Sacred Duty: Revisiting the Kings Bay Plowshares 7

If we assume that life is worth living and that man has a right to survive, then we must find an alternative to war. In a day when vehicles hurtle through outer space and guided ballistic missiles carve highways of death through the stratosphere, no nation can claim victory in war. A so-called limited war will leave little more than a calamitous legacy of human suffering, political turmoil, and spiritual disillusionment. A world war – God forbid! – will leave only smoldering ashes as a mute testimony of a human race whose folly led inexorably to ultimate death.
Martin Luther King, Jr., 1964 Nobel Peace Prize Lecture


Four years ago — on 4 April 2018, the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. — seven Catholic Plowshares activists conducted a ‘symbolic disarmament’ of the Kings Bay naval base in Georgia, home to America’s East Coast fleet of nuclear-armed submarines, a mere six vessels —“boomers,” in Kings Bay English — each armed with up to 20 Trident missiles, each carrying up to eight warheads, each up to 30 times more powerful than the ‘little boy’ Bomb which incinerated Hiroshima. As it is, alas, far from irrational to worry that President Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine may spread and spiral to a full nuclear exchange between NATO and Russia, it is salutary to recall the un-hyperbolic description of Trident in a 2017 National Interest article as probably “the most destructive weapon system created by humankind” and “a nightmarish weapon of the apocalypse.”

Many Spectator readers are familiar with the case and courage of the ‘Kings Bay Plowshares Seven’ or KBP7: Mark Colville (55 at the time of the Action), Martha Hennesy (62), Clare Grady (59), Father Steve Kelly (69), Patrick O’Neill (61), Carmen Trotta (55) and Elizabeth McAlister (78). They acted to protest the pathological orthodoxy of American nuclearism, an idol worship reducing, as moral philosopher Elaine Scarry argues, the Republic to a “Thermonuclear Monarchy” — they were remanded in custody for weeks; e-carcerated under strict house arrest; and (with the exception of McAlister) imprisoned, during a pandemic, for between 10 and 33 months.

NATO leaders often speak of the “sacred duty” to defend “every single inch” of their massively-expanded territory — a tauntingly ironic mantra, given the multiple vows offered to Moscow at the end of the Cold War to move the Alliance “not one inch eastward.” Here’s President Biden, announcing on March 11 the deployment of 12,000 American troops to the Baltic borders of Russia:

We will defend every inch of NATO territory – every single inch – with a united, galvanized NATO. One movement… Because if they move once… Granted, if we respond, it is World War Three, but we have a sacred obligation…

This, as the KBP7 tried to show us, is the sacrilegious ‘nuclear normal’ our suicidal ‘deterrence-dependence’ has created: where nothing truly sacred is sacred any more.

To mark the anniversary, I conducted email interviews with three of the Seven — Mark Colville, Clare Grady, and Martha Hennessy — as well as with Bill Ofenloch, an eloquent spokesperson and tireless advocate for the group; and Christine Gwynn, a young peace activist who flew from Cape Breton to Georgia to attend their trial. Edited excerpts from their responses follow: fuller versions can be accessed here.


“Afraid but Exultant”

Clare Grady: It was a warm evening, I remember singing on the drive to the base. The two years leading up to that night were rich with preparation, and the three questions I carried with me in my discernment were: 1) does this need to be done? 2) does it need to be done now? 3) does it need to be done now, by me? The answer for the first two were a clear YES, but I was still discerning my role up until shortly before the action. In particular, I did not want to hurt my children by taking the big risk involved.

Things changed when, shortly before the action, we decided that once we got inside the base we would go to three different sites: Liz, Carmen and Steve would be going to the highly militarized, highly ‘secured’ bunkers where the Trident missiles were housed; Mark and Patrick felt called to topple the ‘Missile Shrine,’ a concrete replica of the missiles, displayed at an easily accessible intersection inside the base; and Martha and I chose to go to the Strategic Weapons Facility Atlantic (SWFLANT), the administration building near the ‘Shrine.’ My choice to go to SWFLANT, and not the bunkers, lifted a great deal of weight, and allowed me to breathe with my choice.

When we got to the ‘out of the way’ gate we chose to enter, it didn’t take long to clip the lock, and for all seven of us to walk in. My clearest memory that stayed with me throughout the action and jail, even till today, is how utterly beautiful it was where we were walking, under the stars, under the Georgia pines, surrounded by the reassuring sounds of the creatures in the woods. After walking about 20-30 minutes, we circled in prayer before Liz, Carmen and Steve made their way north to the bunker area. It was emotional for me to see them go and to take in the profoundness of their offering. The remaining four of us headed west under the stars; I remember there were deer in the clearing, and that seemed an extra blessing.

