In July 2012, Sister Megan Rice, Michael Walli and Greg Boertje-Obed hiked a ridge and cut through four fences to reach the nation’s new storehouse for highly enriched uranium at the Y-12 National Security Complex in Tennessee.
Highly enriched uranium – HEU – is needed for the production of thermonuclear weapons. These weapons, used to threaten other nations, violate the U.S. Principles of Nuremberg (U.S. law), which directs citizens to resist illegal acts by their government. The refurbishing of the weapons is in violation of the nonproliferation treaty, in which the United States pledges complete nuclear disarmament.
They name their lawful act of resistance Transform Now Plowshares Action, following Isaiah’s injunction: “They shall hammer their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks.”
With faith in following the nonviolent Jesus, they poured their blood, painted words of justice and hammered on the walls of the HEU Building.
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Convicted of sabotage of national security and defacing of government property, they were sent directly into jail as terrorists to await sentencing (which took place 10 months later).
They were charged with $52,000 of damage, mostly to the fences. One of the attendees of the trial drew a parallel, “Would anyone let fences surrounding Auschwitz stand? Much less should we let fences guarding nuclear weapons stand.”
On Tuesday, 84-year-old Sister Rice was given 35 months imprisonment; Walli, 64, and Boertje-Obed, 59, were each given 62 months. Jack and Felice Cohen-Joppa, editors of the “Nuclear Resister” stated, “As the Hibakasha (survivors of the terror from Hiroshima-Nagasaki bombings) pass on, so do Rice, Walli and Boertje-Obed offer their lives to prevent similar massacre.”
Ralph Hutchinson, coordinator of the Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance, stated, “Though their bodies are in prison, their voices are free reminding us that the central issue of this action and trial have not been resolved – as long as the government continues to produce thermal nuclear weapons of mass destruction in Oak Ridge or anywhere, people are required to resist.”
Lynne Greenwald of the Disarm Now Plowshares Action (DNPA) at Bangor in 2009 reminds us that the date of this sentencing is the same date, Feb. 18, as the sentencing to death (by guillotine) of Sophie Scholl, her brother Hans and six other members of the White Rose Resistance to Nazi Germany’s fascism in 1943. It is also the day in 1985 when Lynne and six activists carrying white roses sat on the tracks leading into the Bangor Naval Base blocking the white train carrying nuclear weapons into the base.
Sister Rice’s judge asked her, “Do you have any regrets?” She replied, “Only for not starting 70 years earlier.” She has spent her life living among and teaching the urban poor of our country and Western Africa while also resisting U.S. militarism for the last 25 years.
Boertje-Obed has been most faithful in his quiet powerful witness against all weapons through many selfless actions of resistance – for which he has been separated from his wife and daughter for 10 years.
Walli is a Vietnam vet who received a Bronze Star. After the service, his life changed to caring for the homeless and marginalized people in a number of our cities. At the sentencing he asked the judge to look at his face and see the face of the future – the many who will follow in resistance.
Father Steve Kelly, another member of DNPA, said that the judge’s sentence gave great help to the United States in its efforts to categorize peace activists and whistleblowers as terrorists. The guilty verdict is meant to instill fear in the citizens. In contrast to this, Jesus says to the three, “Be not afraid.”
The court’s action demonstrates that the possibility of redress of grievances – from any of our branches of government – is blocked. The heroic action and subsequent sentencing of the three is a trumpet call to all of us.
The Rev. Bill Bichsel, Society of Jesus, has been imprisoned for nonviolent protests against nuclear weapons, including a 2009 break-in at a weapons storage site at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor. He works at Tacoma Catholic Worker in Tacoma.