Radical obedience

     The following is an article which I wrote for my local newspaper. I thought some might appreciate seeing it, perhaps to learn of a part of my past and perhaps to see how I attempt to talk about my faith in a public arena. Did the part about following Jesus seem natural? Did my description of modern idols make sense? Does admitting to struggles (inner rage, despair, grief) hurt one's "testimony"? Have you or your students ever written a reflection piece or editorial for the paper? Why not give it a try.

     My wife and I greatly appreciated the articles which The Record has run about the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island 20 years ago. I wondered if I should write down some of my recollections; my memories of that remarkable era are still vivid and, judging from my racing heart as I begin to recall and write, I need to do this. Frankly, some of my memories are, as they are for many, quite painful. My emotions throughout the accident were particularly intense because, before the accident, my wife and I were working in Pittsburgh, the self-proclaimed "nuclear capitol of the world" (due to the large number of nuclear-related industries headquartered there at the time), helping to organize the anti-nuclear movement. We would preach in churches about the biblical mandate to care for the creation, educate civic groups about the dangers of nuclear power (and the link to the terrifying nuclear weapons industry) and lead discussions on the possibilities of citizens group action, from lobbying to civil disobedience. We would sit for hours in malls and movie theaters (remember The China Syndrome?) passing out leaflets about the complexities of radiation, cooling rods and nuclear waste disposal. We met with Native people's advocates from the Black Hills, learning about the health hazards of uranium mining. We studied the writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., searching for ways to keep the growing protest movement nonviolent. And we participated in serious conferences with labor unions on the need for safe energy proposals. Like amateur sleuths, we nosed around the rural plant of Babcox & Wilcox researching missing bomb-grade plutonium and learned more than we cared to know about government classified information. We even networked with the pro-life community, explaining how low-level radiation from the plants effects the developing unborn. It was at times exhilarating (there is a certain hard romance to being righteous Davids against the corporate Goliath) but usually we were scared. We listened to Jackson Browne's moving After the Deluge and worried and prayed. Through it all we warned of particularly ill-made and/or ill-managed nuclear facilities. GPU's TMI was near the top of our list: nearly everyone who cared to learn the facts knew that it was only a matter of time. Even pro-nuclear groups admitted it was precarious. Still, we usually felt like Chicken Little. Or, perhaps like the ancient Hebrew prophet, Jeremiah. Few believed our anguished warnings, and the bureaucratic powers (governmental, regulatory, corporate, media) conspired to marginalize our voices.

     I will never forget the night I learned of the accident. A friend, a nuclear engineer with anti-nuke convictions, had gotten a call from an old friend of his, an insider at the Nuclear Regulatory Comission in Washington. He immediately called my wife and I, knowing that we had family living very near the plant. He told us that his friend at the NRC implied a cover-up of sorts: things were even much worse than they were letting on. "Tell your folks to get out immediately!" he urged. He then told us of a hydrogen bubble which was particularly ominous. No one in the public or media had yet been appraised of the bubble; to this day, most accounts of the drama imply that it "appeared" a day later. Frankly, the dishonesty of the NRC and the feebleness of the media didn't surprise us. Welcome to the Atomic Age of Misinformation. I will also never forget the response my dear relatives gave to our insistence that things looked very bad indeed. They were convinced that, "If things are really that bad, they'd surely tell us so." These were brave and intelligent people who (after the lies about the early days of the nuclear race and the Cold War, the lies about the war in Cambodia, the lies about Watergate) still were trusting of their elected officials. Good people, indeed, members of what Tom Brokaw has called "the greatest generation," they were lied to by government leaders younger and less noble than they.

     To this day, the thought saddens me. Which brings up yet another vivid memory. In the spring after the crisis, we helped promote the anti-nuclear rally in Harrisburg, and another in the nation's capitol. While brilliant scientists, compelling public figures and glamorous rock stars all spoke out, the eccentric author and World War veteran Kurt Vonnegut (not quite a Hebrew prophet) said this in his 15-second speech: "The men who run this industry lie. They are like monkeys. They stink. I hate them." I was stunned by his terse honesty. Jesus says we are to love our enemies. This, of course, implies we've got enemies. And it was obvious to me in those years that the powers of the nuclear age were our enemies. I had to work hard, still need to work hard, to follow Jesus rather than Vonnegut. But I did indeed view them as enemies of the human community, violators of justice, indeed of the Earth itself, and understood that their nuclear ideology was driven by a religious-like faith in science, technology, progress and materialism, which had become what the Bible calls idols. At times, my hatred for their modern lies and harm still rages within me. Sometimes, our culture's complicity with these dangerous gods still keeps me up at night, worrying and praying. A final vivid memory. I was discouraged, having moved to York County to discover a notable disinterest in fighting the nuclear goliath. Granted, the battle was tedious and arcane, with heroic, but complicated class action lawsuits and hearings. For some, the depths of the evil were too much to bear. (For instance, the bizarre case of the missing and doctored health statistics, sent from Pennsylvania to the Center for Disease Control in Atlanta, documenting the allegations of a rise in infant mortality after the accident was so surreal that it was hard to discuss it without seeming mad.) Few of us could sustain the deep caring that such a struggle demanded. The lies continued as public concern waned. Once, in a local grocery store, battling an inner rage about revelations that nuclear workers at the dangerous Peach Bottom Plant were caught sleeping on the job, I saw a Peach Bottom employee sporting a silly T-shirt mocking the incident. Over a cartoon drawing of a snoozing plant worker was the heading, "Catching some zzzz's at Peach Bottom." My rage gave way to grief and I stood in the supermarket and wept.