Protest, Performance, and Religious Identity in the Nuclear Age

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Kristen Tobey
  • University Park, PA: 
    Penn State University Press
    , August
     184 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Nonviolence has taken on a variety of forms in recent American religious history, ranging from Anabaptist separation from the state to Abbie Hoffman’s attempts to levitate the Pentagon. This book is a useful contribution to the scholarship on pacifism and peace work, and examines Plowshares, a unique Roman Catholic anti-nuclear group that started its activism in 1980. Plowshares activists staged “actions” which involved trespassing onto the land of the military or government contractors and symbolically disarming nuclear weapons systems—missile silo doors or nuclear bombers—by hitting them with household hammers or pouring their own blood onto them. Plowshares activists saw the subsequent courtroom battles and frequently lengthy prison sentences that resulted from these actions as a key part of their activism.  

The central concern of author Kristen Tobey’s book is to explore how Plowshares activists engage in “boundary work,” using the performative quality of their disarmament actions and legal struggles to constitute their own religious identities vis-à-vis other groups. She wants to understand how their willingness to undergo imprisonment leads them to “distinguish themselves from a sinful world and a lackadaisical church” (17). While Tobey states that her primary goal is to “use the frame of boundary work to tell [the Plowshares] story from a new perspective,” she is also expressing grander ambitions to use Plowshares as a case study to demonstrate “the importance of boundary work to religious worlds” (18), suggesting that the study has wider implications beyond one activist group.

The first chapter of Plowshares provides an overview of the movement’s history and traces its origins to the activism of Daniel and Phillip Berrigan during the Vietnam War. Tobey also points out how the group’s commitments to engaging in symbolic disarmament, and the willingness of Plowshares activists to go to prison, make it distinctive from other parts of the anti-nuclear movement, and from the rest of the Catholic left. This material is a needed background for the rest of Tobey’s study, but is not intended to provide a compressive overview of the group’s actions.

Two subsequent chapters address the theology and symbolism of Plowshares’ actions, trying to uncover how the activists present their actions to themselves and outsiders. For example, the hammers that activists use to pound on weapons systems to symbolically disarm them are examples of straightforward Biblical symbolism: the image in the book of Isaiah of beating swords into plowshares. Yet the activists’ interpretation of what constituted a hammer varied. Tobey recounts one case in which an activist took a nearby security van and rammed it repeatedly into the side of a nuclear submarine in an improvised “hammering.” These chapters also devote considerable attention to the statements that activists produce, which aim to explain their behavior to the rest of the world.

The final two chapters examine how Plowshares activists make moral and ethical arguments when they are put on trial. The courtroom becomes another arena in which Plowshares performs its religious identity. Activists typically argue that their efforts at disarmament are justified based on a divine, higher law or on their understanding of international law. Judges and prosecutors frequently try to exclude these arguments, portraying Plowshares’ appeals to God and religion as a distraction. The activists’ goals, however, are not legal victories or the avoidance of punishment, but platforms from which to express their convictions.

Because most of this book focuses on how Plowshares distinguishes itself from other groups, similarities between Plowshares and other peace groups are less clear. Though Tobey notes the close kinship between the activism of Plowshares and that of the Catholic Worker movement, references to non-Catholic influences are often underdeveloped. For example, Tobey remarks in passing that Plowshares activists listed Gandhi as a key influence, and one of the Plowshares nuns on trial made references to Satyagraha as “love force” and “soul force” (73, 167). Similarly, Joseph Kip Kosek discusses in his book Acts of Conscience (Columbia University Press, 2008), that this kind of identification with Gandhi was shared by many Christian pacifists, including Protestants. Tobey is persuasive in portraying Catholicism as the core of Plowshares religious identity, but that should not preclude discussing other inspirations.

Ultimately, Plowshares is successful in its efforts to make the motives and conduct of these activists comprehensible to readers. It also shows the value of the disciplinary toolset of religious studies for doing this type of case study. Tobey skillfully draws from work on ritual by Catherine Bell and Bruce Lincoln as well as Robert Orsi’s writings about American Catholicism, and she uses Courtney Bender’s thoughts on transgressing official standards of behavior to address the efforts of Plowshares. Scholars of American religion, peace studies, and political activism will find this book beneficial to their work.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Isaac Barnes May is a Ph.D. candidate in the department of religious studies at the University of Virginia.

Date of Review: 
February 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kristen Tobey is currently Visiting Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at John Carroll University.


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