On the Fence: Is Civil Disobedience Breaking the Law or Living out God's Plan?

By Dempsey, Francine | U.S. Catholic, January 2016 | Go to article overview

On the Fence: Is Civil Disobedience Breaking the Law or Living out God's Plan?


Dempsey, Francine, U.S. Catholic


When I landed on the muddy ground inside Seneca Army Depot early one October morning in 1983, I heard a friend call from outside, "Did you practice that, Fran?" His voice was filled with irony; he knew well how unused I was to climbing over 10-foot barbed wire fences and landing in the mud in order to face searching, handcuffing, and who knew what.

Before that leap, I had confined my peacemaking efforts to praying, lobbying, lecturing, writing, and marching, while turning down many opportunities for nonviolent civil disobedience with a firm, "Not me."

I learned well to obey authorities and the law. As a child I did what I was told, drawing smiles from my parents and teachers; as an adult, I never run yellow lights, let alone red ones. There are no marks on my license for speeding. In religious life I've kept my vow of obedience faithfully.

But could I, would I, participate in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience to protest the government's nuclear policy? And be arrested and locked up? I didn't think so.

Nonetheless, to keep in step with my friends in the Syracuse Peace community, in the 1980s I joined a meeting of organizers planning an act of civil disobedience against the nuclear arms buildup at the Seneca Army Depot near Romulus, New York. Nervous and uncertain, I joined the "Spiritual Affinity" group, in which I prayed and discerned participating in the Seneca action. The group was made up of priests, nuns, laypeople--nine in all, ranging in age from 30-something to 50-something.

My primary incentive for even considering civil disobedience was the basic teaching "Thou shalt not kill." Other groups had different motives: the environment, children, the economy. One group came because they'd been participating in acts of civil disobedience over the long haul of the civil rights, Vietnam, and nuclear eras. Young pacifists from Cornell University, Syracuse University, and other New York campuses joined to try out their activist wings.

For two months my "Spiritual Affinity" group met, praying together, baring our fears and ideals, and finally deciding, one by one, whether to participate. As I thought would happen, everyone else was in. Then, I said I was in. Sort of.

On the night before the action, affinity groups gathered in a large deserted barn. I looked around at the young and old, long-haired and long-bearded, crew cut and bald, permed and ponytailed. Some wore jeans, some wore flower-print dresses. There were hiking boots and running shoes, both brand new and ragged. I liked being among them in my simple sweatshirt, warm slacks, and aging sneakers.

Together we vowed obedience to ground rules: Absolutely no violence in word or action and complete cooperation with the arresting personnel (who had been forewarned of our plans). Business done, we joined hands and sang familiar songs of peace. I felt a sense of oneness that went beyond the barn, beyond us, to everyone, everywhere.

Our plan was to form a human blockade at the busiest employee entrances to the Seneca Depot. Then, when ordered to move, some would stay put and be arrested. But not me--I planned to leave and find two sisters waiting in a car nearby. But the military officials wisely moved the morning's traffic through gates not ordinarily used. …

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