John Dear does not quit easily.
After being arrested more than 75 times, his Jesuit superiors were getting fed up with him, so in 2002 he was given an option: go back to teaching high-school religion or go to the poorest part of the U.S. and minister there. Undeterred, he found himself in a tiny, impoverished, three- block-long town in the northeastern part of New Mexico. From there he ministers to five — make that four — very poor communities.
Dear describes his reception at his fifth small parish, an enclave of wealthy retired military from Texas. After preaching at Mass one Sunday, the community rose up and, to a person, told him to never come back.
The 4-year-old Jesuit has been rabble- rousing for peace for two decades now. This time in a place he describes as “the poorest part of America,” he brings the unwelcome message of “the holy troublemaker, Jesus of Nazareth.” Describing his latest “home,” Dear says: “It is number one in military spending and number one in nuclear weapons. It is the most militarized, the most in need of disarmament, the most in need of nonviolence. It is the first place the Pentagon goes to recruit poor youth into the empire’s army.”
In a widely reported incident in 2004 Dear, having organized peace groups, was denounced by the Catholics of Los Alamos, the birthplace of the atom bomb. In December 2003 a platoon of young recruits about to be shipped off to Iraq appeared at the rectory of St. Joseph’s church and began chanting “Swing to the left, swing to the right, we’re gonna kill all through the night,” and “Kill, kill, kill.”
“Imagine these young kids, desperately poor who have never even been to Albuquerque, chanting stuff like ‘One bullet, one kill.’ I walked out in my winter coat and ordered them not to kill, to quit the military and refuse all orders to kill. I told them to practise the nonviolence of Jesus. They thought I was crazy.”
One would have thought that such peacemaking would be welcomed by the official Church.Wrong. “The archbishop forbade me to pray publicly for peace … even when the pope was blasting against war! He said I brought only division … reminds me of another guy.”
“It really is a blessing to do this. If we want to follow Jesus, we are going to have to live out the Sermon on the Mount. If you do, you’ll get into trouble but that’s our call. Luke’s gospel puts it starkly; we are going out like sheep among wolves. Did we think because we’re Roman Catholics we can do peacemaking without getting into trouble? No, he got in trouble, he suffered and died. You should expect trouble as well. This is the meaning of the Cross. At a minimum our lives will be disrupted.”
Dear gives us an interesting interpretation of Mark 3:1-6 — the man with the withered hand whom Jesus cured on the Sabbath. “Jesus refused to be passive. He disobeyed the law. He was a one-man crime wave when it came to the law over people. Given the chance to be pious, law-abiding and holy, a deadly follower of ritual, obligation and the institution, he said “No.” Compassion is the right response. Saving life is the meaning of the Gospel.
“It is legal to kill life in Iraq right now. We declared the starvation of Iraqi children legal in our 10-year embargo. We made people homeless and killed thousands — all legal. How would Jesus answer the question today? Clearly we are an empire. And we Christians need to disobey this empire, to betray it. Iraq is an ongoing crucifixion. Here we need to choose discipleship instead of murder. The church cannot remain good, law- abiding, comfortable citizens of an empire; we need to follow the holy troublemaker and recognize that there have been other troublemakers before us like Gandhi, Merton, Dorothy Day, Dan and Phil Berrigan. War is never the answer. In fact it is the ultimate mortal sin. And the church is going along with it.”
We need to be “holy troublemakers for Jesus, the poor man. There may be problems with our church for the young, but they have no problem with Jesus … listen to him and don’t be discouraged. We need to learn what Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. taught us — to go deep into our hearts to discover the non-violent Jesus. Gandhi prayed deeply for 40 years for this gift. Remember the great tools our church has given us, the gospels, the sacraments, Ignatian and other spiritualities; all of these help us to get rid of bitterness and revenge. Take these to your prayer and let God disarm you. We can then enter into the great public movement for peace.”
John Dear in Canada
Dear often expresses amazement at the difference in cultures. “The students in Canada are remarkable. I am not allowed to speak to high schools in the United States, especially Catholic schools and that includes the faculty.!”
When I questioned John Dear about the church silence over the staggering news of the number of dead Iraqi civilians since the american invasion (650,000 according to the October, 2006 Lancet study) he responded that he was not shocked or surprised by the response of the American Catholic hierarchy. “No, nothing shocks me anymore. I’ve seen so much, travelled so far. When you have been in America’s prisons, it all comes home. Many of us now understand that we are in full-fledged empire mode.”
He continued: “Historically, the empire always tries to instruct the church on what it means to be the church. They are now telling us what is sin. Gays and lesbians sharing love is a huge sin, according to Bush and company, who are now instructing us on morality. The bombing and killing and civil war in Iraq apparently is not sinful or immoral. So, whenever they instruct you on what is moral, the truth is usually the opposite. It is blasphemy, heresy and idolatry rolled into one. The church is going right along with it. Bishops and priests want to make it in the culture. I am afraid most church people, including most so-called liberals, just do not care.”
When asked about whether the just war theory was outmoded, Dear replied, “No, it was never ‘moded.’ It’s just got nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus, not in the Sermon on the Mount.”
John Dear is far from being an apocalyptic doomsayer who spreads despair. He encourages people to see the long view of history, to see the seeds of hope there. “I stake my whole life on God’s activity here. The abolitionists triumphed. We are the new abolitionists. When Rosa Parks sat down on that bus in Montgomery in 1955, that was the end of segregation, when Daniel and Philip Berrigan in total fearlessness, hammered on the nose cones of those missiles in King of Prussia, Pa., in 1980, the disarmament to come had begun. The Berlin Wall has fallen, apartheid is history. When Gandhi picked up the salt, the British Empire had fallen. “All of those who struggled could not see liberation at the time. That’s the long-haul view of history. It can only bear good fruit. Those 14 million peacemakers who stood against the empire on Feb. 25, 2002, the largest gathering for peace in history. My message is simple: please join the hope-bringers.”
John Dear is the author and editor of 20 books, including:
Living Peace, Disarming the Heart, Jesus the Rebel, Mohandas Gandhi, The God of Peace, Peace Behind Bars and most recently, The Questions of Jesus (Doubleday). For more information, see http://www.johndear.org