John Dear was interviewed by Daniel Zwerdling on National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered,” for their feature segment on August 20, 1994
DANIEL ZWERDLING, Host: Now that the Cold War is over, you don’t hear much about peace demonstrations or the peace movement, and when you hear talk about religious activists it generally means the religious right. But earlier this week, we met a priest who defies both those trends. We joined him at 6:00 one evening, as more than 200 men and women filed through the food line in the back room of the St. Aloysius Church in Washington D.C. You can see the U.S. capitol dome from the sidewalk right in front of the church. the neighborhood is the dividing line between the official Washington that tourists see and poor Washington.
SOUND OF A GROUP OF PEOPLE TALKING AND MILLING AROUND
JOHN DEAR, Jesuit Priest and Peace Activist: How are you doing, Ma’am. You got two trays, there, huh? How come?
1ST WOMAN: My daughter.
FR. DEAR: Your daughter?
1ST WOMAN: Yeah.
FR. DEAR: How old is she?
1ST WOMAN: One.
FR. DEAR: One? Where is she?
ZWERDLING: The man serving the potatoes at this soup kitchen is a 35-year-old Jesuit priest, John Dear. He’s wearing a black, short-sleeved shirt and a white cleric’s collar. He has glasses and a babyish face. He doesn’t look 35. And this is the first night he’s back in the food line since he got out of jail. John Dear has just served seven and a half months in a North Carolina prison. As he stands here, men keep coming up to him-
1ST MAN: My family [unintelligible]. You know, and I- I love my family, but it seem like they the only one that help me. Sometime I feel like suicide-
ZWERDLING: On December 7th last year, Dear joined three religious colleagues, including Philip Berrigan, one of the patriarchs of the anti-war movement. They walked onto the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina, and they struck a blow for peace and justice for the poor, as they saw it. Dear has been waging his brand of non-violent war against war since he joined the Jesuits more than a decade ago. He says the protest at Johnson Air Force Base was based on the words of the prophet Isaiah in the Old Testament- `They shall beat their swords into ploughshares. Neither shall they train for war anymore.’ Dear also quotes Pope Paul VI who wrote in 1975 that the very act of building weapons amounts to a crime, even if they’re never used, because it diverts money from feeding the poor, which causes the poor to starve. Dear believes passionately in nonviolence. He believes that violence is always wrong and he and his colleagues chose Pearl Harbor Day to take that message to Johnson Air Force Base.
FR. DEAR: We walked in around 2:00 a.m. in the morning. We just walked over the fence and we figured the place was going to be completely empty but our first few steps onto the base we were inundated by police cars going by in the woods, and tanks and trucks. We kind of hid out–we prayed a little bit. And we kept going. Slowly, for an hour, we made our way through the woods and the fields, and then it sort of opened up and we saw before us the whole Air Force Base and we realized we were in the middle of full scale war games. There were a thousand soldiers and air force personnel milling around, and tanks and trucks and over 75 of these huge F-15E nuclear fighter bombers and they were on alert to bomb Bosnia. Got the-
ZWERDLING: Now, wait a minute. I don’t understand this. This is 2:00 a.m., you’re at a major U.S. Air Force Base, the fighter bombers are on alert, and you and your buddies are walking out onto the airfield right up to one of them?
FR. DEAR: Right.
ZWERDLING: And security hasn’t stopped you?
FR. DEAR: Right. So we walked into the middle of the base and we had little hammers, and we started hammering on the- on the plane. I myself hammered once on a little fin hanging down from it, which is the radar guidance system for the bombs, and it was like one of those cartoons where you- you hit it and you kind of shake, and nothing happens. You know, I didn’t even put a chip in the paint. And then I hit again the fuselage on the side, and then instantly we were surrounded by 25 young Air Force guys with machine guns aimed at us. And then within a minute, 100, and then 200 and 300. And they were yelling and screaming and they were saying into their radios, `This is reality. War games canceled.’ And, `You’re under arrest.’ Whereas I was saying on behalf of my friends, `We’re unarmed, peaceful people. We’re here to disarm this weapon of death.’ And we were arrested and instantly taken off into jail.
ZWERDLING: Let me ask you a hypothetical question. I’ve been going through some of your articles and books trying to understand the symbolism that you’re talking about, and supposing you’re at home with your family and I mean- you’re smiling- I think you know the sort of question I’m going to ask you- and a gang of men burst into your home and starts beating up and raping and murdering the women in your family. Are you telling me that you would not pick up the closest thing at hand- a lamp, a brick, a table, and bash one of those guy’s heads in to save your loved ones?
