“Nonviolence Is Courageous and Daring:”
The Progressive Magazine Interviews Rev. John Dear.
(This interview was held at the Progressive magazine office in Madison, Wis., and conducted by Norman Stockwell, publisher of the Progressive. It was published in June, 2018 issue. (See www.progressive.org)
Q: Let’s start out by talking a little bit about your background. How did you come to be where you are today?
John Dear: I grew up in North Carolina. My dad was the local newspaper publisher, and he supported Dr. [Martin Luther] King and the civil rights movement. So the Klan attacked him, and they issued death threats against me and my older brother. We would get blood-stained postcards. And then we moved to Washington, D.C., and my father became one of the leaders of the National Press Club.
So I was very politicized as a kid about the Vietnam War and Dr. King. When King and Bobby Kennedy were killed fifty years ago, it really shook me, even though I was only eight years old. And eventually I went to college at Duke, majoring in African American history. I thought, well, if they kill our greatest person ever, Martin Luther King, there’s nothing that can be done and I don’t even believe in God anymore.
Then, one day, I saw the light, and decided to give my whole life to God. That was the best thing I could do. I thought, well, I have to be a Jesuit priest. But just before I entered the Jesuits, I decided to hitchhike through Israel to see where Jesus lived. I was twenty-two years old.
Q: Tell us about that.
Dear: I left the week Israel invaded Lebanon, the summer war of 1982, and everything was canceled. I hitchhiked through the war, and I was camping out by myself at the Sea of Galilee, visiting the Chapel of the Beatitudes, reading these great teachings—“Blessed are the peacemakers,” “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice,” “Love your enemies”—when I saw all these jets swoop down over the Sea of Galilee and bomb Lebanon fifteen miles away.
“Nonviolence, which is courageous and daring, requires a lot of inner strength. It’s the hardest thing to do. Nonviolence is not passivity.”
I decided, then and there, that I would spend the rest of my life trying to teach and practice the Sermon on the Mount, which I learned that Gandhi read from every day.
A few weeks later, I met the [peace activists] Daniel and Philip Berrigan, and they became my friends and teachers. That put me on the road to organizing against war, getting arrested regularly. I’ve been arrested about eighty times. I’ve been in and out of court my whole life now. I was on community service all last year.
Over the years with Dan [Berrigan], my passion has become active nonviolence—in the tradition of Gandhi and Dr. King. That has been my theology, spirituality, and teaching, as well as organizing.
Q: In one of your more than thirty-five books, you pre-sent Dr. King’s to-do list on nonviolence. Talk about that.
Dear: Anybody can be violent. Violence is in our bloodstream now. We’re brainwashed into it. And it’s really just cowardice, and stupidity, and ignorance. Nonviolence, which is courageous and daring, requires a lot of inner strength. It’s the hardest thing to do. Nonviolence is not passivity.
In Los Alamos, New Mexico, near where I live, everybody’s for peace. Everybody loves each other, and [yet] they’re building nuclear weapons. Nobody uses the word nonviolence, so I use it. It’s a whole way of life, and it’s an active political methodology of social change that requires the giving of our lives, but without retaliating with violence or the taking of life.
Q: One of the things on this list is “nonviolence seeks to defeat evil, not people.”
Dear: As a methodology, violence in response to violence doesn’t work. It just leads to further violence. And [if] you just expand that to the whole world, it leads to global destruction, and permanent warfare, and nuclear weapons, and catastrophic climate change.
So [nonviolence is] a methodology of transforming the situation and ending the killing and working toward healing. But in a one-on-one situation, which I’ve experienced a lot, working with the homeless, and soup kitchens, and spending a lot of time in prison, if you start fighting back, it’s really not going to work. But if you engage and say, “Hey, man, what’s wrong?” many times they stop and come to their senses.
Q: Your newest book, They Will Inherit the Earth, talks about peace and nonviolence in the time of climate change and other environmental threats. How are these things connected?
Dear: For the last fifteen years, I have lived in a remote place in New Mexico on the top of a mountain, way off the grid, at 8,000 feet in a handmade house. I was looking out over pristine New Mexico, beautiful landscape, pondering the Sermon on the Mount, and I remembered that Thomas Merton said that our translation is wrong.
In the Hebrew, meekness is not passivity. Jesus is [saying] “blessed are the people of active, courageous, nonviolence,” like Martin Luther King. And Jesus links active nonviolence with oneness with the earth.
