The National Catholic Review
John Dear
An Interview with John Dear, S.J.
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What drew you to work for Gospel-based nonviolence? 

 

Even before joining the Society of Jesus in 1982, I was influenced by the antiwar stance of two Jesuits, Richard McSorley and Daniel Berrigan—and also by the work of Horace McKenna, another Jesuit, who spent his life working on behalf of the poor in rural Maryland and in Washington, D.C. I wanted to be like them. They had a lot to do with why I joined the Jesuits. All three saw the relationship between war and poverty, a connection also made by Dorothy Day, the founder, with Peter Maurin, of the Catholic Worker movement.

The summer before entering the Jesuit novitiate I made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The very day I left, Israel invaded Lebanon. It was shocking, and I made a commitment then and there to spend my Jesuit life trying to live according to the Sermon on the Mount, to love my enemies and to work for peace and teach nonviolence.

What are your main activities now?

I concentrate primarily on speaking trips and writing. Doubleday has published my latest book, The Questions of Jesus. I live in New Mexico in an adobe house on top of a mesa that can be reached only by vehicles with four-wheel drive. The house looks out over 100 miles of desert, and I can see the hills where the Los Alamos Nuclear Weapons Lab is located, where they built the first atom bomb and continue to build nuclear weapons. I’ve started Pax Christi groups around the state, and we’re organizing a campaign to close down the laboratory. We’re now planning our third annual vigil there to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6. We’re planning to go to Los Alamos with sackcloth and ashes to repent of the sin of nuclear weapons.

What is it like to live in the desert?

There’s nothing romantic about living in the desert. You notice your inner demons surfacing, so the solitude can be challenging. The desert experiences of John the Baptist and Jesus and those of the desert fathers and mothers have become more real to me. In one of his books, Thomas Merton says that they withdrew to the desert, after the church accepted the concept of the just war theory and sided with the empire, so that they could keep the vision of the Gospel alive.

How do you pray?

Without quality time in private prayer, I’d burn out and give up. So I try to spend 30 to 40 minutes daily simply sitting with Jesus, telling him my concerns and then trying to be open to what he is saying. This has helped me grow in peace, hope and love. I find Jesus is always encouraging me and sending me out to do the works of peace and justice. I’ve always tried to have a spiritual director also, who can act as an unbiased referee between God and me. He helps me see where God is in my life and work. I also try to make an annual retreat.

Has your Jesuit training helped you combine solitude with travel and public speaking?

Yes, the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius are a great way to prepare for public work for justice and peace. Jesuit spirituality tries to combine both the active and the contemplative life. It keeps me focused on being a companion of Jesus, to do what he does, to talk about the things he talks about. When I first met Daniel Berrigan, he said, “The point of this life is to make our story fit into the story of Jesus.” That’s what I’m trying to do, to take seriously what Jesus says about loving our enemies, making peace and seeking justice, to follow his story and live it out today in these times of war and injustice.

Have you felt supported in your work?

I have received hate mail and even death threats because of my stand on nonviolence and our campaign against Los Alamos. The local National Guard unit demonstrated in front of my former rectory in the small town of Springer before they left for Iraq, to criticize my peace stand. And many Jesuits dislike what I do. But some have supported me—including Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, the Jesuit superior general, who wrote me an encouraging letter when I was in jail in North Carolina for a Plowshares disarmament action in 1993. At that time, with Phil Berrigan and two other friends, I entered the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and hammered on an F-15 fighter bomber in a symbolic acting out of the Isaian image of beating swords into plowshares. My provincial gave me permission to do that action. These days, I have some good friends who support my work.

In your talks on peace to church and university groups, do you encounter opposition?

In every group there are people who do not agree with me. Before the November elections, I spoke at a small Baptist college in Pennsylvania. I had been asked to speak on a passage from Scripture, and so I chose the Beatitudes. All 2,000 students were required to attend. I told them that when Jesus says, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” that means that war-makers are not blessed, so we have to be people of nonviolence and stand against the war in Iraq. The place exploded. A third of the students stormed out, and the rest began chanting “Bush, Bush, Bush!” The faculty rushed me off the stage. The very next day, I flew to Idaho to give a retreat on nonviolence that even the local bishop joined. It was a very peaceful and prayerful gathering. I never know what to expect.

