The Catholic Left and the Media -- Kristen Tobey

Before first light on a Saturday in July 2012, three Catholic activists—two laymen aged 57 and 63, and an 82-year-old nun—trespassed onto the Y-12 nuclear reservation in Oak Ridge, Tennessee

By Kristen Tobey|May 23, 2013

Before first light on a Saturday in July 2012, three Catholic activists—two laymen aged 57 and 63, and an 82-year-old nun—trespassed onto the Y-12 nuclear reservation in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Their “Transform Now Plowshares” action was part of a thirty-year, Catholic tradition of similar nonviolent anti-nuclear actions inspired by the directive to beat swords into plowshares found in the Biblical book of Isaiah (2:3-4).

Using bolt cutters to assist their progress, the activists managed to reach the newly-constructed Highly Enriched Uranium Materials Facility (HEUMF). Once there, they hammered on the site and poured their own blood over the facility to evoke HEUMF’s capacity for bodily harm and death, and to invoke Christ’s atoning death as well as their own analogous sacrifice. They also intended to commemorate the sixty-seventh anniversary of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and to “symbolically disarm” the site, which processes and stores weapons-grade uranium. Nuclear experts called their action the highest breach of nuclear security the country has ever seen.

Only days after the three activists were found guilty by a court of law on charges of sabotage and depredation of government property, Dr. Martin Marty probed the question of why the Religious Left receives relatively little media attention (see Sightings, May 13, 2013).

It is true that most of the fifty-plus so-called “Plowshares” actions committed during the past thirty years have received little attention from the media. In the Oak Ridge case, however, the severity of the charges against the three Transform Now Plowshares activists, the length of the prison sentences they could receive (up to thirty-five years), the age of the participants, and the questions about national security raised by their action have garnered a significant amount of media coverage in outlets including theNew York Times, the Washington Post, and NPR. Still, a closer look at the group’s aims helps shed light on the Plowshares’, and the Religious Left’s, ambivalent relationship with the media.

Plowshares activists stress the importance of witnessing and prophesying, so audiences are crucial to their project. For this reason, Plowshares activists wait to be apprehended even when, often, they could exit the sites before military or security personnel notice their presence. They also insist on going to trial, which they regard as an arena for sharing their theological and political goals with the public. Overall, they place great value on their actions’ potential to change hearts and minds.

However, Plowshares activists do not believe that such change can be entrusted to the mainstream media since it may distort their aims and almost always misrepresents the importance of different elements of their actions.

Media coverage of the Transform Now Plowshares action, for example, focused on questions of national security raised by the activists’ trespass, questions that Plowshares activists intended to provoke. Yet like Plowshares activists before them, the three also poured their own blood at the site and struck the HEUMF with hammers. Innovating on Plowshares traditions, they presented the guards who apprehended them with bread and roses to signify strength and forgiveness. All these elements worked together, as part of an elaborate logic both symbolic and sacramental.

The symbolic and sacramental logic of the action, and the elements which conveyed it and made it manifest during the action, were deemphasized in most of the mainstream media coverage, though it is of primary importance to the activists.

Indeed, the proper communication of this logic is essential to the efficacy of the actions themselves.  For this reason, Plowshares activists prefer to convey their message in the courtroom or via alternative media sources such as The Catholic Worker newspaper,The Nuclear Resister newsletter, and websites maintained by their supporters.

Plowshares activists carefully choose outlets over which they have a great deal of control because misrepresentation and misapprehension threaten their actions’ potential to atone for the sin of nuclear idolatry, and to bring about a better world. While they do not disparage the mainstream media, courting it is not their primary aim. 

For Plowshares activists, lack of media attention does not signify a failure to make an impression or have an impact. Rather, it indicates to the activists that the risks they take in the name of “divine obedience” are ever more needful. 

Marty, Martin E. “Spotlight on the Religious Left,” Sightings, April 13, 2013.[UNIQID].

Broad, William J. “The Nun Who Broke Into The Nuclear Sanctum.” New York Times. August 8, 2012.

Zak, Dan. “The Prophets of Oak Ridge.” Washington Post. April 29, 2013.

Trial Begins For Protesters Who Broke Into Nuclear Complex.” All Things Considered. National Public Radio. April 30, 2012.

Transform Now Plowshares. Accessed May 23, 2013.

tobey.jpgAuthor, Kristen Tobey, a former editor of Sightings, received her PhD in Anthropology and Sociology of Religion from the University of Chicago Divinity School.  In the Fall, she will be Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. She is completing a book about the Plowshares.


ac_110325_151102_1489c9b397c70eff40990f.Editor, Myriam Renaud, is a PhD Candidate in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School. She is a 2012-13 Junior Fellow in the Martin Marty Center.