Liberation Theology

Religion plays a much larger role in the battle over the nuclear waste repository than most may suspect. This religious involvement is something different than the usual Sunday morning sermons of pastors interpreting local issues in a moral context. At Yucca Mountain and the Nevada Test Site we see a combination of elements of earth worship with Christian charismatic and evangelical movements, the political liberation theology of the Franciscans, Indian tribal spirituality and a multitude of other religious flavors. The resulting hybrid is perhaps best described as environmental liberation theology.

Among the religious coalitions protesting Yucca Mountain, the Nevada Test Site, and nuclear technology in general, the most prominent are as follows:

Nevada Desert Experience (an outgrowth of Lenten Desert Experience, co-founded by Judy Treichel)

Pace E Bene (Franciscan organization studying non-violence)

Western Shoshone Tribal Elders

People of Faith

Clergy and Laity Concerned (Nevada chapter founded by Judy Treichel)

The Catholic Worker

Two main currents underlie the involvement of these religious organizations: 1) a peace movement dedicated to the elimination of nuclear weapons, and 2) a social justice movement which sees land reform through decentralization the means to fight oppression of the poor. While the religious peace movement elements are familiar, social justice theories and their relation to Yucca Mountain will take some explaining. It should be noted that Pope John Paul II has opposed many of the more liberal aspects of the peace nd justice movement as derived from the offshoot Catholic Liberation Theology of Paolo Friere and others.

Prayers, pilgrimages, vigils, fire and brimstone sermons, retreats and a whole religious ceremonial tradition already are built around the Nevada Test Site and Yucca Mountain. An article by Mary Manning of the Las Vegas Sun gives this substance:


A monument to the world's estimated 18 million radiation victims has found a permanent home.

About 50 people representing atomic veterans, Shoshone Indians and anti-nuclear groups gathered Wednesday at Cactus Springs, an area about 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas where the monument is rising from the desert.

The 4-foot high obelisk had been dedicated on Memorial Day 1984 at Camp Desert Rock near the Test Site.

But U.S. Department of Energy officials confiscated the memorial. Anthony Guarisco of the Alliance of Atomic Veterans credited Nye County sheriff's deputy Lt. Jim Merlino with helping the veterans recover their monument.

The monument is being built on land near Cactus Springs recently returned to the Shoshone Nation. A series of shrines honoring religious figures will be part of the monument. The first one, Our Lady of Guadalupe, was placed there Wednesday.

In all, 22 acres of land was purchased this summer by Genevieve Vaughn, of Texas, and her family and returned to the Shoshone Nation.

Two acres will become a shrine dedicated to those who die from radiation exposure. The other 20 acres was turned over to the tribe, which lays claim to most of the Great Basin, including the Nevada Test Site.

As smoke from a sage fire drifted across the second annual National Veterans Day Celebration, Western Shoshone spiritual leader Corbin Harney chanted and directed the smoke with eagle feathers in each hand.

"Remember, this is our land," Harney said. He urged those forming in a circle in the sagebrush to clean up the land and stop further nuclear testing at the nearby Test Site.

"If you don't remember anything else I say today, I hope that you remember that this is the engine that drives it all," Guarisco said, gesturing towards the Test Site.

Franciscan Priest Louis Vitale led the litany of names of radiation victims read into the cold wind.

Franciscan Sister Rosemary Lynch read a speech by Black Elk, a Sioux Indian chief who had a vision of how people could live together within the "sacred hoop."

To honor Veterans Day, formerly Armistice Day, the group observed a moment's silence at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. [Manning, Mary; Las Vegas Sun Newspaper, Nov 12, 1992]

It is hard to imagine a technological priesthood of DOE officials so intent on worshipping Yucca Mountain that they would bother to 'chant and direct smoke with eagle feathers in each hand.' In contrast, anti-nuclear activists give every sign of having created a budding religious movement dedicated to worshipping a patch of desert.

A shrine for radiation victims, dedicated to Our Lady of Guadalupe, indicates the close relationship between certain religious orders and nuclear protest. Corbin Harney of the Western Shoshone, Franciscan Priest Louis Vitale and Sister Rosemary Lynch and Sioux Chief Black Elk have long been central to nuclear protest in Nevada. The mystic rituals, religious iconography of a 4-foot obelisk and reference to Armageddon (11th hour of 11th day of 11th month) shows the apocalyptic nature of this movement.

Historically, the main goal of the various religious protest organizations in Nevada has been to stop nuclear weapons testing at the Nevada Test Site. This anti-nuclear movement has come to include Yucca Mountain in the Test Site protest in part because they see unbreakable links between nuclear waste and nuclear bombs due to the presence of fissionable plutonium in spent fuel elements. The protestors also see parallels in the open air weapons tests of the fifties and sixties (which exposed residents of the Western states to varying amounts of radiation) and the possibility Yucca Mountain will also cause mass radiation exposure. As the Nevada Test Site has curtailed its activities in response to the end of the Cold War, the anti-war religious coalitions have been quick to take up the anti-Yucca Mountain cause as well.

