In July 2012 Sister Megan Rice, an 82-year-old Catholic nun, and two men walked past multiple broken security cameras and into the heart of a high-security nuclear complex. Y-12 in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, was the birthplace of the atomic bomb and now stores enriched uranium for nuclear warheads. Although thanked by Congress for exposing astoundingly lax contractor security, the three were also convicted and served two years in prison.
Rice, who died in October 2021, was part of a protest tradition called Plowshares. Since 1980, there have been over 100 Plowshares actions in the U.S., the U.K. and Europe. The name comes from the books of Isaiah and Micah in the Bible: “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.” Isaiah and Micah are accepted as Scripture by Christians, Jews and Muslims.
As a historian studying faith-based calls for nuclear disarmament, I focus on nuns at the forefront of this significant movement. My upcoming book, “Transform Now Plowshares,” shows how they use existing international law and their own creative courtroom strategies to guide U.S. courts and even Congress to include pacifist principles in court records and congressional documents.
Civil resistance, not disobedience
Rice’s journey with Plowshares began when she retired after four decades teaching science and math in schools founded in Nigeria by her religious order, the Society of the Holy Child Jesus. At Baltimore’s Jonah House, a faith-based activist peace community, she met Sister Anne Montgomery, a Society of the Sacred Heart nun and the daughter of a prominent World War II naval commander. Montgomery became Rice’s Plowshares mentor.
Montgomery helped develop Plowshares’ legal strategies, such as attempting to put nuclear weapons on trial. This means explaining to juries that nukes have been internationally illegal since the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and even its 1968 predecessor – and also how their use violates the Geneva Conventions and other binding treaties.
When testifying, these nuns do not describe their actions as “civil disobedience,” because that would mean they did something illegal. Instead, they prefer “civil resistance,” which Montgomery called “divine obedience” to higher principles of peace.
One of Plowshares’ most effective strategies is to represent themselves in court, known as pro se, which in Latin means “for oneself.” It allows protesters, including these nuns, to discuss humanitarian law, the necessity defense – meaning you broke a small law to stop a large crime – and the U.S. 1996 War Crimes Act. Lawyers cannot discuss these issues because judges limit cases to mere trespassing or property damage. Using pro se, activists speak freely in ways that might get a real lawyer professionally reprimanded. Lawyers often do, however, stand by as advisers.
Rice wasn’t the first nun to be convicted of sabotage. Ten years earlier, Dominican Sister Ardeth Platte, who inspired the nun character on the popular Netflix prison series “Orange is the New Black,” went to prison in Danbury, Connecticut, on the same charge. Platte (pronounced Platty) spent her retirement years engaging in Plowshares and other protests at weapons sites.
In 2002, along with fellow Dominican nuns, Sister Carol Gilbert and Sister Jackie Hudson, Platte breached an intercontinental ballistic missile facility in Colorado. The three poured blood in the shape of a cross to remember victims of war. Then they rapped on the blast lid with a household hammer. The small hammers do not damage such massive weapons in any significant way. The three were accused of preventing the United States from attacking its enemies or defending itself, which is the definition of sabotage.
Just like Rice’s group and many other Plowshares activists, the three nuns carried rosaries, Bibles and other objects in small black bags. Explosives experts, however, thought they might have bombs. Attack helicopters swooped in as they sang and prayed. Police pointed semiautomatic rifles at them and shut down a nearby highway. This was an unusual reaction, since Plowshares protesters are usually stopped and arrested with far less fanfare, and it may be why the prosecutors won a sabotage conviction.
Rice’s prosecutors brought up Platte’s case during her trial, in which she and her companions were also convicted of sabotage. However, two years later an appeals court overturned it, admonishing that “no rational jury could find” they actually injured the national defense.
Leadership for prisoner justice
Rice, Montgomery, Platte, Gilbert and Hudson all showed exceptional leadership in prison. Since their first sentences were handed down in the 1980s, they have used incarceration time to run prayer groups, teach prisoners to read and help them earn high school diplomas. They advocate for poor women, many of color, who often receive unjustly harsh sentences for prostitution and nonviolent drug offenses committed because of poverty.
Rice identified with poor people. She called her fellow prisoners friends and asked to remain with them. Her ultimate act of leadership ideally would have been to die serving them. As she said in 2015, “Good Lord, what would be better than to die in prison for the antinuclear cause?”