Plowshares Movement (1980 - )

The Lokashakti Encyclopedia of Nonviolence, Peace, & Social Justice

The Plowshares Movement

In 1980, several members of the Atlantic Life Community carried out the first Plowshares action, symbolically disarming MX missiles by hammering their nose cones at the General Electric facility in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. The subsequent trial (about which a movie with Martin Sheen was made) involved eight defendants: Philip Berrigan, Daniel Berrigan, S.J., Carl Kabat, O.M.I., John Schuchardt, Dean Hammer, Elmer Maas, Anne Montgomery, R.C.S.J., and Molly Rush. The group’s name had been suggested by these lines from the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah:

And they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation
neither shall they learn war any more.

By 2006, eighty Plowshares groups, unfurling banners on warships and pouring blood on plans for other “peacekeepers,” had entered various weapons facilities along the East Coast, from Maine to Florida, throughout the Midwest and Southwest, in England, Ireland, Scotland, Germany, and Australia. On Easter Sunday, 1991, at 3:45 A.M., for example, five Aegis Plowshares—Kathy Boylan, Tom Lewis, Barry Roth, Philip Berrigan, and Daniel Sicken—climbed onto the U.S.S. Gettysburg, harbored at Bath, Maine, hammered on missile launchers, poured blood, and unfurled banners across the gun mounts. They also posted an indictment charging President Bush and other military chiefs with violations of religious, domestic, and international law in deploying weapons of mass destruction, such as the Tomahawk missiles. Then, for an hour, the Aegis Plowshares tried to find the personnel who were supposed to guard the lethal weapon. Similarly, in April 2002, three Dominican nuns, Sisters Carol Gilbert, Jackie Hudson, and Ardeth Platte, symbolically disarmed a nuclear missile silo in Colorado. In exposing the dangers of possessing such weapons, accessible to anyone looking for them, the Plowshares have repeatedly pointed to a major liability of the nuclear game: our vulnerability before weapons that adventurers peddle for a fast buck, at everyone else’s expense around the world.

Plowshares actions result in arrests and sometimes long imprisonment for those who took the risks of disarmament; they also led to extensive public education about the arms race. Periodicals such as Year One, books, and documentary films provide the background information and tell the remarkable stories of people going to prison, of courtroom victories and losses, and of a faith sustained by study, work, prayer. At their trials, scholars, clergy, and public figures such as Howard Zinn, Dr. Robert Jay Lifton, Richard Falk, and Ramsey Clark testify as expert witnesses on the American tradition of civil disobedience in the public interest, from the Boston Tea Party through the Civil Rights movement. In time, Fred A. Wilcox, an historian of the movement, wrote, “our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will study Plowshares activists as we now do Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mahatma Gandhi,” who were also loved and hated during their lifetimes. In some cases, public support led to charges being dropped against Plowshares, when the defense argues for acquittal on grounds of international law, which regards these weapons of mass destruction as illegal.

Moving testimonies by Plowshares defendants justifying their actions are a particularly impressive part of this history. The principal justification, in legal terms, emphasizes “the necessity” of the actions for the protection of future generations and the environment. Yet in acting on behalf of all of us, the Plowshares recognize, as Paul Kabat, O.M.I., a defendant in the February 1985 trial, did, that their chances for “success” in stopping the arms race are slim. Responding to a frequently asked question about the effectiveness of his actions, he said:

In spite of my fantasies I do not expect my act or my resulting years in prison to have any cosmic effect on history, just as I am aware that the quiet deaths of many children in Fourth World situations around the world do not make any real difference to us Americans or to the political and economic leaders of our nation. Millions of children phase out silently and are buried in obscurity. So also, the Silo Pruning Hooks will not be much noted as time and events go by.

One might say of Father Kabat, as of other resisters, what Carry Wills once said of the Jonah House Community: “These are people who simply will not be defeated—who see the world in the bleakest terms, yet sustain most preposterous hope.” Commenting on one of its favorite sayings—“The truth will make you odd,” by Flannery O’Connor, Wills added, “the truth has not made enough of us odd enough to question the terrible assumptions of our age.”

The Atlantic and Pacific Life Communities and the Plowshares, by contrast, not only question the terrible assumptions of the war-making state; they offer radically different assumptions, new beginnings, as strategies for nonviolent social change. As with earlier movements for justice and peace, they build around them what Robert Bly called “small communities of the saved.”

Dr. Michael True, reprinted with permission, from People Power: 50 Peacemakers and their Communities. Jaipur: Rawat Publications, 2007.

Selected material about the Plowshares Movement
  • Berrigan, Philip, and Elizabeth McAlister. The Time’s Discipline: The Beatitudes and Nuclear Resistance. Baltimore: Fortkamp Publishing Co., 1989.
  • Douglass, James. “A Nonviolent Activist,” and Molly Rush, “A Grandmother and Activist,” in Peace-makers: Christian Voices from the New Abolitionist Movement. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983.
  • Douglass, Jim and Shelley. Dear Gandhi: Now What?: Letters from Ground Zero. Philadelphia: New Society Publishers, 1988.
  • Peacework: 20 Years of Nonviolent Social Change. Ed., Pat Farren, Baltimore: Fortkamp Publishing Co., 1991.
  • Swords Into Plowshares: Nonviolent Direct Action for Disarmament. Ed. Arthur J. Laffin and Anne Montgomery, New York: Harper & Row, 1987.
  • Wilcox, Fred A. Uncommon Martyrs: The Plowshares Movement and the Catholic Left. Reading, Mass.: Allison-Wesley, 1991.
  • Wills, Carry. “Inside the Whale.” New York Times, April 1989.
  • Bios   ( 24 )
    Inspirational noteworthy figures in the history of nonviolence, peace, and social justice
  • Groups   ( 24 )
    Groups and organizations that have played significant roles in nonviolent movements
  • Concepts   ( 18 )
    Important concepts related to peace and nonviolence, especially in regards to nonviolent action
  • Movements   ( 26 )
    Movements and historical events where nonviolent action was used entirely or in large part
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