Send in the Clown

Carl Kabat has a sacred mission that could land him in jail -- and outside the priesthood.

Time marched on while the Plowshare activists did their time. The Soviet Union disintegrated and the Berlin Wall came falling down. Still, the United States had enough nuclear weapons on hair-trigger alert to destroy the world many times over. On April 1, 1994, which was both Good Friday and April Fool's Day, Carl Kabat donned a brightly colored clown suit. Proclaiming himself a "fool for Christ," he climbed the fence surrounding a Minuteman missile silo in North Dakota and proceeded to beat the hell out of the concrete covering with a sledgehammer. Result: another four and half years in the slammer.

Although his civil disobedience is motivated by deeply serious concerns, Kabat has learned the art of not taking himself seriously, and a bright vein of humor runs through nearly everything he does. "A certain sort of foolishness," he once said in a sermon, "is required for any creativity -- a playful willingness to roam, to revision, to see the odd connection in things that were not seen before." To underscore his point, he drew upon the words of the Apostle Paul, who said, "God chose what is foolish in the world to confound the wise."

Don't fence me in: Father Carl Kabat specializes in prayer (above) and protest (at left, near New Raymer, Colorado).
Anthony Camera
Don't fence me in: Father Carl Kabat specializes in prayer (above) and protest (at left, near New Raymer, Colorado).
Don't fence me in: Father Carl Kabat protests near New Raymer, Colorado.
Don't fence me in: Father Carl Kabat protests near New Raymer, Colorado.

While he was doing his prison stint for the North Dakota action, Kabat devoured some 400 books, ranging in subject matter from theology to philosophy, history and Scripture -- virtually anything but fiction. He often found himself beginning a book at seven in the morning and finishing it by eight or nine o'clock that evening.

But sometimes even books were not enough to sustain him. With two years left in prison, his indomitable spirits seemed to flag; the fire looked like it was going out. In an interview with a reporter from the Bismarck Tribune, Kabat said he was going to take it easy for a while when he got out of jail: "I'm old enough to retire now. Mostly, I just want to rest."

Kabat was released in 1998 -- in time to attend the deaths of his mother, Anna, and his beloved brother and fellow agitator, Paul. He was assigned to St. Henry's Oblate Residence in Belleville, Illinois. The Very Reverend David Kalert, the Oblate provincial who oversees the 500 Oblate missionary priests in the United States, instructed him that he could not leave the house overnight without permission. That order chafed Kabat as he went about his community service work. "I wasn't thirteen; I was 65 years old," he says. And the Oblates soon adopted a new set of guidelines on civil disobedience. Adapted from the Jesuits, the six rules require priests engaging in civil protests to first obtain approval from their superior. Strabala argues that the rules were put into place to "clip the wings of Oblate clerics who, in the conservative judgment of superiors, may have flown too freely in their anti-war protests."

This past July, with the 55th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima approaching, Kabat decided to come to Colorado to participate in another nonviolent protest. Instead of getting formal approval, he simply left a note for his superior at St. Henry's saying he was going to engage in an "action." He didn't consult his fellow Oblates for fear of making them co-conspirators, he says.

The move drew a harsh response from Kalert. In an August 2 letter, which did not reach Kabat until after the protest, Kalert warned: "I must remind you that this new action on your part constitutes cause for dismissal from the congregation." Kalert reiterated his warning in a second letter dated August 22, in which he told Kabat, "I am pursuing your dismissal from the congregation." (Kalert, reached by telephone at his Washington, D.C., headquarters, declines to comment on Kabat's case.)

Meanwhile, on August 6, Kabat, former Denver priest Bill Sulzman and several other protesters pulled up outside the Minuteman missile silo known as N-7, near New Raymer, Colorado. With Sulzman holding the ladder, Kabat scrambled over the fence and once again donned his red and white clown's suit. He placed unconsecrated bread and wine on the silo along with a small hammer and proclaimed: "We are fools and clowns for God and humanity's sake."

Within a matter of minutes, the protesters were surrounded by military vehicles and two squad cars from the local sheriff's department. But it was a full two hours before they were taken into custody: The Air Force apparently had decided to use the incident as a real-time training exercise. A couple dozen camouflaged soldiers sprinted toward the protesters, alternately falling to their stomachs and then squirming across the ground. When they were almost upon the protesters, several armored vehicles arrived, and more soldiers got out and began screaming, "Get down!"

Kabat and Sulzman did as they were told. "They roughed us up a little bit. They were making quite a show of putting us at a disadvantage," says Sulzman, who himself is a tall, imposing man. Sulzman was given a summons, but Kabat was carted off to the Weld County jail, where authorities discovered that he had also violated his probation. He was eventually released on his own recognizance.

Attorney Walter Gerash has agreed to represent Kabat pro bono at his trial, which is set to begin on January 8 before U.S. Magistrate Boyd Bowland in Denver. Gerash says he hopes to present evidence showing that the threat of using nuclear weapons is itself a war crime. "And if it's a war crime, under the Nuremberg Code, a citizen is supposed to speak up and say he's against it. Otherwise, he's a complicitor," Gerash explains.

Even if Kabat is acquitted of the federal trespassing charge in Colorado, he's likely to be sent back to prison for violating the terms of his probation. But Kabat seems unconcerned by the notion of being a jailbird again. "There are more important things in the world," he says.

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