A nun, some nukes and a haunted holy ghost story


So a nun and two peace activists walk into a nuclear facility …

It’s not the start of a bad joke, but the start of what could turn out to be a bad dream for a trio of protestors convicted of trespassing and defacing a nuclear weapons site.

A few weeks ago tmatt mentioned the activists in his post on the massive 14-part feature entitled “The Prophets of Oak Ridge.” As tmatt noted, the engaging profile was pure hagiography: “That’s exactly what we are dealing with here, in this feature that runs 9,000-plus words and is illustrated with cartoonish, yet powerfully iconic, drawings and photos.”

While that feature certainly created an idealized version of the protestors, it also painted a clear picture of what motivated the activists: religion.

Compare that with the recent CNN story about how the activists are now facing decades in prison for breaching the nuclear site. Although the story identifies them as a “nun and two peace activists” the article almost completely ignores the religion angle. The closest it comes is a mention of the activists singing hymns:

When the guilty verdict was read Wednesday evening, the three defendants appeared content, even singing along with protest hymns before they were taken into custody, according to WATE.

What exactly is a protest hymn? Is it merely a protest song that is sung by a nun, or is there some religious content to the songs? That should have been a tip off that more needs to be said about the religion in a story that includes a nun. Also, since the term “nun” could apply to a variety of Christian traditions (Orthodox, Anglicans, Lutherans, etc.) as well as other religions (Jains, Buddhists, Taoists, Hindus, etc.) it’s helpful to clarify what religious order the woman belongs to rather than assuming that all nuns are Catholic.

Clarifying what type of protestors they are would have also been helpful. While the trio is shown in a video wearing anti-war t-shirts and are described by their attorney as “peace makers,” the CNN feature refers to them as “environmental protesters.” The only reason I could find for the description is that in the video clip the (Catholic) nun, Sister Megan Rice, says the real sabotage wasn’t any act committed by the protestors but rather the “sabotage to the planet.” While the use of nuclear weapons would certainly harm the environment, I suspect the sister had a broader, more human-centric, meaning in mind.

Had I not read the previous Washington Post feature, though, I would have had no clue there was a strong religious aspect to the story (even activism by nuns — of whatever religion — can be mostly politically motivated). The CNN article treats the activists mainly as pawns in a broader story about the security of nuclear materials.

There’s nothing wrong with focusing on the national security aspects, of course.

But while I am not especially sympathetic to the protestors cause and I certainly don’t condone their crimes, I think any story written about them should fairly and accurately explain their motivations.

Anyone willing to go to prison for the rest of their lives for a seemingly futile act of vandalism probably is driven by a powerful motive. The Washington Post explains what drove them to commit their crimes in creative, if indirect manner:

All of the relevant motivation was available in the books of Psalms, Proverbs and Isaiah.

The Post feature even quotes Sister Rice as saying she felt directed by the Holy Spirit.

For the purposes of their article, I wouldn’t have expected CNN to include talk of the Holy Spirit. But by misidentifying and excluding the protestors real motivations, they leave the story haunted by a rather obvious holy ghost.

  • Maureen O’Brien

    Especially since the Psalms and Isaiah are pretty clear about Israel continuing to need and use swords (until That Day of judgment, anyway). It’s okay to pick your favorite texts and to have them inspire your spirituality, but pretending the rest of the books don’t exist is obtuse.

    Well, I suppose that the revised Liturgy of the Hours and revised Lectionary mean that you’re not spending a lot of time singing the deprecatory psalms, but I wasn’t aware they’d forgotten them entirely!

  • Jerry

    Yes, CNN did one of the top journalistic sins: ignoring the “why” question.

    But I also wanted to point out that the long story did also give Kirk Garland a fair amount of space including his view of religion and how it conflicted with theirs.

    Because of this space given to Mr. Garland, I would not characterize that story as hagiography but as a morality play, something a bit different.

  • Julia B

    She is not a nun – she is a sister.
    Nuns are contemplatives who almost never leave their convents.


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