Cover image for Plowshares: Protest, Performance, and Religious Identity in the Nuclear Age By Kristen Tobey


Protest, Performance, and Religious Identity in the Nuclear Age

Kristen Tobey


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184 pages
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Protest, Performance, and Religious Identity in the Nuclear Age

Kristen Tobey

“This book is intense. Nuclear warheads, spilled blood, fiery trials, and bracing analysis fill the pages. Tobey shows how the Plowshares’ legendary protest actions—from direct monkey-wrenching to courtroom presentations—were boundary-making and -marking performances that reveal a great deal about how religious identities are constituted in fraught political and legal settings. Plowshares brings fresh and provocative insights to a host of timely issues being debated across religious studies, performance studies, and critical legal studies, among other fields.”


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In September 1980, eight Catholic activists made their way into a Pennsylvania General Electric plant housing parts for nuclear missiles. Evading security guards, these activists pounded on missile nose cones with hammers and then covered the cones in their own blood. This act of nonviolent resistance was their answer to calls for prophetic witness in the Old Testament: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war.”

Plowshares explores the closely interwoven religious and social significance of the group’s use of performance to achieve its goals. It looks at the group’s acts of civil disobedience, such as that undertaken at the GE plant in 1980, and the Plowshares’ behavior at the legal trials that result from these protests. Interpreting the Bible as a mandate to enact God’s kingdom through political resistance, the Plowshares work toward “symbolic disarmament,” with the aim of eradicating nuclear weapons.

Plowshares activists continue to carry out such “divine obediences” against facilities where equipment used in the production or deployment of nuclear weapons is manufactured or stored. Whether one agrees or disagrees with their actions, this volume helps us better understand their motivations, logic, identity, and ultimate goal.

“This book is intense. Nuclear warheads, spilled blood, fiery trials, and bracing analysis fill the pages. Tobey shows how the Plowshares’ legendary protest actions—from direct monkey-wrenching to courtroom presentations—were boundary-making and -marking performances that reveal a great deal about how religious identities are constituted in fraught political and legal settings. Plowshares brings fresh and provocative insights to a host of timely issues being debated across religious studies, performance studies, and critical legal studies, among other fields.”
Plowshares is successful in its efforts to make the motives and conduct of these activists comprehensible to readers. It also shows the value of the disciplinary toolset of religious studies for doing this type of case study. . . . Scholars of American religion, peace studies, and political activism will find this book beneficial to their work.”
“For a topic like this, hearing both from the activists themselves and from those who study them is essential. I am hopeful that by teaching all or parts of this book to students, college instructors will close the impasse between activists and the academy. To this end, Plowshares has done a great service.”
“Kristen Tobey is to be commended for this nuanced and comprehensive study which allows us to re-encounter the Plowshares at a time when their witness is more important than ever.”

Kristen Tobey is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at John Carroll University.

Table of Contents



Chapter One: We in the Underground are Trying to Do Something Else: The Plowshares’

History and Development

Chapter Two: Something Deeper than Reason: The Logic and Tactics of Symbolic


Chapter Three: Our Only Real Credential of Discipleship: The Plowshares’ Rhetoric of


Chapter Four: Just to Speak the Truth: The Plowshares’ Theory of the Trial

Chapter Five: Objection, Your Honor—She’s Talking about God: Communicative

Techniques and Status Negotiation






“September 9, 1980,” wrote Jesuit priest, poet, and peace activist Daniel Berrigan. “We rose at dawn after (to speak for myself) a mostly sleepless night.” Daniel Berrigan and his brother Philip Berrigan (formerly a Josephite priest); Oblate priest Carl Kabat; Sister of the Sacred Heart Anne Montgomery; and Catholic laypeople Molly Rush, John Schuchardt, Elmer Maas, and Dean Hammer—the Plowshares Eight—weren’t sure what the consequences would be when, early on that September morning, they trespassed into Building Number Nine of the General Electric plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, but they anticipated lengthy prison sentences for what they were about to do. They understood their compulsion to act, regardless of possible outcomes, as a repetition of the calls to prophetic witness found in the Hebrew scriptures. Specifically, they read Isaiah 2:4 as a command: They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war. Armed with household hammers and plastic baby bottles, the Plowshares Eight intended to enact Isaiah’s prophecy.

Once on site, two of the eight handed pamphlets to the security guard on duty that read in part, “In confronting G.E., we choose to obey God’s law of life, rather than a corporate summons to death. Our beating of swords into plowshares today is a way to enflesh this biblical call. In our action, we draw on a deep rooted faith in Christ, who changed the course of history through his willingness to suffer rather than to kill. We are filled with hope for our world and for our children as we join this act of resistance.” Declaring to the guard that their intentions were nonviolent, an assurance they repeated throughout the action, two of the eight restrained him— either with a hand on the arm, a grab of the arm, or a bear hug, depending on the account—while the other six proceeded through the building, despite the guard’s shouts that they were unauthorized and entering prohibited space. Once the six had crossed the lobby and entered the further reaches of Building Number Nine, the two who had been restraining the guard left him and followed the others. At that point the guard called his superior, and he and other employees began to hear the “banging of metal,” according to his later report.