FR. DEAR: Well, as I say, for myself as a Christian, I’m trying follow Jesus who practiced nonviolence. So, if people broke into the house, I would intervene nonviolently- stand up, welcome, offer them food, money, whatever they would want, and I hope and pray that because God has asked us to act and respond nonviolently that then the God of non-violence will intervene, transform us all, they would sit down, join us for a meal, and we would all get to know one another better. And leave as friends.
ZWERDLING: When you say, if a bunch of rapists and murderers burst into your house you would, you know, offer them food and try to make friends- I mean, that’s hard to take.
FR. DEAR: Well, I’m willing to- I’m practicing now-
ZWERDLING: It’s hard to believe.
FR. DEAR: -in process of offering my life, non-violently, for justice and peace. And in this cause, as Gandhi would say, I would be willing to die and we could have been shot and killed at Seymour Johnson.
ZWERDLING: Well, back to the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, you must have been elated when the- when you were taken to court, the judge called you and your colleagues, I think, `dangers to the community.’ Was that the phrase he used?
FR. DEAR: Um-hm. Right.
ZWERDLING: Because, first of all, you were getting the government’s goat- you were getting them angry, and you were also being put in jail with some of the very sorts of people- people who are down and out, people who are poor, people whom you consider to be oppressed- the very sort of people you are devoting your life to helping.
FR. DEAR: Right, and-
ZWERDLING: What was it like?
FR. DEAR: Well, on the one hand it was very, very difficult for me. I come from a very upper class family and the Jesuits- we’re struggling to be poor and we’re not doing so good a job, but- so all of that, and suddenly I have nothing and we’re led around in shackles and-
FR. DEAR: Well, whenever we were moved to court, you know, our ankles were chained together, our wrists were chained together and we had chains around our waists, and then all of that was chained together and then we would be chained together. It was quite a powerful experience. I was in a little cell about the size of one of our tables here the entire time. And after a while- I’ll speak for myself, the walls began to close in on me. It was-
ZWERDLING: What do you mean?
FR. DEAR: -terribly claustrophobic, you know, because I was in this little tiny cell. But the flip side of it was, you know, how do you- how do I survive this? We- we didn’t know at first that we- I was going to be out after seven and a half months. We faced up to 10 years in prison, very seriously, too. So we began a daily schedule of prayer and reading and writing. We would spend three hours every morning studying the gospel of Mark and then breaking Wonder Bread together, having a little morning mass.
ZWERDLING: [laughs] Breaking Wonder Bread.
FR. DEAR: -and then passing the grape juice for the cup, and praying together.
ZWERDLING: Well, John Dear, now you are out of jail, enjoying your liberation, as you put it-
FR. DEAR: Yes
ZWERDLING: -but you’re still- you’re sort of under house arrest, right?
FR. DEAR: Right, I’m very much under house arrest until January.
ZWERDLING: But you’re allowed to walk to the church, right? So it’s not total house arrest.
FR. DEAR: Well- well, by next week, they are going to put on this ankle radar bracelet around-
ZWERDLING: Oh, really?
FR. DEAR: Yeah. They’re going to do this around my ankle and they’re going to install this government radar system at the front door, and if I step out- out the front door like after 6:00, the radar goes off, the police come by and they take me back to jail.
ZWERDLING: In looking back on this whole experience–your protest, your months in jail, now this house arrest with an ankle bracelet coming up, what- what have you accomplished? And the reason I’m asking this is that I can hear, I think, a lot of listeners saying, `I don’t know, John Dear, how I feel about, you know, what you did- hitting that fighter bomber. I mean, you didn’t hurt it- fine. You knew you’d go to jail- fine. But, I mean, but what’s the point?’ I mean, you didn’t get a lot of publicity in the newspapers, you didn’t have big stories on TV, very few people in this country even know what you did. What have you gained?
FR. DEAR: Well, it’s a good question, and it’s a question I have prayed over and thought a lot about. For me, it was a matter of walking onto the base and nonviolently, prayerfully trying to help begin the process of disarmament. And then, I leave result and the outcome in God’s hands.
ZWERDLING: That sounds like a little bit of a cop out.
FR. DEAR: A cop out? I don’t think so. I don’t think so. I really hope and believe that some day thousands of people are going to- going to walk on our military bases around the country and begin the process of dismantling our weapons. That we’re just at the beginning- just at the beginning of a peace movement in our country. And though the mainstream media, by and large, ignored us, though we got a lot of coverage in North Carolina, and though let’s say the mainstream church, by and large, ignored us, the government didn’t. The government took us very, very seriously and I have been pondering that all these many months, because I think the government knows that if a lot of people start doing this, change is going to happen.
ZWERDLING: John Dear, associate pastor of the St. Aloysius Church in Washington, D.C.
ZWERDLING: And for this evening, that’s “All Things Considered”. I’m Daniel Zwerdling. Good evening for “All Things Considered”.