The religious roots of organizations like the Nevada Desert Experience explains much of the zealotry of the opposition to Yucca Mountain. In the minds of the anti-nuclear factions, the repository is not a technical problem, but a question of the salvation of mankind from the horrors of radiation and from the Armageddon that nuclear bombs would bring. The counter-argument that the effort required to turn spent fuel into any sort of bomb grade material is both too difficult and dangerous to make this a plausible threat has succumbed to the moral conviction that plutonium is symbolic of warmaking capability. Technical questions can be approached rationally, but religious battles are often only solved (if at all) through protracted holy wars.

In the book of Genesis in the Bible there is a verse we might call the Judeo-Christian environmental manifesto.

"And God blessed them, and God said to them, Be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth." [ Genesis 1:27-28]

These Biblical lines are perhaps the first environmental laws ever formulated: "replenish the earth, and subdue it." In this biblical context, Yucca Mountain would replenish the earth by isolating dangerous nuclear waste from the biosphere. By completing the nuclear energy fuel cycle on which mankind depends for almost twenty percent of his electrical energy, Yucca Mountain is also obviously an attempt to subdue the earth. In this light, Yucca Mountain satisfies Judeo-Christian ethics (at least in traditional interpretations).

In contrast, environmental religious theory evolving in Nevada casts Yucca Mountain as an evil technology attempting to subdue Mother Earth. In an earth centered theology, (such as practiced by Nevada's Shoshone and Paiute) mankind seeks a passive rather than active role in the environment. Yucca Mountain thus takes on negative religious significance as a symbol of environmentally interventionist technology.

The literature of the anti-nuclear Nevada Desert Experience shows the divergence from traditional Judeo-Christian environmental ethics. Nevada Desert Experiece is the outgrowth of Friar Louis Vitale's 1978 tour of the test site which sparked the idea of a Franciscan vigil on the road to Mercury, Nevada. A flier promoting the eleventh Lenten Desert Experience in 1992 shows how that original vigil has expanded into an earth worship movement:



Lenten Desert Experience XI

March 4 - April 19, 1992

The nuclear bomb has deeply wounded our earth, ourselves. Join the Desert Lenten Experience XI in seeking healing, and expressing prayerful protest at the Nevada Test Site.


March 4 Ash Wednesday

March 13-15 Franciscan Weekend

March 20-22 Lutheran-Episcopalian Weekend

March 27-29 Friends Weekend

April 9-10 Methodist Witness

April 12 Palm Sunday

April 13-19 Holy Week

"We have only one planet: one water, one air, one land.

If we don't take care of it, it won't take care of us.

I pray for forgiveness from the water, the air, Mother Earth.

I pray for healing for the people."

Corbin Harney, Western Shoshone Spiritual Elder

Judeo-Christian ethics traditionally have been concerned foremost with the wounding of men's souls rather than injury to the "deeply wounded earth". The above flier, however, represents an entirely new religion, a pantheism dedicated to "earth healing". The fact that tribal elders, Franciscans, Friends, Lutherans, Epicopalians and Methodists are joined together on this one issue should not be viewed as ordinary. Normally, these religious factions would fight like cats and dogs at the prospect of being lumped together on the same program, but on the nuclear issue they suddenly become one happy family.

Further demonstrating the odd mix of religion, pacifism, anarchism, environmentalism and paranoia evident in the Nevada anti-nuclear movement is a quote from Frits ter Kuile, Nevada Desert Experience Las Vegas Coordinator, in an April 1993 NDE flier :

"When the sun was setting and most of the over 50 buses and hordes of cars had left the NTS, we closed with a reading from 1 Samuel 8 in which the people ask Samrel for a king and Samuel prayed to God. God said to Samuel:

Hearken unto the voice of the people in all that they say unto thee: for they have not rejected thee, but me, that I should not reign over them. Since I led them out of slavery, they have forsaken me by serving money, power, lust and a host of other gods, and so they do also unto thee. Therefore, hearken unto their voice: how be it yet protest solemnly unto them, and show them the manner of the government that shall reign over them.

And Sam told the people that asked of him a coercive law and order: government will take your sons, and employ them for its own benefit, to pay its deficit, to make you stand in lines and fill out its forms, man its tanks, be its fighter bomber pilots, and some will be marched to ground zero straight after a nuclear explosion: and it will appoint Chiefs of Staff, and Secretaries of State andWar and Commerce and Education and send them to each of its colonies, and to reap heavily sprayed grapes, coffee, and cotton, and to make its NAVSTAR satellites, and brainwash your kids into the rat race.

It will exploit your daughters to be cleaners, confectioneries, cooks, secretaries, bakers and nurses for the wounded soldiers. And it will munch up your vineyards, orchards and forests - even old growth, and turn them into monstergod: green $ bills capturing the souls of the people. And ye shall cry out in that day because of the government you have elected; and God will not hear you in that day.

So now we are born in this world full of freely elected principalities and powers. However, in the silence of the wind, I strongly felt God still does hear us in that, in this day.