Going after the eight, the guard found them hammering on what he and other guards, in subsequent write-ups of the events of that day, called “government material”: four-foot-tall nose cones, for use with the then-new Mark 12A reentry vehicle system for the Minuteman III nuclear missile, which had been manufactured by the General Electric Space Systems Division beginning in the 1970s. The eight then laid down their hammers and began to pour red liquid, later identified as their own blood, from the baby bottles over the dented cones and documents in the room. Once the bottles had been emptied of their contents, the eight joined hands to pray and sing songs from the peace movement. They then returned through the lobby, either of their own volition or “herded” or “shoved” by astonished, frightened security personnel. They continued to sing and pray as the Upper Merion Township police arrived at the site, and while they were taken to the police station where the FBI shortly arrived. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania charged the eight with criminal trespass and criminal mischief. Eleven additional charges, including several referring to assault and threatening behavior, were added in the coming days, as part of a legal process that was not resolved until a decade later.

Two years earlier, in a 1978 letter from prison to his brother Daniel, Philip Berrigan, serving a short sentence for a civil disobedience action at the Pentagon, had written, “We’re passing more firmly into middle age. But it seems to me that the fact of deepening age suggests not a run-down of the clock or declining powers, but more renewal—better husbanded energy, more ‘effectiveness’ in the true sense, more firmness in the long haul.” At the time of the letter both brothers had been in the national spotlight for years, rising to fame (or infamy) during the 1960s with their outspoken dissent against the Vietnam War. Their dramatic anti-war demonstrations, which included burning and pouring blood on draft files, galvanized the nascent Catholic Left and the larger peace movement. To many, they exemplified the spirit of reform and engagement that accompanied the Second Vatican Council. To many others, they exemplified that spirit taken much too far. They were lionized by many in the peace movement and the counterculture, ridiculed and maligned by others. By 1978, both had been arrested dozens of times and served multiple prison sentences; both had been disciplined by their respective religious orders for their anti-war activities and felt the censure deeply, though it fueled their deeds rather than curtailing them. Their actions up to that point had received wide media attention and provoked heated debate in both religious and secular circles on the morality of war, and the punishments they faced for those actions had become increasingly harsh. But in another year they would start planning for what they imagined would be, as Philip’s letter predicts, their most “effective” action to date—and their riskiest. “It seems then to me that the better fun is yet to come,” the letter continues, “and that we will be called upon by the Lord, summoned if you will, in increasingly serious ways. What this means God alone knows, but perhaps its broader outlines are already somewhat clear.”

Philip conceived of his next action, which would eventually take the form of the King of Prussia Plowshares action, as a way to continue the momentum of the heady Vietnam days, during which a religiously infused peace movement grew exponentially before the Berrigans’ eyes, and in no small part as a result of their own efforts. The 1980 action he forecast in his 1978 letter, in which he and Daniel and six others entered the General Electric plant in order to “symbolically disarm” the nosecones, similarly inspired followers, though on a far smaller scale than their earlier resistance. For the most part, Plowshares activists, who continue to carry out their so-called divine obediences (the term they prefer to “civil disobedience”), adhere to the template established by the King of Prussia action. Participants enter facilities, military or private, where equipment to be used in the production or deployment of nuclear weapons is manufactured or stored, pour their own blood over the equipment and beat on it with household hammers, and perform what they often describe as a liturgy at the site. Most Catholics would probably not recognize in the actions what they know as liturgy, and many in the Church’s hierarchy have decried the Plowshares’ actions. Plowshares activists don’t mind. Though many are priests or nuns, and virtually all consider themselves to be devout Catholics, they often proclaim their distance from the institutional Church. They also proclaim an indissoluble connection to it, and the actions rely on elements—trespass, blood, and hammers—that the participants understand in Christian and specifically Catholic ways. Each of the three elements is imbued with deep theological and socio-political resonances that blend with and layer over one another—as they should in the true Church, according to the Plowshares.

Typically in a Plowshares action, activists are not immediately apprehended, so they wait to be confronted by private guards or military police. Upon their discovery participants declare that their intentions are nonviolent, kneel, and pray. They are invariably arrested, jailed, and await trial for charges that include criminal trespass, destruction of federal property, terroristic threat, and conspiracy to commit a felony, among others. Plowshares activists have received prison sentences of varying lengths, from twenty days to eighteen years, in past cases. In three cases, charges have been dropped just before the trial (inexplicably, the Plowshares say), and in rare instances their cases have been dismissed after mistrials or hung juries. In the United States, Plowshares defendants have never been acquitted. Despite the harsh consequences that await the activists—or, as I will suggest, because of them—the Plowshares’ symbolic disarmaments continue, though they remain unknown to most people, including other Catholics. Since 1980 there have been just over fifty Plowshares actions in the United States. The most recent took place in July 2012 at the Y-12 nuclear facility in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. Carried out by three activists aged 57, 63, and 82, nuclear experts called it the highest breach of nuclear security in the United States’ history. Plowshares activists say that they will carry on until nuclear weapons have been abolished—not reduced, not limited, but entirely eradicated. Reading the Bible as a mandate to Christians to enact God’s kingdom through political resistance, they believe they have no choice.

