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.