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May 2009

Ploughshares priest wields non-violence to challenge complacency

By Cory Miller

Soft-spoken in voice but strong in conviction, Father Peter Murnane is a long-time Catholic priest and fighter of injustice.

In 2008, alongside two fellow activists he sliced through the security fence of a satellite dish at the Waihopai spy base near Blenheim in a symbolic act of protest. They were arrested and spent four days in jail.

"Challenging injustice and the social order is not the average ministerial role, and can be met by disapproval by peers and those in the church," says Peter.

Following his actions in Waihopai, he has had many discussions with colleagues as to what the role of a priest is and what it should be.

"I believe this is what Jesus would be doing today," he says. "It is the call of the Gospel to be concerned and to speak out against injustice. The Gospel commands us to feed the poor, fight injustice, and live lives of non-violence. Every person is linked with Christ, so to harm one, damages Christ."

It was this vision that led him to partake in the symbolic action at the US-controlled spy base in Waihopai. Together with Samuel Land and Adrian Leason, he broke through

Dominican friar Father Peter Murnane attacked the Waihopai satellite base to protest the US-led war on terror.
security fences and slashed the protective dome with a sickle. They then set up a shrine with images of Jesus and Bishop Oscar Romero and proceeded to pray for the victims of the Iraq war. They awaited capture for 30 minutes.

"The security response was pretty poor," says Peter. "It took half an hour for security to arrive on the scene."

Their actions were done in the name of Ploughshares, leading the police to fear they were part of a world-wide conspiracy. Ploughshares is, however, not a conspiracy but a tradition, dating back 30 years. Its actions invoke Isaiah 2:4: "They shall beat their swords into ploughsares, their spears into pruning hooks, nation shall not lift sword against nation; and there shall be no more training for war."

Traditionally Ploughshares activists protest through non-violent action. Any damage is to military property alone and aimed at preventing military action.

"We chose Waihopai because we were responding to the Bush Administration’s admission that intelligence gathering is the most important tool in the so-called war on terror. This war will have no end until citizens of the world refuse to let it continue. The Echelon spy network, which includes Waihopai, is an important part of the US government’s global spy network, and we went in the name of the Prince of Peace to close it down."

Peter justifies the actions at Waihopai as a means to prevent a worse crime against humanity. He believes that through their symbolic action the Ploughshares activists were able to awaken the country and provoke people to think about the symbolism of such actions whether they agreed with them or not.

"Silence is equivalent to inaction; it is a necessity to disturb society to fight injustice. This is what Jesus did when he challenged the temple and the Roman Empire," he says.

Father Peter was not yet 20 years of age when he joined the Dominican order. He became a priest as he thought "I only have one life, God is important to me, and I need him as a constant presence in my life".

A Dominican friar for more than years, Peter feels his initial commitment has deepened as he has grown in his faith journey to become more radical. He has learned a great deal from the Dominicans’ strong focus on human rights. Initially conservative in his beliefs, he approved of the Vietnam War. He became more analytical as the war continued and he began to see its effects.

He was inspired to take action as he discovered role models amongst the peacemakers. "They are thinkers and people of prayer," he says. "Through reading and good social analysis I am moved to action and to speak the truth."

His faith journey is one that is to continue as the Gospel calls him to further action. "There is so much injustice to expose in the world that while I am active and fit, I will never stop."