<h1>Courtroom Declarations: The Origins of the Project

In March 2000 I attended the trial in Baltimore County’s Circuit Court of four Plowshares activists facing charges for the action they had performed at a Maryland Air National Guard base the previous year, called Plowshares versus Depleted Uranium. (Each group of Plowshares activists gives their action a name, which often refers to a particular site or weapon.) During that trial, an unusually well-attended and emotionally charged one which I discuss in Chapters Four and Five, my interest in the group began to crystallize around the issues and questions that structure the work at hand. It was immediately apparent that the trial wasn’t going well for the four defendants. Their every word and behavior provoked the judge, whose patience for the defendants and their cause, limited to begin with, quickly wore razor-thin. The jury, too, seemed largely baffled and frustrated by the proceedings. Not that the judge made it easy for the defendants: They were not allowed to call expert witnesses to speak about nuclear weapons, nor were they allowed to mention the weapons or their effects or speak about their motivations in performing the action. They responded to the judge’s repeated reminders to this effect, which they called a gag order, by turning their backs on him and refusing to participate further in the trial. Did they think, an observer could have asked, that such behavior was going to encourage the judge and jury to be well disposed towards them? And, with all signs indicating from day one that that was not to be the case, why was the trial, to all appearances, a downright celebratory event, regarded as anything but a failure, even when the defendants were found guilty and sentenced far more harshly than anticipated?

Of course, like many civil disobedients, the defendants and their supporters were not primarily concerned with receiving a verdict of not guilty. The trial was important, even successful, no matter the outcome, because (among other reasons that I explore later) it provided an arena for the defendants to declare themselves as obedient to a more binding, truer justice than that of the earthly courts, and thus morally distinct from the sinful world in thrall to what Philip Berrigan called “Lord Nuke.” This much was evident at the time, when I was an undergraduate Religious Studies major interested in the intersection of religion and political activism. During my graduate studies in the sociology of religion, by which time I was primarily interested in questions of religious identity formation and community maintenance, the significance of the legal arena for the Plowshares came into clearer view. In the courtroom, the Plowshares were trying to demonstrate their own self-understanding, a set of identity claims based in moral distinction. As I argue in the pages to come, that self-understanding lies at the heart of the Plowshares’ religious life and resistance, which they understand as successful to the degree that they embody a scripturally-based ideal of prophetic witness. It is very much the point of their resistance that doing so sets them apart from a warmaking state, a complicit Church, and an apathetic society. As such, public disapproval and legal consequences corroborate the Plowshares’ self-understanding as persecuted for the sake of witness, and as fundamentally different from the social, political, and religious institutions that they consider to be immoral. In finding the four Plowshares versus Depleted Uranium defendants guilty, the court had confirmed the activists’ own characterizations of themselves, which they had attempted to demonstrate throughout the trial, as well as in the action itself. The courtroom had served as a space for expressing religious identity claims, but more, for constituting those claims. The actions themselves, I argue here, work in this same dual manner.

Unpacking the ways that Plowshares activists communicate a sense of themselves as morally distinct—in the actions, in the courtroom, and in the rhetoric that surrounds both—is the central task of the work at hand. So, while this book is not only about the Plowshares’ trials, it owes its contours to the questions that began to emerge from thinking about the Plowshares’ trials as essential components of their actions, profoundly important to their understanding of what the actions are meant to accomplish—questions about how the Plowshares’ sense of moral distinctions plays out in the actions and the trials; how it shapes their and their peers’ understandings of what they and the actions achieve, using tactics that many who hear about them find baffling or foolish or misguided or even dangerous; and how it stitches together the strands of a religious world that is produced and performed across multiple settings (very few of them “religious” in the sense usually employed by sociologists, who primarily have observed aspects of religion such as congregational life), through an array of social interactions. And, though I did not anticipate this when I began the project, it ends in the courtroom, where the norms of carefully secularized space become the backdrop for the display and enactment of the Plowshares’ religious ideologies and identity claims, even though religion is seldom an explicit focus of the trials.

This book examines the religious logic of the Plowshares and their symbolic disarmaments, but by “religious logic” I do not mean simply a series of beliefs that inspire and legitimate their distinctive practices. Rather, as I will show, the Plowshares’ religious logic is as embodied, spatial, and emotive as it is cognitive. The activists’ sense of themselves as morally distinct, which lies at the heart of that logic, is correspondingly embodied, spatial, emotive, and cognitive, all at once. The question of how the Plowshares convey their sense of distinction on those several overlapping levels and to various overlapping audiences—sometimes quite intentionally and sometimes less so—is the animating question of this book. I argue that it is the multivalent demonstration of this sense of distinction (and by demonstration, as I will discuss below, I mean not only expression but enactment) that anchors the Plowshares’ religious world and their resistance, and that they and their project become intelligible when viewed from this angle, which I will call, going forward, their boundary work. Their case also suggests what scholars of religion in America have to gain from looking more closely and intentionally at the boundary work of religious groups than we have tended to do.

