Religion and War Resistance in the Plowshares Movement

January 1, 2009

In 1980, eight Catholic activists, including Philip and Daniel Berrigan, staged a nonviolent protest at the General Electric plant outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where nose cones for Mark 12A nuclear warheads were built. Illegally entering the plant, the activists hammered on nose cones, poured their own blood on documents, and then knelt in collective prayer as they awaited arrest. Even though the eight men and women received stiff prison sentences for this act of civil disobedience, the GE protest sparked subsequent nonviolent direct actions and led to an international Plowshares movement. Taking its name from the biblical injunctions of Isaiah and Micah to "beat swords into plowshares" and motivated by the spectre of nuclear Armageddon, the movement seeks the abolition of nuclear weapons.

Sociologist Sharon Nepstad presents a comparative transnational study of the Plowshares movement in the US, the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and Australia. In the UK, she examines the orthodox Plowshares group (which, like US Plowshares, emphasises moral witness) and the reformed Trident Plowshares group (which emphasises political effectiveness). She relies mainly on data mined from 54 surveys and 35 interviews, but incorporates other primary sources.

Nepstad examines the "developmental challenges" that Plowshares activists face and the impact of their choices on their movements; the methods that US Plowshares activists used to sustain their resistance under difficult conditions; and the lessons offered by comparing the movement's progression in different nations.

She argues that each branch had to create stable leadership and organisation, establish legitimacy and develop techniques for retaining activists. In addition, international branches had to adapt culturally by modifying the US model (based on Catholic prophetic witness) in order to appeal to their own more secular societies. US Plowshares and the reformed British branch met these challenges, but the other branches did not.

Embracing human agency, Nepstad argues that micro-level issues (and decisions made by local activists) are more important than macro-level (structural) issues in explaining why some Plowshares branches have been more successful than others. Contrary to structuralist interpretations, she notes that US Plowshares have had less difficulty establishing themselves and expanding than did branches in Europe and Australia, even though American activists operated in a less hospitable sociopolitical climate and faced more repression.

How? In part, because US Plowshares activists live in intentional communities; these resistance communities provide them with a social, emotional, ideological and material support network that, among other things, supports the families of activists jailed for civil disobedience protest.

In order to transform initial protest into a social movement and to recruit and retain activists, leaders must establish what Nepstad calls "legitimacy of means". In the US, Plowshares leaders, led by the Berrigans, used scripture to develop a theology of resistance to challenge nuclear weapons. They reinterpreted the Bible to legitimise resistance to the State, including civil disobedience, and to challenge the Church to embrace Jesus' gospel of nonviolence and discard its "just war" tradition. In this view, the State executed Jesus as a religious heretic and political subversive. For them, the cross symbolises Jesus' resistance to government injustice and state authority, and his refusal to subordinate religious convictions to the law.

This resistance theology resembles liberation theology, though Nepstad does not discuss this analogy. Although US Plowshares activists used biblical scripture and religious symbolism to establish legitimacy, many European Plowshares activists, operating in a secular climate, did not. Instead, European activists often based their arguments on international law, including the Nuremberg principle, and the importance of democratic citizen participation in making nuclear policy.

Nepstad cogently discusses the general principles that guide the international Plowshares movement; she also isolates important causative factors that explain the movement's trajectory, and why some branches succeeded and some did not. She demonstrates the significance of faith-based resistance, even while recognising that many Plowshares activists were motivated by secular impulses.

The definitive history of the Plowshares movement remains to be written, and will require deeper archival research, a more detailed account of national branches, and consideration of macro (as well as micro) factors. Still, Nepstad's well-written, well-argued and well-organised study makes a stimulating contribution to the fields of peace studies and social movements and will interest scholars, activists and citizens.

Religion and War Resistance in the Plowshares Movement

By Sharon Erickson Nepstad. Cambridge University Press. 284pp, £45.00 and £16.99. ISBN 9780521888929 and 717670. Published 26 June 2008

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