When Martha and I arrived at SWFLANT, we could see lights on inside. The first thing we did was hang our banner, ‘The Ultimate Logic of Trident is Omnicide’. Then we put up Crime Scene tape, and left a copy of the indictment that we had prepared; spray-painted on the ground a big heart and the words, “Love One Another;” poured a small bottle of blood on the ground; and left the Daniel Ellsberg book The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner. After a few prayerful moments, and a few photos to send out to the world, we walked across the grass to where Mark and Patrick were addressing the ‘Shrine.’ We sat and read the mass readings for that day, and prayed while we waited calmly for ‘base security’ to come. The civilian security fellow came first, and it was the most gentle and human encounter I had ever had with police.

Martha Hennessy: Much of the time was suspended as it unfolded. The sky was dark but starry, the land quiet but for a few frogs singing their spring songs. I was afraid but exultant, knowing the time had come for what we had prepared to do over the course of 24 months. Of course, the seeds for this moment were sown further back in my life, and being there felt dangerous and yet right. Cutting the padlock was our big crime, while the nuclear subs troll the seven seas, ready to lay waste whole cities and countries. I remember thinking, the moment I poured blood on the threshold of SWFLANT, ‘this sacred blood is being poured out for You, for the prevention of the greatest sin of all,’ the destruction of God’s Creation.

When we were approached for the first time by base officials, it was a simple affair, like we were expecting each other. At one point while being interrogated, I repeated what our banner said: “The ultimate logic of Trident is Omnicide”: they were silent as these words hung in the air. Nearly 24 hours after entering the base and having no sleep, I laid my head on a rough blanket in the Woodbine County jail and a great dread and loneliness swept over me: “O God give me the strength to walk this path.” All of this stays with me as we now threaten war with Russia through Ukraine, what we were warning about…”

Mark Colville: Kings Bay was my third Plowshares action, and the emotional intensity of the experience was no different from the previous ones. The internal wrestling match that begins the moment one’s face turns toward the task at hand – that holy struggle against the kind of fear that paralyzes both body and spirit – was at least familiar this time around, if no less agonizing. Thankfully, I’ve come to understand that it is the mentoring provided by community life that girds me for that solo battle.

The over-riding practical concern, as always, was to avoid being discovered before we reached the ‘site of the sin,’ as we call the locations where nuclear weapons are stored and ‘worshipped.’ The most unnerving thing I remember from that night was the loud audio recording, blaring every 15 minutes or so, warning us we were in a ‘deadly force zone,’ and that lethal force was authorized. I recall praying fervently for God to deliver me into a jail cell that night: ironically, imagining the cold steel of a jail bunk beneath my back began to give me great comfort. Ultimately, though, it was the actual moving of the feet, the swinging of the hammer, the marking of that weapons shrine with blood and truth-telling, that gave me serenity and courage. The path is made by walking. I also recall feeling extremely confident in my friends — my ‘co-conspirators’ — all of whom I’d grown to trust with my life. We were simply doing what we’ve done for decades now: through community and hospitality, we carry one another to the holy work of nonviolent resistance.


I asked Christine Gwynn to reflect on her experience of meeting the Seven at their trial. “I really struggle,” she wrote, “to find the words to describe just how impactful the time I spent in Georgia has been; it has truly influenced all spheres of my life from my politics and activism to my academic pursuits and spiritual health.” But “the greatest impact” is how “the KBP7 and their community of supporters have helped alter the way I relate to the Bomb.” “Before the trial,” she elaborated:

…my awareness of the Bomb was dominated by its physicality; the measurable effects it has on people, places, animals, and other living things. Yet, while the physical Bomb remains incredibly important, the KBP7 helped me to understand the Bomb as a diptych, made up of a physical and a symbolic side. Clare Grady refers to the Bomb as a ‘cocked gun’ held to the head of humanity, and this is just one example of how it is wielded as a symbolic form, used to threaten, coerce, and legitimize violence. The effects of the symbolic Bomb are too massive to detail here, but I owe the KBP7 a debt for opening my eyes to the Bomb in its entirety.


“Guerrilla Grannies”

I asked Gwynn, Hennessey and Colville about the wider political impact of the Action, and whether, given everything they and their loved ones had been through, it was “worth it?”

