On Moral Leadership: The Need for Prophets for Peace and Justice in a Culture of War and Injustice By John Dear

[This essay was published in the fall of 2005 in a special book called “Moral Leadership,” edited by Daniel Deffenbaugh for Hastings College, Nebraska. For info, see: www.hastings.edu]
One reason for the world’s violence, poverty and wars lies in our crisis of ethics and leadership. Instead of pursuing a culture of morality, we have descended into a culture of immorality. Instead of leadership that truly leads us toward greater disarmament, justice, and peace, we are misled, brought backward toward the dark ages of poverty, greed, and permanent war–the jungle.
By a culture of immorality, I mean the fundamental immorality of institutionalized violence that leaves two billion people hungry, homeless, destitute, ill, illiterate, and unemployed. Any culture that executes its prisoners, bombs children abroad and maintains thousands of weapons of mass destruction, I submit, has descended into grave immorality. Yet today we regard these horrors as normal, legitimate, even natural.
“Moral principles have lost their distinctiveness,” Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote. “For modern society, absolute right and absolute wrong are a matter of what the majority is doing. Right and wrong are relative to likes and dislikes and the customs of a particular community. We have unconsciously applied Einstein’s theory of relativity, which properly described the physical universe to the moral and ethical realm.”
Moral leadership requires a vision of peace and justice for the entire human family. This vision goes beyond our national borders to see the benefits of global peace and justice for ourselves and all people. Visionary leaders lift that vision up for all to see and then point the way forward to make that vision of peace a reality here and now. If we had authentic, moral leaders, everyone would be inspired to join the great work at hand–the task of abolishing hunger, poverty, homelessness, the death penalty, war and nuclear weapons. Because we would be inspired, the spirit of peace would spread like a holy contagion, and justice “would roll down like waters.”
Our immoral culture of violence is the natural consequence of a failure of leadership. Authentic leaders concerned with the noble principles of truth, love, justice and peace, would never lead their people to wage war, oppress the poor, or maintain nuclear weapons. They would not risk death for their people or other people. They would never adopt policies that destroy the environment. Today, the culture of war, backed by its media and corporate billionaires, pulls the strings for its misleading puppet politicians to reap huge profits for the oil and weapons industries. Instead of pursuing noble principles, our misleaders have no vision of truth, love, justice or peace. They literally can not imagine such a world. They certainly do not want such a world. They are happy to rake in the billions for their corporate sponsors, turn their backs on suffering humanity, and preserve their own immorality.
Martin Luther King, Jr. demonstrated moral leadership. When he was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in 1964, he upheld that vision of peace in his Oslo address, a vision we rarely hear: “I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of nuclear destruction. I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant. I believe that even amid today’s mortar burst and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow. I believe that one day humankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed, and nonviolent redemptive good will will proclaim the rule of the land.”
The greatest moral leaders in history were the prophets and saints, people like Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Sienna, and Ignatius of Loyola. The last century brought death to more than one hundred million people from war and the consequences of war, but it also raised up a handful of remarkable moral leaders who sparked grassroots movements that disarmed and transformed their nations and the world, visionaries like Mahatma Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Jane Addams, Thich Nhat Hanh, Fannie Lou Hamer, Pope John XXIII, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Mother Theresa, Nelson Mandela, and Vaclav Havel. If we want future leaders rooted in morality, peace and justice, we need to learn from the great moral leaders of the past and emulate their visionary work.
For more than twenty five years, I have worked across the United States with a variety of grassroots groups in pursuit of disarmament, justice and peace. This work has taken me to soup kitchens, homeless shelters, death row cells and inner city neighborhoods. It has also led me to organize hundreds of nonviolent demonstrations against war and nuclear weapons, and to cross the line in dozens of acts of nonviolent civil disobedience. I have lobbied dozens of politicians, given innumerable press conferences, stood at countless peace vigils, and been arrested more than seventy times. By and large, my efforts have been ignored by the media, the government and the churches, but that has not stopped me. I realized long ago that one does the good because it is good, while the outcome is left in the hands of God.
One of the many blessings of this work has been the privilege of knowing some of the great moral leaders of our time. I would like to reflect on three of them–Ignacio Ellacuria, Cesar Chavez, and Philip Berrigan.