<h1>Showing and Doing: The Performance of Religious Boundaries

Sociologist Thomas Gieryn coined the phrase “boundary work” in 1983, to describe scientists’ attempts to assert and defend the credibility and superiority of “science” over and against “non-science” in public discourse. Social scientists, the foundations of whose field include studies of class groups, status groups, ethnic groups, and more, quickly found uses for the concept of boundary work beyond the question of epistemic and disciplinary demarcations, especially for the study of social groups and movements, and for probing the mechanisms and ramifications of social difference—the ways that a group conceives of itself, and expresses and experiences that conception, as different from and better than groups that it classifies as “other.” While Gieryn analyzed scientists’ boundary work as a rhetorical style (scientists’ way of describing what they do as distinct from what non-scientists do), social scientists have also analyzed boundary work as it accomplished through a variety of other means, including consumption patterns and cultural tastes, for example.

As I am using the term, boundary work—rhetorical or otherwise, conscious or not—simultaneously reflects and asserts ideas about difference and distinction so that those ideas become apprehensible, both to the group in question and to the others from whom it distinguishes itself. Much of it takes place in the space between what Michele Lamont and Virag Molnar, in their review of the recent attention to boundaries in the social sciences, identify as “symbolic boundaries” and “social boundaries.” Symbolic boundaries, according to Lamont and Molnar, are “conceptual distinctions made by social actors to categorize objects, people, practices, and even times and space;” social boundaries are “objectified forms of social difference manifested in unequal access to and unequal distribution of resources (material and nonmaterial) and social opportunities.” Symbolic boundaries “serve as tools by which individuals and groups struggle over and come to agree upon definitions of reality . . . separate people into groups and generate feelings of similarity and group membership . . . [and] are an essential medium through which people acquire status and monopolize resources,” and when they are widely agreed upon, symbolic boundaries can become social boundaries, as they “take on a constraining character and pattern social interaction in important ways.” Social boundaries, at the same time, cannot exist without the conceptual distinctions or symbolic boundaries that underpin them. The relationship between social and symbolic boundaries is complex and variable, there is not always a neat correspondence between the two categories. Rather, symbolic and social boundaries are deeply interwoven, forming an elaborate meshwork of conception and assertion whereby, as social scientists have long noted, group identity is constituted and fortified.

Religious groups are no exception, and the American religious landscape, throughout history and into the present day, teems with small- and large-scale religious communities intent upon declaring their distinction from one another, in a variety of ways. Clothing, for example, was an important means by which religious groups in eighteenth-century America distinguished themselves. Evangelical Methodists and Baptists, among others, chose “plain dress” over and against the ornate fripperies of the unsaved as a way to signal their piety and visually define their community. Those same Methodists and Baptists wrangled over the proper method of baptism into the faith—dipping versus sprinkling, adults versus infants. Their heated debates, often polemical, allowed for theological refinement on both sides as the two denominations defined their positions each in contrast to the other, and it allowed for the presentation of distinct denominational identity before an enthusiastic sea of religious consumers. R. Laurence Moore, in his study of religious outsiders in America, argued that claims of difference advanced in the early and mid-nineteenth century by Joseph Smith’s young Latter Day Saints church created a “usable identity,” allowing Mormons to “become a people.” The link between physical removal and the demonstration of piety, a kind of spatial boundary work, is a recurring theme in American history, evident in countless examples from Joseph Baumler’s Zoar Separatists to Mother Ann Lee’s Shakers to present day Amish who avoid using electricity in the belief that electrical wires would connect their rural communities to the outside world. And Christian Smith argues that the strength of evangelical Christianity in contemporary America comes from its ability to resist the twin lures of assimilation and separation, and maintain a fluid but unambiguous distinction from society at large. “In a pluralistic society,” Smith posits in what he calls a subcultural identity theory of religious strength, “those religious groups will be relatively stronger which better possess and employ the cultural tools needed to create both clear distinction from and significant engagement and tension with other relevant outgroups, short of becoming genuinely countercultural.”

Smith’s theory suggests a permeability and elasticity to religious group boundaries, and indeed, as often as boundaries are asserted on the American religious landscape, they are transversed and refigured. In colonial New England, for example, devout Mary Rowlandson experienced an alarming breakdown of distinctions between her decorous Puritan self and the Native Americans who took her captive during King Philip’s War. The breakdown became ever more pronounced as Mary ate the Indians’ food, participated in their economy, and, in tandem, began to assign to the Indians moral qualities that previously she had identified only with her own community. In her enormously popular captivity narrative, an early best-seller first published in 1682 and reprinted several times that year and over the next two centuries, Mary seems constantly startled to notice as at least semi-porous the spatial, physiological, and moral boundaries that, in her mind prior to the trials of her captivity, sharply demarcated the Christian (herself, namely) from the heathen. And yet she plays a role, if a hesitant one, in the erosion of those boundaries. Mary demonstrates how the overturning of a social boundary, however unwilling, can lead to a reworking of symbolic boundaries, however unexpected. As she tells it, she gradually began to eat the Indians’ food (even to enjoy it, thanks to God’s grace) and participate in their economy, deliberate social experiences that inadvertently led her to reevaluate her previous thinking about the differences between herself and the Indians. They were, in these social encounters, kind to her, generous—one could almost say, in a whisper, civilized. This was unexpected, to say the least.

