Speaking Peace to Power

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Reviewed by Colman McCarthy
Sunday, October 5, 2008


One Man's Struggle for a Nonviolent World

By John Dear

Loyola. 437 pp. $22.95

As Catholicism's largest male religious order, the Society of Jesus -- known as the Jesuits -- has had its share of rebels and loners since its origins in 16th-century Spain. In the United States in recent decades, these troublemakers have included Daniel Berrigan, Richard McSorley, Horace McKenna, Robert Drinan, Steve Kelly, Si Smith and Angelo D'Agostino. And now John Dear.

The son of a Washington area newspaperman and a nurse, and a graduate of a Jesuit high school (Georgetown Prep) and Duke University, Dear joined the Jesuits in 1982 and was ordained in 1993. He hasn't been enjoying the settled comforts found at any of his order's 70-plus high schools, colleges and universities. Nor has he pastored at wealthy Jesuit parishes on Park Avenue or in Georgetown. Instead, following what he calls "the nonviolent Jesus," Dear embraced pacifism and headed to the margins, delivering sacramental solace to the victims of war, poverty and injustice. He also voiced his unwelcome opinions about Christ's teachings on nonviolence to his Jesuit superiors and the wider Catholic hierarchy.

A Persistent Peace, Dear's 20th book in a list that includes Put Down the Sword, The Sacrament of Civil Disobedience and Peace Behind Bars, is the flowing autobiography of a high-energy idealist who believes that "meaning in life is found on the long road to peace. Though I'm nobody, I've tried to undertake a lifelong journey into Gospel nonviolence, and I have discovered a taste of life's meaning: love, compassion, service, resistance, and peace." Some of the liveliest passages are Dear's descriptions of his confrontations with his Jesuit superiors, most of whom not only haven't seen eye to eye with him but have refused to speak heart to heart.

In 1984, as a seminarian assigned to help run a service program at Georgetown for Salvadoran refugees, Dear wrote to the university's president, Rev. Timothy Healy, expressing "serious concerns about the university's financial, academic and public support of the U.S. military and the structures of violence." Healy sat the seminarian down in his office -- "the size of a basketball court," Dear recalls -- and unloaded: "How dare you write me a letter like that! What gives you the right to instruct me about the operations of this university? Do you realize that if we don't have Christians running the Pentagon there will be even more wars, even more atrocities? We need Jesuit-educated people running the Pentagon, the military, and our nuclear arsenal. . . . You're a disgrace to the Society."

In 2002, after serving as a Red Cross chaplain in Manhattan helping the bereaved of 9/11 while simultaneously denouncing Catholic bishops for supporting the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, Dear was rebuked by his Jesuit superior for disobedience and ordered to leave New York. The rebel priest took it philosophically, if not well: "In a culture of war, those who speak for peace will quickly be shown the door. In a church that turns a blind eye upon child abuse and blesses the murder of children, those who speak out will surely be pushed aside."

John Dear, with a long arrest record for antiwar protests and time served in prison for civil-disobedience convictions, currently lives in a rustic hermitage four miles from the nearest road in northern New Mexico -- the Siberian end of the line, where he can cause no more heartburn to East Coast Jesuits. What's lacking -- gapingly so -- in this stirring and literate account of a conscience at work is a chapter on why he sticks with an order and a church that emphatically do not agree with, much less value, his antiwar work or his pacifist ideas. A full book, not a chapter, might be needed for that. ยท

Colman McCarthy directs the Center for Teaching Peace. His recent books include "At Rest With the Animals" and "I'd Rather Teach Peace."

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