said in the course of our discussion, “Even if the action went nowhere, if no one understood or followed through on it, I would still go ahead.”

Worth it for ourselves. Each of us had, before the act, to plumb our motives, consult loved ones, care for the future of children, arrange professional and community responsibilities, measure in fact all good things against this “one necessary thing.” And decide.

The eight so decided – yes. Such an act must be taken, even though it disrupt almost everything else, call many things in question, inflict suffering on others. The value of the act is thus measured by the sacrifice required to do it; an old and honored Christian idea, if I am not mistaken.

(For us, going as we did in fear and trembling from the Eucharist to General Electric had the feel of the last hours of Jesus, his journey from the upper room to death. We held our liturgy the night before, broke the bread, passed the cup. Light of head, heavy of heart, we nonetheless celebrated by anticipation the chancy event of the following day; and the trial to come; and the penalty. Our logic? The body was “broken for you,” the cup “poured out for all.”

The logic was not only our own. At one court hearing the prosecutor asked, with more than a show of contempt, under prodding from his chief, who referred to me as “this so-called priest” and “this wandering Gypsy” (sic), “And when did you last celebrate Mass?” I was obviously to be shown up as not only rootless, but faithless as well.)

But what of the larger meaning of the action, its value for the church and the public?

Here one must go slow. The value of the act for those who propose it, sweat it out, do it – this is more easily determined. Value is created, so to speak, in the breach, in a decision to gather, unite voices in an outcry, to precipitate a crisis that, at least for a time, will strip away the mask of evil.

But I know of no sure way of predicting where things will go from there, whether others will hear and respond, or how quickly or slowly. Or whether the act will fail to vitalize others, will come to a grinding halt then and there, its actors stigmatized or dismissed as fools. One swallows dry and takes a chance.

There was one sign that our action touched a nerve. A hasty attempt was made on the day of the action itself to discredit us through a dizzying list of charges. Ideology, panic and special interests combined to barrage the media and the public with a verdict before the verdict – more violent crazies had gone on a rampage. The charges included assault, false imprisonment, reckless endangerment, criminal mischief, terroristic threats, harassment, criminal coercion, unlawful restraint. Talk about overkill! We sat in court, transfixed, gazing on our images in the crazy mirrors of the state fun house.

It takes a large measure of good sense to stand firm at such moments. People gifted with our nefarious history must remind themselves that at King of Prussia, hammers and blood in hand, we set in motion a lengthy and complex drama. One should speak perhaps of three acts.

The first act belonged in the main to us, an early morning curtain raiser, the action underway. In a sense the adversaries have not yet appeared; only a few subalterns act on their behalf, in their name: the guards and police and employees. But GE has not yet turned on its voltage. No official appears in justifying garb to bespeak the ancient myths, to invoke sacro-secular outrage at the violation of a holy place, property off bounds, the shrine accessible only to initiates. (Antigone has buried her brother’s body, but Creon has not yet flogged his way to condemn her.)

Then a second act opens. It marks the marshaling of forces of law and order, the invoking of daemons of natural law, secular karma.

Anger, retaliation are in the air, the gods of property buzz furiously overhead. The actors all but tear up the script of act one; and assault is mounted on the earlier reliance on “higher law” or “conscience.” Behold true conscience, behold the highest law of all, the law by which all citizens must live, the law that is our common safeguard against anarchy!

So in the manner of Shakespeare or Pirandello or Sophocles, act two is a kind of play within the play. The audience is bewildered, thrown off guard. It had read a certain kind of admirable moral truth in the face of the young woman Antigone (in the faces of a nun, of a mother of six, of a lawyer, a professor, a seminary graduate – faces like the credentials of moral worth) – now it hears another kind of truth. This is not the truth of “symbolic action,” which from a legal point of view is always murky, easily discredited, and reaching troublesomely as it does into dark existence (the forbidden burial of a brother, the breaking and bloodying of icons) must be exercised, discredited – by measured, relentless argument.

The argument, of devastating force, in ancient Greece as today, I call that of the Great If.

