It was the second of November. Five friends trudged four hours onto the nuclear weapons naval base at Kitsap-Bangor, Washington. Their destination: SWFPAC, the Strategic Weapons Facility-Pacific. They came to the perimeter, lifted hammers against fences, scattered sunflower seeds and poured their own blood to symbolize the blood spilt by these weapons. They carried banners that read: “Disarm Now.”
Security officers appeared in a hurry. And when they reached their quarry they unleashed raw abuse. The peacemakers were put to the ground, handcuffed tight, and reminiscent of America’s desert wars, shrouded in hoods. Then off they went blindly for questioning.
They expected a ride to jail, and in the months ahead, a sentence of many long years. But they were met with a favoring wind. Each instead was handed a “ban and bar letter,” saying in effect: “Never come around here again. Or else.” Undeterred, the peacemakers are out and about, at the gate, leafleting the base’s employees.
There have been nearly one hundred such “Plowshares” disarmament actions around the world since the first one on September 9, 1980. They are civilly disobedient, nonviolent actions. And they are driven by a single vision, the one made famous by the great oracle of Isaiah 2: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and study war no more.”
The Seattle peacemakers went to the naval base to bring the oracle to fulfillment. They included Susan Crane, 65, of Baltimore MD; Lynne Greenwald, 60, of Bremerton, WA; Sister Anne Montgomery RSCJ, 83, of New York City, and two Jesuits, Father Steve Kelly, 60, of Oakland, CA, and Father Bill Bischel, 81, of Tacoma, WA.
With them they brought a statement:
The manufacture and deployment of Trident II missiles, weapons of mass destruction, is immoral and criminal under International Law and, therefore, under United States law,” their statement said. “As U.S. citizens we are responsible under the Nuremberg Principles for this threat of first-strike terrorism hanging over the community of nations, rich and poor. Moreover, such planning, preparation, and deployment is a blasphemy against the Creator of life.
The Trident submarine base at Bangor, just 20 miles from Seattle, is home to the largest single stockpile of nuclear warheads in the U.S. arsenal, housing more than 2000 nuclear warheads. In November 2006, the Natural Resources Defense Council declared that the 2,364 nuclear warheads at Bangor are approximately 24 percent of the entire U.S. arsenal. The Bangor base houses more nuclear warheads than China, France, Israel, India, North Korea and Pakistan combined.
Nuclear weapons can never be guardians, defenders, or upholders of peace. By their very existence they are endangering the environment, threatening the indiscriminate destruction of life on earth, and depriving the hungry, homeless, and jobless of billions of dollars that could supply human needs throughout the world. They are sheathed in stainless steel and metal coverings that conceal the evil incarnate lying within. They are filled with death-dealing agents that tear apart humans and leave survivors scarred for life. They leave no place for human care for the thousands who suffer and die in agony. Nuclear weapons are a lie. Their protection is an illusion. They must be abolished.
This week I spoke with my Jesuit brother Bill Bichsel about the action. Known as “Bix,” he was born and raised in Tacoma, and in 1946 entered the Jesuits. He served for years in nearby parishes and schools.
Thirty years ago, he co-founded the Tacoma Catholic Worker, which offers hospitality and housing to the homeless. And there he continues to live. All told, he has spent two years in prison for other civil disobedience—at the School of Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, and, recidivist that he is, at the naval base at Bangor, site of his present action. In 1988, he famously stood up and challenged the lies of George Bush, Sr., running for president and speaking at Seattle University, a Jesuit institution. He was laughed at by Bush, booed by the crowd, and hauled off in handcuffs.
Bix has had two open-heart surgeries, lately, the second of which, he says, “didn’t really work.” He lives day by day, he says, amazed to be alive, by and large feeling fine but prone to fatigue and reliant on nitroglycerin. Still, he presses on—pouring out his life at the Catholic Worker, traveling this past August to Hiroshima and Nagasaki to participate in peace events there, and now this, at 81, a Plowshares action.
The Hiroshima Peace Park overwhelmed him, he said. He spent much time there meditating on the destruction of August 6, 1945. The commemoration ceremonies in Nagasaki also moved him deeply. “The feeling of sorrow and horror for what the U.S. had done and the resolve to work for abolition of nuclear weapons was strengthened by the experiences,” Bix wrote afterwards.
