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Sister Megan is led away by security at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico in 2010. The protest was named “Thinking Outside The Bomb.”Jim Haber / Nevada Desert Experience
In 4th grade, rascally Catholic boys are at their most combative. This is my recollection, at least, 20 years after the fact. I remember the class troublemaker in his white polo shirt, with his cowlick, and the black-cloaked Felician sister whose brisk waddle resembled a metronome set to allegretto. Their battle seemed both biblical and comical, and it was a touchstone of this formative year between childhood and adolescence. I remember learning how to say a full rosary that year, and I remember Sister I picking up the troublemaker’s desk, tilting it and shaking its contents on him. If he wouldn’t listen to stern commands, perhaps he would be cowed by embarrassment and intimidation. While choking back laughter with the rest of the class, I remember feeling a mix of fear and respect. “Don’t let the habit or the orthopedic shoes fool you,” Sister I seemed to be saying. “I will set you straight.”
Nuns taught me for eight years of grade school. They taught me to read. They taught me long division. They sent me down to the principal’s office. They inoculated me with that patented sense of guilt that flares up even now, 12 years since my last confession, whenever I feel myself deviating from the path of the righteous (or at least the path of clean language). When I found myself at a lunch interview last October with a nun of the Holy Child Jesus, I tried to summon my grade-school memories the sisterly logic, the rigid doctrine, the battle-ax nurturing to properly inform my questions and comments.
Sister Megan Rice had broken into a nuclear weapons production facility that summer to protest the United States’s devotion to maintaining a stockpile capable of mass destruction. This action was ever so slightly heavier than dropping textbooks on a 9-year-old.
Over the next six months of reporting and writing her story, I spent a great deal of time with Sister Megan and her fellow activists. Many were Catholic. Some were not. All shared an intractable belief that the existence and possession of nuclear weaponry was immoral. Some of these activists stake their lives on this belief by trespassing onto weapons facilities, breaking the law, endangering their bodies and going to jail without any promise of reward. As I became familiar with this group of activists, I grew to believe that their actions demonstrated pure faith in others, whereas maintaining a stockpile of nuclear weapons demonstrates a complete lack of faith in others. By broadening this thought to society as a whole, though, we raise tough questions: Is pure faith in fellow man only reasonable if everyone espouses it? On a planet of many cultures, religions, philosophies and values systems, isn’t skepticism or doubt the most judicious policy of interaction? Man, while essentially good, is practically bad, right?
I don’t have answers to those questions. I wonder if Sister I would. Fourth graders are essentially good and practically bad, and they need straightening out. Until this story, nuns for me had always been about obedience, recitation, silent prayer and good works done in the shadows. The Felicians who taught me in grade school were paragons of piety and enforcers of the law. Sister Megan, whose own religious order does not endorse her actions, believes ultimate obedience involves shorter-term disobedience. Hers is a social-teaching ethos, a small-“c” catholic mentality.
Teaching. That’s what nuns do. So during the course of my reporting, I started thinking, “What would Sister I the Enforcer think of Sister M the Rebel? And vice versa?”
Again, no answers. But I think both sisters despite the differences in their approaches — are in the same business. They want to set us straight, either by startling us or inspiring us. Sit up. Stop talking. Behave. Do your homework. Don’t be lazy. Ask questions. Learn. Value life. Do what’s right.
What are you doing that you shouldn’t?
What should you be doing that you aren’t?
Dan Zak is a feature writer for The Washington Post.