Mark Colville: As I see it, we were not nearly as attentive to the action’s political or social impact as we were with maximizing its clarity, particularly by our personal conduct and the care with which we made use of the symbolic. Our faith tradition commissions us through baptism to engage the world in ways that are both sacramental and prophetic. To be sacramental is to call forth into reality a hope — a divine promise — yet to be fulfilled. To be prophetic is to discern the movement of good and evil in the world, to articulate the present reality in such a way that it illuminates the path ahead, stirring the collective imagination.

Communication with the world in this way requires one to go beyond words into symbols; theater; the use of our own bodies as signs of the change we are calling into being. Exactly how that change happens, or what reactions we intend to elicit – these are not issues we delved into very much. To me, Plowshares is not primarily a social or political action campaign, but rather a personal path of repentance, an effort to set things right between myself and the rest of creation by asking forgiveness from God, neighbor, and the earth herself, for my multi-leveled complicity in the pre-meditated murder of everything we hold dear. So I am unattached to any need for demonstrative proof of ‘impact’: we threw a pebble in the pond, knowing that the ripples were not ours to direct, but convinced that the deep, dark, filthy waters of obedience to the status quo needed to be troubled.

Sentencing of Liz McAlister, KBPS7

Home sentencing of Elizabeth McAlister, June 2020, to time served (17 months) and three years supervised probation. (Source: Kings Bay Plowshares 7 website)

Martha Hennessy: We were held for two months in a vacuum and silence, not knowing the impact. The women in the jail saw us on the TV news that day and many cheered on our arrival: we were dubbed the Guerrilla Grannies by our sisters in resistance. To ask the question ‘was it worth it?’ is a betrayal of Christ on the Cross. Each small act of faith, hope and love builds upon the next: we must each do what we can, from where we find ourselves in this world of precariousness. Later, I was able to understand more of the ripple effect of our sacramental action, everyone we touched along the way, from the military base to the prisons, the courtroom, our families, communities, and institutions. Great courage is given to the peacemaking movement around the world when a Plowshares Action happens; we brought thousands of people with us onto that death-dealing base. A cry of NO! in the face of rapacious empire resounds, despite the culture of amnesia and brainwashing.


From his perspective as a campaigner, Bill Ofenloch commented: “Here was some media attention, but not much in major venues: nothing ever in the New York Times and only an initial story in the Washington Post. Local TV coverage in Georgia and Jacksonville, Florida, centered mainly on the incursion into a supposedly secure base, and not much about the bigger issue of nuclear weapons.”

Christine Gwynne maintained that “brave actions” like the Seven’s “will help to put the bomb on trial, at least in the court of public opinion”: “acts of civil resistance help to take back the narrative, exposing the truth of nuclear weapons, and producing new ways of seeing and engaging, not only with the Bomb but also with ourselves and our futures.” She added, though, that while such “singular acts” and “sacrifices” can “renew the strength of the anti-nuclear movement, it is up to peace activists as a whole to grab on to them, so they can culminate into something that cannot be ignored.”


Mass Destruction & Mass Incarceration

Martha Hennessy: The faces and voices of the women I left behind at Danbury Federal Prison Camp (Connecticut) are still with me: mothers of young children, daughters of aging parents, spouses, work partners and all the other myriad roles we fulfill. They come from varying class backgrounds, but the one uniting factor is the cultural norm of deprivation, violence, addiction and discrimination. As a trained occupational therapist, it became rapidly evident to me how profoundly our social and educational system fails so many. The capitalist system exacts a great toll from all of us; the more vulnerable we are the further we are likely to fall. Who baptized capitalism as sacred? As more valuable and esteemed than human life and our natural environment?

Federal Correctional Institution, Danbury, CT

Federal Correctional Institution, Danbury, CT (Source: Federal Bureau of Prisons, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)


Mark Colville: The most prominent way we tried to make the connection between nuclear abolition and prison abolition was by focusing on the theme of idolatry. Through our collective immersion in biblical studies, we came to realize two crucial facts: first, nuclear weapons have become the idols of the national security state; second, the most prominent effect of worshipping idols – both in the Bible and in the USA — is that they demand human sacrifice. As I wrote from jail at one point, “The god of the national security state feasts upon the blood of the poor.”

For that reason, I came to view the 15 months spent before trial — in an atrocious maximum security holding facility disproportionately populated by low-income people of color — as an extremely appropriate and necessary journey to make.  “The Ultimate Logic of Racism Is Genocide” was one message we brought to the ‘site of the sin,’ and that truth became clearer every night I passed as a prisoner. Mass incarceration is but a contemporary piece of the genocidal project initiated on this continent with the extermination of native peoples and accelerated through slavery and Jim Crow, all of which is now underwritten, entrenched and sacralized by the mining, production, and lawless wielding of nuclear weapons.

