CIMARRON, NM— Rev. John Dear was no stranger to controversy before he arrived in New Mexico in 2002. And he’s found plenty since he got here.
The 44-year-old Jesuit says he had been arrested more than 75 times for acts of civil disobedience and nonviolent peace protests across the country before deciding on New Mexico as his new home.
It wasn’t a random selection. Dear, who has written or edited 20 books on peace and justice, says he is on a global mission that is much bigger than America.
Dear says he moved to New Mexico because it is “No. 1 in nuclear weapons, No. 1 in military spending”— but also because it is one of the poorest states and because it has a profound, inherent spirituality.
And he’s been anything but low key since taking his post as a parish priest serving a swath of rural northeastern New Mexico.
He called Los Alamos National Laboratory immoral and “demonic.” He eventually was forbidden by Archbishop Michael J. Sheehan from participating in a peace protest there.
He told members of a National Guard unit during training exercises that they should put down their weapons and refuse to serve.
His strong anti-war message, and the way he delivers it— during Mass— so upset some parishioners at St. Mel’s Catholic Church in Eagle Nest that they petitioned the archbishop to have Dear removed from the parish.
He also has followers, including some who now drive from Eagle Nest to hear him celebrate Mass in Cimarron.
Dear says Sheehan acquiesced to parishioners, and since May, he no longer is allowed to preach at St. Mel’s. A spokeswoman for the Archdiocese did not return phone calls seeking a response.
Dear, who spent eight months in jail with renowned peace activist Philip Berrigan for banging on a fighter jet with a hammer, is up front with his message.
In fact, he posts his homilies on the Internet.
They can be provocative. Witness two excerpts from his homily of Nov. 23:
“… we can’t support this disastrous, immoral war against the poor people of Iraq. If we follow Jesus, we are forbidden to fight. So we’re not going to fight for (President) Bush and (Vice President) Cheney, and kill people in Iraq so they can steal more oil.”
“I have never voted because I think all governments and political parties are corrupt and misguided and violent and now, because I protested against our country’s wars so much, as a convicted felon, I’m actually not allowed to vote anymore, anyway.”
In a recent interview, Dear said that Bush, who is a Methodist, and others who hold the teachings of Christ in one hand and American patriotism and war in the other, can’t have both.
“I think it is all blasphemy, it is classic idolatry, a total insult,” Dear said. “They have no understanding whatsoever what the gospel of Jesus is .. it is just love your enemies, put your swords down.”
A specific peace
On Dec. 21, more than 60 parishioners filled the wooden pews of the small Catholic church in Cimarron to hear Dear celebrate Mass on the fourth Sunday of Advent, four days before Christmas.
He told the congregation, “The whole purpose of Christianity … is love.”
His soothing voice carries a distinct Southern softness, but without the accent, a vestige of his first 10 years of life in North Carolina. He returned as a student at Duke University after an adolescence spent in Washington, D.C.
Dear’s voice has power, not because it is booming or rousing, but because of a tender insistence that seems to draw in listeners with his deep personal conviction.
“Jesus says over and over again, ‘Love your neighbor … love even your enemies,’ ” Dear said in his sermon.
Most of the Cimarron congregation laughed when Dear weaved a joke about his own controversies into a telling of the Christmas story.
For Dear, Christmas is a time of hope, when humankind is reminded of God’s ultimate gift through Christ: peace on earth, which has so far been rejected, he said in an interview.
And a general prayer for peace on earth isn’t sufficient. “Peace needs to be very specific,” he added.
Dear in fact can be very specific in his sermons. The Jesuit priest has called Bush and senior administration officials “warmakers” and has extolled Jesus’ radical roots, calling Jesus a “revolutionary” who is “challenging, daring, provocative, scandalous, a total troublemaker, who engages in illegal activity.”
He draws on Bible stories that illustrate Jesus’ proclivity toward civil disobedience as a means to resist injustice and urges parishioners to take their own personal stands.
Dear maintains that even his most specific criticism of Bush and the war in Iraq— such as the accusation that the Bush administration wants to “steal” Iraqi oil— “is very biblically based.”