Mary’s story was a dramatically personal one, but the erosion or elision of boundaries happens at the group level as well. A recent study suggests that the breakdown of boundaries between religious groups has proceeded so far apace that the sole remaining boundary on the American religious landscape is the one separating believers and non-believers. Overwhelmingly, the authors of the study find, Americans regard atheists as a threat to the national moral identity, and as a result atheists are excluded in both public and private life, less accepted than other groups that are also perceived as threatening. Survey respondents were less likely to vote for an atheist presidential candidate or to approve of a child marrying an atheist, versus a member of several other groups with a history of being viewed as suspicious in American culture. The perceived moral distinction between believers and non-believers is particularly notable, the authors of the study suggest, because it remains stoutly intact even though divisions between religious groups, such as the denominational disputes of the eighteenth century, are on the wane.

Such a narrative, of the decreasing relevance and strength of religious boundaries, is often applied to American Catholicism, usually told as a story of increasing attention to—and success at—assimilation. At the same time, another narrative strand often applied to American Catholicism, this one by detractors more than historiographers, characterizes that which sets Catholics apart as inherent and permanent, a lasting mark of difference that prevents true assimilation. Hence the urgent push to assimilate, so that these two strands are braided together into a master narrative whereby American Catholics flee from, yet cannot ever quite escape from, their own difference. There is little room in this narrative for Catholics cultivating difference, or insisting on distinction, as a central feature of religious life.

And yet, despite the important specifics of Catholic history and historiography, in this regard Catholics share a fate with many other American religious groups, whose boundary work is seldom studied as such. Perhaps a prevailing sentiment that religious distinctions have all but vanished in the present-day United States explains why only a small body of work in American religious studies starts with boundary questions, though a great deal of work ends with boundaries, a few examples of which I have already mentioned above: Leigh Eric Schmidt, in his prescient call for scholarly attention to the material and visual culture of early American religion, asked what “what they saw” (such as clothing styles), in addition to what they heard (sermons, prayers), tells us about the religious worlds of colonial Americans. It tells us, he argues (though not in these terms), about boundaries. R. Laurence Moore asked how the Mormons “became a people,” and concluded that boundaries played a pivotal role. Christian Smith came to the same answer, having asked why evangelicals thrive in contemporary America. Works like these leave little doubt that religious groups are exemplars of boundary work, laboring to articulate and demonstrate understandings of themselves as pious contra the wicked, moral contra the immoral or amoral, saved contra the damned, chosen. While work that ends with boundaries shows boundary work as important to religious communities, it also suggests that boundary work is merely attendant to the other work of being religious (professing creeds or practicing devotions, for example). Far less work in American religious studies begins with boundary questions, asking after the why and especially the how of boundary work as such, and positing it as central to religious worlds.

The case of the Plowshares illustrates this centrality. It also shows what there is to gain from starting with boundaries, from thinking about religious distinctions with the phrase and the frame of “boundary work” squarely in mind. First, as a broad heuristic, the lens of boundary work can bridge aspects of religious studies that are often treated by scholars as vastly different objects of study, addressing vastly different questions—theological debate and bodily practice, for example. People’s religious worlds are not often as compartmentalized as that; nor should be our frames for studying them. Second, the lens of boundary work focuses our attention on the social aspect of practices or propensities in which the social aspect might otherwise be overlooked, a theme I will revisit in the pages to come. With its boundary work, a group defines itself in relation to groups that are perceived as somehow less worthy or less good, for its own sake but also for the sake of other constituencies in its social world, like the funding organizations to whom scientists make their pitches in Gieryn’s example, or the revival-goers to whom eighteenth-century itinerant ministers made theirs. “Boundary work,” with its specifically social nuance, directs our attention to the ways that religious actors are also social actors, and to their agency in negotiating social space. It trains our gaze on the fact that negotiating social space is, indeed, work—that asserting identity claims, conveying a particular sense of self, takes strenuous effort across a variety of domains. It reminds us to guard against the opposed yet equally hazardous trends of seeing religious distinctions and boundaries as inherent, or as artificially imposed. Thematizing boundaries and boundary work through the lens of a Catholic group is especially important, as the history and historiography of American Catholics have been so much influenced by the effects of both these trends. Also, thematizing boundaries obliges us to probe the identity claims of the groups we study, approaching them not as facts but as processes of which we can (and should) ask not only “why,” but “how.” Many observers, for example, have repeated the Plowshares’ claim that they are outsiders, without looking into the ways that the Plowshares themselves work to make that claim a social reality, and the different ways that they do so for different audiences. That over-determination on outsiderness, I argue in this book, limits our understanding of the Plowshares, and other groups who work to construct their own difference.

