What better way to spend Palm Sunday than getting arrested with Martin Sheen in a Nevada desert to protest against U.S. nuclear weapons, the U.S. presence in Iraq, and countless other purported outrages?
Activist Franciscan friars, with their appreciation of ancient ritual, apparently began the tradition of protesting outside the Nevada Nuclear Test Site in the early 1980s. The “Nevada Desert Experience,” whose supporters include Moveon.org, has since become interfaith and quite colorful. This year, protesters stuck around until Monday morning to offer donuts and free massages on rainbow towels to the U.S. Energy Department workers as they commuted to work. Some of the civil servants appear to have accepted the massage hospitality, though none seem to have been persuaded to abandon their work.
“In the shadow of the nuclear devastation at the Test Site and the bombings of the Nellis Air Force range an awesome interfaith group came together for a nonviolent experience in enjoying the desert, sharing our traditions, and working for peace,” gushed one activist in a news release. The day had begun with a sunrise ceremony led by a spiritual elder of the Shoshone tribe, with a Franciscan friar providing a further blessing later in the day.
Also participating in the festivities, which included a week long “Sacred Peace Walk” to the site, were a Zen priest of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, a “priestess” of the Temple of Goddess Spirituality Dedicated to Sekhmet, a representative of the Thich Nhat Hanh Order of Interbeing, a Benedictine priest, and a United Methodist Church official. A Muslim leader led a “countering oppressions workshop,” and a Muslim cleric taught Muslim Prayers toward Mecca. Martin Sheen, carrying his own gravitas as the actor who portrayed President Josiah Bartlett on the The West Wing, said his own Catholic prayer.
A news release made clear that the Sacred Peace Walk commemorated not only Palm Sunday but also the birthdays of Mohammad and Buddha, the early celebration of Passover, April Fools Day, and the full moon. It was truly inclusive. And the activists from various religious traditions were unified in their distress over the U.S. Department of Energy’s “Complex 2030” plan to overhaul the U.S. nuclear arsenal.
“As President Bush twists the arms of Iran and North Korea to halt developing their own nuclear weapons against an undefined future threat, it is the height of hypocrisy for the U.S. to go forward with so-called reliable replacement warheads and unacceptable as a policy to go forward with the construction of the Consolidated Plutonium Center,” declared the Rev. Neal Christie of the Washington-based United Methodist Board of Church and Society.
That the U.S. nuclear arsenal is the main threat to world peace was reiterated on the “Nevada Desert Experience” website, which asserted: “At this time when the threat of nuclearism is resurgent, we recognize that we are all ONE in our oppression under such tyranny. Through our action of faithful witness, let us dispel the myth that nuclearism brings sustainable peace to our world.”
The protesters’ website also made clear that “[w]e desire to curb the threat of any future war with Iran, and to raise awareness of U.S. nuclear hypocrisy as represented by the existence of the Nevada Test Site and other nuclear facilities in this country.”
According to United Methodist News Service, Christie reported that a coalition of 74 national Jewish, Orthodox, Protestant and Catholic organizations have recently filed a formal “Religious Statement Opposing Complex 2030.”
“Vast sums have already been wasted on a war of deception in Iraq, leading to the slaughter of tens, and perhaps hundreds of thousands of Iraqis,” Christie complained. “We cannot afford to let Congress turn its attention away from the reduction of existing stockpiles which can still unleash 50,000 times the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.”
The Nevada Desert Experience traces its roots to the activism of Sister Rosemary Lynch, who belongs to a Franciscan community in Las Vegas. She began solitary vigils at the Nevada Test Site as far back as 1977. She “would sit, for hours, contemplating the reality around her, pray, and engage curious stoppers-by,” eventually being joined in later years by other Franciscans, Quakers, Japanese visitors, and local tribal people. Lynch, still adamant about the anti-nuclear cause, invited fellow protesters to celebrate her 90th birthday at the protest site on Palm Sunday.
There is certainly something admirable about a 90-year-old nun still pilgrimaging to the desert on behalf of her cause. Of course, most Christians identify Palm Sunday as commemorating their Lord’s triumphant entrance into Israel’s capital, which would culminate in His crucifixion. But the Nevada Desert Experience, although largely guided by Franciscans, seems to prioritize the struggle against U.S. nuclear weapons over any specific remembrance of events in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.
Mark Tooley directs the United Methodist committee at the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C.