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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

An Interview with Martha Hennessy

Updated: Jun 3, 2021

by Dr. Eugene Fisher Profiles in Catholicism

Dr Fisher: Your article Jubilee Kings Bay Plowshares 7 was very inspirational. Is there anything you would like to add to it?

Martha: Thank you. Five of the seven of the Kings Bay Plowshares defendants live in Catholic Worker communities around the country. We also come out of the Atlantic Life Community retreats, founded by Phil Berrigan and we have come to know each other very well over the years. Four of the seven KBP7 traveled to Cuba in August 2005, during the embargo and Guantanamo Bay prisoner’s hunger strike. Then President George Bush invited those who had questions about the prison camp to visit and this group did. When they arrived they were not allowed onto the base. They marched from Santiago de Cuba to Guantanamo, the Cuban government allowed this after the groups’ interactions and visits with state officials. At the time very little coverage was given in the US about this trip. A participant, Steve Kelly said Mass, perhaps being the only priest since John Paul II to give open-air Mass in Cuba. The government allowed Steve to say Mass every day while they camped for a week across the bay from Gitmo. They prayed for the prisoners being tortured and detained without legal recourse. Forty-one prisoners remain there today despite clearance given to release many of them.

All 7 Kings Bay Plowshares defendants are very familiar with Dorothy Day and her promulgation of Catholic Social Teachings. She helps us to bring faith into seeing the issues of the day and to read the signs of the times within the context of the daily Catholic readings.

We are also reminded of the USCCB recent statements regarding the importance of acting in ways to bring Christ’s full penetration into our history. Dorothy refused to support the Spanish Catholic fascists in the 1930s; she recognized the appearance of fascism in her time. Her previous political and social exposure and engagements in the 1920s helped to give her the needed background to understand current events. She took a pacifist stand in World War II, against the Church’s stance and was marginalized for it. For her, Jesus’ pacifism became very clear in the political climate of communism, socialism, and fascist movements while in the midst of the great conflict of war. The times produced hysteria with the coming of materialistic politics, the push to consolidate capital for a few. The atomic bombing of two Japanese cities provoked this writing from Dorothy in September 1945:

“Mr., Truman was jubilant. President Truman. True man; what a strange name, come to think of it. We refer to Jesus Christ as true God and true Man. Truman is a true man of his time in that he was jubilant. He was not a son of God, brother of Christ, brother of the Japanese, jubilating as he did. He went from table to table on the cruiser which was bringing him home from the Big Three conference, telling the great news; “jubilant” the newspapers said. Jubilate Deo. We have killed 318,000 Japanese.

That is, we hope we have killed them, the Associated Press, on page one, column one of the Herald Tribune, says. The effect is hoped for, not known. It is to be hoped they are vaporized, our Japanese brothers – scattered, men, women, and babies, to the four winds, over the seven seas. Perhaps we will breathe their dust into our nostrils, feel them in the fog of New York on our faces, feel them in the rain on the hills of Easton.

Jubilate Deo. President Truman was jubilant. We have created. We have created destruction. We have created a new element, called Pluto. Nature had nothing to do with it.”

From 1955 to 1961 Dorothy participated in the New York air raid drill protests, refusing to take cover and consequently serving jail time. She considered the Cold War and the air raid drills in preparation for nuclear war with Russia to be psychological warfare on the people.

Dr Fisher: Why did Bishop Joseph R. Kopacz testify at the trial of you and your colleagues?

Martha: Talking with Bishop Kopacz himself could help you to answer this question more thoroughly. He is in Jackson, Mississippi.

We think he is encouraged to speak out by Pope Francis’ recent statement on the condemnation of the manufacturing, possession, and threatened use of the nuclear arsenal as immoral. In his testimony, he references the Vatican conference where the Pope issued this statement.

Testimony quote by examinator: “I'm going to ask you a series of questions about your conclusions about whether their (Kings Bay Plowshares) beliefs and actions are consistent with the Catholic faith. And are you prepared to say whether the defendants' position that nuclear weapons are immoral is consistent with Catholic faith or not?”

Bishop Kopacz: “Yes, I am. And it is -- just recently, Pope Francis, being not only the spiritual leader of the Catholic Church but the head of state…. in Vatican City, can host conferences. Last year, he did on nuclear disarmament and spoke to that….. just the threat of using these weapons and the possession of them need to be condemned.”

There is a history with the Vatican, and all Popes since the dawn of the nuclear era, in speaking against the development and use of the atomic bomb. Pius XII gave an early warning in 1943. He then witnessed in 1945 the destruction of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Bishop Kopacz is willing to follow in the tradition of the Church and some US bishops, like Raymond Hunthausen in the 1980s, to take a stand against the Bomb as a necessity of being Christian. Nuclear weapons are a threat to all of God’s creation, and a blasphemy against God Himself.

Dr Fisher: Who were some of your mentors who inspired your activism? What was/is their influence on you? On others of your group?

Martha: Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr. Berrigan brothers Phillip and Daniel, David McReynolds and Ralph deGia (members of the War Resisters League), Daniel Ellsberg, Ramsey Clark, Eleanor Roosevelt, Helen Caldicott, 1st Nations Peoples, William Sloane Coffin, John Hershey, Seymour Melman, and Seymour Hersh. These religious leaders, professors, scientists, journalists, citizens, priests, and former attorney general all have dedicated their lives to peacemaking in the 20th century and today.

