“Which King’s Bay? Religion against the Rules in Nuclear Civil Disobedience”

Matthew P. Cavedon

It is commonplace to understand religion as a building block of identity. We define our personalities in light of any number of characteristics – our religion, nationality, politics, ethnicity, sex, disabilities, and so on. It is also commonplace, nowadays, to say that each of our characteristics affects how we think about the others. To be a Hindu woman, or a blind Republican, is understood to be something qualitatively different than merely being a Hindu and a woman, or a blind person and a Republican. Our identities interrelate.

What happens, though, when someone’s religious identity does not merely interact with his other characteristics? When his religion openly conflicts with, say, his national identity? Two things. He can experience a sense of inner liberation from the ordinary demands of national society. And national society, in turn, can find itself confronting someone who does not feel any internal compulsion toward obeying its demands. An internally free person, then, can meet with external force. Neither can yield. A fraught status quo can result.

I recently spoke to a man in just such a situation – Patrick O’Neill. When we spoke, Mr. O’Neill was riding in the passenger seat as his wife drove him to a federal prison in Ohio. He will spend fourteen months incarcerated there. He was sentenced after breaking into Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base. He and six other Catholic activists, including a Jesuit priest, had trespassed onto the facility because it houses nuclear weapons. They used hammers, baby bottles with their own blood, and protest signs to attempt to follow an injunction of the Prophet Isaiah literally. They went to beat swords into plowshares.

It is commonplace to understand religion as a building block of identity. We define our personalities in light of any number of characteristics – our religion, nationality, politics, ethnicity, sex, disabilities, and so on.

They knew what legal consequences were likely to await them. In fact, Mr. O’Neill’s current federal sentence is his fourth time around that block. He has spent nearly three years of his life behind bars for other “Plowshares” actions. 

What has made him repeatedly willing to undergo such punishments? His religious identity, and its exclusive allegiance over him. Mr. O’Neill grew up during the Vietnam War. He recalls nightly death counts on the TV. His mother was raising him and his brother alone after their father died in a construction accident. She was against the war, saying that if it was necessary, she would take her sons to Canada to spare them from the draft. Sentiments like these were Mr. O’Neill’s first exposure to the antiwar movement. 

Upon becoming an adult, he took on work as an assistant to an activist priest, Fr. Charlie Mulholland of Greenville, NC. Fr. Mulholland was involved in the NAACP, the ACLU, and protests at the Pentagon. He stirred into flame his young assistant’s pacifist tendencies. Mr. O’Neill began to feel not just tension but outright conflict between being a good Catholic and being a law-abiding American. He could not grasp how so many Christians believe that “God approves of war and God thinks war is necessary,” because “based on the Gospels, there’s no indication that that’s how Jesus felt.” He could not fathom how scholarly theologians could believe that “Jesus wanted us to kill each other.” 

The more this belief took root within him, the less he could reconcile himself to the logic driving so much of modern America. He came to see military spending as “theft from the poor,” “misappropriated from human needs” like the alleviation of poverty and ecological improvement. His historical sense of American militarism sharpened, too. He realized that this is “really the first time in human history . . . when human beings could end the human experiment.” Americans tend to believe the military when it says nuclear weapons “are designed to keep us safe.” But the reality of our modern world is that “every major city on the planet is within fifteen minutes of destruction.”

Mr. O’Neill could not comply with both the dictates of his Catholic peacenik conscience and the laws of the nuclear missile-wielding American government. So he “decided to beat swords into plowshares and smash idols.” He went to a Florida plant that built nuclear weaponry. He hammered on equipment and painted blood on it. Although the South “is not very open to that sort of political theater,” Mr. O’Neill found “a real sense of disarmament happening one blow at a time.” 

Moreover, he found a sense of inner liberation in letting his religious identity predominate over other sources of personal meaning. He knew that there would be consequences. “Jesus seals His fate when He cleanses the Temple,” Mr. O’Neill told me. But Christ forcibly taking on the power players of His day, and the Boston Tea Party choosing rebellion over submission to injustice, became Mr. O’Neill’s models. He therefore opted out of conventional political identities. When I asked if he now considers himself an anarchist, he said he thinks of himself only as a Christian pacifist – and that being perceived as a Democrat is even worse than being taken for an anarchist. He said simply: “I do not validate this government.”

