Sister Ardeth Platte, a Dominican nun and antinuclear protester, died (“Ardeth Platte, Dominican Nun and Antinuclear Activist, Dies at 84,” New York Times, October 8, 2020) during the night or early morning of the first presidential debate. When Sister Ardeth broke into a nuclear missile facility in Colorado, she recited “Oh God, help us to be peacemakers in a hostile world.” The US government, the only government on Earth to use nuclear weapons against civilians, sentenced Sister Ardeth to a 41-month sentence (one of many jail sentences) in the same city in which the government sent the Berrigan brothers, Plowshares members, for “crimes” against mass murder by the US in Vietnam. They would later be jailed for so-called “crimes” against doomsday nuclear weapons.
Sister Ardeth was the inspiration for a Netflix series about women in prison “Orange Is the New Black,” but a good guess is that fame is something Sister Ardeth may have felt a little funny about. Glamorous characters and the magic of the screen is not what antinuclear protesters lives were and are about. Antinuclear protesters are often acquainted with or associated with Catholic Worker houses founded by Dorothy Day and have a community about which most protesters can’t even dream.
It is that spiritual connection that Daniel Berrigan observed was missing from the New Left, a connection that spans protest movements and keeps the flame of outrage and love alive in some. A spiritual sense need not be religious, but can be as simple as a connection to the natural environment.
What draws undaunted protesters to act in the face of the ultimate darkness? What leads protesters to keep on keeping on?
The romance of the selfless protester is often challenged by the brutality of prison. What amazes is not only how selfless acts of protest come again and again from those who take documents and the history of the rules of war, the Geneva Conventions and the Nuremberg principles seriously, but it’s how they change the dread of prison into work with the most disenfranchised among us. There’s not much Hollywood tinsel and glamour there, but it’s a calling. They fight the forces of Armageddon that act for greed and profit.
Nuclear proliferation has generally been a bipartisan affair. Modernization of nuclear weapons began in earnest under Obama and continued with Trump. The abrogation of nuclear weapons’ treaties, however, has accelerated under Trump. With the latter’s wildly changing personal behavior, it is not surprising that atomic scientists sound the alarm over a clear and present danger (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, October 6, 2020).
Thomas Wolfe writes at the beginning of the novel Look Homeward Angel about his young love returning “…not into life, but into magic,” and I think it’s in the magic grounded in actual acts of selfless heroism where souls like Sister Ardeth live. There’s something of that magic that can equip a person with the valor to face a vicious, warring society and larger world and keep their faith focused on the good and the flame of protest alive within them as they are tormented by the brutality of prison and the obscenity of nuclear weapons and weapons of war.
There’s no better way to describe what keeps the great souls among us alive, and these words are not meant to be Sister Ardeth’s words or represent her feelings. But there is the glory of life within some of a failed species that informs the beauty of a summer sunrise, or blazing fire of a twilight alive in the worst of environments. There is the hope seen in the smile of children and the cricket chorus of summer nights that remains within the gulags that keeps hope alive.