Christine Gwynn: The links between the nuclear and the carceral are incredibly strong, from the interests they serve, to the sadism and racism they exemplify and normalize, to the way they are financed and structurally maintained. But perhaps most important is that they are both structures of violence fundamentally antithetical to democracy. Conversely, abolitionism is a project which attempts to reimagine what a just society, outside the control of class, race, and patriarchy, could look like.


Bill Ofenloch stated pithily: “the prison system in the US is a disaster, both for the people imprisoned and because of the cost involved. But it is big business for many communities.” With respect to the KBP7’s own case, and particularly the pre-trial hearings on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, he noted that, despite the government’s best efforts, the Seven “did establish their action was religiously motivated,” and that this should have required prosecutors to embrace “the least restrictive means necessary to protect its interests,” rather than arguing “heavy charges with prison sentences were necessary to deter others.” And Bill shared some breaking news: “The ‘least restrictive means issue’ has now been appealed to the Supreme Court, though the case has not been accepted yet.” In sum:

This was the first use of RFRA in a case like this so no one knew how it would play out, but it appears the government’s political interests to protect nuclear weapons can sway the legal process and relegate international law. However, the court did accept that the action was sacramental, symbolic disarmament, and most sentences were not as harsh as they might have been, though home confinement could have given during the pandemic. This was probably for political considerations more than legal necessity: after all, politics and the legal system are intertwined in maintaining the military domination of the country and the economy.


One step forward, two steps back?

I then set the difficult challenge of surveying the changing global nuclear landscape since April 2018, a time of stunning contrasts, with arms racing and war scares set against the entry-into-force of the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), a potential planetary life-saver shunned by the nine Nuclear Weapons Club members (China, France, India, Israel, North Korea, Pakistan, UK, US) and their 32 ‘associate’ nuclear-dependents in NATO and elsewhere.

Martha Hennessy: Every US administration goes along with the interests of the war machine: Eisenhower warned the nation against this innate inclination. Who is the real enemy? The weapons industry. We are committed to spending $100,000 a minute to upgrade the nuclear arsenal over the next 30 years. Who approved that, while we have crying needs for healthcare, education, housing, childcare, environmental protections and retooling for renewable energy? Meanwhile we have the TPNW – but the nuclear weapons states think they will always have their way with the rest of us.

United Nations Conference to negotiate a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination 27-31 March 2017

United Nations Conference to negotiate a legally-binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons, leading towards their total elimination 27-31 March 2017

Mark Colville: I place no credence or practical value in negotiations among the nuclear states, whose leaders are ‘accountable’ only to the weapons they worship. I do believe the TPNW is an important sign of progress, partly because it offers a hands-on legal mechanism to advance abolition that can be accessed not just by nation states but local communities all over the world. These initiatives, for example divesting from the nuclear weapons industry, are already blossoming, with New York City as one major example. The treaty may also be a sign that global consciousness is shifting with regard to the criminality of nuclear weapons.

Bill Ofenloch: There is some progress towards disarmament internationally with the TPNW but the United States seems to be heading in the other direction with plans to upgrade warheads and build a whole new Trident fleet. Right now there is greatly increased talk of how smaller tactical weapons might be used by Russia in Ukraine and how the US and NATO would respond.  If we get through this crisis without going nuclear, God help us, maybe there will be more serious consideration of nuclear disarmament.


President KBP7

As a thought experiment, noting that four years equals a presidential term, I asked what priorities a ‘KBP7 Administration’ would have had. Hennessey replied that a “massive peace dividend will never come through our political or economic system: we need to build a new world within the shell of the old,” while Colville gave a flavor of his first ‘State of the Union’ address:

If it was up to me, given the fact that this nation has essentially been fighting interventionary wars for its entire existence, the first four years of a KBP7 administration would prioritize reparations on a massive and global scale. There simply is no other way forward for the soul of this country. I would also convene a war-crimes tribunal to investigate the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the purpose of which would be to initiate the smashing of the wall of secrecy that has utterly destroyed the possibility of representative government in the United States.


Sean Howard


Sean Howard is adjunct professor of political science at Cape Breton University and member of Peace Quest Cape Breton and the Canadian Pugwash Group. He may be reached here.