For the Plowshares it is theologically imperative that their symbolic boundaries—the schema that posits their moral rightness contra those citizens who do not do the work of Christian witness as they conceive it—become instantiated as social boundaries. I do not mean to suggest that the Plowshares are not very much concerned with unity, solidarity, and community. Literature from them and about them leaves no doubt that they are. But they are, at the same time, very much concerned with distinction and boundedness, both symbolic and social. Because of their simultaneous concern with community and distinction, the Plowshares nicely illustrate the dual character of boundaries, as the sites where differences are both shored up and elided, depending on the audience at hand.

I use the term “audience” deliberately, to reflect the performative quality of the Plowshares’ boundary work—a performative quality that, I argue, is necessary to the efficacy of the Plowshares’ witness as they conceive it. “Performance” has a handily dual sense, suggesting both display and achievement. One performs an aria, or performs a surgery—that is, presents something or makes something come to pass, or, sometimes, both. Richard Schechner, a founding figure in the field of performance studies, captured this duality when he defined performance as “a showing of a doing.” Ritual theorist Ronald Grimes noted that Schechner’s definition failed to accommodate all the types of performance that are generally considered to fall under the heading, specifically Grimes’ own métier, ritual. He argued that “very few ritualists would say their primary intention is to show their doings. More characteristically they say they are doing, and that their doings may, incidentally, be seen or overheard.” Grimes’ critique of Schechner suggests that to consider an audience as anything but incidental to the doing of religious acts detracts from the primary meaning of the actions, and the primary intentions of the actors. But for the Plowshares the showings of their doings are not incidental. Showing is certainly not the Plowshares’ only motivation, and I am not suggesting that it is a more primary intention than, for example, obeying what they read as scriptural mandates or working to abolish nuclear weapons. But showing is vitally important for the Plowshares—so important, I argue, that their other intentions cannot be realized without the element of display, and that the doing of the actions indeed depends on the showing. The Plowshares illustrate the role that performance plays in the process of instantiating conceptual, symbolic boundaries as social boundaries.

I argue in this book that performances of various kinds, including embodied and discursive, allow for the actualization of the moral boundaries that are central to their project—the production of religious identities and meanings, as well as the expression of those identities and meanings. The Plowshares are always conscious of an audience, and that imagined audience—always watching, always judging—is crucial to their multivalent religious logic. The Plowshares thus help us to think more carefully about the ways that audience and performativity can be central to the work of religious groups, in the same way that they help us to think more carefully about boundaries as the product of strenuous work, a constellation of endeavors that are central, not incidental, to religiosity. The two lenses of performance and boundary work also help us to understand the Plowshares better, and what it is they believe themselves to be doing. They enable us to make sense of a group that may initially seem counterintuitive and counterproductive, claiming to work for certain changes in ways that the activists acknowledge are unlikely to bring about those changes directly. But they do not regard their actions as futile—far from it. Efficacy for the Plowshares, as I will show, hinges on the negotiation of physical and socio-moral space; boundaries are the sites where these spaces, and the moral qualities attendant to them, can be girded and sustained, or can be rethought and reworked, not only for the Plowshares themselves but also for their various audiences.

<h1>Terminology and Methodology

Readers who are familiar with other work on the Plowshares probably will notice, and perhaps wonder, that I do not refer to a Plowshares “movement.” This is intentional, and it is not always easy. Literature on the Plowshares, including earlier work of my own, presumes the label almost without exception, and Plowshares activists themselves use it from time to time, though not regularly. In avoiding the term here, I do not mean to suggest that it can never be fruitful to think of the Plowshares as a movement. Sharon Erickson Nepstad’s 2008 book on the Plowshares is framed around a movement question—how do participants remain committed to a movement that makes serious demands of its participants, without ever seeming to achieve its desired ends?—and the resulting study yields important insights about the Plowshares, and about social movements and high-risk activism in general. A great deal of recent social movement theory can account for a movement that does not achieve instrumental goals or obvious political results, and many of these characterizations, like Barbara Epstein’s notion of the politics of moral witness on which Nepstad draws, go a long way toward making sense of the Plowshares. But movements, whatever else they do or do not do, work to recruit, to attract new people to the cause. The Plowshares do not. The larger communities of which they are a part do work to recruit new members to the broader causes of anti-military and anti-nuclear activism, but increasing the number of participants in their specific activities is not a concern for the Plowshares. Indeed, that their numbers are small is an important component of their resistance. To emphasize this aspect of their project—that is, to focus on what they are doing, even if they are decidedly not growing—I refer simply to “the Plowshares,” by which term I mean an elite subset within a larger Catholic resistance community. I have taken a cue from a phrase that appears occasionally in Philip Berrigan’s writings, “Plowshares people.” When Plowshares activists write about their actions, the context is often such (or assumed to be such) that they do not need to label themselves at all (though when they do, they do so in telling ways that I explore in Chapter Three). But Philip’s “Plowshares people,” though he does not use it with any great regularity or frequency, nicely evokes precisely what I am arguing in the work at hand: that the efficacy of the actions is bound up with the activists taking on and performing particular identity claims. Simultaneously, embracing the identity to which they feel called happens as the actions are performed.