Dr Fisher: What were the earliest memories of your grandmother as an activist?

Martha: As a 14-year old I was in New York City for the Viet Nam War protests in the summer of 1969. We were present at some of the Pax Christi conferences held at the Tivoli New York Catholic Worker Farm. My oldest brother was sent to Viet Nam as a 20-year-old soldier. From a young age, I understood clearly Dorothy’s commitment to social justice and peace, but it became real with the drafting of my brother into the army. Early on in my life, I became aware of the linking of war and poverty, that the military spending was a theft from resources necessary for the support of the country.

Francis Boyle, an international law professor at the University of Illinois has just assessed the doomsday clock to be 1 minute to midnight. This is based on the news of the United States pulling out of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty, placing the world in danger of a new nuclear arms race. Thus the need grows for people of faith to raise their voices about this first nuclear strike intention on the part of the US. God help us!

Dr Fisher: Please share with our readers some history of the Catholic Worker Movement.

Martha: The Catholic Worker was born in 1933 during the duress of the Great Depression. Masses of displaced and unemployed workers were on the streets of New York, and co-founders Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin translated the Sermon on the Mount and Catholic Social Teachings into a call to respond to the immediate needs of the people suffering around them. Dorothy was a journalist and the first issue of the Catholic Worker paper came out May 1st, 1933 as a means to discuss the issues of the working poor and to give comfort to those left behind in the capitalist system. It was to bring the Good News of the Gospel as reflected in the Church’s social teachings. Houses of hospitality sprung up around the country to provide for the desperate needs of the poor and homeless, not in the model of cold charity from state agencies but as Christians willing to give at personal sacrifice to help others. The paper quoted the Popes and provided reprints of encyclicals that spoke to the social and economic needs of the day. The lives of the Saints were held up as good examples in our daily work. Little known and overlooked histories of Catholic resistance and witnesses against oppression were written about in the CW paper. The White Rose Society, Alfred Delp, Franz Jagastater, Edith Stein, were martyrs recognized in their times. So today, the spiritual ramifications of Dorothy’s pacifist stance in World War II must be further studied. Her early recognition of the horrific situation of Christians slaughtering Christians in Britain, France, Germany, Russia, Poland, and Italy deeply informed her commitment to the pacifism of Christ.

Dorothy also followed the events of the Cuban revolution, and the efforts to create a form of government that cared for its citizens in such ways as to increase literacy rates and decrease infant mortality rates. She traveled to Cuba shortly after the revolution, yet she lamented the oppression of religious practice and the imprisonment of priests.

The Catholic Worker, along with the War Resisters League raised the first calls for resistance to the Viet Nam War in 1963. The CW paper covered the first public burning of draft cards. They were also in the forefront of pointing out that US business interests such as United Fruit under the Dulles brothers operating in Guatemala, with the support of the CIA was starving and oppressing the peasants, taking the land, and undermining democracy, all in the name of fighting communism. The long-term effects of these policies are seen today with the refugee crisis coming out of Central America.

We also see decades later the lack of separation of the three powers of the government and the corporate take over of both domestic and foreign policy. Now in the so-called rationalities of our secular, materialistic, and technological culture, there is no accountability for war crimes and torture, no need to listen to one another, no desire to know basic truths.

In our persistence of activism, the Kings Bay Plowshares are labeled in the courtroom as having “extensive criminal histories” in reference to our nonviolent protests over the course of our adult lives. In the age of the “war on terror” our faith-based, direct resistance to the US nuclear arsenal, the use of drones to kill from a long distance, and the state use of torture becomes synonymous with acts of terrorism.

But we must remember; more good is happening than we can hope for or imagine, all the time. Christ is with us always.

Dr. Fisher: Many of us were praying that you would be released from prison as soon as possible. What does it feel like being released?

Martha: I am a Catholic prisoner of conscience. My current community is a halfway house in Manchester New Hampshire . I served five months at Danbury Connecticut women's prison camp. My crime is protesting nuclear weapons. Seven codefendants took serious the teachings of Catholic social teachings and the words of Pope Francis.

The amount of public money and resources going into the pockets of the weapons industry rather than for education, healthcare, and housing is a sin and crime against humanity. Many of the women I live with in prison are dealing with issues of addiction and poverty. I spend my time sharing with them reading, writing, praying and self-care. We shared a Lectio group and daily rosary. Many of the women are fallen away Catholics.

The Bureau of Prisons disregards legal, health, and family needs without accountability. Inmates are considered untrustworthy and are held responsible for anything that may go wrong while in custody. Despite the hardships and widespread injustice the spirits of the women are impressive and a source of hope. I found the presence of God to be very intense in the prison setting. Insights that came to me through this suffering helped to connect the dots of war, profit motive, and white supremacy. State Policies for both domestic and foreign policy decisions are intertwined.

The United States, in its violation of international human rights impacts the world's people every day Every day the prisoners express homesickness, needing to be with their families, and stories of the justice system handing down unfair and cruel judgments. The daily Scripture readings help me to live with the death-dealing system and to hold onto God's living love and the joy of creation.


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