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Book Review : Nonviolent Spirit in Nuclear Protests

June 18, 1987|JONATHAN KIRSCH

Swords Into Plowshares: Nonviolent Direct Action for Disarmament, edited by Arthur J. Laffin and Anne Montgomery (Harper & Row/Perennial Library: $8.95, paper; 243 pp.)

The Power of the People: Active Nonviolence in the United States, edited by Robert Cooney and Helen Michalowski (New Society Publishers, 4722 Baltimore Ave., Philadelphia, Pa., 19143: $39.95, hardback; $16.95, paperback; 272 pages)

Imagine what Jesus of Nazareth would make of Jim and Tammy Bakker's exotic taste in automobiles, clothing, real estate, and recreation. And then imagine what the Prince of Peace would think of Anne Montgomery, a sister of the Sacred Heart and a teacher in Harlem, who served nearly three years in prison for hammering and pouring blood on atomic warheads as a protest against the threat of nuclear apocalypse.

Which of these self-professed men and women of faith is the more devout, the more worthy, the more authentic Christian? The thought haunted me as I read "Swords Into Plowshares" and "The Power of the People," a pair of books that offer a gospel of redemption in these times of trial and tribulation.

"Swords Into Plowshares" consists of witnessing by some two dozen anti-war activists whose demonstrations against nuclear armaments are based on a profound spiritual commitment to pacifism, a Christ-like sense of self-sacrifice, and a defiance of what they call "a religion of nuclearism": "To pledge our ultimate allegiance to the state and to place our security in idols of death betrays our faith in God and constitutes the ultimate blasphemy," writes Arthur J. Laffin, a lay Catholic and a social activist who (with Montgomery) co-edited the book. "It is not an overstatement to compare our present nuclear situation with that of the German citizens during the genocidal campaign of the Nazis. . . . To prevent our government from carrying out the ultimate crime of global murder, we must engage in direct acts of non-violent resistance in keeping with our faith and political traditions."

Veterans of Protest

Laffin and Montgomery are veterans of the "Plowshares"and "Pruning Hooks" disarmament protests of the '80s, where "direct action" is expressed as a kind of guerrilla theater with specific allusions to the prophecies of Isaiah 2:4 and Micah 4:3: "And they shall beat their swords in plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. . . ." The protesters infiltrate military bases and nuclear weapons plants--sometimes disguised as quality control inspectors--and then symbolically deface or damage nuclear weapons with hammers, blood, and painted slogans. Our government reacts to these acts of conscience with exaggerated sternness--the protesters are arrested, tried and sentenced; sometimes they are even imprisoned. Martin Holladay, a gardener and carpenter who hammered on the hatch of a Minuteman silo in Missouri in 1985, was sentenced to a prison term equal to the time served by the ax-wielding rapist, John Singleton. "The insertion of a sixty-foot nuclear missile into a buried silo is a graphic image of rape," Holladay explains in "Swords Into Plowshares." "The sound of my hammer was a farmer's anguished 'No.' "

The members of the Plowshares movement concern themselves with a variety of worldly problems: hunger and homelessness, death and disease (including AIDS), the politics of the Third World, and--above all--nuclear disarmanent. As we learn from "Swords Into Plowshares," the movement draws on the activism of the '60s--the Berrigan brothers are both represented here--but it has taken deep root in an international religious community of both Protestant and Catholic activists. And its doctrine is specifically and literally religious; civil disobedience, insist the men and women of Plowshares in a faintly Jeffersonian formulation, is obedience to God. As a result, "Swords Into Plowshares" is a curious blend of revolution and rapture, poetry and politics.

"We speak the truth against injustice and, in our vulnerability to the very violence we oppose, hope to transform it through the greater spiritual force of love," explains Anne Montgomery. "In a real sense, our weakness is our strength, for it leaves us trusting in the power of God rather than in media power, vote power, or numbers power, however desirable these maybe."

Useful Historical Context

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