This month, Sister Megan Rice, the 85-year-old Catholic nun who was serving time for breaking into and vandalizing a nuclear site in 2012, had her charges lifted and walked out of prison. Rice, along with two other activists, had been charged with sabotage and trespassing after they splattered blood inside the Y-12 National Security Site in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and spray-painted slogans like “Woe to an empire of blood.”
Rice had been arrested dozens of times before that one, according to the New York Times. She is part of the Plowshares movement, an extreme pacifist protest tradition that began in the 1980s and that takes its name from the Bible verse in the Book of Isaiah to “beat ... swords into plowshares.” Its members hit the walls of the nuclear facilities with hammers, and mark them with vials of their own (and their colleagues’) blood as a symbol of the violence they believe the weapons represent. As Eric Schlosser explained in the New Yorker earlier this year, the first goal of each meticulously planned “direct action” is to make a statement about the immorality of arms. A secondary one is to draw attention to how poorly guarded many of America’s weapons are—and therefore, how volatile.
Schlosser’s article traced the long and radical history of Plowshares as it has overlapped and intersected with the long and radical history of non-violently protesting nuns—from the movement’s roots in the radical anarchist example set by Dorothy Day, to the do-gooding and nuke-protesting nun character in Orange Is the New Black. (Beth Fowler, the actress who plays Sister Ingall, told the Hollywood Reporter that her character’s back-story is based at least in part on Sister Megan Rice. But Schlosser reported that OITNB’s author Piper Kerman served time with Sister Ardeth Platte, a 78-year-old nun who has been arrested multiple times during protests and break-ins.) Sister Ardeth and her partner in crime, Sister Carol, told Schlosser they “were both outraged and amused that their work on behalf of world peace had once landed them on a terrorist watch list.”
"The justice component of health care has been a core element of Catholic social teaching—and the work of the Catholic Church in the United States—for decades."
Historically, nuns have been warriors for a wide range of (sometimes unexpected) causes. Dorothy Day encouraged young men to burn their draft cards during the Vietnam War. In her book If Nuns Ruled the World: Ten Sisters on a Mission, Jo Piazza profiles women like Sister Jeannine Gramick, who fought for gay and lesbian rights in the 1970s, Sister Joan Dauber, who runs a safe house for survivors of human trafficking in New York, and Donna Quinn, who volunteers as an escort at an abortion clinic in Illinois. And Sister Simone Campbell wrote this year, in A Nun on the Bus, about her group NETWORK’s national campaign against Paul Ryan’s budget in 2011 and 2012, which they argued would cripple vital social programs.
To whomever may be surprised that nuns would engage in D.C. politics, Campbell writes: “The justice component of health care has been a core element of Catholic social teaching—and the work of the Catholic Church in the United States—for decades.” She adds that a predecessor of hers, Sister Carol Coston, cited a speech by Pope John XXIII about health care being a “fundamental right” when she testified on Capitol Hill in 1974.
Nor is nuclear armament the only issue that puts sisters at conflict with the law. Sister Campbell’s interfaith compatriots were led out by Capitol police when they wouldn’t get up from where they were kneeling and praying in the rotunda during Congressman Ryan’s first budget proposal in 2011. In 2008, 78-year-old nun Betty McKenzie was arrested during an anti-war march at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul.
After Sister Megan Rice was released from prison, Amy Goodman interviewed her on Democracy Now! and asked her how it felt to be free. “I really wouldn’t say we feel free, Amy, because as long as there’s one nuclear weapon existing, nobody is free,” she answered.
Many nuns say that they don’t mind going to jail or prison as punishment for their protests; in fact, it’s a preferred part of the process. The nuns Schlosser spoke to said that being incarcerated brought them into close, daily contact with people who may be in the most need of their help. Prison gave them the opportunity to bring the gospel to their fellow inmates, and to try to bring the attention of the outside world to other women’s cases inside.
Sister Megan Rice echoed the sentiment. When Goodman asked her how she had spent her time in prison during this recent stint, she said that, when she wasn’t reading and writing letters, she was “greeting and learning from the wisdom of the other inmates.... They are the ones who are the wisest in this country. They know what’s really happening.”
True Crime is Lauren Kirchner's weekly column about crime and criminal justice issues.