Unveiling Jesus: The Revelation of God’s Reign of Peace Through Power of Creative Nonviolence
By Rev. John Dear
(This article was featured in the theology journal ONEING, published May, 2022, by Fr. Richard Rohr and the Center for Action and Contemplation, see www.cac.org)
Forty years ago, I spent a memorable evening in an inner-city church in Washington, D.C. with Coretta Scott King. She spoke from her heart to a small group of us about Dr. King, the power of nonviolence, Jesus’ way of agape, and that great day, August 28th, 1963, when hundreds of thousands of people, black and white, marched on Washington, D.C. When she looked out over the crowd that hot summer afternoon, she said, it looked to her like the reign of God. It was, to paraphrase Dr. King, an unveiling of the beloved community.
I’ve thought about that evening over the years, and often wondered what we Christians can do to “unveil the beloved community,” “unveil God’s reign of peace,” even, “unveil the presence of the nonviolent Jesus in our midst.”
I think that’s one clumsy translation of our vocation–to open our eyes and see what the book of Revelation describes as “the unveiling of Jesus.” (Sorry, Richard, I prefer the translation “unveiling” to “unveiled.”)
Can we experience publicly, socially, even globally, this “Revelation of Jesus,” that is, the unveiling that he brings, a new awareness of God’s reign of peace in our midst, the sudden realization that we are in the presence of Jesus?
Certainly, Dorothy Day and Mother Teresa had many revelations of Jesus in their encounters with the homeless poor. Thomas Merton had a moment of “unveiling” in the late 1950s at the corner of 4th and Walnut in Louisville, when he “suddenly realized all these people were walking around shining like the sun.” My friends Daniel and Philip Berrigan would humbly speak of the presence of God as they poured napalm on draft files to protest the Vietnam War at Catonsville, Md., in May 1968, and later, when they hammered on nuclear nosecones to begin the process of nuclear disarmament and fulfill Isaiah’s oracle that someday we would “beat swords into plowshares.”
Every day, we look for Jesus and God’s reign in our hearts, in our personal lives, and in our local communities. But our common goal, to translate the Gospels, is to relieve and suffering, to help end war, racism, poverty, injustice, the nuclear threat and environmental destruction, that is, to welcome God’s reign of justice and nonviolence here and now on earth.
I see that “the unveiling of Jesus” in the public work of our saints—Desmond Tutu, Dorothy Day, Daniel Berrigan, Oscar Romero, Rosa Parks, Dr. King, Mahatma Gandhi and many others. When I consider the hopeful, global events of recent decades, I see an even larger “unveiling of God’s reign,” even though the media, or the cultural church, wouldn’t put it that way. Think of these breakthroughs: Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, the end of apartheid, and his election as president of South Africa; the nonviolent fall of the Berlin Wall; the Plowshares movement; the 1985 People Power movement in the Philippines that led to the end of the Marcos Dictatorship and many other instances of massive nonviolent social change. One such unveiling for me happened on February 15, 2003—when over twelve million people marched against the impending U.S. war on Iraq covering every continent and over 600 cities. There was never a day like that before. People took to the starts against a war that hadn’t even officially begun. It was the largest day of protest in human history.
For me, the social, political “unveiling” of God’s reign of peace, happens not through top-down power, but bottom up, grassroots, people power movements for justice, disarmament, and creation. As people gather in a spirit of nonviolence to organize, stand up and speak out against structured injustice and war, the power of love is revealed, the presence of Jesus is felt, and dare I say it?, God’s reign of universal love and total nonviolence, at least for a moment, is unveiled and brought to light.
The problem, of course, is that we can’t make it happen. We cannot unveil Jesus ourselves, much less unveil God’s reign. God’s reign belongs to God. All we can do, according to the Gospels, is plant the seeds, lay the groundwork, proclaim God’s reign and witness to it. We do not build the reign of God; that is never said in the Gospels. It’s already at hand if we open our hearts and our eyes. What we can do as followers of the nonviolent Jesus is to build the grassroots movement of nonviolence to end the structures of injustice and war and prepare the way for the coming of Jesus and God’s reign in our midst. It’s God’s initiative every step of way.