Ignacio Ellacuria, Martyr for Justice
During the summer of 1985, I lived in the impoverished, war-torn Central American nation of El Salvador. Throughout the 1980s, the United States funded a brutal junta and its death squads which killed some 80,000 people, including Archbishop Oscar Romero, four U.S. church women, and hundreds of church workers. The key leaders in the movement for peace and justice were priests at the Jesuit university in San Salvador. The president of the JesuitUniversity was a renown philosopher and theologian named Ignacio Ellacuria. During the seven years prior to my visit, Ellacuria and the other Jesuits in his community received a dozen death threats a week, had their home bombed 21 times, and had their house shot at repeatedly. Ellacuria and his companions were targeted for death because, like Romero, they were eloquent spokesmen who denounced the injustice of turning El Salvador into a puppet neocolonial state for the United States.
The University Jesuits sent me to live and work in a church-run refugee camp for displaced people in the middle of the war-zone. My job was to ask any death squad soldier who showed up to leave.
Those were intense, terrifying, grace-filled days. I met hundreds of people who lost their loved ones, who taught me the meaning of faith, hope and love in the midst of war and despair. But without a doubt the most inspiring figure I met that summer was Ellacuria himself, the Jesuit University president. Meeting him was like meeting Ezekiel or Jeremiah. He was disturbing and challenging, as all prophets are.
When our group of five young Jesuits was brought to meet the great man in his office, he shook our hands, sat down and said, “The purpose of the Jesuit University in El Salvador is to transform the national reality, to promote the reign of God.” I was amazed. I knew right then that I was in the presence of rare courage. “However,” he continued, “we have learned in El Salvador, that if you are going to be for the reign of God, you have to be against the anti-reign.” In other words, he said, if you want to be for peace and justice, you have to stand up publicly against war and injustice. If you want to do the good, you have to stand up publicly against institutionalized evil. If you want to create a culture of morality, you have to speak out publicly against the culture of immorality. “And so,” he concluded, “we are against U.S. military aid, the U.S. bombing raids, the military dictatorship, the junta, the various death squads, the violence of the rebels, and the violence of poverty, hunger, disease and unemployment that kills our people. We are against violence on all sides and everyone wants to kill us.”
No wonder he was in trouble. Ellacuria denounced the government’s wars and injustices at every turn. He risked his life, like Romero, on behalf of the suffering Salvadoran people. He understood the consequences of his public stand for peace. Later, when his Jesuit community hosted us for a meal, we saw the bullet holes which riddled their house and heard stories of the various bombing attempts on them. They had no intention of remaining silent in the midst of the immorality of war. They also had no intention of leaving.
A few years later, on November 16, 1989, Ellacuria and five other Jesuit priests were awoken at 1 a.m., dragged outside in front of their house, forced to lie down on the grass and shot point blank in the head. Their brains were then removed and placed next to their bodies, as a surviving Jesuit told me, to send a message to Latin America: This is what you get if you think about justice and peace. Twenty six soldiers, nineteen of them trained at Georgia’s “School of the Americas,” a U.S. terrorist training camp, executed my Jesuit brothers.
Ellacuria embodied moral leadership. He was bold, fearless, and committed to the truth of justice and peace, so much so that he spoke not just of a new El Salvador or a new world order for the Americas, but “the reign of God,” the coming of God’s realm of nonviolence for the whole human race.
Since meeting Ellacuria, my life has not been the same. One can not remain neutral or silent after encountering true moral leadership. Ellacuria teaches me that moral leadership speaks out against war and injustice, regardless of the personal consequences. He shows me that if we want to be about the public good, we have to denounce systemic evil. He models a new kind of prophetic leadership, announcing God’s will of peace and justice, even as politicians, military personnel and church officials support war and injustice. Ellacuria pushes us to take a stand for peace. That is what a moral leader does. He inspires others to become moral leaders.
Cesar Chavez, Apostle of Nonviolence
Cesar Chavez was the founder of the United Farm Workers, but he was much more than a labor organizer. He fasted, prayed, marched, picketed and boycotted on behalf of the poor and the day laborer, but most interestingly, he espoused a strict nonviolence in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. King. He became one of the world’s beacons of nonviolence.
Cesar Chavez was born on March 31, 1927 into a family of farmworkers. After his father lost his farm, his family migrated from Arizona through the Southwest to California as itinerant farmers. In the 1950s, he studied the Catholic church’s social teachings on the rights of workers, and became a community organizer. In 1962, Cesar founded the National Farm Workers Association with Dolores Huerta. In 1965, they began a five-year boycott against grape growers that rallied millions of supporters to the UFW. In 1968, Cesar undertook a 25-day fast to reaffirm the UFW commitment to nonviolence. “For us,” Cesar said, “nonviolence is more than academic theory; it is the very lifeblood of our movement.”
