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.

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Brave religious protestors fight devil in Oak Ridge

My goal is to write a relatively short post about a very, very long Washington Post story, a Style section story that I urge all GetReligion readers to check out.

As the name implies, the massive 14-part feature entitled “The Prophets of Oak Ridge” is a religion story from start to finish, drenched in biblical references, hymns and personal testimonies. This is the story of three anti-nuclear protestors — 83-year-old Sister Megan Gillespie Rice, 64-year-old Michael Robin Walli and 57-year-old Gregory Irwin Boertje-Obed. The story details their successful attempt to embarrass the U.S. government by breaking into the Oak Ridge National Laboratories in East Tennessee.

Now, if you look up the term hagiography in a dictionary, you will find something like this:

ha·gi·og·ra·phy … noun …

1: biography of saints or venerated persons
2: idealizing or idolizing biography

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.

Frankly, this is fine with me, seeing as how I am someone who has always been sympathetic to the views of the people who are often called “consistent” pro-lifers, the folks who are opposed to the death penalty, as well as to abortion, who worry about tobacco subsidies in the national budget as well as aid to Planned Parenthood. As I have said many times, my own views were changed by the famous Sojourners issue about abortion in 1980 (specifically the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s piece on legalized abortion as a form of institutionalized racism).

So this story was, for me, totally fascinating. Throw in the fact that I have happily lived in East Tennessee, and plan to return to the Volunteer State sooner or later, and this piece rang lots of bells.

So what is my concern about this one? Well, I do have one major question.

More on that later, after a few clips that establish the tone of the piece — right from the start.

Last summer, in the dead of night, three peace activists penetrated the exterior of Y-12 in Tennessee, supposedly one of the most secure nuclear-weapons facilities in the United States. A drifter, an 82-year-old nun and a house painter. They face trial next week on charges that fall under the sabotage section of the U.S. criminal code. And if they had been terrorists armed with explosives, intent on mass destruction? That nightmare scenario underlies the government’s response to the intrusion. This is the story of two competing worldviews, of conscience vs. court, of fantasy vs. reality, of history vs. the future.

And here is an early passage that establishes the angels vs. demons theme that runs through the whole piece.

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