Faith Matters

Fr Gerry McFlynn: Turning swords into ploughshares still prophetic work

Making a stand for peace can come at great cost, writes Fr Gerry McFlynn

Fr Gerry McFlynn

Seven Catholic 'Plowshares' activists face prison after mounting a peaceful protest at the world's largest nuclear submarine base. They are Elizabeth McAlister, Fr Steve Kelly SJ, Carmen Trotta, Clare Grady, Martha Hennessy, Mark Colville and Patrick O'Neill

IT may not look much like a 'breaking news' headline, but 'Jury convicts seven Catholic pacifists of breaking into nuclear submarine base' tells us a great deal about the true cost of peace-making as well as the legal status of moral and religious convictions in today's secular world.

Last month, on October 24, a US federal jury convicted seven Catholic peace activists of breaking into a nuclear submarine base in Georgia last year, pouring human blood on Navy insignia and causing around $30,000 worth of damage.

The seven now face up to 25 years in prison each for trespassing on the base, which houses six Trident submarines containing hundreds of nuclear weapons capable of incinerating countless millions of people.

Known as the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, the group is part of a 39-year-old anti-nuclear movement called Plowshares inspired by the words of the prophet, Isaiah, that the nations shall "beat their swords into ploughshares".

The movement was started by the late Daniel Berrigan and his brother Philip, who, in the 1960s became the first Catholic priests to be imprisoned in the USA for non-violent anti-war protests.

Mostly middle-aged and elderly, the seven convicted are members of the Catholic Worker Movement which, through a network of charity houses across America, feeds and houses the poor and marginalised.

They include Martha Hennessy, the granddaughter of Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker Movement and a candidate for sainthood. Day is also the only woman honoured by Pope Francis as one of the four greatest Americans of all-time; the others were Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr and Thomas Merton.

The defendants said they were expecting a guilty verdict but were prepared for the consequences. Sentencing is expected in the coming months.

It is surely a sign of the times in which we now live that moral values and religious principles can count for so little in a court of law 

A petition calling for the charges to be dismissed was signed by more than a hundred prominent people including Nobel Peace Prize laureates Mairead Maguire and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, linguist and political commentator Noam Chomsky, Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, actor Martin Sheen and a host of academic luminaries.

However, notwithstanding the merits of the action, a disturbing feature of their trial was that the judge, Lisa Godbey Wood, disallowed their lawyers to cite the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act which states that the government may not burden the faith practices of a person with sincerely held beliefs.

And just before the judge gave instructions to the jury, Assistant US Attorney E Greg Gilluly Jr reminded the jurors that religious motivations should not get in the way of their deliberations, even calling such considerations "100 per cent not important".

It is surely a sign of the times in which we now live that moral values and religious principles can count for so little in a court of law.

It would appear that for those who choose to take Isaiah's words seriously, the road from law to justice is as long as ever; the Prophet is still on trial.

Fr Gerry McFlynn is a priest of the Down and Connor diocese, project manager at the Irish Chaplaincy in London and a vice president of Pax Christi, the international Catholic Peace Movement.

Fr Gerry McFlynn

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