I first met Martha Hennessy a couple of years ago at a barbecue in Vermont, on one of those summer afternoons where the talk winds on and on as smoke from the grill floats lazily up to the heavens. With her grey ponytail and long loose skirt, she fit right in to our post-back-to-the-land community. Lifting her hem a little, she showed me the plastic electronic tag on her left ankle. She was out on bail, awaiting trial for her part in the Plowshares 7 symbolic disarmament action at the largest nuclear submarine base in the world, Kings Bay in Georgia, on April 4, 2018, the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination.
The Plowshares 7 are Catholic pacifists and antinuclear activists, committed to Isaiah’s command to “beat swords into plowshares,” in the tradition begun by Daniel and Philip Berrigan at the General Electric facility in King of Prussia, Pa., in 1980; there have been about a hundred similar actions since. At Kings Bay, the seven cut through the security fence, poured their own blood on the base’s official seal, hammered on a metal display of a Tomahawk missile, and put up crime scene tape and a banner reading “The ultimate logic of Trident is omnicide” (an adaptation of Dr. King’s “The ultimate logic of racism is genocide”). In October 2019, they were convicted of four federal crimes—conspiracy, destruction of government property, depredation of a naval installation, and trespassing—for which the maximum sentence is 20 years and six months in prison.
Martha and I stayed in touch. She would not want to be singled out from her fellows in this way, but it’s through our conversations that I’ve begun to understand what enables her to keep confronting a threat so overwhelming that most of us ignore it, and to risk her own body to challenge it.
For the Plowshares 7, nuclear weapons are not just a sword of Damocles hanging over humanity. They kill every day, by stealing resources from the poor, reinforcing white supremacy, contaminating the land. Martha speaks about the connection Dr. King drew between racism, materialism, and militarism, pointing out that it was when he made the link between violence against Black people at home and the war in Vietnam that he became a real danger to the state.
Martha wasn’t always a practicing Catholic; she’s struggled deeply with what she calls the US Catholic Church’s complicity with empire and its attitude to women. Her faith grew out of her opposition to war, and her experience of her grandmother Dorothy Day, the radical activist, mystic, and founder of the Catholic Worker movement. She remembers sitting on Dorothy’s lap as a small child, listening to her heartbeat and her voice, and sees that now as her first intimation of God: “It meant connectedness, and love, and warmth…knowing that I was part of this Mystical Body, where God is love and God is within each of us.”
At 14, she stood in the kitchen and watched her brother leave for Vietnam; he came back traumatized and damaged by Agent Orange. In her 20s, she was arrested protesting nuclear power in Vermont. Much later, in 2002, she spoke at Dorothy’s induction to the National Women’s Hall of Fame; afterward, Ruth Bader Ginsburg ran up to her, grabbed her hand, and vanished. That day put her newly in touch with her grandmother’s legacy. She began to volunteer at Maryhouse, the Catholic Worker hospitality shelter in Manhattan, and eventually found her way to the Plowshares movement.
When Martha speaks of the Mystical Body, or describes pouring blood on nuclear missiles as a sacrament, something in me stalls. I can relate to those things only as metaphor. But listening to her—not just her words, but the fierce thoughtfulness of her voice—I’ve come to understand her courage and commitments as indivisible, the expression of a belief in love or, to put it differently, the possibility of goodness, which may not be so different from what she intends.
Something like that seems to have happened to the judge at Martha’s sentencing on November 13. Sentencing for the Plowshares 7 was delayed by the pandemic and has been taking place by video link; all the defendants are over 55, and the oldest, Elizabeth McAlister, Philip Berrigan’s widow, is now 81. Martha was the sixth to appear, from the room at Maryhouse where Day lived and died. Her lawyer, the judge and the prosecutor were all at separate locations in Brunswick, Ga.
A courtroom, even a virtual one, is a theater where narratives clash. Judge Lisa Wood began with the necessary litany of formalities and addressed the defense’s arguments for a reduction in the recommended sentence: 18–24 months in prison and a restitution payment of $33,503.51. There were paragraph numbers, factor numbers, references to precedent. The prosecutor brought in the sense of a crime with the list of tools used by the Plowshares 7 (though not by Martha herself)—power tools, pry tools, blood, hammers, bolt cutters—and words like “conspiracy” and “under cover of darkness.” The judge agreed to reduce the burden of Martha’s three previous convictions–all misdemeanors for nonviolent protest—but rejected all other arguments for a “downward departure” in sentencing.
The testimony of Martha’s four witnesses changed the atmosphere, as if someone had opened a window and let the outdoors in. Her friend and Vermont neighbor Elizabeth Blum spoke of their shared interest in organic gardening, birding, and textile arts—and her childhood in the 1950s, when she wasn’t allowed to drink milk contaminated with strontium 90 from nuclear tests in Nevada. Et in Arcadia ego. George Horton, who’s worked for Catholic Charities for 39 years, described meeting Martha at Maryhouse assiduously scrubbing a huge pot; he explained that her work there is about relationship and friendship, not social services, so that she is irreplaceable.
Retired attorney Mary Yelenick helped to draft the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons that comes into force on January 22—two days after President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration. She made a harrowing statement describing the effects of nuclear weapons on adults and children’s bodies, and pointed out that while adherence to the law provides stability, many things we now find abhorrent were once considered legal. Sister Marilyn Gramas, Martha’s spiritual director, spoke almost maternally, describing how hard it was for Martha to decide to take part in this action. All respectfully asked for mercy. Martha quietly explained that her faith, social responsibility, and love for humanity compelled her to act as she did; she spoke of her remorse that we have built the bombs and her regret at having embarrassed the personnel on the base.
The judge listened carefully and, when they had finished, seemed almost reluctant to speak. She sentenced Martha to 10 months in federal prison which, though it could be dangerous for a woman of 65 in these pandemic times, is far less than was expected. It felt almost like victory.
All six of the Plowshares 7 sentenced so far have received new prison terms, except McAlister, who was sentenced to time served. Joe Biden claims to share their faith. It would take but the stroke of a pen to pardon them and show that he also understands its moral implications.