So [in the book] I’m trying to ponder that. This is a profound spiritual teaching for the time of climate change. Not only do we have to be movement people, nonviolent people, but our nonviolence is to help us reconnect with Mother Earth and the creatures, and this might be a way of healing and inspiring us to give our lives in the movement to protect the earth.
Q: Now, for the first time, the Catholic Church is beginning to address some of these issues through Pope Francis in his encyclicals on the environment and on violence. What’s your take on this?
Dear: I think Pope Francis is the most progressive pope in history, and he’s doing a lot of radical things. I of course want him to do more, especially on the role of women in the church and so forth. But his encyclical Laudato Si’, on the environment, was a huge breakthrough. Robert Redford said in The New York Times that the Paris Accords would not have happened without Pope Francis’s statement.
“Pope Francis is the most progressive pope in history, and he’s doing a lot of radical things.”
Around the world, Pope Francis is idolized and followed. But in the United States, the Catholic Church has moved so far right that he’s ignored, and not taught and supported. But around the world, Francis is making a huge impact.
Q: How did you come to help write the pope’s statement on peace?
Dear: Beginning a couple of years ago, some of us were invited to work with the Vatican, which is something I never expected to be doing. [We had an historic conference there, and] I spoke on Jesus and nonviolence, and the lead cardinal asked me, and a couple of my friends, to draft Pope Francis’s January 1, 2017, World Day of Peace message called, “Nonviolence: A Style of Politics for Peace”.
This is the first statement on nonviolence in the history of the Catholic Church. It was a huge breakthrough, heralded around the world, and ignored in the United States.
We’re going to have another major conference at the Vatican next January. And we’re hoping that [Pope] Francis will write a new major encyclical statement, finally getting rid of the “just war” theory after 1,700 years. We hope he returns to the nonviolence of the Sermon on the Mount, and makes nonviolence normative for every Catholic, and therefore every Christian, on the planet. You can’t be a part of war, and you can’t be violent, and you have to be part of Jesus’s way of nonviolence.
If it happens, it will be the most important thing of our lifetime because it could change history.
Q: Here in the states, you run a project called Campaign Nonviolence, and you’re working on a national convergence for this fall. What will that look like?
Dear: Years ago, under [President Barack] Obama, my colleague Ken Butigan and I and our group Pace e Bene wanted to get the movement moving. So we called for a national week of action. Now this isn’t just an organizing tool. It’s what they do in Europe. Germany, for example, has had a national week of action since the 1970s. And it’s really had a huge effect around the country to mainstream [the ideas of] justice, peace, and nonviolence.
So we picked International Peace Day, September 21, and we called for a week where people would take to the streets against everything—war, racism, poverty, nuclear weapons, environmental destruction, and for Dr. King’s vision of a new culture of nonviolence.
This will be our fifth national week of action, from September 15 to September 23, 2018. We’re expecting more than two thousand actions, marches, events, and demonstrations covering all fifty states, connecting the dots on all the issues in a spirit of total nonviolence to help get the movement moving. I think this is really exciting, and hopeful, and new in the grassroots movements, maybe even in our history.
Q: What makes this action unique?
Dear: It’s not like the March for Our Lives, a massive thing. It’s really ordinary, and across the board. Together, there’s power if we can continue to build it and mainstream [the concept of] working for justice and peace. Cesar Chavez told me shortly before he died that nonviolence has to happen in the streets. And he encouraged me to get everybody in the country to keep mobilizing for “public action,” for justice and peace.
This year we picked Saturday, September 22, and we are calling for a gathering at 9 a.m. at the Dr. King statue [in Washington, D.C.], and we’re going to march to the White House. Nobody has done this yet. We’re going to line up in pairs like Gandhi in Satyagraha, in the Salt March. We’re going to walk in strict silence past the Lincoln Memorial to the White House and have a vigil there in Lafayette Square. And then, some of us will take nonviolent direct action, trying to speak against the whole spectrum of violence, and say we want a new culture of nonviolence.
Now you could ask, well, how’s that helpful? That’s not very strategic. Well, we need public witnesses, and we need to help empower each other. It’s heartening to be on the streets together as we saw with the March for Our Lives. And I think we all need to realize that everything is connected. All these forms of violence are one epidemic of violence which is destroying us all.
So that’s what I’m working on, and I hope people will join in. You can visit campaignnonviolence.org, organize an event locally where you are, then write us and let us know about it.