How do you connect abortion, war and the death penalty?

I support Cardinal Bernardin’s “consistent ethic of life,” which says that all life is sacred, that all types of violence are wrong—including abortion, racism, the death penalty, environmental destruction and nuclear weapons. Once during a weekend retreat in Rochester, between talks and prayers, our group sat in and risked arrest at an abortion clinic. Then the next day we drove to the local military base, climbed the fence and knelt down to pray for disarmament. We were arrested and released a few hours later. We were objecting to both forms of violence. If we’re going to be truly pro-life, we have to be against the Iraq war, the continuing executions in our country and our ongoing development of weapons of mass destruction. Otherwise, we still support the forces of death.

When did you first begin thinking about issues of peace and nonviolence?

I grew up in a small town in North Carolina during the civil rights movement, which my parents supported. They also taught me how wrong the Vietnam War was. We moved to Washington in 1967, and after Dr. King was killed, my father took me to see the riots and later Resurrection City, the tent city near the Lincoln Memorial that was part of Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign. My father said, “I want you to remember these sights.” He had no idea how seriously I took his words. Then in college in the 1970’s, I studied African American history and the civil rights movement. When I entered the Jesuit novitiate, a group of us spent long hours studying and discussing peace and nonviolence. Four of us took a vow of nonviolence, as Gandhi had done. We wanted to commit ourselves to the work of peace and justice.

Are you hopeful about what the peace movement can accomplish?

I am hopeful about what the God of peace can accomplish. The peace movement is just beginning, and we all have to be part of it. I’m hopeful we can create a world without war and nuclear weapons. I was in India for several weeks right after the tsunami with Arun Gandhi, Gandhi’s grandson, studying and learning more about nonviolence and how powerful it can be when we organize it.

The 19th-century abolitionists, like William Lloyd Garrison, were ridiculed because they wanted to abolish slavery. And the suffragettes were harassed when they demonstrated for the right to vote. Pete Seeger noted that not too long ago, we couldn’t even imagine that Nelson Mandela would be freed from prison and become president of South Africa, or that the Berlin wall would fall, or that Communism would end.

As people of faith, we know that with the God of peace even the impossible is possible—that a world without war, injustice and nuclear weapons is coming. The challenge is to be on the side of hope, to spend our lives doing our part to welcome the new world of peace and justice.

John Dear, S.J., author of two dozen books, is a former executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. George M. Anderson, S.J., is an associate editor of America.

Comments

Jacqueline Sailer, D.H.M. | 2/16/2007 - 2:00pm
After thought and prayer in reaction to the interview of John Dear, S.J., by George M. Anderson, S.J., (3/7), the following questions and thoughts come to mind.

Is it possible to achieve greater results toward peace and nonviolence by more peaceable methods? When we demonstrate overtly, we annoy persons and make situations worse. In the ordinary course of life, reaction with anger often makes our situation worse.

We often cite examples from the life of Jesus to bolster our stand. Jesus first spent many hours in prayer with the Father and the Spirit, and his words and actions were directed to the conversion of those around him. His way contrasted sharply with all the harshness we read about in the Old Testament.

As I look back at instances in my own life and work, it becomes more and more clear which way works and which way agitates.

Years ago I had the opportunity to meet Dorothy Day, when she came to visit in Minnesota for quiet time for her writings. As we gathered to listen to her, I was aware of a deep sadness in her. I have been glad that she helped the poor, hungry and homeless. Many of us have tried to live in this way through the years. Yet joy is indicative of the presence of the Spirit.

For the past 30 years I have been involved in parish ministry and the work of Nazareth House. Piet Van Breeman, S.J., and George Maloney, S.J., write about how Jesus, Mary and Joseph grew to maturity in their human lives at Nazareth. In our offering hospitality and a place of listening at Nazareth House, the whole issue of maturity looms large. As we mature we hear the Lord’s peaceable ways, with which to guide our own life and help others.

St. Benedict offers in his rule a way of listening to and praying with Scripture, with the goal of arriving at humility wherein we come to know in truth who we are. We are then able to listen and pray with others as they eke out their life.

Prayer, dialogue and service seem to be more peaceful ways of helping ourselves and others arrive at peace in word and action.