Recovering Conscience: A Conversation with Carole Sargent

Photograph Source: Jeanne Menjoulet – CC BY 2.0

Carole Sargent, PhD, is an associate of the Sacred Heart and founding faculty director of Georgetown University’s Office of Scholarly Publications. She helped RSCJ sisters establish Anne Montgomery House in Washington, DC, where Megan Rice, SHCJ, was a neighbor and friend. With Drew Christiansen, SJ, she coedited A World Free from Nuclear Weapons: The Vatican Conference on Disarmament (Georgetown University Press, 2020), and she has published previous books with Farrar, Straus & Giroux. She writes from the contemplative scholars’ house she founded (www.publishingadvising.com/house).

 The following edited Zoom conversation took place on December 27, 2021.

John Hawkins: I read your article recently, “Nuns Against Nuclear Weapons: Plowshares Protesters have Fought for Disarmament for Over 40 Years, Going to Prison for Peace.” It brought back memories of my Catholic youth in and around Boston in the ‘60s when Jesuits were turning activist and priests were getting excommunicated for leading public protests of outrageous government policies of day, especially against the Vietnam War, as well as opening up concept halfway houses and drop-in centers for drug addicts.

But more recently I’ve been considering what Noam Chomsky has said, are the three crises we need to be collectively concerned about moving forward: Climate Change, Nuclear War, and the global decline of Democracy. These are all existential issues we can all get around together.

So, let’s start there. Do you agree with Noam? Would those be your three?

Carole Sargent: I agree with those three.  I live in Washington, D.C., I was born here and I grew here. And so you learn to have bipartisan conversations about what’s important. Like, people keep wanting to argue over transgender. And I said, what if we set that question aside for right now and we talked about genocide? You know, if we set aside some of these issues that we’re never going to agree on and focus on the things that almost anybody can agree with – you know, that torture shouldn’t be? But why don’t we set these aside? So when you tell me what Chomsky said, yeah, that sounds right to me, and I don’t always agree with Noam Chomsky, but I can agree with him on those three things.

JH: Yeah, so I think what Chomsky is trying to do is get around all the noise that’s out there and get us focused on issues must do something about to ensure a future for people and how we relate to power. In the ‘60s we had the war to rally around, you know, and that sort of brought up economic and racial issues that needed tackling, too. But now it’s like all of this noise all over the place and the internet sort of feeds the distancing, and instead of bringing us together the social media instead amplifies the incoherence in some ways. Sometimes I wish a solar flare would come along and take out the grids for a couple of years, just so we could go back to face-to-face meetings.

So, I read your article about nuns putting their dukes up against nukes. You know, I think that’s a great idea. Just reminded me of my childhood. Some of the best people I’ve ever met were Catholic activists — people who were willing to let go of their ‘calling’ to become activists and stop evil things from happening. That’s what you write about, isn’t it, in your upcoming book, Transform Now Plowshares. The description blurb reads:

In July 2012, a Holy Child sister and two Catholic Workers committed the largest breach in US nuclear security history. They entered an enriched uranium facility armed with candles, bread, Bibles, and roses, to pray and paint peace slogans. As Transform Now Plowshares, they hoped to put nuclear weapons—which target civilians in violation of the Geneva Conventions and UN treaties—on trial, making international news.

Is that the gist?

CS:   Yes, Megan Rice. In this instance, they’re lending moral authority to the conversation. They tend to get more press than the secular people. And some of it has annoyed some folks, but it just tends to happen now. The event also included two men: Gregory Boertje-Obed and Michael Walli. We don’t call it a ‘break in’. We think they just entered. They really didn’t have to break in. They snipped one fence on the perimeter, but the cameras were out and the sensors had been turned off and they walked right in right.

The heart of what I believe the engine room of all of this action is the conscience. And it can’t just be anybody’s conscience. It’s just not day-to-day conscience, it’s a well-formed conscience in a certain context and understanding how and why conscience led them to this action.

Where are you coming from?

