Modern prophets: Father John Dear, S.J., Comes to LeMoyne College for Annual Peace Lecture

Peace is possible. That was the overriding optimism brought by Father John Dear, SJ, as he came to Syracuse’s Le Moyne College for the second annual Rev. Daniel Berrigan, SJ/International House Peacemaker Lecture held Feb. 12 at Panasci Chapel. Father Dear, 42, brought his friend and mentor, Father Daniel Berrigan with him to the lecture. Both priests made a joint appearance at the taping of an upcoming Around the Diocese television show with Bishop Thomas Costello. The title of Father Dear’s lecture was “Living Peace: Reflections on Sept. 11 and the War on Terror.”
As Bishop Costello noted at the taping, the position of the two Jesuits is not one that the media would conclude is a popular stance on the war on terrorism. As the U.S. rallies around the soldiers battling terror, flags are found waving from car antennas and hanging in windows, as well as outside many churches, the bishop noted. Meanwhile, the two priests have dedicated their lives to the opposite of war–peace.
For Father Dear, the terror of the World Trade Center disaster was very real. He lives in New York City and immediately began volunteering at Ground Zero after the terrorists struck.
“I was shocked, horrified like everybody else in New York and around the country,” Father Dear said.
He worked full-time as a volunteer for approximately three months after the attacks. Father Dear said he counseled over two thousand people, offering compassion and support to firefighters, rescue workers and families affected by the tragedy. One firefighter came to Father Dear out of the rubble and said, “Father, teach me how to pray. I’m digging out my best friend.”
What is not often noted, he said, is that there were, and still are, crowds gathering for peace vigils in New York.
While news television channels flash totals of casualties and banner strips of war highlights, Father Dear suggests that the public not spend all of its time in front of the television.
“We cannot spend our time in front of the TV doing whatever the government tells us. We need to spend time each day reading the Gospels and Jesus’ instructions of nonviolent love; praying; going to Mass; meeting with church peace groups; and periodically vigiling and demonstrating against the war,” he said.
“If we follow the media, we will give up our faith in Jesus and say that nonviolence is impossible. But Jesus still calls us to love our enemies, even though the evening news program ignores that,” Father Dear said in an interview after his lecture.
Father Dear calls warfare the “reality of brutal murder of other human beings,” and he said that despite the fact that family members lost loved ones in the World Trade Center attacks, it was very rare that he heard them speak of retaliation or retribution. Mostly, they said that a war would not bring their loved ones back and they had seen enough killing, he explained.
Violence simply does not work, he told the audience at the chapel. “Violence is immoral, illegal and impractical. Gandhi said, ‘An eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind.’ Revenge and retaliation only escalate violence. War will not stop terrorism because war is terrorism,” Father Dear said.
Father Dear referred to President Bush’s strong position on the war on terrorism.
“We’re not pursuing peace here. Bush has said it’s either dead or alive, us or them.”
The answer, he said, lies in “the long, hard work of speaking out against war,” something he is no stranger to.
The author of 17 books on peace and justice, Father Dear began his quest for nonviolence in the early 1980s as he visited Israel and was shocked to see war “literally happening before my eyes over the Sea of Galilee where Jesus lived and taught.” That experience challenged him to take Jesus seriously, he said.
As a young Jesuit in 1985, Father Dear traveled to San Salvador where he visited with the priests at the university there “the same priests who were murdered on the lawn outside their residence in 1989. There were 26 soldiers involved in the murder, 19 of whom were trained in the U.S.,” he said. The president of the Salvadoran university told Father Dear and the other young Jesuits he was traveling with that the purpose of the Jesuits’ work in El Salvador was to “promote the reign of God,” and that one could not be for the reign of God unless one was also willing “to stand up publicly against the anti-reign of war.”
The house where the Jesuit priests lived was covered with bullet holes, Father Dear said.
In 1993, Father Dear was arrested at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, N.C. for hammering on an F-15 nuclear fighter bomber. He spent eight months in North Carolina county jails along with Philip Berrigan, Father Daniel Berrigan’s brother and also a peace activist. Father Dear described how he felt as he lay on the ground at the base with guns pointed at his head. He said it gave him an idea of how the Jesuits in San Salvador must have felt.
Father Dear’s message was clear, but it still is not the position most of the people in the U.S. would take considering recent events. When asked how he speaks to those who do not want to hear a message about peace right now, Father Dear said he first listens to them compassionately.
“I find many people want to talk first, to someone like me, to get if off their chest. And deep down, they are suffering some personal grief, from some terrible episode of violence. But, when I speak of God’s love for them, God’s compassion for them, and God’s invitation for them to forgive and let go of resentment, they open up. And I point out then, that God has the same compassion for every human being on earth, including our enemies,the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine and all the poor.”
After the lecture at Le Moyne, Father Dear and Father Berrigan answered questions from the crowd. One young woman said she didn’t have a question, she just wanted to shake their hands.