The Common Good

Holy Mischief: 40 Years after the Catonsville 9 and the 'Fracture of Good Order'

This past weekend marks the 40th anniversary of the historic action of the Catonsville 9. On May 17, 1968, nine men and women entered the Selective Service Offices in Catonsville, Maryland, removed several hundred draft records, and burned them with homemade napalm in protest against the war in Vietnam. The nine were arrested and, in a highly publicized trial, sentenced to jail. Listen to the words spoken by Father Daniel Berrigan on that day:

Our apologies, good friends, for the fracture of good order, the burning of paper instead of children, the angering of the orderlies in the front parlor of the charnel house. We could not, so help us God, do otherwise.

It is acts of courage like this that the prophets were known for. And jailed for. They are an invitation to interrupt injustice with grace. They are an invitation to live with prophetic imagination. These are the kind of prophets who don't just try to predict the future - they try to change it.

One of those contemporaries of the Catonsville action is here with us in Philadelphia -- Sister Margaret (we tell her story in our new book Jesus for President). Sister Margaret is one of our wisest -- and wildest -- elders. Some years back, she and some other Christians felt moved by the Spirit to enact some of the prophecies in the Bible. They drew their own blood, which they planned to pour on the war machines as a symbolic lament of the bloodshed they create. And they had a bag full of hammers and other tools with which to begin the conversion of the things of death into the things of life. Then they showed up for a tour of a navy ship. Sister Margaret was designated to carry the tools, since she was the older nun, the least suspicious. It's hysterical to hear her so innocently tell the story of how she just went through the strict security with metal detectors and bag checkers, praying and trusting God. As she went through the checkpoint, her bulky bag got stuck on the gate, and a guard came to her aid. He took the bag from her and lifted it through the security check, and then he helped Sister Margaret, who just thanked him over and over like an innocent granny. They went onto the boat and began climbing up the ladders, up to the top of the ship. There they poured their blood onto the side of a Tomahawk missile launcher. She said it looked like a giant star. Then they prayerfully began beating on the hollow metal of the launcher. The sound of each hit of the hammer seemed to echo across the entire creation. It was sacramental. It was as if time stopped. They continued to hammer together, thud after thud reverberating. Sailors began to surround them -- confused, paralyzed. Officers told the nuns to lay face down with their hands above them on the deck. And they gladly obeyed. It reminded Sister Margaret of the times the sisters would lie prostrate, face down, with outstretched hands in prayer before God. As they lay there, it began to rain, and Sister Margaret says it was like God was crying.

One thing that's clear in the scriptures is that the nations do not lead people to peace; rather, people lead the nations to peace. There's a beautiful text in both Micah and Isaiah where the prophets say that the people will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. And it ends by saying that nations will not rise up against other nations, and they will not study war anymore. Peace begins not with nations but with the people of God. It is people who humanize the nations, people who follow the Human One that Daniel spoke of rising from the beasts -- the Son of Man, the gospels proclaim. The end of war begins with people who believe that another world is possible and that another empire has already interrupted time and space and is taking over this earth with the dreams of God. Those dreams begin with people of faith and hope who are audacious enough to be certain of what they do not see. We believe so much that we cannot help but start enacting the prophecies. As our brother Jim Wallis says, "We believe despite the evidence, and we watch the evidence change."

What if we got our best scientists to figure out a plan for converting all our B-52s into tractors?

What if people began to prayerfully take household tools onto military bases and beat the war machines into farm tools?

It has been done. And it will be done again.

We are people who believe in conversion. We believe things can be transformed into new creations.

Shane Claiborne is the author of Jesus for President, a Red Letter Christian, and a founding partner of The Simple Way community, a radical faith community that lives among and serves the homeless in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia.

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