To participate in the divine global unveiling, we have to participate in the divine way of peace, love and nonviolence—and it has to be public, and, I submit, it has to cost something. It can’t be a cheap unveiling. That, at least, is how I see it, how I hear the Gospels, and what I’ve learned from the apocalyptic nonviolence of Gandhi, Dr. King, Dorothy Day and my friends the Berrigans and Desmond Tutu.
To publicly unveil the power of God’s nonviolence, we have to confront the systems of violence that are killing and oppressing billions of sisters and brothers with organized, fearless love and truth. If we dare take steps into God’s reign through this public nonviolent resistance, as Jesus did, we may see astonishing things, outcomes once deemed impossible.
A few years ago, I journeyed to Bismarck, North Dakota where I drove South along the blue Missouria river at sunset to attend a presentation of indigenous leaders.
This was the Standing Rock nation. For several months they led a daily nonviolent resistance campaign against state police and the U.S. national guard to stop the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would cross the mile wide Missouria river and surely leak and poison the water source for some ten million people who lived along it. Further, the oil pipeline construction desecrated the sacred land and sites of the Standing Rock people.
Only the day before, they had issued an emergency call for clergy around the nation to drop everything and join them for a clergy day of protest. I changed my plans to stand with these good people, caught the next plane to North Dakota, and here I was.
There was electricity in the air that night as eight hundred of us listened to their story, but the next day was electrifying. Up early, I drove again along the shimmering blue Missouria river as the sun rose—and there before me, down below in a plain along the river–lay the Standing Rock camp—a mile of tents and fires interspersed throughout with dozens of two-story tall magnificent white teepees. It was like a scene out of a Cecil B. DeMille epic.
That morning, I joined the crowd of a thousand people for the ancient prayers and blessings. Then the march began. Six hundred clergy, mainly Episcopalians, had flown in for the day. I was the only Catholic priest.
We set off carrying signs calling for an end to the XL Pipeline, declaring that “Water is Life” and “We Are Water Protectors, Not Protesters.” We sang upbeat Gospel hymns about relying on God. We walked for several miles through barren hills. Along the way, I met some of the many Standing Rock youth. They started the campaign and were its backbone.
One 25-year-old told me how he had been beaten by the police several times, but that the strict nonviolence training and the ongoing campaign had transformed his life. Renewed in strength and spirit, he had given up drugs and alcohol, become much more attentive to his wife and daughter, and decided to spend his life from now on as a servant-leader of his people. His enthusiasm was contagious.
Up ahead lay a phalanx of tanks, police cars, guns, police and armed soldiers. They were blocking the road, forming a wall of intimidation and force that stretched all the way down to the Missouria River. Behind it, we could glimpse the evil XL Pipeline.
Standing Rock had set up a flat-bed truck, and one by one, various religious leaders climbed up and led the crowd in song and word. For the next several hours, we sang hymns, heard some great preaching, received a Hebrew blessing from a woman rabbi, and committed ourselves, under the direction of a Buddhist nun, to becoming bodhisattvas for creation. When my turn came, I urged the crowd to deepen in nonviolence, in the tradition of Jesus, Gandhi and Dr. King, and spend our lives working for a more nonviolent world.
It was one of the most energizing, rousing, reawakenings I’ve ever attended. Everyone seemed awake, engaged, fully alive—even as we faced a wall of white police officers with guns aimed at us, not to mention the insurmountable injustice behind the barricade, waiting to poison the river.
And yet it was precisely this public coming together in a spirit of faith and hope, in the power of organized, creative nonviolence, that we could face down the troops with only love and truth, and trust that the impossible was possible, that a steadfast campaign in the tradition of Jesus, Gandhi and King could make it one day not only probable but actual.
As we walked back to the camp, everyone was elated, especially the Standing Rock youth. They felt encouraged to carry on, which they would, day after day. For a moment, the tables had turned, and the truth of our message had been unveiled through the people power nonviolence of a grassroots campaign.
Later, on President Joe Biden’s first day in office, he rescinded the Keystone XL Pipeline’s permit. Active, creative, organized Gospel nonviolence works after all!