He also distanced himself more and more from American identity. Mr. O’Neill and his wife raised their eight children “to join us in this resistance.” The kids opted out of patriotic ceremonies at their relatively conventional Catholic preschool. They exercised their right to remain seated during the Pledge of Allegiance. The O’Neills encouraged steps like these to prevent the children from “associat[ing] everything positive with the flag,” which Mr. O’Neill takes to be a direct line into the Marine Corps. 

Mr. O’Neill and his family walked away from ordinary American identity in favor of dovish Catholicism. Where did that leave him in relation to the government and other aspects of the society in which he lives? He no longer thinks mainly in terms of what is legal or illegal, socially acceptable or taboo. He similarly disavows any “delusions of grandeur” that his banner slogans and acts of minor vandalism will end the age of the a-bomb. These sorts of thinking, after all, are more proper to someone who identifies strongly as a citizen or partisan.

But Mr. O’Neill is not indifferent toward public affairs. He is not Amish, seeking to withdraw from external constraints so that he can freely live out his internal convictions. Rather, he believes the perspectives flowing from his religious identity give him valuable things to say to the political order. He says he and his co-defendants “should be looked at as people who are providing a service to the government.” They are even a necessary part of its legitimacy, because “there is no democracy” if there is no dissent. 

He also addresses himself to ordinary citizens so that they will see the world beyond their normal modes of thinking. He responded to one critic of his actions by emphasizing this desire to inject religious conscience into others’ minds: “I did take the law into my hands and I did destroy property that you own, that’s true. . . . But I also want to ask you a question. How does this puny manifestation of mine . . . outrage you, but the weapons we’re addressing can literally destroy cities full of millions of people?” Relatedly, he and the other Kings Bay Plowshares activists met with the local Catholic priest serving the base. He had supposedly already preached against them. But he agreed to a pastoral visit and Communion service. By the end of their half-hour meeting, “he completely understood us, politically and theologically,” and stopped his hostile messaging. They believed they had shaken him out of an easy complacency toward nuclear weaponry. If nothing else, Mr. O’Neill and his friends had succeeded in contrasting the vision their religious identity gave them with the daily compromises the priest had made by thinking like an American. “He can probably see Trident submarines floating by . . . and it never, ever occurred to him that the entire livelihood of this community . . . was predicated on the end of the world.” 

The government imposed its rules on Mr. O’Neill’s body. His soul remains in internal freedom. The two remain in détente. 

Mr. O’Neill says he tried to do this work at his trial as well. He says that he greeted the federal judge presiding over his case as a “sister in Christ” and disclaimed any desire for an “adversarial relationship” with her. 

He did not think this approach was reciprocated. Predictably, the American court process did not operate according to the religious logic as Mr. O’Neill lives by. His attempt to raise his religious liberty as a defense to the charges against him was dismissed out-of-hand. He faced a vigorous prosecution. He was convicted by a jury of American citizens and sentenced to federal prison. When the government confronted someone who lacked internal motivations for conforming to its rules, it did not flinch. It met his inner convictions with external force. It now holds custody over his body.

Just as predictably, though, Mr. O’Neill’s inner liberty remains unfettered. When asked what he thought prison will be like, he told me that in previous stints, he has “not been able to avoid solitary confinement for activism.” He is already planning to start prayer groups and book clubs for his fellow inmates. Even in pretrial detention, he broke the rules. He put up contraband banners on his cellblock walls – this time, inviting guards to join him and his friends for a Ramen noodle feast he paid for. (“When you’re a political prisoner, people send you money.”) They did not come. But they did not take down the signs, either.

The government imposed its rules on Mr. O’Neill’s body. His soul remains in internal freedom. The two remain in détente. I have more to say on that détente, and on the role of perfectionist prophecy in an imperfect world. I am also ethically obligated to disclose my many personal connections to this case. But this piece is already quite long. Keep following Conviction to see more reflections on the Kings Bay Plowshares case soon. ♦

Matthew P. Cavedon is a criminal defense attorney in Gainesville, GA. He graduated from Emory University in 2015 with a law degree and masters of theological studies.

Recommended Citation

Cavedon, Matthew P. “Which King’s Bay? Religion against the Rules in Nuclear Civil Disobedience.” Canopy Forum, February 15, 2021. https://canopyforum.org/2021/02/15/which-kings-bay-religion-against-the-rules-in-nuclear-civil-disobedience/