By ANDREW NELSON, Staff Writer | Published November 27, 2008
As a young Jesuit, Father John Dear choose to add his own vow of nonviolence, along with the required vows of obedience, poverty and chastity.
A hero of his, Mahatma Gandhi, lived a life of 16 vows, including to “only speak the truth” and “fearlessness,” so Father John’s vows were small in comparison. It was rooted in what he jokingly called a “secret training school of nonviolence” as he studied to be a priest.
Father John learned the hard work had only begun after the initial thrill of the public commitment disappeared.
“I’m just not very bright. I don’t know what I was thinking. I thought we had arrived,” he said about grasping the vow’s implications.
The vows guide his life more than 25 years later.
“The vows are the beginning of the journey. I didn’t know that. I thought it was the end. I have to keep experimenting,” he said. A life of “peace, love and nonviolence is a journey. There is no reaching perfection,” he said.
Father John spoke about the power of nonviolence to a crowded room at the Jimmy Carter Library and Museum as part of a nationwide book tour for his autobiography, “A Persistent Peace.”
He said people need “to see life as a journey, every day mindfully, one step at a time, living and breathing in the Holy Spirit of peace and walking the road to a new future of peace and the God of peace.”
People in the peace movement are the “new abolitionists,” imitating people who held firm to their beliefs as they opposed slavery, Father John said. They were told slavery is in the Bible and that it had always been around for generations, he said. But they persisted.
“They were faithful to the journey. They never gave up,” he said.
Those trying to live as advocates for nonviolence can draw strength from their example, he said.
“Keep walking the road of peace and justice,” he said.
In an interview later, Father John said both Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have been outspoken against war. He believes church leaders will repudiate the just war theory because the damage done by modern war to people and cultures is too high.
The just war theory is Catholic thought on military ethics. It permits military responses to violence but only as a last resort. The Catholic Church’s position on war requires meeting seven very strict conditions to deploy lethal force. Pope John Paul II opposed the 2003 invasion of Iraq in part because of the doctrine of pre-emptive war.
Father John, 49, has gone to jail for hammering on a F-15 fighter (“We didn’t even chip the paint,” he admits), organized chaplains in New York after 9/11, urged National Guard soldiers not to go to war and sat in sackcloth and ashes in the biblical tradition of repentance to protest nuclear bombs. He has been arrested 75 times protesting war.
“War is not the will of God. War is not blessed. War is never justified,” he said.
The one moment in the Bible when violence would have been justified was as armed soldiers came to take away Jesus, Father John said. But as Peter drew his sword to protect Jesus and the community, Jesus ordered him to “put down the sword.”
Father John said Christians should “hear those as the last words of Jesus to the church.”
“It was the last time the gang was all with him,” he said.
A crowd of nearly 170 people came out to hear him speak at the Carter Library Wednesday, Nov. 19. Father John wore a blue blazer and khaki pants. He told the crowd to call him by his first name.
“Father Dear is such a ridiculous name. It’s like a cosmic joke,” he said, as the audience chuckled. He talked about his affection for Atlanta and how he stopped to pray at the tomb of Dr. Martin Luther King and Coretta Scott King before his talk.
Born in North Carolina and raised in Washington, D.C., Father John attended Duke University with an eye toward becoming a lawyer, a newspaper publisher or a “rock star.” He wrestled with the question of whether God exists. A party-happy fraternity brother, Father John found himself drawn to a life as a follower of the “God of peace” after he spent time working with mentally ill inmates. He laughed about it, but he said he took the class to simply get an easy A.
Following in the footsteps of St. Ignatius and St. Francis of Assisi, Father John went on a spiritual pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1982. He arrived just as war erupted between Lebanon and Israel.
One of the memories seared on his brain, he said, was watching fighter planes fly over the Sea of Galilee to drop bombs.
“It changed my life,” he said about seeing the violence where Jesus preached.
“I made my decision that I was going to spend my life trying to practice and teach the Sermon on the Mount,” he said.
Father John was critical of a dinner hosted by the Pentagon and U.S. Military Services Archdiocese for the bishops during the recently completed bishops’ meeting. He said the bishops’ efforts would be better spent sitting down with groups focused on peace.
He served as the director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and after 9/11, with the Red Cross at the New York Family Assistance Center. From 2002-2004, he served as pastor of four churches in New Mexico. He has written and edited more than two dozen books on peace and justice. Father John was recently nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He currently lives in New Mexico where he directs retreats, gives lectures and leads protests.
On the issue of abortion, Father John said it is wrong, along with other offenses against people.
“We have to make the connections,” he said, adding that people on the left don’t speak out against the violence of abortion, as people on the right don’t protest war.
“I’m not picking and choosing,” he said. ‘It’s beyond law. It’s about creating a culture of nonviolence,” he said.
On where he gets his hope, Father John is a self-described pessimist. But he clings to hope. “Hope is a Gospel word,” he said.
“If you want to be hopeful, you need to do hopeful things,” Father John said, quoting Father Dan Berrigan, his fellow Jesuit, poet and lifelong sojourner for nonviolence.
Prayer is where he finds hope as he focuses on “entering into the story of Jesus.”
“It is a relief to go and pray with Jesus,” he said.
Admirers lined up for the book signing after his 40-minute talk. Some 14,000 copies of his autobiography have been sold since it was published in August, he said.
George Mattingly, 41, an electrician, attends the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception. Mattingly said it was inspiring to hear someone so involved with peace and social justice. The message that will stick with him is how Jesus lived a nonviolent life, he said. The talk was a “reaffirmation for me about the relevance of Christianity,” he said.
Leslye Colvin, of Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish, said she was moved by the priest’s commitment to peace. She said the conventional picture of Jesus does not reflect the Jesus of the Gospels with his message of nonviolence.
“When you hear someone like the speaker, it reaffirms the need of us who march to a different drummer to speak to the truth of the Gospel,” said Colvin, 50.
Katie Lefebure, 31, who works in the financial service industry, had two of the priest’s books tucked under her arm. One book was for her, the other for a friend who blames organized religion for violence in the world.
Lefebure, who attends Our Lady of Lourdes Church, did not know about Father John before an announcement was made at her parish. She said it was exciting to learn there are Catholic leaders engaged in the nonviolence movement.
“It is important to talk about this within the Christian community,” she said.
Steve Spetnagel, 49, carried a picture of a tuxedo-wearing Father John and himself, along with other fraternity brothers, from their days at Duke.
“I use the word passion with him,” said Spetnagel, who works in the beverage industry and attends Alpharetta First United Methodist Church. “He has a passion that truly makes a difference in the world.”