In summer 2012, in the middle of the night, an 82-year-old Roman Catholic sister hiked over a wooded ridge in east Tennessee and, with two fellow peace activists, intruded into a government facility nicknamed the Fort Knox of Uranium.
They evaded patrols, cut through sensor fences, entered a shoot-to-kill zone and, with relative ease, reached their target: a looming white building that contained a stockpile of material for nuclear weapons.
On its exterior wall, the trio splashed human blood, as a symbol of the cost of war, and spraypainted biblical messages such as “the fruit of justice is peace”.
Sister Megan Rice, who has died aged 91, and her compatriots, Michael Walli and Greg Boertje-Obed, declared this an act of protest and love in the service of a higher law, but the incident prompted a two-week shutdown of the facility, and they were charged and convicted of intending to endanger the national defence. They spent about two years in prison, won release and vindication on appeal in 2015, and helped inspire other activists and works of journalistic non-fiction.
“Has any empire or aspiring superpower not declined, not fallen apart from exceptionalism into decadence?” Sister Rice, dressed in a beige inmate jumpsuit, said in a courtroom in February 2014. “So we had to come to this facility to call it to transformation.”
That facility, the Y-12 national security complex in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, would not be transformed. It would instead proceed with the construction of a new uranium processing facility projected to cost more than $6bn.
But calling attention to the funding, possession and refurbishment of nuclear weapons – the US is currently spending more than $1 trillion (£728bn) to modernise its nuclear forces – was the capstone of Sister Rice’s lifelong commitments to education and anti-nuclearism, which took her from rural classrooms in Nigeria to desert peace marches in Nevada.
Megan Gillespie Rice – her first name was pronounced “Mee-gan” – was born in New York City on 31 January 1930. She was raised in Morningside Heights, near Columbia University, in a liberal Catholic environment attuned to poverty and human rights. Her parents, an obstetrician and a historian, were friends and followers of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker movement, which opposed the drumbeat of war even after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.
As a child, Sister Rice was shaped by the examples of her mother, who wrote a dissertation on the Catholic Church’s timid position on slavery in the 19th century, and her teachers in the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, an order of sisters whose mantra was “actions not words”.
Sister Rice absorbed the social justice sermons of her neighbourhood pastor, civil rights champion George Barry Ford, and the horror stories of her uncle’s deployment to Nagasaki in the aftermath of the nuclear bombing of Japan in 1945.
Sister Rice with Louis Vitale and Jim Haber protest US policy on torture at Ft. Huachuca, Arizona
By the end of high school, she was ready to commit her life to the Society of the Holy Child Jesus and follow in her teachers’ footsteps to Africa. After studying biology at Boston College and Villanova University, Sister Rice, who had taken the name Sister Frederick Mary, moved to southern Nigeria, where she helped build her own biology lab. She spent the next 40 years teaching in Africa.
In 2003, she decamped to Las Vegas to commit herself full time to anti-nuclear activism with the Nevada Desert Experience, an interfaith collective. In 2009, when a group of activists broke into a nuclear weapons site in Washington state, Sister Rice took notice and attended their trial in Tacoma.
“Our intent was to keep the law,” testified defendant Anne Montgomery, herself an octogenarian Catholic sister. “To protect our lives as human beings and the lives of others.” Sister Rice was tantalised by this latest Plowshares action, an intrepid and dangerous form of activism that is designed to symbolically begin the work of transforming “swords into plowshares”, according to the Book of Isaiah.
Sister Rice’s slight frame and placid persona belied the physical undertaking of her intrusion at Y-12 and the magnitude of its repercussions. The break-in triggered congressional hearings, upended a government contract worth billions of dollars and prompted internal investigations by the Energy Department’s national nuclear security administration.
“We want to thank you for pointing out some of the problems in our security,” representative Joe Barton said to Sister Rice during a hearing in 2012. “Mr Chairman, that young lady there brought a Holy Bible. If she had been a terrorist, the Lord only knows what could have happened.”
Sister Rice viewed the break-in as an act of civil resistance against war, nuclear weapons and the resources expended on both. Government officials viewed it as a stunt and a crime, reckless and futile, though even the judge in her trial conveyed respect for her.
“Not only am I confident that you will live long past any sentence I give you, but I am sure that you will continue to use that brilliant mind you have,” Judge Amul Thapar told her in 2014 while sentencing her to two years and 11 months in prison. “I only hope you'll use it to effectuate change in Washington rather than crimes in Tennessee.”
Sister Rice’s conviction was overturned in May 2015 by an appeals court, which viewed her crime as a protest, not as sabotage. She continued her activism through vigils, marches, prayers and visits to classrooms.
“I don't feel like I’m free,” she told a group of activists in Oak Ridge on the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. “I’m not out of prison. None of us is out of prison as long as one nuclear bomb exists.”
Megan Rice, nun and activist, born 31 January 1930, died 10 October 2021
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