Profiles of Changemakers: John Dear, Peace Activist & Outreach Coordinator for Pace e Bene

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Rev. Carol Howard Merritt
Guest Contributor

I spoke with John Dear over the phone. He was in the deserts of New Mexico and I was in a town in Tennessee, but since I had followed his inspiring life and work for a while, it was easy to connect, in spite of all the miles.

John Dear easily recalled when he became involved in his work as a peace activist. It was a big turning point moment. When he attended Duke University, he decided he wanted to follow Jesus. In 1982, after he graduated college, Dear went to see where Jesus lived. He traveled to Israel, camped out at the Sea of Galilea, and went to the Church of the Beatitudes. Standing in the chapel, Dear was reading the Beatitudes, which were written on the wall. He was completely overwhelmed by them and began to think deeply about them:

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they will be called children of God.

“Right at that moment,” Dear said, “huge black Israeli jets flew over, dropped bombs on a whole bunch of people, killing them.”

After seeing the reality of warfare, Dear joined every justice group in the country and began writing about the Beatitudes. (His latest book, The Beatitudes of Peace: Meditations on the Beatitudes, Peacemaking & the Spiritual Life, came out in June 2016.) He began to immerse himself in the readings of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Dorothy Day and he befriended Daniel and Philip Berrigan. Every chance he got, he talked about nonviolence.

Recently, Dear began reaching out to Pope Francis about the “just war” theory. “Jesus never said, ‘if you meet seven conditions, you can bomb the hell out of them,’” Dear said. And yet, we’ve been living by that doctrine for centuries. Dear asked the Pope to throw out the “just war” theory and write an encyclical of nonviolence. He wanted Christians to begin thinking about “just peace” instead of “just war.” Then, in April of this year, 80 people from 25 nations gathered at the Vatican for a conference to formally discuss abandoning the “just war” theory and returning to the nonviolence of Jesus.

Though Dear longs for a peace theory, the word “peace” is problematic for him. “It’s complicated,” Dear said. “It’s been coopted. George W. Bush was all for peace, and he helped kill one million Iraqis. Barack Obama has been building weapons,” he said. Instead, Dear gravitates toward Gandhi’s use of “nonviolence.” “We should not be killing each other. Jesus was nonviolent, and Christians have to renounce violence. That’s the bottom line of Christianity.” Dear reminded us that Jesus’s last messages to his gathered disciples before he died was “put down the sword.”

Dear has been hard at work since the 80s. He’s been arrested more than 75 times, served time in jails and lived under house arrest. He’s written numerous books and articles. Still, he’s never sure that his work has had much effect others. “On the bad days, I feel like I haven’t impacted people at all,” he admitted. He talked about the 35 wars that rage, the climate change that persists, and every other violence, and it overwhelmed him.

But then Dear remembered the words of Thomas Merton, who said you do the good because it’s good. You don’t depend on the results. “A lot of people get involved and give up. We need people who join for the rest of our lives,” Dear said. He explained that when he talks about the abolition of war, poverty and nuclear weapons, he had to give up on the the notions of being influential, well-liked, or well-received. “Jesus was very clear that this message is not going to go over well in a world of total violence.”

When Dear reflected on how his experiences have changed his life, he recalled the time he spent in jail and prison. He’s been in war zones around the world and seen the effects of violence. “The older I get, the worse it is. It’s more overwhelming,” Dear said. But then, he talked the work of Erica Chenoweth, who wrote about why resistance creates effective results. He remembered the 85 nonviolent revolutions, and realized how incredible it was, and he became very hopeful about the methodology of nonviolence to bring about social change. “Nonviolence is contagious,” Dear said. “It’s made up of ordinary people—grandmothers and mothers—it’s a movement of people who just won’t go away.”

“We have to keep organizing with people around the world,” Dear said. He recalled how he was invited to Afghanistan, to a school, and everyone had lost a relative to one of our drones. They were holding marches through Kabul and making connections. “People don’t want us to do this. This is what Jesus wants. This is the spiritual life.”

For Dear, nonviolence requires three simultaneous attributes:

  • Be nonviolent to ourselves. Be peaceful to ourselves.
  • Be meticulously nonviolent in all relationships—to people, animals and the earth.
  • Be involved in the global, grassroots movements.

We can look at these three actions and ask ourselves, “Where are our weaknesses?” We might be nonviolent in our relationships, but we don’t care about mass incarceration, nuclear weapons, or global hunger. We might be great activists, but we are mean, angry and bitter in our relationships. Yet we need to think about all three to live a nonviolent life.

How can we get more involved?

  • Follow paceebene.org and campaignnonviolence.org and find out what actions you can join.
  • Read The Beatitudes of Peace: Meditations on the Beatitudes, Peacemaking, and the Spiritual Life in your worshiping community or book group.
  • Learn how you can launch a local Nonviolent Cities Project.

CLICK HERE to learn more about Father John Dear.

CLICK HERE to learn more about Pace e Bene and Campaign Nonviolence.

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