By Tommy Airey
Lindsay shot me a text last Friday afternoon. KingsBay7 all found guilty of all the charges. She concluded with crying emojis. The Kings Bay Plowshares 7 is a motley crew of older white Christians who, on the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination, broke into a Naval base in Georgia with hammers, crime scene tape, baby bottles containing their own blood, and an indictment charging the U.S. government with crimes against peace. ¡Personas peligrosos!
The Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base is home to at least six nuclear ballistic missile submarines, each of which carries 20 Trident thermonuclear weapons—possessed with 3,800 times more destructive power as the weapons that were used on Hiroshima. Hammers? They were literally following the prophet Isaiah’s command to “beat swords into plowshares.” They discerned the action after two years of prayer and practice. This was a deep symbolic action designed to penetrate souls.
At the trial last week, the defendants were barred from citing their religious motivations — or from mounting a “necessity defense.” They were not allowed to defend the claim that their law-breaking was necessary to prevent the far greater crime of a nuclear war. In contrast, a few years back, the billionaire owner of Hobby Lobby defended his need to strip female employees of contraceptive coverage with his own religious convictions in the Supreme Court case that struck down certain aspects of Obama’s Affordable Care Act. The silenced Kings Bay 7 were found guilty of three felonies and a misdemeanor and will be sentenced in January. They could each face up to twenty years in federal prison.
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Back in the Spring, when I was rolling through Ithaca, New York, I shared a meal with one of the KingsBay 7 felons. Clare Grady had just served three-and-a-half months in county jail, but finally posted the $55,000 bond because (A) she was diagnosed with Lyme Disease and (B) the food was saturated with sugar and salt. She wasn’t sure she would have survived much longer. She told me this after we were wolfing down slices at the local pizzeria (right). In jail, Clare was denied any time outside and shared a cell with three others. She was leading bible studies and her fellow inmates respected her as a pastor and elder.
When I was with Clare, she was wearing a court-issued ankle bracelet and we were wolfing down dinner because we had to jet back to the Catholic Worker House where she lives so that she could make her 8pm curfew. The court mandated the bond, the bracelet and the curfew because it was determined that, after their act of nonviolent symbolic disarmament, Clare and her teammates were clearly “a danger to the community.” Ironically, a few months after the plowshares action, six Marines were arrested for stealing weapons and explosives from the Kings Bay Naval Base. They were released on their own recognizance and face up to only five years in prison.
I was struck by Clare’s ability to refuse the path of resentment. She spoke of the ways the system had dehumanized soldiers, judges, police officers and wardens. In Al-Anon, we describe this spiritual practice as digging below the surface of things so that we can cultivate compassion for the addicts in our lives. It was clear that Clare was spending her free time digging and cultivating.
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I received Lindsay’s text while I was driving through the Eastern Oregon town of Burns. Population 2,772. The town drifts south of the Paiute Indian Reservation. The main strip is a line up of gas stations, fast food restaurants, churches, cheap motels and a youth correctional facility. A few years ago, white nationalists converged on Burns and participated in a 40-day armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. It closed area schools for a week. These white Christians were protesting the conviction and sentencing of a father and son who attempted to burn 26,000 acres of federal land that they believe belonged to them. A year ago, the current occupier of the White House issued full pardons to the father and son.
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The day before I received Lindsay’s text, dozens of Republican lawmakers stormed a closed hearing room to disrupt the House impeachment investigation and to delay a Pentagon official’s testimony. A five-hour standoff ensued. The day before that a top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine testified that the Trump administration held up $391 million in aid to Ukraine for the purpose of pressing Ukraine to investigate Trump’s political rivals, particularly presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden. It was a vicious blow to “no quid pro quo.”
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This series of white male shit storms were on my mind as I was driving cross-country from Washington D.C. to Central Oregon. In D.C., I joined Ruby Sales and 22 white men for a spiritual conversation centered on a redemptive white male liberation theology. Mustard seeds of a movement seeking to transcend supremacy and shame. Mother Ruby steered us away from heady social analysis. She prodded us to focus on the spiritual disease that gave rise to the oppressive and violent world that white men have maintained since 1492.
What is the source of the spiritual malformation that coaxes white men to take up arms to protect their own destructive entitlement? What is the soul condition that justifies austerity budgets while 948 bombs and missiles were unleashed in Afghanistan last month and while nukes are produced that can end life on earth?
Systemic power, Ruby said, is a form of subjugation that requires us to conform and never break rank. White male redemption goes beyond guilt, shame, self-flagellation, passivity and fragility. In a web of mutual divine belovedness, it dares to be open-hearted and emotionally expressive. It cultivates courage, compassion and collaboration so that we can make our exodus out of entitlement.
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I am convinced that white Christians have three options in our engagement with what Ruby Sales calls “the spiritual guardians of Whiteness.” Through both sermon and silence, these leaders support a society built on exploitation and extraction. The first path of engagement is simply a doubling down on white power and entitlement. It is the conservative quest to make America great again. This path inspires some of its white male followers to dramatic acts of entitlement. But it motivates most to do nothing at all.
The second option is about diversifying. This liberal path fills slots in the same system with more queer folk, more women and more people of color. Long overdue. However, it mostly just pays lip service to the scandal of our socio-economic and political demons—what Dr. King called the giant triplets of evil: racism, militarism and materialism. King embraced a spirituality of “creative tension” (the opposite of the liberal formula of diversity + niceness) to expose the hidden realities that subsidize our lifestyles—the realities leading to white male alienation, anger, guilt, sensitivity and epidemics of mental illness, addiction, violence and corruption.
The Kings Bay 7 Plowshares action represents one white liberation theological manifestation of the third way: decolonization. The Kings Bay 7 are compelling representatives of a radical discipleship movement that, refusing to remain silent in the face of the giant triplets of evil, speaks from a place of redemptive love that is courageous, compassionate and relational to the core. They are committed to the creative tension that demands truth-telling and action.
Ultimately, white redemption is about belonging: to God, Each Other and Earth in a mutuality of mercy. As Clare Grady proclaimed in court last week, “It is that deep love that brought me to Kings Bay.” This deep love recruits us all to bring hammers, crime scene tape and our own blood into every space subsidized by exploitation and extraction. The symbolism is the start of the dismantling. For the good of the world. And our own souls.
Tommy Airey was born and raised on stolen, unceded Acjachemen territory (“Orange County, California”), was transformed by the thin place the Ojibwe, Huron and Odawa call Wawiiatanong (“Detroit River”) and has entered the sacred “hidden waters” the Molalla and Paiute named Towarnehiooks (“Deschutes River, Oregon”). He is the co-curator of RadicalDiscipleship.Net and author of Descending Like a Dove: Adventures in Decolonizing Evangelical Christianity (2018).