Readings for First Sunday of Advent: IS 2:1-5; PS 122:1-9; ROM 13: 11-14; PS 85:8; MT 24: 37-44
Last weekend, Pope Francis outright condemned the manufacture and possession of nuclear weapons. (I’ll bet you didn’t notice that in the mainstream media.)
The pope did so during his visit to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where he met with survivors of the two Japanese cities which were virtually wiped off the map when atomic bombs were dropped on them in 1945. The weapons of unprecedented mass destruction killed more than 200,000 people in matters of minutes.
During his remarks, Pope Francis said, “A world without nuclear weapons is possible and necessary. . . The use of atomic energy for the purpose of war is immoral, just as the possessing of nuclear weapons is immoral . . .”
The pope’s visit and sharp condemnation could not come at a more opportune time either historically or liturgically (on this First Sunday of Advent). Historically, they follow hard upon the conviction of the Kings Bay Plowshares 7, a group of seven Catholic peace activists who in April of last year entered the Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in Georgia to symbolically destroy the nuclear weapons housed there. (Kings Bay harbors at least six nuclear ballistic missile submarines. Each of them carries 20 Trident missiles.)
The Seven included Liz McAlister, the wife of deceased peace activist Phil Berrigan, as well as Martha Hennesy, the granddaughter of Dorothy Day, the legendary co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement.
As I pointed out a couple of weeks ago, the group’s own “weapons” for accomplishing their task were hammers, crime scene tape, and baby bottles containing their own blood. Once inside, they splashed their blood on the walls of the base’s administration building. They used their hammers to “destroy” the nosecone of one of the Trident missiles. They also posted a formal indictment of the U.S. government charging it with crimes against peace.
At their trial the activists had planned to mount a “necessity defense.” However, the presiding judge forbade them to cite their religious motivations. That nullified their planned argument that their “crime” was morally necessary to prevent the far greater catastrophe of a nuclear war.
The Seven had also planned to present Daniel Ellsberg as an expert witness to articulate that defense. All of us recall Ellsberg as the most famous whistle blower in U.S. history. In 1971, he risked a lifetime behind bars when he leaked the famous Pentagon Papers that revealed Washington’s hidden strategy behind the Vietnam War. His recent book The Doomsday Machine: confessions of a nuclear war planner details his work as a Defense Department analyst and nuclear weapons strategist.
However, Ellsberg too was forbidden to testify. Had he done so, he would have argued that the Seven were faithfully following the prophet Isaiah’s command to “beat swords into plowshares” (IS 2:4).
(By the way, with the judge’s restrictions in place, the Plowshares 7 were convicted of conspiracy. On their sentencing within 90 days, the activists will face more than 20 years in prison.)
All of this – Pope Francis’ words about the sinfulness of nuclear weapons manufacture and possession as well as the conviction of the Plowshares 7 – is relevant to this Sunday’s liturgy of the word and historically relevant in the way just explained. That’s because today’s first reading contains those words from the prophet Isaiah.
Contradicting his people’s earlier understanding of God as a “Man of War,” Isaiah’s words describe divine opposition to all war and a fortiori, of course, to nuclear war. They envision a precisely enlightened human future when the people of the world will “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks,” and where “one nation shall not raise the sword against another.”
Then in today’s Gospel reading from the 24th chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus (like the Buddha before him) calls his followers to simply wake up rather than prepare for war against their Roman occupiers led by a violent “Son of Man.” As Matthew’s readers will discover in his 25th chapter, “waking up” means recognizing Christ’s presence in the “least of the brethren.” Jesus implies that such recognition precludes war of any kind and (again a fortiori) nuclear war.
To get what I mean, please read for yourself today’s biblical selections. You can find them here. Despite their obscurity (especially in today’s apocalyptic Gospel passage), you’ll see that they’re about waking up and renunciation of war. At least that’s what I see in them, as you can tell from my “translations” immediately below:
For the prophet Isaiah,
Jerusalem and its Temple
Called people everywhere
To lift their gaze
Above the world’s
Hills and highest mountains
To the realm of peace and light
He believed possible.
To get there, he said,
Disarm and demilitarize.
Weapons of mass destruction
Until they look like
Hoes and shovels,
Tractors and cultivators.
PS 122: 1-9
Yes, it’s possible to turn this world
Into a house of worship –
A City of Peace –
Where all human beings
Enjoy the prosperity
That disarmament makes possible.
That’s the key to reconciliation and happiness.
ROM 13: 11-14
St. Paul calls us to wake up!
Only our selfishness,
Prevents the advent
Of that other peaceful world.
So, don’t be deceived, he said,
By the world’s empty promises
Of fulfillment by (Christmas) consumption
Instead, seek that other world first
And everything else you need
Will follow automatically.
Lord, please show us
How to get from here to there!
MT 24: 37-44
Jesus warned his friends
About using violence
To achieve peace.
They hoped that
Daniel’s “Son of Man”
Would dethrone imperial Rome
By force of arms.
“Be careful what you wish for,”
“Your hoped-for apocalypse
Will recall the devastation
Of Noah’s Flood.
Will run at 50% —
Men and women alike
(Just as at Hiroshima
True change however
Comes from disarmament
(as Isaiah taught)
And from extreme wakefulness
(as the Buddha instructed).
Pray then for blessed insomnia!
To the signs of the time!”
Don’t you agree that Pope Francis is wonderful? His faithful following of Jesus and of St. Francis of Assisi has led him to call things by their right names. Nuclear war is sinful, he has said unmistakably. Possessing nuclear weapons is immoral. Catholics and the entire world need to take those words to heart and act upon them.
The Plowshares Seven show us what such open-hearted action means. The Seven are willing to go to prison for enacting the logical consequence of the words of Pope Francis and of Jesus in a world cursed by nuclear weapons.
But few are paying attention. Few take notice. Since Francis’ words weren’t about abortion, homosexuality, or refusing communion to politicians, the pope’s words of condemnation received little attention in the mainstream media. Moreover, those words seemed pointed sharply at the U.S. which alone has ever used nuclear weapons and possesses more of them than any nation on earth. And who among us (much less, among the corporate media) is willing to endure such condemnation?
Fewest of all among us are willing to take seriously the challenge of the Plowshares 7. Who among us is willing to do prison time for the sake of following the prophetic ones who identified disarmament, wakefulness and enlightenment as the only effective path to happiness and peace?
Advent is the time for entertaining those questions. What are your answers? What are mine?