Brave religious protestors fight devil in Oak Ridge

Brave religious protestors fight devil in Oak Ridge May 2, 2013

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.

It was, the house painter would later recall, as if the Almighty were guiding each step, across 1,000 feet of open field and up an embankment.

By 3 a.m. on Saturday, July 28, 2012, two career peace activists, with eight years jail time between them, and an 82-year-old nun had reached the first obstacle in their two-hour, one-mile hike toward one of the country’s most secure nuclear facilities.

A six-foot chain-link boundary fence bordered a gravel patrol road. Strung along the fence were yellow “No Trespassing” placards threatening a $100,000 fine and up to one year in prison.

The house painter gripped a pair of bolt cutters, fixed the jaws around a link and squeezed. He cut links in three lines, then opened the new flap.

No alarm. No patrol cars.

The nun went through first.

After the two men followed her, they closed the fence with twine, crossed the patrol road and began the 40-degree ascent to the dark crest of the ridge. The crime had started, which meant they were one step closer to justice.

One step closer to rattling the Department of Energy.

One step closer to assailing the nation’s storied nuclear identity.

One step closer to changing their lives and the lives of the people on the other side of the slope — including the first man they would meet once they cut through three more fences and entered the kill zone.

Now, I have been on the religion-news beat long enough to have covered more than my share of U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference debates on the morality of nuclear weapons. I have trailed left-wing pro-lifers into the fields of Eastern Colorado right up to the blinking red security systems around nuclear missile silos. I have interviewed priests who heard agonizing confessions in parishes near Los Alamos.

The one thing I know for sure is that this is a very complex topic and there are very intelligent, faithful believers on both sides of the debate.

However, if you want to hear from people on both sides, this is NOT the story for you. Out of 9,000-plus words, this is as close as one is going to get to hearing human, articulate voices on the other side of the issue:

The activists of Transform Now Plowshares are in West Knoxville in early February, at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, testifying to the congregation after a Sunday service. Church members ask them how they can claim nonviolence when they destroyed property.

“Maybe the triviality of that destruction comes from a truth that is monstrous,” Sister Megan says. “Those very fences are illegal, and guarding lies and secrecy and corruption and great danger to the world.”

White-haired Lillian Mashburn stands, arms crossed, in the back of the church. She’s thinking of her father, who was an infantryman stationed in the Pacific when Oak Ridge’s uranium fell toward Hiroshima.

“He was saved by that bomb,” Mashburn, a church board member, says after the discussion. “They were told when they landed they would be killed as part of the first wave. … There’s a whole generation of people, most of whom would’ve been dead, who were saved.”

What saves Oak Ridge are the dollars that gush from Washington to East Tennessee.

So other than one Unitarian Universalist on the conservative side of the issue, that’s that.

So what is my big question about this gripping piece?

I have hunted and hunted online and I cannot find any coverage of Sister Megan Gillespie Rice that tells me whether any of her many arrests took place — in true Catholic Worker, Dorothy Day fashion — outside facilities that perform abortions. Perhaps I have missed something.

Still, I wonder if the Post take on this story would have been different, would have been as glowingly positive and uncritical, if this nun and her spiritual brothers had been arrested during acts of symbolic, and slightly destructive, civil disobedience at, well, the clinic of one Dr. Kermit Gosnell.

Just saying.

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  • Martha

    “the nation’s storied nuclear identity”

    What is this, an excerpt from the latest Tom Clancy or James Patterson novel? Ah yes, when I think of the rich pageant of American history, what immediately leaps to mind as encapsulating its foundational principles is its “storied nuclear identity”.

    Also, isn’t trespassing and property damage criminal offenses? And it happened in Tennessee? I thought the “Washington Post” didn’t do local crime stories?

  • tmatt

    “And it happened in Tennessee? I thought the “Washington Post” didn’t do local crime stories?”

    OK, the bar for one-liners in this thread has now been set pretty high.

    • DearbornGuy

      Yeah, Martha’s one-liner will not be topped. 🙂

      My other comment is … after seeing the Wash Post story on the Live Action videos this week is … anyone remember the good old days when newspapers like the Post used to do the undercover work to expose stories?

  • tmatt

    Tick, tick, tick.

    Waiting for Jerry’s comment on this post about a fascinating story about the religious left.

  • If one ever wanted evidence of press bias, this week’s coverage of the NBA player coming out of the closet has given us plenty.

  • Kim Moreland

    I hope they get maximum jail time. However, one thing the threesome did do is highlight breeches in security breeches.

  • tmatt


    Please relate that comment to the journalism issues. OK?

    • Yeah–what the heck do pants have to do with a nuclear facility, anyway?

      • Chris M

        I kept thinking of breaches in security breeches and guards with ripped pants.

  • Hal Duston

    According to this August 10, 2012 New York Times article, she served 6 months in federal prison after protesting outside Ft. Benning’s School of the Americas:

    Here is a March 22, 1998 New York Times article that mentions Sr. Rice as another couple prepares to serve their sentence on the same trespassing conviction:

  • Suburbanbanshee

    You know, there’s nothing that gets sweet little Catholic sisters madder at you than referring to their annual Fort Benning trip as a “party” or “protester convention.”

    I felt kinda bad about it, but it was a pretty obvious remark.

    • Suburbanbanshee

      Okay, maybe it was the part where I asked what they’d do for vacation if their protest were to be successful, or whether there were in fact any victory conditions that would make them feel able to stop.

      However, since this “treat” of a protest was being offered to me as an initiatory ritual or test of my potential vocation as a sister, I feel that a few sharp and disbelieving comments were in order. (And no, they didn’t protest at abortion clinics. Shootings, yes, but abortion clinics, no. Which was odd, because they were pro-life. I think it was because their Ft. Benning and shooting buddies were uncomfortable with pro-life stuff.)

  • John M.

    Shoot, can there be national controversy stories in the WaPo anymore without making “local crime story” cracks? Ridiculous.


  • northcoast

    The warning system failures that contributed to the penetration are enumerated in this report:

    The reference to a possible terrorist attack could use some work. What are the assumptions that go into the calculation of possible effects, or who is making the prediction?