New life for Catholic peace activists

Last weekend, as the world was guessing whether North Korea might make good on its promise to test a nuclear weapon, it was peace activists who were being closely monitored in Australia.

Meanwhile, five peace activists inspired by the Catholic Worker movement were arrested during a demonstration at the gates of Pine Gap military base near Alice Springs.

On Sunday morning, Pine Gap staff and security arrived to witness the celebration of Mass outside the gates. Before the arrests took place, 35 Christian peace activists sat in a circle on the road and weaved wool around themselves, creating a web that including a police vehicle and two warning signs, totally blocking any access to the base.

Arrestee Sam Land, a 22-year-old Catholic Worker pacifist from New Zealand, said: “My conscience will no longer let me stand aside and let Pine Gap continue to play a significant role in this war.”

The action coincides with the first stage of the trial of four Christian peace activists who broke into Pine Gap last year and now face seven years in prison. The gathering was addressed by Irish-Australian activist, Ciaron O’Reilly who was one of the activists recently acquitted of disabling a US military plan at Shannon Airport, causing $2.5 million damage.

After four and a half hours of deliberation, members of the Dublin jury returned and announced their decision that all the accused should be acquitted as they honestly believed they were acting to save lives and property in Iraq and Ireland, and that their disarmament action was reasonable, taking into consideration all the circumstances.

Following the end of the Cold War, the campaign for nuclear disarmament lost momentum. It is only in the current decade that the election of the Bush Regime, and the nuclear resolves of leaders of the so-called rogue nations such as Iran and North Korea, have given renewed purpose to the disarmament movement.

It had seemed to optimistic Catholics, and also to those inspired by right-wing politics, that Pax Christi and other peace organisations within the Church had had their day. But that is clearly not the case.

A 7 September statement from Pax Christi’s Brussels headquarters reaffirmed its position that it is immoral for states and non-state actors, including terrorists, to use, threaten with or possess nuclear weapons. Moreover it was stressed that a ‘double standard’ between nuclear ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’ is not acceptable.

The Catholic Church in Australia can be proud that it has produced activists such as Ciaron O’Reilly and Donna Mulhearn, who is best known for her role as a human shield in the early days of the war in Iraq. But Australian Catholics can also own a sense of shame due to its diminished efforts to lobby the Federal Government and major political parties to enact policies that promote world peace.

Ciaron O’Reilly suggested to Andrew Denton on Enough Rope in June that it could have something to do with our collective loss of faith in God: “I do think it's a spiritual question about why people aren't responding to the war or the ecological catastrophe we're on the verge of, or the very strong possibility that nuclear weapons will be used in the next few months on Iran. Most people know it's wrong and most people know it's disgusting, but there's an incredible sense of resignation in the culture and an atomisation.”

The Australian Church might examine its conscience and ask itself if there’s really a place at World Youth Day for 22-year-old arrestee Sam Land and the next generation of Catholic peace activists.

editor’s note:   In John Dear SJ’s On the Road to Peace [National Catholic Reporter, posted October 3]  he writes that in the previous week there were 375 actions against the Bush Administration’s war on Iraq.

“…More than 250 people were arrested in acts of civil disobedience from the White House to the Los Angeles Federal Building. You won't read about it in The New York Times … but it happened, and it's a great sign of hope.

“Our own action was modest, but beautiful. For the first time in 35 years, according to local police, Santa Fe witnessed civil disobedience…”

As part of that civil disobedience, they read out the names of all the US soldiers killed in Iraq in the last few years and the names of 10,000 innocent Iraqi civilians, alternating between the two lists.

“Among us the litany of the dead hit home. It was sobering. Some began to weep. All of us bowed our heads in silent prayer as the names poured forth -- the precious names of the squandered and brutalized from an immoral, illegal and unnecessary war. Here was a lamentation, a prayer of intercession, a cold hard look at the consequences of our pursuit of Iraqs oil. The reading went on for six hours…”

“A small gesture, to be sure (but)… history shows that when good people cross the line and break the law and take a risk for justice and peace, positive social change happens.

“In other words, when we enter the Paschal Mystery, when we risk the cross as nonviolent resistance to systemic, institutional injustice, a breakthrough occurs… We must keep on walking the road to peace.”     (full text)



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