The example of Antigone, the example of the eight, is deliberately magnified, made stark. Behold their act, performed under clerical guise, under the guise of virture. Behold their act, as viewed by the state, the guardian and interpreter of public morality. (What an unconscious and ironic tribute is paid the defendants here, as though in the court itself, the state were erecting stone by stone a monument to the conscience it so fears – and so magnifies.)

In any case, citizens and believers, whatever divagations of spirit they were beckoned toward by the conduct of the protagonists, by their age or condition or credentials (above all, by their dark probing symbols) – all this is brought up short and abrupt. You are in court, this audience, as extensions of the jury, who are in effect extensions of the judge. You are not here to indulge in murky existential probings, but to consider the letter of the law and in your hearts to approach a verdict…

Finally, act three. Many scenes and changes; the great world, a time between events (action/trial), the agora, a courtroom, the many places where people discuss, argue, make up their minds and unmake them again, slowly or with speed come to a conclusion, the knotting of the action.

In court, the argument of the Great If is relentlessly pursued. The crime of the eight is segregated from the world, the faces of the defendants, mirrors of conscience, are hooded. The inert symbols, hammers, empty bloodied bottles, lie there, tagged, soulless, mere items of evidence. They are relics of moral defeat, emblems of legal punishment; as such, the prosecutor will refer to them with disdain and handle them with distaste. They will be compared, subtly or openly, to the tools of safecrackers, to bloodied knives and guns. What If such implements became the common tools of so-called conscience? What If all citizens, under whatever itch of notoriety, took up such tools (like the soiled hands of Antigone, heaping foul dust on her brother’s body) against the law of the state? How sordid a venture!

In the course of this act, the classic Greek formula is verified; the purging of pity and fear.

These must be purged, for pity and terror get in the way of spiritual change. They are obstructive emotions; to be taken seriously, no doubt, but strictly as preliminary to the main event.

That event, in a large sense, is destined to occur neither on stage nor in the court. It is rather the unending passionate pursuit of moral good, the righting of injustice, the ousting of death; the reordering of an ethical universe and of its social and political forms.

But in order to be purged, pity and fear have first to be aroused.

How acute the Greeks were! In the first days following our action, friends invariably spoke of their forebodings, their dread of the harsh sentences that undoubtedly would befall us, their fear that our action would be ignored or misconstrued.

Pity and fear. The pity narrows emotional largesse, the fear spreads out inordinately, claims all minds. Fear of the future, fear for children bereft of parents, fear of the state and its legal savageries…

One emotion is too narrow, the other too diffused. Neither finally is useful; that is to say, neither serves to heighten the truth of the universal predicament (which is not defined by prison sentences, but by nuclear annihilation) – or to grant hints and leads as to a way out.

I must inject here a message from the jails of Pennsylvania. If the eight have insisted on anything, it is that their trial and imprisonment are not the issue at stake. Pity for them gains nothing. Neither does fear for them or for their children and spouses. The eight go their way, a way meticulously chosen and after much prayer. But the issues they raise will continue to shadow their lives and vex their hearts. It is the corporate crimes of General Electric, the race toward oblivion that this monstrous entity both fuels and illustrates.

Finally, what drove us to “such extremes”?

To reach the truth, one must turn from Creon to Antigone; from the prosecutor, in our case, to the gospel.

In America, in 1980, it could hardly be called useful to the common weal or a mitigation of the common woe that a group of religious folk enter a megadeath factory – in vain proof that they are in possession of some kind of magical counterforce.

Why then?

Let us say merely because they hungered for the truth, for its embodiment, longed to offer a response to its claim on us. That even through us, an all but submerged voice might be heard, the voice of “God not of the dead, but of the living.”

From our statement: “In confronting GE, we choose to obey God’s law of life, rather than a corporate summons to death. Our beating of swords into plowshares is a way to enflesh this biblical call. In our action, we draw on a deep-rooted faith in Christ, who changed the course of history through his willingness to suffer rather than to kill. We are filled with hope for our world and for our children as we join this act of resistance.”