Let us join our hands together, and work for a test ban so the burros and flowers can live in peace, daddies can keep on reading Winnie the Pooh to the little ones, and we take time to reconsider Sam's words and rid ourselves of the king by obeying the Prince of Peace.

The implications of this transformation of traditional Judeo-Christian environmental ethics into a form of earth worship should not be underestimated. If Earth is more sacred spiritually than humans, then morality is defined by whatever it takes to minimize human presence on this planet to the bare minimum. Salvation in this new theology would therefore be determined not by the redemption of human souls, but by the number of acres of Yucca Mountain land set aside as wilderness area.


Much of the ideology of the Nevada Desert Experience is in reality a spinoff of liberation theology. Primarily a Catholic philosophy, liberation theology has boiled and stewed for years among the clergy of Latin America, most notably in Brazil and later Nicaragua and Central America. Marxist in origin but taking on a flavor of its own, liberation theology is now in essence a land reform movement.

Liberation theology's most noted proponents in America are the Catholic Maryknoll orders. The subtle but enormously disruptive power of this movement is evidenced by the number of Maryknoll nuns and priests regularly silenced for their views and whose corpses littered the Central American isthmus over the last decade. Similar views seem to influence the Franciscan founders of the Nevada Desert Experience.

In one of the seminal works of liberation theology Gustavo Gutierrez writes:

". . . The liberation of our continent means more than overcoming economic, social, and political dependence. It means, in a deeper sense, to see the becoming of humankind as a process of human emancipation in history. . . . Ernesto Che Guevara wrote: "We revolutionaries often lack the knowledge and the intellectual audacity to face the task of the development of a new human being by methods different from the conventional ones, and the conventional methods suffer from the influence of the society that created them. . . . ."

". . . one of the most creative and fruitful efforts implemented in Latin America is the experimental work of Paolo Friere, who has sought to establish a "pedagogy of the oppressed." By means of an unalienating and liberating "cultural action," which links theory with praxis, the oppressed perceive - and modify - their relationship with the world and with other persons." [Gutierrez, Gustavo; A Theology of Liberation, Orbis Books, 1968, p56]

Liberation theology is a revolutionary movement as evidenced by the quotation of noted revolutionary Che Guevara. It views the active education of the masses (pedagogy of the oppressed) as a key to implementing that revolution. To the extent that liberation theology exists within the protest movement at Yucca Mountain, we show (within reason) that opposition to the repository is a religiously motivated revolutionary land reform movement rather than a matter of resolving the actual technical questions involved. There are more than a few tantalizing threads linking liberation theology to the religious and social opposition to Yucca Mountain.

We see evidence of liberation theology in the development of the State of Nevada's equity theory of nuclear waste disposal (i.e., on-site storage is required for reasons of equity, not safety) in Roger Kasperson's earlier cited work, Participation, Decentralization and Advocacy Planning. Roger Kasperson, as political geographer and designer of the NWPO socioeconomic studies, wrote admiringly of Paolo Friere, one of the main architects of Brazilian liberation theology. Interpreted this way, Mountain West composed the "concientization" element of Friere's revolutionary theory, collecting social information and acting as an organizing force to influence information channels within the state with their reports and poll results. The revolutionary foot-soldiers are represented by the activists from Citizen Alert, Nevada Desert Experience and other activist groups. The "oppressed" are the Western Shoshone, whose land claims to half the state provide a convenient justification for revolutionizing. This analogy can obviously be taken too far, yet there does appears to be a liberation theology eddy to the main current of protest at Yucca Mountain.

Another subtle link to liberation theology is Judy Treichel. Besides her many other protest activities, Treichel helped found not only Nevada Desert Experience, but also in 1983 the local chapter of Clergy and Laity Concerned, a Catholic advocacy group devoted to "social justice". Clergy and Laity was originally called Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, but has latyely protested the U.S. invasion of Haiti (although Jeanne-Bertrand Aristide was defrocked as a priest for harboring liberation theology sentiments). Treichel's protest of America's involvement in Nicaragua and Central America through Clergy and Laity in the mid 1980s makes it clear her "social justice" theories have been influenced by liberation theology, though perhaps not consciously. Clergy and Laity Concern's connections to the Maryknollers and liberation theology are well known.


Economically, earth worship implies the absence of property rights; mankind exists at the pleasure of the earth god, "Mother Earth". This relates to Yucca Mountain through the tribal land claims of Nevada's Western Shoshone to the Yucca Mountain area, who coincidently see nuclear testing and disposal of nuclear waste below the surface as an afront to Mother Earth. The Western Shoshone's veneration of the land "We have only one planet: one water, one air, one land.", tugs at the heartfelt romantic notions of the noble savage being at one with nature. Since the most direct supporters of the Western Shoshone are the Franciscans of the Nevada Desert Experience, joined by the activists of Citizen Alert and the environmental movement, it appears there is a natural affinity of opponents of Yucca Mountain to a form of earth worhip. This implies some of the opposition to Yucca Mountain is part of a much larger religious and social revolution which seems to be occurring at an almost subliminal level.