JH:  I’m sort of into philosophy, as opposed to spirituality per se, existentialism and phenomenology. But I bring a Catholic background to the truth table. It’s where my early moral guidance came from, and, as I say, it was the examples of clergy in action that demonstrated how to live in the world with, as you say, conscience. And I write a lot of poetry about spirituality and the costs to its energy brought on by unconsidered relativism. So I have a special place in my heart for Catholic activism.  I’m definitely a Golden Ruler. What will be the ripple effect of my actions here? So you’re talking conscience, and that concept, or plan, interests me in a world of relativism. Conscience sometimes seems like it went the way of the literary canon, you know? And yeah, yeah, it’s kind of a quaint concept now. But at the same time, I think a lot of people would agree that’s what’s missing. You know, we don’t we don’t make decisions anymore based on conscience. Consequently, our actions are often ineffectual. We need more swords to plowshare actions.

CS: Well, that interests me too. And what one ought to do is very debatable. People have asked me if I’m an advocate for plowshares, and I said, I’m not. I love it and I’m fascinated by it, but I’m not an advocate for it. I don’t think we should all do plowshares. I see it as a phenomenon that I want to write about. I think I’m doing what I should be doing by writing, you know? And so everyone kind of has their own, their own way of navigating it. I went to the Vatican in 2017 and was present when the Pope made his historic speech about nuclear deterrence and wrote about it. That’s my route. You know, I’m going to keep at it, I’m going to keep writing.

JH: What is the plowshares movement in more detail?

CS: At a practical level, it began in 1980, when the nuns did the first entry into a GE plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and I lived in a house named for one of the sisters who was in that action. I think it was their way to make the Word flesh. And they thought, Oh, well, we’re going to enter this GE plant and we’re actually going to take a hammer to it. And I asked them, Is it a symbol? And a lot of them say, no, it’s not a symbol that in the existential moment, and in that existential moment, the weapon is rendered unusable, even if it’s only for a second. And so they’re not playacting. These aren’t symbols. It’s real. Flannery O’Connor said the same thing of the Eucharist. She said, If it’s a symbol, to hell with it, and she was saying that she doesn’t go to Mass for symbols.

They had been doing things like plowshares before that, though — the Catonsville Nine and that sort of stuff. It sounds kind of reductive and maybe a little silly if you look at it so strictly. But it’s a real thing for them, and they didn’t know, when they did the first plowshares, what the fallout would be. Now there have been over a hundred of them in many countries, and the most successful ones have been in England.

JH:  You mention Flannery O’Connor, and this idea of conscience, and it reminds me of the ending of her story, “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.”  Remember the grandmother driving along with the grandkids? She picks up a hitchhiker. Gets kidnapped. And everyone’s killed by the psycho Misfit and his good bud, Bobby Lee.

CS:  Was that the one where she said she would have been a good woman if there had been someone there to slap her every day of her life.

JH:  There’s more than that. Give me a minute, Carole. [he does a quick rummage of files, comes up with the story, goes to its ending] Here it is:

Without his glasses, The Misfit’s eyes were red-rimmed and pale and defenseless-looking. “Take her off and thow her where you thown the others,” he said, picking up the cat that was rubbing itself against his leg.

“She was a talker, wasn’t she?” Bobby Lee said, sliding down the ditch with a yodel.

“She would of been a good woman,” The Misfit said, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

“Some fun!” Bobby Lee said.

“Shut up, Bobby Lee,” The Misfit said. “It’s no real pleasure in life.”

Oh, those wonderful moments of epiphany she enjoyed. And look at the Misfit as conscience. Ain’t that something?

But, no, getting back to conscience and action. I remember reviewing Frida Berrigan’s book, It Runs in the Family: On Being Raised by Radicals and Growing into Rebellious Motherhood. Frida was the daughter of Philip Berrigan and Elizabeth McAlister, an ex-nun, and the niece of the peace activist Daniel J. Berrigan, S.J. I loved that book. The language is just beautiful. And she has an anecdote in there about the effects on her childhood from her parents always being jailed for their activism. She was often asked if she felt neglected when her parents were always “away.”  But, she tells the reader, it was okay because they consciously sat down and worked it out so that their arrests were staggered and there was always someone home for the kids. Right? And so that all came together like a family unit sort of moving forward. And plowshares was sort of budgeted in to the lifestyle.