The unveiling of Jesus and God’s reign of peace happens, according to the Gospel, through our participation in the cross of Jesus, that is through our willingness to practice active, nonviolent, suffering love for the human family, for justice, disarmament and creation. It’s this understanding of the methodology of redemptive nonviolent suffering love that has guided me on my long “criminal” career of nonviolent civil disobedience against war and injustice. I’ve been arrested some eighty-five times, and spent a lot of time in court and jail. I remember receiving visitors when I was in jail for my plowshares disarmament action, facing twenty years in prison. In one of the many “unveilings” of those days, it seemed that everyone on the outside was in prison, but Philip Berrigan and I were free. But as I write this, I remember one difficult night with my friend Daniel Berrigan.
I lived in his Jesuit Community for years on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and was part of a little local peace group which he started in the 1970s called “Kairos.” Every few months, we engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience as part of our liturgical schedule—including Christmas time, Dr. King’s birthday, Ash Wednesday, Good Friday and August 6th, Hiroshima Day.
For years our target was the Riverside Research Institute, a research facility located in a skyscraper on Times Square that planned post-nuclear, laser beam warfare. It was the remnant of the original Manhattan Project. This evil work was hidden in plain sight, right next to the Port Authority bus terminal. For years, we leafletted every Friday morning on the side walk outside the building. Then on these special feasts, some of us sat in and blocked the entrance and would be hauled off to spend a day in jail and later appear before some judge. After many years of our nonviolent campaign, the Riverside Research Institute closed.
So we turned our attention to the USS Intrepid, an old WWII battleship docked in the Hudson River around West 48th Street. The city spent millions making it a war museum, displaying every type of bomb and weapon built by man. Some of those millions were originally allocated to the New York school system in the Bronx and city homeless shelters, but the city council reallocated them to the war museum. Now, every day, hundreds of school kids were bused in to walk on the battleship, study the weapons of war and be brainwashed in the art of mass murder.
What to do? It was Martin Luther King’s birthday weekend, January, 2000, a cold but beautiful Friday morning. Fifty of us gathered at the entrance of the battleship as all the kids looked on. We took turns leafletting, holding banners, making speeches and singing anti-war songs. Then several of us, including Dan, walked forward and sat down to block the entrance. We offered prayers and broke into song as we were handcuffed and led away.
If you’ve never been in a police van, it’s an ordeal. It’s usually a very small van with a steal wall running down the middle to divide the space. The ceiling is very low. Our hands were shackled behind our backs. We had to be helped into the small space. The women were put in different vans.
So there I was with Dan, who was in his 80s and quite frail, another priest friend, a Catholic Worker, and another Kairos friend. Normally, we would be taken to Midtown precinct, a holding cell I know well—but this day, for some reason, all the jails in the five Boroughs were full. We were driven to Midtown, waited in the van for an hour, then driven to the East side, waited in the van another hour, then to Harlem, and so on. Our wrists hurt from the tight metal handcuffs and our backs hurt from the cramped space.
This went on all day. By now, it was 2 am., and below freezing outside. Dan wore only a thin blue windbreaker. We were headed to the Tombs, the mythic dungeon where all those arrested each day are taken, some five stories below the Federal Court Building. But for some reason, there was no parking available. So they stopped the van, lined us up on some Manhattan street, chained our ankles, waists and wrists together, and told us to start walking.
It was bitter cold, pitch black, and we hadn’t eaten or used the rest room all day. We were forced to walk in a tight chain gang along the cold city streets accompanied by a group of armed police. It was God-awful.
I will never forget walking behind Daniel Berrigan as he stumbled along those cold city streets. We were chained together. I was chained to him in front of me; another friend was chained to me behind me. There was nothing romantic about this peace movement. I felt miserable, tired and frozen. I shook from the cold. No one spoke. Welcome to Gospel nonviolence, New York style.
Watching Dan took me to another place. Suddenly, I began to think of Jesus carrying the cross. I have been in many war zones, known many friends who have been killed, visited death row, met dozens of death row inmates who were later executed, and ministered to many poor people near death—but this was different. We were walking the streets of New York in chains, being led by mean, armed New York police.
