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A Persistent Peace
One Man’s Struggle for a Nonviolent World
By John Dear, SJ
Reviewed by Sander Hicks
One of the problems with being John Dear, S.J. is how to deal with the resentment from fellow peace radicals. What gives Dear the right to be the best-known, most-published Catholic war resister since the Berrigans? The subtitle of his new memoir is “One Man’s Struggle for a Nonviolent World” which his critics will surely claim to mean Dear made the struggle for peace his exclusive project. “A Persistent Peace,” his new memoir just published by Loyola Press, can be misinterpreted as an act of egoism: Dear after all is only a young 49, and still very active.
But despite all the rockstar-level fame and backlash, his book works, on a number of levels. It answers this question: what would the modern Catholic Church do if a priest decided to take Jesus at his word? What if a church leader followed Christ’s commands to completely put down the sword? To stand up to war and empire, and bloodshed, and business-as-usual? Dear’s story shows the Church at its worst, and at its best.
When Dear was trying to figure out whether or not to join the Jesuits, in 1982, he prayed for a sign out in the Holy Land, on the shores of the Dead Sea. Instantaneously, two Israeli bomber jets swooped in, so close Dear thought they would decapitate him. They passed by. You can’t argue with the Holy Spirit. John Dear joined the Jesuits. After a life of privilege and frat parties, he felt called, to put up a new kind of Christian resistance to the high speed American war machine.
The Jesuits got more than they bargained for. In his first decade as an novitiate, Dear spent plenty of time getting disciplined by superiors who often denied him permission to go to peace rallies, or engage in civil disobedience.
Back in his native North Carolina 11 years later, Dear took a hammer to a F-15 nuclear-capable bomber jet, in action with Phil Berrigan and Plowshares. They did serious damage and the courts were not lenient. After a kangaroo court trial, Dear did six months hard time. But in several visits from his Jesuit superiors, Dear’s relationship with the Society begins to shift. When they see him, in tightly controlled visits limited to ten minutes, shaggy and bearded, a “wolverine in orange” they are moved. Dear wins them over through the Plexiglas of prison. He melts their hearts. They see shades of Jesus in him. It’s a moment of relief, and connection. And later, in the Vatican, Pope John Paul II is excited to meet John Dear. He had heard about the arrest and really admired it.
One thing that Dear glosses over in this memoir is his study of the complete works of Gandhi. He happens to mention that he read all 93 volumes. His take on Gandhi is important because it informs this entire book. Dear dwelt on Gandhi more in his previous overview, Mahatma Gandhi: Selected Writings. Dear’s life goal is to become an American Gandhi, a catalyst for a mass movement to free the people from the out-dated colonialism of nuclear stockpiles and “the war on terror.” Dear’s contribution to the Gandhian tradition is major. He liberates Gandhi from the clichés, and brings him into our world. If you thought that pacifism was passive, you need to feel the confrontational, zealous, passionate, fearless power of the “Truth-force” of Gandhi. Nonviolence isn’t "meek submission to the will of the evil-doer” said the Mahatma, but, “pitting one's whole soul against the will of the tyrant." Dear shows us one way to do it.
Persistent Peace covers a lot of territory: Dear’s take on the Church’s pedophilia scandals is to simply call for the ordination of women, and the marriage of priests. Dear is a good salesman for the 30-day silent retreat; the reader gets insights into the intense shifts in soul. Dear confronts the culture of war even at the Smithsonian, where a museum director confesses that the pro-war slant of an exhibit on the Hiroshima bombing is due to intense military and government pressure. And Dear’s take on being made the pastor of six churches in rural New Mexico will make you laugh out loud: it’s a land where bears come to Mass and the deacon’s horse has been baptized.
So what’s up with the resentment from other peace activists? Why the Dear backlash? There are clues in the book. A female pro-war parishioner gets upset and confronts Dear about his fiery peace and justice homily. She’s conflicted, defensive, and maybe even feeling guilt. But Dear’s response is cerebral, logical, and dry. The peace and nonviolence of Jesus and Gandhi are clearly the right things to do, and Dear’s certainty blocks a bridge between him and military families. It’s raw and abrupt. Dear was later removed as the pastor at that church. Dear has honed his skills in “truth-force,” but could it be that his next challenge is to build skills in human communication? This woman needed someone to reach out and understand her situation.
In the final chapters in New Mexico, Dear is at his best teaching confirmation to a small group of rural Hispanic/natives. The insights from the mouths of babes are so good, you will want to read the chapter out loud to a friend. The Holy Spirit is still right there in Dear’s life. A couple of the kids are heading toward joining the military to get out of the grind of rural poverty. But Dear convinces them to take another path. Someday I’m sure they’ll thank him. So will we.
Dear Speaks Out: Live at LaFayette College, 2008:
This is Part I. View Part II, and other videos on Dear, here.