Reflections on a Revolutionary Among Us | WYPR

Reflections on a Revolutionary Among Us

Jul 4, 2018

Peace activist Elizabeth McAlister, under arrest in 2001

On this holiday in which we celebrate independence and the courage of our revolutionary heroes, a word about a different kind of revolutionary, and her exercise of the free speech and religious practice the founders fought for.

Elizabeth McAlister has lived at Jonah House, on the West Side of Baltimore, for most of the last 50 years. She and her husband, the anti-war activist Philip Berrigan, founded Jonah House as part of a network of Catholic Worker Houses across the country. Philip was one of the Catonsville Nine, who burned draft records in 1968, setting-off a series of similar actions across the country. He died in 2002, but McAlister has continued to protest against violence and war, in particular, nuclear weapons.

In April, on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination, McAlister and six others cut through a fence and entered the King’s Bay Naval Submarine Base in Camden County, GA, which is home to a fleet of Trident Submarines, which carry nuclear war heads.

The group’s purpose was to commit what they call a Ploughshares Action, based on a phrase from Isaiah in the Bible:

“They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”

The first Ploughshares Action took place in 1980. Since then, more than 100 similar protests have occurred in the United States and around the world.  

When Elizabeth McAlister and her fellow activists entered the King’s Bay Naval Base, they were arrested, as they hoped they would be. They want a trial, so they can introduce evidence that contends that nuclear weapons are illegal, and that the United States is in violation of American and International law by using them, or even threatening to use them. It’s not a widely held legal theory.

In a world that presents the kind of threats it presents, making an argument for complete nuclear disarmament is a tough sell, and many abhor the group’s strategy of breaking the law in civil disobedience. But these activists are afforded the right under our constitution to press their case, and they do so, animated by an intense faith in God, and their understanding of the message articulated by Jesus in the Christian New Testament.

A pre-trial motion is scheduled for early next month. I spoke with one of their lawyers, who thinks that a trial might take place in November or December. Three of the activists posted bond, and were released from Federal prison. They are wearing ankle bracelets and are confined to their homes. McAlister and three others chose to stay in jail, in Brunswick, GA, and as they await trial, they’re engaging in prison ministry, helping their fellow inmates communicate with lawyers and families, and deal with the stress of incarceration.

We’ll have updates as this case proceeds in the courts. And on this holiday when we celebrate the conviction and commitment to the democratic principles of our revolutionary forbearers, let’s pause to consider Elizabeth McAlister, a former nun, who at age 78 is so completely committed to her principles of non-violence that she is willing to forego her own physical freedom, and exercise her right to freedom of speech to make a point about the world’s right to be free of the threat of nuclear destruction.

As we celebrate the courage and sacrifice of our founders, let’s also acknowledge the courage and sacrifice it sometimes takes to make use of the freedoms those revolutionaries fought for.  I’m Tom Hall.  Happy holiday.