An unexpected cloud of witnesses: Sister Rice replies

Collective recognition is more important than the raising up of icons: there is no mastermind in the transformation of society.

Michael Edwards
29 October 2014

Sister Megan Rice, Michael Walli and Greg Boertje-Obed. Credit: Some rights reserved.

Megan Rice is a member of a Catholic religious order called the Society of the Holy Child Jesus that was founded in 1846.  She’s also serving a three-year prison term in Brooklyn, New York, for “sabotage of the national defense”—a judgment handed down by Judge Amul Thapar for entering the Y-12 nuclear weapons facility in Oakridge, Tennessee in July of 2012 without permission. Greg Boertje-Obed and Michael Walli, two more experienced Plowshares activists, accompanied Rice in this action and were given longer sentences.

On August 18th 2014 I published an article about Sister Rice and the origins of moral courage, and sent her a copy of the piece in jail. “I am grateful for your giving notice and taking notice of our action for building peaceful alternatives at Y-12,” she wrote back to me in a letter, “You join an unexpected cloud of witnesses who have emerged in real solidarity as co-participants in extending its message. Since you asked for some feedback from me about your article, I did regret the chance to point out some details I was not very comfortable with.”

What follows are Sister Rice’s observations and corrections, along with some additional material that I think is relevant to the points she makes, collected by me from the other articles to which she refers. This new piece was approved by her prior to publication.

First, she writes, “It would have helped that the three of us could be named together as ‘entering’ the facility (not ‘broke in’ or ‘cut through non-functioning fences’). The fences were illegal.”

Second, “there was no time to sit for any ‘picnic.’ We thought it was fifteen minutes before security arrived; the court said seven. We acted quickly!”

As an interesting coda to this part of the story, Ellen Barfield, another Plowshares activist writing on the second anniversary of the action at Y-12, noted that “security” turned out to be a guard who had prior experience with peace activists at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant in Colorado:

“He knew he faced no physical threat and did not use violence. The video of that meeting we saw later in court was touching: MGM [a common acronym for the three protestors—Megan, Greg and Michael] bowing and holding out their hands in friendship, offering bread and flowers, and the guard’s calm demeanor in response. What a shame that plant management fired him for doing his job so well. His union continues to support his claim of wrongful dismissal.”

Third, Rice continues, “We never ‘wanted to expose the ineffectiveness of the security systems that were supposed to protect these weapons from theft or damage.’ It revealed itself.” Jack and Felice Cohen-Joppa, who edit the Nukeresister newspaper, expanded on this concern in an email to me after my article came out:

“While safety concerns were the primary focus of most media coverage (to the point that the critique of nuclear weapons was lost in the hysteria over a spectacular trespass), the point the three protestors would make instead is that we are less secure simply because these weapons exist as moral and legal abominations, regardless of the efficacy of the walls and fences alleged to protect them.” Rice, Boertje-Obed and Walli believe that it’s impossible to ‘secure’ nuclear weapons without eliminating them.

Finally, Rice responded to the link I had placed at the end of my piece to a petition advocating for MGM’s release:

“Too bad the promotions of the petition ‘request a pardon’—we could never ask for a pardon when what was done was stating the truth under the constitution protecting human rights, and the responsibility to expose known crimes even of government.”

Barfield’s article supports this position: “I agree they should be released, but I don’t think that serves them. What they want is for the rest of us to get off our couches and do something about the weapons: sign the petition at, support the Marshall Islanders in their lawsuits against the nine nuke nations for not disarming, and learn more and find ideas at; help organize and speak out on the upcoming Hiroshima and Nagasaki Days, support strengthening the recent bills in the US Congress to reduce weapons budgets, write to tell MGM what you are doing. This is what they want us to do. ”

A common theme in Rice’s reactions and the commentary surrounding the Y-12 judgment is that collective struggle and recognition is more important than the raising up of three individual heroes, or indeed a focus on Rice herself in contrast to Boertje-Obed and Walli. “To listen to many outlets you would almost think Sister Megan acted alone” as Barfield puts it.

Rice expanded on this theme in a letter to friends and supporters dated September 7th 2014:

“Some may have seen the book review by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times. I wish to comment and to dispel a possible myth that it may create. No true Plowshares act of resistance can contain the concept of ‘masterminding.’ By nature of being true resistance in nonviolence, Plowshares actions strive to be the result of genuine, communal discernment, and this, if faith inspired, involves collaborative research, planning, enactment and follow up, in which we each are now involved….there can be no ‘mastermind.’”

The article she’s referring to was published by journalist Nicholas Kristof on August 16th 2014. It’s a review of Jo Piazza’s forthcoming book entitled “If Nuns Ruled the World.” Kristof opens the piece with a call for more “superheroes in an age of villainy”, before citing nuns as possibly “the best superheroes yet.” The celebration of individual heroism over collective action is a long-running theme in Kristof’s writings.

One of these “superhero nuns” is Sister Rice, who Kristof describes as “masterminding a break-in of a nuclear complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to call attention to the nuclear threat.” “I don’t approve of breaking into national security compounds,” Kristof opines, “and I think nuclear doctrine is more complex than Sister Megan probably does. Nonetheless I admire someone with such guts and commitment to principles.”

As her September 7th letter to supporters makes clear, Rice rejects this analysis. For her, the adulation offered to individual ‘masterminds’ is a travesty, the opposite of the “community discernment” that members of the Plowshares movement advocate. Perhaps it’s even a cover for secrecy. She provides a list of books that expand on these themes:

“If one reads one of the oral histories, like The Girls of the Atomic City by Denise Kiernan, General Leslie Groves memories recounted in 1983 under the title Now It Can Be Told, or Mary Palevsky’s 1999 Atomic Fragments: A Daughter’s Questions, we see stories that are opposite to this kind of community discernment: the practice of all-pervading secrecy. We might even say the flourishing of some sort of ‘master-mindedness’ in the raw, and seventy years of living in a state of denial of truth, as well as a state of planetary peril, constantly creating its own destruction.”

It’s a powerful statement that summarizes what for me is the key to Rice’s story: the constant practice of openness, sharing and solidarity to set alongside the theory. There is no inconsistency here, and that makes her example, and that of her two colleagues, all the more compelling. The rest, I think she’s saying, is up to us.

“With sincere gratitude for all your efforts to restore harmony to our sacred planet in its work of constant transformation into the fullness of life,” she signs off in her letters:


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