At the end of that famous fast, Cesar called everyone to take up the nonviolent struggle for justice. “I am convinced that the truest act of courage, the strongest act of humanity is to sacrifice ourselves for others in a totally nonviolent struggle for justice,” he said. “To be human is to suffer for others. God help us to be human.” Later, in the 1970s, Cesar led the largest, most successful farm strike in U.S. history, calling for a grape, lettuce and Gallo wine boycott that drew the support of over 17 million Americans.
Eventually, the UFW moved their headquarters to Keene, California and named their compound, “La Paz.” Pledged to voluntary poverty, Cesar never earned more than $5,000 a year. In 1984, Cesar called for another grape boycott to protest the use of cancer-causing pesticides which killed farmworkers and their children. The boycott gained new national recognition in July, 1988, when Cesar fasted for 36 days “as an act of penance for those who know they could or should do more.”
I met Cesar in the late 1980s at a rally outside of Safeway’s national headquarters in Oakland, California. He gave a stirring speech to a packed auditorium calling for a boycott of Safeway and its grapes, and fired us up to organize the boycott. We spent the day walking door-to-door in San Francisco, urging people to boycott grapes and telling them about the dangers of pesticides on farmworker families. Later, we gathered in the early evening for a social with Cesar. His optimism and passion were contagious.
I saw him on several other occasions before his unexpected death in Arizona on April 22, 1993. He always spoke with enthusiasm about the boycott, the pursuit of justice and the need for others to join the struggle. He was convinced that the boycott would succeed and that one day, cancer-causing pesticides would never be used again.
A few months before he died, I interviewed him for a Catholic peace journal. “I’m always hopeful,” he told me. “I know it doesn’t take everybody in the world to get things done. It takes a few and those few are there. So, it’s not a question of converting anyone or getting people to make a new commitment. The commitments are there. We just have to find them. That’s a hard thing. Getting the word out, communicating, giving people some action they can take. Together, there will be a great impact.
“We have a rule not to write or to preach about nonviolence,” he continued. “I’ve never written a word about nonviolence. There are people like you who have written all about nonviolence. We don’t have to write about it, interpret it, or dissect it. It’s very simple for us. We just do it. Nonviolence has to go beyond the rhetoric. There’s no real trick to being nonviolent if you’re in your room praying the rosary. Anybody can do that. But how about being nonviolent in the face of violence? That’s where it really happens.
“In the early days of the struggle, I talked a lot about nonviolence, more than I should have,” he continued. “And so, we had many people running around like saints with their hands folded together, looking like angels. So I said, ‘No, you don’t have to go around like you’re in another world to be nonviolent. That’s not the idea. Be yourselves and do things, but just don’t use violence.’ Nonviolence is not passivity. It requires real action. You have to get beyond the talking, writing and planning stage and get into real action if you want to change anything. Things change when you actually confront people, as in our case, the grape industry. So it is very important to concentrate on public action for justice and peace. Without action, things are not going to change. But with action, things happen. That’s my recommendation: Get involved with public action for justice and peace.”
As we concluded the conversation, I asked him about his accomplishments, and his response, I think, defines: “There’s a difference between being of service and being a servant,” he observed. “If you are of service, you serve at your convenience. You will say, ‘Oh, I can’t do this today at 5:00 or on Sunday, but perhaps I can next week.’ If you are a servant, you are at their convenience. You are at their service all the time. You are there to serve people. That’s faith and commitment.”
Cesar Chavez models active nonviolence, advocacy for the poor, selfless service, and moral leadership. Not only does he point us toward a new culture of justice for the poor, he shows us how to be human. His life and passion continue to inspire me.
Philip Berrigan, Prophet of Nuclear Disarmament
Philip Berrigan spent his life speaking out against war and nuclear weapons. As a member of the Baltimore Four and the Catonsville Nine, he led the movement against the Vietnam war and spent years in prison during the late 1960s and early 1970s. In 1973, with his wife Elizabeth McAlister, he founded Jonah House, a community of nonviolent resistance in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1980, with his brother Daniel and the Plowshares Eight, he entered a Pennsylvania nuclear weapons plant where he hammered on an unarmed Mark 12A nuclear nosecone to “beat swords into plowshares.” By the time of his death on December 6, 2002, Philip Berrigan had spent more than eleven years behind bars for anti-war and anti-nuclear demonstrations. He embodied prophetic, moral leadership.