So resolved was he that, on his return home, he wrote his Jesuit provincial. Might he be granted a blessing to participate in this Plowshares action? His provincial wrote back:
We had thought that perhaps your days of protest were over and that you might be able to live the remainder of your life with some rest from civil disobedience. But in Nagasaki you once again heard God calling you into action. I know you have listened hard to that call, praying and discerning for over a year to make sure it truly was from God. Now there is no doubt. Go with my blessing and my prayers, Bill.
Here was a surprising answer. Bix seized permission and made all preparations to proceed.
He went, he said, to confront America’s “Auschwitz place,” and there witness to Jesus’ nonviolence and resurrection. These, he writes, “can turn hearts of stone into hearts of flesh and compassion.” More, they can “expel the demon of violence from the hearts and minds of people possessed by the need for nuclear weapons.” The power of resurrection will trump the nuclear death machine.
He and his fellow protestors—“we’re not exactly a spring chicken gathering,” he wrote—reflected and prayed for a year. And then they set out for their 4-hour trek, trudging toward the base along a road seldom used. The pace was slow in deference to Bix’s frail heart. Steve Kelly quipped, “We moved so slow we were invisible.”
Finally, they arrived, he said, their destination illuminated like the light of Mordor, the evil headquarters of The Lord of the Rings. They came to a rise and gazed down at the vast byzantine complex, enclosed by a series of fences. “It was a sobering and frightening view.”
They stopped and prayed and then proceeded to an outer fence. Bix and Steve cut a hole in the chain links, while Lynne, Anne and Susan hung a banner and planted seeds. Through the hole the five of them squeezed and moved the 10 yards to the second fence, this one festooned with barbed wire sensors.
They cut through this one, too, as dawn was beginning to break. Through the second fence they went, carrying another banner, hammers, and bottles of blood. By now the marines knew something was amiss, and presently, near the first hole, their humvees lurched to a stop and out they emerged toting automatic weapons.
Anne and Lynne unfurled the banner: “Disarm Now.” Susan and Steve hammered on the fence—their hammers engraved with “love your enemies”—and sprinkled the blood, a kind of casting of aspersions to name the base as an “Auschwitz place.”
Presently more humvees arrived and more marines armed to the teeth. As one, they lifted their weapons and trained them on the five. “We were a stone’s throw from the nuclear weapons bunkers,” Bix says.
The marines moved in hard and snapped the handcuffs on tight. “Shut up,” barked the soldiers, as the five tried to speak of the lie of nuclear weapons. Then over each of the peacemakers’ heads was placed a Guantanamo hood. With the prisoners of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, Bix says he felt as one. “What I experienced was a sense of freedom and thanksgiving.” He felt a sense of fulfillment of his faith in Jesus’ resurrection, such fulfillment, of course, being most possible in a place of hopelessness and death.
For many years, I have had a quiet longing to somehow stand in that place of death with the belief in the transforming power of resurrection. I believe the power of Jesus’ resurrection made real by faith can expel the demon power of death which holds Americans in bondage to nuclear weapons.
To those who might regard Bix, 81 and ailing, as headstrong and reckless, Bix counters: “Jesus is not cautious. He doesn’t have to mull things over. There are so many things that we church people are cautious about. But I don’t hear Jesus being cautious. Jesus is a companion who says ‘I’m with you’ as you do these things. And I’m so thankful for that.” I regard it as a miracle they got as far as they did. I’m so grateful, to put it mildly, that the soldiers refrained from opening fire. And I marvel that they are back among us.
But more, I ponder the gift these friends offer, and I’m compelled to ask myself anew, me a Plowshare veteran myself: what steps am I willing to take for the abolition of nuclear weapons? Not everyone is called to do a Plowshares action. Not everyone is called to commit civil disobedience. But everyone is called to do something for the disarmament of the world. Everyone is called to work for the liberation of the oppressed, justice for the poor, nonviolence in place in this disastrous world of violence.
The five are now talking about ways to pressure the U.S. and the U.N. during the Non Proliferation Treaty review on May 2nd in New York. Perhaps all of us can study the issues, write to the media, demand a date to see the end of nukes.
Maybe even go to New York to let our voice be heard. It will only happen if all of us stand up, step forward, speak out and, like our friends in Seattle, insist together: “Disarm Now!”