That Good Friday unveiling helped me understand again Jesus’ costly way of peace. If anything, our public work for peace should lead us closer to the peacemaking Jesus and his resurrection gift of peace. All the rest is secondary. Our job is to accompany him, to the cross and beyond, to share in his campaign of disarming nonviolence and the inevitable Paschal Mystery that follows. If we keep walking with him on the way of the cross—the way of nonviolent resistance to the culture of violence and injustice—we may witness his unveiling.
To participate in the unveiling of God’s reign of peace is to participate in God’s public work for disarmament, justice and creation. It means spending our lives eyes wide open on the lookout for the God of peace—in each other, in creation, and in the work of social transformation. But to participate in this holy unveiling means doing our part for the nonviolent, social transformation of the world. At least, that’s what Gandhi and Dr. King taught.
Just before the pandemic began, I was in Washington, D.C. to take part in “Fire Drill Fridays,” a weekly movement inspired by young Greta Thunberg, where people gathered at the U.S. Capitol to demand climate justice, and then marched into it in a spirit of Kingian nonviolence to engage in civil disobedience to press their demands. I’ve been trying not to give in to despair over catastrophic climate change, but to do my part in public nonviolent action with the global movement to advocate for Mother Earth, her creatures and the global poor. Choosing hope means occasionally I have to join such public campaigns and take the consequences. If we’re alert, one of them might be the unveiling of God’s reign of peace in our midst.
Over a thousand of us gathered that cold December day for a series of inspiring speeches by indigenous youth from across the land who work full time to protect their land, our water, and the creatures. Rev. William Barber of the Poor Peoples’ Campaign gave a rousing call to action, after outlining how climate change benefits the superrich but hurts and kills the poor, billions of sisters and brothers, along with all of creation. He led us in song as we headed off on a mile march to the Hart Senate Office Building. Inside, there’s a large open atrium where you can look straight up to some five stories of balconies and see the doors to every senator’s office.
One hundred forty of us sat down and broke into song. In doing so, we nonviolently disrupted the work of the Senate because each senator’s staff poured out of their office to stand on the balcony, look down at us, watch us and hear our speeches. After a while, we were handcuffed and arrested one by one, and led to police vans. We were held in a cold warehouse late into the night.
But that’s just the surface. We were ecstatic—each one of us filled with peace, hope, and dare I say?—joy. The presence of the Holy Spirit was palpable. We introduced ourselves to one another; shared our journeys and what brought us to this moment; and encouraged one another to carry on the struggle for creation.
Compare this with the January 6th, 2021 coup attempt when thousands of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol, and killed one person and injured many others–an unveiling of a different sort.
Our nonviolent protest at the U.S. Capitol was a modern-day Pentecost. We left on a high, as if we could speak in tongues and raise the dead, as if we were living out a scene from the Acts of the Apostles. For me, it was an unveiling of hope, an unveiling of Jesus, an unveiling of the Holy Spirit, an unveiling of God’s reign of peace in our midst.
That, I believe, is the good news. What we want is what Jesus gave his life for—the unveiling of a new world without war, racism, poverty, hunger, executions, gun violence, nuclear weapons or environmental destruction, a new world of justice, compassion, love and peace, God’s reign of nonviolence here and now among us.
All we have to do is open our eyes, widen our hearts, and take the next step forward. As we join Jesus’ ongoing movement for justice and peace, we’ll catch a glimpse of his “unveiling.” If every human being on the planet disarms, practices nonviolence, and joins Jesus’ peace movement, his “unveiling” will one day become permanent.
John Dear is a priest, activist, lecturer and the author of thirty-five books, including The Beatitudes of Peace; They Will Inherit the Earth; and, Praise Be Peace: The Psalms of Peace and Nonviolence in a time of War and Climate Change. He recently edited a new collection of poetry by Daniel Berrigan, The Trouble With Our State. He is the founder and director of “The Beatitudes Center for the Nonviolent Jesus,” www.beatitudescenter.org He has been nominated many times for the Nobel Peace Prize, including by the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu. www.johndear.org Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org