My concern in this book is to probe how that the Plowshares’ actions, their legal trials, and the rhetoric that surrounds the actions and the trials, work as performances of a self-conception that is based on moral distinction, and how those performances are interpreted and conveyed as efficacious. When I talk about performances, I am interested mainly in the tellings and retellings of the actions. In part this is because those retellings—in texts, in the courtroom—are more accessible than the actions. The visible nature of the Plowshares’ actions is essential to their efficacy. But very often, the actions go largely unobserved. They are cloaked in secrecy up to the moment when they are committed, and even then, most take place at locations that are decidedly not public, and usually not heavily peopled. The physical audience for a Plowshares action or its aftermath is usually quite small. But that audience expands as accounts—those of the activists themselves and their supporters, of the military or police, and of various media outlets—circulate. The actions become more fully public in the telling, where they go from being public in theory (which is not unimportant), to being actually public. The telling of the actions is necessary to make the actions work as performances: they allow for the showing of the doing. Those tellings take place on paper, in the letters and pamphlets and books that Plowshares activists write about their actions; and they take place in the courtroom, as Plowshares activists explain what they have done and why they have done it. Trial transcripts paint a vibrant picture of interruption, reiteration, objection—in short, of discursive battles being waged as the events of a Plowshares action are recounted from significantly different perspectives. As crafted accounts, constructed by constituencies who have a stake in stressing certain aspects of the actions while glossing over others, courtroom accounts, like textual accounts, highlight the activists’ intentionality, the choices they make in narrating the actions. What do they want to convey about the actions, and themselves as perpetrators of the actions? Why do they describe their actions in the terms that they do? What rhetorical tactics do they use as they address various audiences, to bolster and even complete the aims of the actions themselves? I am interested in the work of dissemination, of communication, but I am interested in them as more than retellings. They are echoes, recapitulations, reactualizations of the acts that they describe, and as such they are necessary components of the actions. They are the performances of a performance—performance multiplied for multiplying audiences, all essential for the realization of the Plowshares’ goals.

<h1>Chapter Overview

Chapter One, “We in the Underground are Trying to Do Something Else: The Plowshares’ History and Development,” presents the Plowshares’ history, locating the group’s origins in the Vietnam-era Catholic Left, and examines the group’s demographics, including shifting trends over the last thirty years. This chapter explores how Philip and Daniel Berrigan came to equate moral distinction and marginality, and how that pairing came to structure Philip’s vision for the first Plowshares action. I argue that the affiliations the Plowshares claim and eschew (they do not, for example, think of themselves as part of the larger disarmament movement that was at its apex just as the first Plowshares actions were taking place) give the first insights into the Plowshares’ emphasis on symbolic, moral boundaries.

Chapter Two, “Something Deeper than Reason: The Logic and Tactics of Symbolic Disarmament,” analyzes the Plowshares’ actions and the religio-political worldview that undergirds them, examining what precisely constitutes “symbolic disarmament,” the elusive designation that, according to the Plowshares, renders their actions distinct from other disarmament and peacemaking activity. I consider the genres of performance, ritual, and liturgy as constitutive of symbolic disarmament; and I analyze the rudiments of the Plowshares’ actions—trespass, blood, and hammers—in light of these genres, to explicate their overlapping levels of theological, political, and social significance. I argue that in a Plowshares action, the elements of trespass, blood, and hammers are remarked as symbols, and at the same time, the activists undergo a similar remarking by which an exclusive ritual community is created. I also examine innovations that have taken place within the general template of a Plowshares action, and argue that these innovations have revealed ambiguities and tensions within the group that most observers overlook. This chapter begins to demonstrate the book’s central argument, that their actions are embodied performance of the socio-moral boundaries at the heart of the Plowshares’ self-understanding, even for activists who don’t explicitly voice that sense of distinction in the same way that the founders did, and that the extent to which the actions are considered efficacious hinges on the extent to which boundary performance is accomplished.

Chapter Three, “Our Only Real Credential of Discipleship: The Rhetorical Performance of Symbolic Boundaries,” looks at the formats and media that the Plowshares use to talk about their actions. Writing about the actions, and about themselves, is crucially important for the Plowshares; how do they construct the narratives of their actions for various audiences, and how, in turn, do those audiences receive these narratives? I examine key tropes that emerge as the Plowshares talk about themselves and their actions, explaining their motivations and intentions both within the group and to various outside audiences. I argue that their rhetoric both displays and helps to instantiate the Plowshares’ symbolic boundaries (this is the dual sense of “performance,” as both depiction and achievement, that I employ throughout), even as it strives to be inclusive, and that these rhetorical boundary performances are necessary to complete the embodied performances of the actions themselves.

