This might appear to be an epic story about the extreme frailty of a tiny 82-year-old woman, weighing 47 kg (100 lbs) from the United States. One glorious day, she single-handedly conquered its nuclear monster, armed only with her faith in Jesus to whom she had consecrated herself about the age of 25. In 2012, Sister Megan Rice made the headlines for trespassing a military zone where the maximum destructive atomic potential of the superpower was located.
In reality, Sr Megan Rice was neither frail, nor alone, nor defenseless in her peaceful movement for disarmament. Her story did not end in glory the day the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit absolved her of the outlandish accusation of sabotage that unjustly confined her for three years in prison. Her crime? Kneeling to pray to God in the “sanctuary” of the idols of war.
Her story is, in fact, guided by a choice made as a young teacher in Africa to join a group inspired by the collective intelligence of love, based on thinking, loving, discerning and acting as one. Together with this circle of like-minded companions, she strived to unleash each person’s creativity toward making miraculous differences in myriad and unexpected directions. Rather than single heroic acts, they promoted a collective approach, whereby each person offered their own irreplaceable contribution to humanity’s collective story in the search for justice. Nature, for example, shows us flocks of birds migrating as if they were one, sole, individual, thus protecting and guiding each other. Those who behold them in autumn see one immense floating body composed of a thousand parts, mysteriously one even in the thousands of shrieks heard as one voice.
Sr Megan was born at the height of the Depression in 1930 into a Catholic family in New York. As she herself used to say, her heart was always directed toward social justice and to the suffering of the poor, which led her to join other people of good will — Christians, Jews, Muslims — all longing for peace. The inspiration uniting them originated in two biblical prophets — Isaiah and Micah — recognized by the world’s three great religions. War, they prophesied, would disappear from the earth; swords and spears would be turned into plowshares and pruning hooks; and one nation would no longer raise its hand against another nation.
A recent biography of Megan, therefore, could not but be symphonic in its account of the Plowshares. From 1981 to 2021, Plowshares peacefully trespassed 101 times on the “sanctuaries” of nuclear proliferation in the United States in order to symbolically perform the sacrament of the transformation of the ultimately destructive bomb into an instrument of life. Theirs was a prayer of transformation in the here and now. Their being arrested bore testimony in the here and now. Their going to jail was a way of walking in the here and now with the poor crushed by a penal system inhumane to those who were weak.
Sr Megan’s biography, written by Carole Sargent, appears in the excellent “People of God” series published by Liturgical Press (Collegeville, Minnesota), dedicated to chronicling the lives of 20th-century Catholic personalities such as John xxiii , Paul vi , Pope Francis, Oscar Romero and Dorothy Day. Each title in the series is a life. Sr Megan, who died a little over a year ago (10 October 2021), and actively contributed to the composition of the book, specifically told the author that her biography needed to be “broader” than others in the series. This is why the book’s title, Transform Now Plowshares, is the name of the trio (Michael Walli, Greg Boertje-Obed and Megan Rice), known to their friends as MGM. Together they masterminded and managed to break into the Y-12 National Security Complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, on July 28, 2012, cutting through fencing, and marching by night into a high-security area, thus exposing themselves to the risk of being immediately killed on sight. It was here that the United States had stored all the depleted uranium stock transported from Kazakhstan after the fall of the Soviet Union. Its nuclear potential was capable of destroying the world ten times over. The trio carried among other things in their backpacks some bread, candles, four white roses, the Bible, a hammer and a statement containing accusations of war crimes and the harbouring of weapons of mass destruction.
Sargent’s book allows us to discover that the transformation of the world, based on conscientious free choice, is possible. There are already many individuals marching together, as one community, along the path of the transformation of arms into instruments of peace and social justice. This conversion, collective and symphonic, seeks to convert the world, in its turn, from an economic system founded on war, to one that invests in peace and our common home — fulfilling the prophecy.
The Plowshare movement does not act like an “army”. It has no headquarters, statutes, or internal hierarchy. It is a supportive reality in which everyone sustains each other according to his or her ability. Then, in the name of the free exercise of personal conscience, the movement’s members seek to challenge the powers that be regarding the blasphemy and, more importantly, the illegality of war.
Sr Megan joined this collective conscience community impelled by the love of Christ, placing her weapons — faith, culture, family and national origins — at the service of all the “People of God”. She used to repeat that these weapons, along with her being white, educated, a sister, also gave her certain privileges others did not have. In addition, her being backed by the Plowshares network provided her with more channels to attack the illegality of war and to defend herself before the criminal justice system after her arrest. Accused along with her two companions, Sr Megan retaliated with a counter accusation, directed toward the U.S. government, invoking the Constitution, the First Amendment, the Nuremberg Principles, and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968. In response, the charges against her were ramped up to sabotage, creating a delicate legal chess game, which forced the court into a type of judicial corner with the potential of leading to a legal “checkmate” in the future, if and when the production of nuclear arms were ever recognized as a war crime and as a crime against humanity.
Sr Megan is not a heroic, quixotic, tiny sister who earned a medal. To use an image of her own, she is a sunflower seed that purifies the field as it grows, filling it with beauty — together with millions of other seeds. Now.
By Chiara Graziani