I first met Philip Berrigan in 1982 and was arrested with him at many demonstrations on the East and West coasts. On December 7th, 1993, Philip, Bruce Friedrich, Lynn Fredriksson and I walked illegally onto the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base near Goldsboro, North Carolina, where we hammered on a F15E nuclear-capable fighter bomber. We spent eight months together in a tiny county jail cell. Throughout those long months in jail, Phil prayed, wrote, and reflected on what he called “the moral imperative of nuclear disarmament.” He showed the most single-minded commitment against nuclear weapons that I have witnessed. He embodied moral leadership at a time when nearly everyone ignores the nuclear peril and floats along with the tide of patriotism and war down the drain of global destruction.
“The Bomb makes every other issue redundant,” Philip Berrigan told me when I interviewed him in 1992 for a peace journal. “The fact that we are complicit in the presence of the Bomb–because we help pay for it, we allow its deployment and possible use, and we have threatened to use it at least 25 times unilaterally during the last 47 years of the Cold War–destroys us spiritually, morally, psychologically, emotionally and humanly. Our complicity in the Bomb makes us incapable of dealing with lesser social and political problems that are in reality spin-offs of our dedication to the bomb.
“The only conversion that is real today is a conversion that accepts responsibility for the Bomb,” he continued. “This conversion turns one’s life around so that one is free enough to witness against this inhuman, incredibly wicked manifestation of our insanity. We all have to take responsibility for the Bomb. This conversion and responsibility will breed all sorts of life-giving, salvific benefits. It will create a just social order.
“You can’t maintain a superpower status unless you’re armed to the teeth. So the U.S. will continue with weapons development, Star Wars, and a permanent war economy, because to do otherwise is to shift the status quo and redistribute wealth. The last people who want to do that are the one/two-hundredth who control thirty-seven percent of what the country produces, and their representatives, the president and his official terrorists in Washington. We need to resist this business of making war. We’re called to serve the poor, resist the state and be ignored, ostracized and sent to jail because we do that.
“Today, we are condemned to being hostages of the Bomb,” he said. “Legally, we’ve been held hostage by the Bomb for years. If nuclear war breaks out, it will be legal. We’ll be killed legally. That’s a commentary on the law and the nature of law. But we’re hopeful in so far as we are faithful. Having faith means we haven’t given up on the world. Together, we are part of God’s reign. We live as sisters and brothers. When we believe that and live accordingly, by resisting war, we generate hope.
“The disarmament of our nuclear weapons needs to be a priority for us,” Phil concluded. “Peacemaking needs to be our priority. Peacemaking is not only a central characteristic of the Gospel, peacemaking is the greatest need of the world today. We are daughters and sons of God, and that means we are called to be peacemakers.”
Philip Berrigan was a bright light to the nation, announcing the most unpopular but most crucial truth of our time: that if we do not disarm our nuclear arsenal and abolish war, we are doomed to destruction. Philip Berrigan was not only a moral leader, he was a holy prophet sent by the God of peace into our culture of war. Like all prophets, he suffered harassment and imprisonment for his truth-telling, but his moral leadership was a great gift. He offered us a way of our nuclear insanity and the hope of a world without nuclear weapons. Phil would insist that each one of us must join the grassroots movement for nuclear disarmament. Otherwise our neutrality makes us complicit with the greatest immorality the world has ever known.
Philip Berrigan is one of the great inspirations of my life. He urges me to speak out against war and nuclear weapons, even if it is unpopular, even if everyone else around me is silent. If I can become a voice for nuclear disarmament and help contribute to the abolition of nuclear weapons someday in the future, it is because of Philip Berrigan.
We Can All Become Moral Leaders
In a culture of violence and war, authentic moral leadership inspires us to feed the hungry, house the homeless, educate all children, employ the unemployed, fund universal healthcare, abolish war, support nonviolent solutions to world conflict, and dismantle our arsenals so that we can live in peace with everyone. Moral leaders make it easier for us to be moral.
The great moral figures of history started out as ordinary people and took extraordinary chances in pursuit of the noblest causes. Ignacio Ellacuria, Cesar Chavez, and Philip Berrigan are but three examples of moral leadership. They were visionaries of peace, champions of justice and apostles of nonviolence. Each one of us needs to carry on their legacy and pursue these noble causes of justice, disarmament and peace. Each one of us is called to reject violence and take up the path of active nonviolence. Each one of us can become a moral leader.
If we do, we might just be able to transform our immoral culture into a culture of morality