 A lot of people don’t realize it, but in the ‘60s young people in their late teens were being drafted and sent to Vietnam against their will. At home they had no voting rights. You know, it was okay for them to die in the jungle somewhere to make capitalism proud of them, but they couldn’t vote. And that caused a lot of stir up, you know, and it was great to see the Berrigans, you know, poor blood over draft records, that kind of thing. And again, that’s not just symbolic, it’s actually ruining the draft record.

CS:  And then they found out later that there were no backups for those records, which I didn’t know. So there are people walking around today that are the descendants of those draftees who didn’t go to Vietnam because the records were ruined. Yeah. So that that actually weirded them out, not in a bad way. They were like, Wow, they had no idea. And so what a fascinating little twist to a story. Right?

But, going back to the point of conscience, Megan Rice would say that the moment you know that something is wrong on that scale — human rights abuse, genocide, nuclear war, take your pick — you’re obligated to take action. Now she didn’t say you had to do what she did, but she felt that there was an obligation that went beyond the intellectual exercise that you had to actually do something.

For many, if not most of them is that it resonates. So they don’t ask themselves in this moment, will I get press? Will people write about it? They don’t do press conferences afterwards and try to lure people in. They wait to see the witness get heightened. Those were Phil Berrigan’s words. He said prison heighten the witness, but that they wait for the witness to sort of do its own thing.

Fighting the Lamb’s War is my personal favorite. That’s Phil Berrigan. Yeah, his book really asks you, why aren’t we all outraged? Why aren’t we all out of our seats? How is this machine going forth? You know, and he talked about being in Dresden, Germany, and seeing these charnel houses basically bodies stacked.  He fought in World War Two. He did combat. He killed people. In his own words, he was a highly skilled young killer, and he lived with that, and came home and changed very, very much.

Well, you know, their question for us would be, why aren’t we all doing it? I do feel that we all have to do something. I do feel that every person who’s morally outraged is obligated to do something, but I believe that they should limit their something to their gifts and their call. The acts of resistance that come from conscience is covered extraordinarily well by a Washington Post reporter named Dan Zak in Almighty: courage, resistance, and existential peril in the nuclear age.

And so now I’m interested in Sister Norma Pimentel. Now she is at the border, US-Mexico border, and she grew up there and she does a lot with migrants, and I feel like that’s maybe my next project.

JH: Yeah, it looks like the borderlands could use a little plowshares action.

One of the things that fascinates me about the plowshares that the nuns are doing, is the question of how they find the inner spiritual energy to do it in our relativistic age. Despite the fact that we live in an age where essentially God is dead to many people, diluted Nietzsche vibes are all around us. Of course, Voltaire said, you know, well, if God did not exist, we would find it necessary to invent one. But, at the moment, we appear to be on our own at a time of most need. We need conscience, but we also need the kind of energy required to deal with very complex issues.

CS: I love the fact that culture is collaborative, that you can actually appeal to the conscience of others, including secular people, including people whose faith is very different than yours, including people who may actually be what some would call evil. I don’t actually believe that people are evil. I believe actions can be profoundly evil, but I don’t believe people are evil. I believe people give themselves over to it. And so in that moment is always an opportunity for redemption and for doing something else.

JH:   So, how do people fire up their conscience? Exercise?

CS: One of the most interesting ways to do it is to meditate. Because the media traumatizes us and it can traumatize us into an ill-conceived action. So let’s say you’re concerned about genocide, you’re concerned about something you’ve read. First of all, don’t believe that the media told you the truth. Why would you believe that? Go find someone who’s actually involved in the thing. I don’t want to hear one more person tell me their strong opinion on the US-Mexico border until they’ve gone there. Go to the border, go visit. Some people have been working there for decades. Pray with them. Talk to them. You know, I knew a woman who wanted to be a judge, actually. She wanted to be an immigration judge, and they made her do two years down on the border first before they even wanted her on a bench. I mean, to get firsthand knowledge, get the media out of the way. The media is an echo chamber and it’s not usually accurate.

Carole Sargent’s book Transform Now Plowshares will be available from Liturgical Press in mid-February, just in time for the new year’s resolutions. You can read a sample of the book here.

John Kendall Hawkins is an American ex-pat freelancer based in Australia.  He is a former reporter for The New Bedford Standard-Times.