“I see it in the Ten Commandments,” he said. “Thou shalt not kill, or covet thy neighbor’s assets.”
Dear noted that Sheehan, too, was against the war in Iraq before it started, as was Pope John Paul II and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“I don’t know of any other parish where a priest was kicked out for preaching the Gospel,” Dear said. “I was just saying what the pope was saying .. I am not that fringe.”
Dear’s kind of Christianity has support from some parishioners.
Since Dear was removed from St. Mel’s in May, Neva Hascall— the mayor of Eagle Nest— and her husband, Thane, drive 50 miles to Cimarron every Sunday to hear Dear preach.
“We are just extremely devoted to his message, so we come here every Sunday,” Hascall said after a recent Mass in Cimarron. “It isn’t like he is up there saying something that is totally out of whack with Christianity.”
Dear still serves parishes in Cimarron, Maxwell and Springer and several missions. He is also a chaplain at New Mexico Boys’ School and says he drives about 60,000 miles a year serving people.
But in Eagle Nest, many parishioners are retired military, often with family and loved ones still serving in the armed forces, a situation that helped generate conflict there.
Some feel his message— strongly anti-war, anti-nuclear and anti-military— has crossed the line of preaching religion and the Gospels and entered the realm of politics, especially when he calls for closing Los Alamos National Laboratory and Kirtland Air Force Base or blasts the Bush administration for pushing an “immoral” war against Iraq.
People in Eagle Nest, upset by his sermons, which they felt encouraged civil disobedience and were anti-American, have said they tried to reason with Dear, arguing that politics doesn’t belong in the pulpit. They add he doesn’t handle conflict or differences of opinion well.
Mayor Hascall contends some of those who challenged Dear in Eagle Nest were verbally abusive to the priest…
Dear says he supports the troops so much that he doesn’t want any of them to be killed or to kill.
St. Mel’s in Eagle Nest now has Sunday Mass just once a month, when a priest from Questa makes a 60-mile round trip for the service. The rest of the time parishioners conduct a communion service for themselves.
Although no comment from the archdiocese regarding Dear was available recently,
Sheehan told the Journal last year he looked “forward to working with (Dear) in the days and years to come.”
He said there have always been pacifists within the Catholic Church and Christianity and that on such issues “there are a wide range of acceptable positions.”
However, in August the archbishop ordered Dear to stay away from a Los Alamos ceremony marking the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima near the end of World War II.
Regarding LANL, the Rev. John Carney and Dear disagree. Carney, the pastor of the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Community in Los Alamos, argued in an opinion column published in the Journal in January that Dear is entitled to his pacifist beliefs. But he made it clear that LANL scientists, who are involved in many good works such as AIDS research and “nonlethal incapacitating agents that will make conflict less deadly,” are not demonic. “I believe that the great majority of people who work at LANL are peace seekers,” Carney wrote.
Confronting the guard
Of his confrontation with National Guard members last month at Springer, Dear said about 75 soldiers on a fitness run were chanting a slogan, which he said is “One bullet, one kill,” but were out of rhythm. To him it sounded like “kill, kill, kill,” he said.
Lt. Col. Richard Rael who led the march, has said the group did not chant “kill, kill, kill.”
Maj. Kim Lalley, a guard spokesman, said recently that the job of soldiers sent overseas “is not about killing people.” Lalley said some younger troops are looking for spiritual guidance, and Dear’s confrontation with the Springer group “was inappropriate.”
Dear told the soldiers God does not support war and asked that they quit the military and not go to Iraq.
As a result of the press coverage of that incident, Dear said a young woman who serves in a different National Guard unit is dropping out and has come to him with her family for counseling.
“She did it for reasons of faith and conscience, and I am so proud of her,” Dear said. Lalley said the Guard wasn’t aware of any such resignation.
Dear said, “The great lie and the myth of war is that war and these weapons will make us more secure.”
He said if the United States practiced nonviolence and treated more countries with respect and dignity, they would support the nation and Americans would have less to fear.
“Really, everything I have done is trying to follow Jesus,” he said.