Chapters Four and Five analyze the Plowshares’ legal trials, where rhetorical and embodied performances come together in striking and complex displays of boundary work. Chapter Four, “Just to Speak the Truth: The Plowshares’ Theory of the Case,” lays out the communicative aims of the trials. I analyze two typical opening statements, arguing that they reveal the moral framework that undergirds the Plowshares’ legal strategy. The statements contain, in seed form, several of the elements that are important in the unfolding of the Plowshares’ defenses, which I explore in detail in Chapter Five. “Objection Your Honor—She’s Talking About God: Boundary Negotiation in the Courtroom” examines the Plowshares’ choice of defenses and their courtroom behaviors and language, all of which contribute to the defendants’ performances of “nonbelonging.” The trials reveal with especial clarity the character of boundaries as sites of both the maintenance and merging of difference, as the Plowshares both restrict and expand their symbolic boundaries, demonstrating their ability to work either within or outside the conventions of the legal system, and their self-reflexivity with respect to their boundary work. The Plowshares are idiosyncratic in their resistance, but in the courtroom they stand in for a parade of religious actors whose time in the courtroom threads vividly through the tapestry of American religious history. Analyzing the Plowshares’ legal activity as religious activity not only illuminates their particular religious world, but also expands the model of the relationship between religions and the courts as one of control, regulation, and limitation, to allow for the agency of religious actors within a space that is particularly suited to the production of religious discourses and identities, even when religion is not an explicit focal point.

As I delved into the kinds of boundary work the Plowshares do to distinguish themselves from a sinful world and lackadaisical Church, my thoughts turned often to the trial I observed in 2000, where I found myself in the midst of a throng of the Plowshares’ extended Catholic activist community, gathered from across the country to show their support for the four defendants. Sharon Nepstad has pointed out the deep community that sustains Plowshares activists, and that sense of community was strongly evident at the trial. But it was also quite clear that the community was socially stratified. Plowshares activists were accorded a deference that reflected their elite status within the larger Catholic resistance community. Even in a group composed primarily of career high-risk activists, their peers seemed to regard the Plowshares—not only the four defendants, but those who had participated in other Plowshares actions—as somehow different. The Plowshare’s elevated status made sense in that context, among nonviolent activists for whom prison sentences are a mark of commitment and integrity. But the awed respect that their peers displayed toward the Plowshares revealed a tension that has surfaced often during my examination of the Plowshares’ boundary work. For the most part Plowshares activists are noticeably humble, and talk about themselves and their actions as part of a larger network of Catholic activism that they hold in high esteem. Usually they do not explicitly claim to be exemplars or virtuosi, and yet many of their peers characterize them that way. How does that happen? That is to say, how is it that the distinctions Plowshares activists assert between themselves and the court and its agents, for example, which are crucial to their sense of identity and their notion of efficacy, also come to distinguish them in the midst of their community of supporters, close friends, and allies, such that even their closest kin regard them as morally distinct?

In this book I aim to connect the social dynamics I saw at play during the trial with the Plowshares’ larger project, to tease out a link between the ways they posit themselves as outsiders with regard to the State and the Church, and the social stratifications evident in their activist community. In other words, how do external boundaries (boundaries between the group at hand and the “other” from which it distinguishes itself) shape internal boundaries, the subtle distinctions within a group, such as those between the Plowshares and closely allied activist communities, whom they explicitly include in their milieu? Nepstad concluded in her study of the Plowshares that activists remained committed because community sustains them, supporting them materially and emotionally and also reinforcing their theology and ideology. This is undoubtedly the case. I want to take a step back, to ask how the Plowshares themselves produce and present the tropes and ideals that the community then supports. How do the Plowshares’ words and actions encourage the notion that their resistance is Catholic resistance par excellence, even when they would not characterize it as such? How do those words and actions shape the religious world of the community that supports them, so that it supports them? Again, I do not believe that Plowshare activists intentionally set themselves apart from, or elevate themselves above, their friends and supporters. But the processes by which a group’s internal boundaries take shape as a product of, or corollary to, external boundary work, their hierarchies shaped and replicated accordingly, is a theme that deserves more attention in boundary work studies, and I take it up explicitly in the conclusion.

Creating and maintaining boundaries is, for the Plowshares, not simply attendant to the work of being a religious group. It lies at the very heart of what it means to be religious. The Plowshares are idiosyncratic, but in their energetic attunement to what an academic like myself might call boundary work, and they would simply call performing their witness, is not unique. Indeed, I hope with the work at hand to suggest the importance of boundary work to religious worlds. But foremost, this is a story about the Plowshares, generally regarded as little more than a footnote to a more glorious Catholic past, but to my mind a striking case study in their own right, both continuing and departing from a lineage and a mode of religiosity with deep roots in American Catholicism. It is my aim to use the frame of boundary work to tell their story from a new perspective, and more fully than has been done before. At the very least—and this is no small thing, I hope the reader will agree—centering my analysis of the Plowshares on their boundary work allows me to tackle a perennial question asked not only of the Plowshares (and of me, during the decade I have spent studying them) but of a host of groups like them, religious activists who trade in the symbolic: Do they really believe that works? And, of course, its incredulous follow-up: How? The answer to the first question is simple: Yes. The answer to the second question is more complex, involving a sacramental, liturgical worldview that plays out on overlapping levels of political, metaphysical, and social efficacy. When things happen for the Plowshares, they happen not only on a symbolic plane but in social spaces that they share with detractors and supporters alike, via practices that have discernible effects on the larger community whose religious worlds their actions, words, convictions, and commitments help to generate. The Plowshares’ savvy as social actors is as striking as their intensity as religious actors—indeed, the one cannot be separated from the other, as these pages show.

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