“America” magazine interviews John Dear

“America” magazine associate editor George Anderson, S.J., interviewed John Dear in New York city on December 20, 2004, and later in January 2005. This interview is to be published in the Spring of 2005.
What drew you to your present work in support of Gospel-based nonviolence?
Even before joining the Jesuits in 1982, I was very influenced by the anti-war stance of two Jesuits, Richard McSorley and Daniel Berrigan–and also by the work of Horace McKenna, another Jesuit who spent his life working on behalf of the poor in Southern Maryland and in Washington, D.C. I wanted to be like them. They had a lot to do with why I joined and why I stay. All three saw the relationship between war and poverty, a connection which Dorothy Day first made.
The summer before I entered, I traveled to the Holy Land to make a pilgrimage, but the day I left, Israel invaded Lebanon. As I stood by the Sea of Galilee, I saw several Israeli jets fly overhead to drop bombs on Lebanon. It was shocking and I made a commitment then and there to spend my Jesuit life trying to live according to the Sermon on the Mount, to love my enemies, to work for peace and to teach nonviolence.
What does your present life in New Mexico involve?
For the past two years, I was the pastor of five small parishes in a remote corner of the state. On weekends, I would drive 200 miles to celebrate five or six Masses, and during the week I’d fly to different parts of the country to speak about peace and nonviolence–to universities, church groups and at rallies against the Iraq war. But trying to combine the parish work with the travel became too much, so now I concentrate on the speaking trips and writing. Doubleday has published my latest book, “The Questions of Jesus.”
I live in an adobe house with solar panels on the top of a mesa that can only be reached by four-wheel drive trucks. The house looks out over a hundred miles of desert, and I can see the hills where the Los Alamos Nuclear Weapons Lab is located, where they built the first atom bomb and continue to build nuclear weapons. I’ve started Pax Christi groups around the state and we’re organizing a campaign to close it down. We’re now planning our third annual vigil there to coincide with the 60th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima on August 6. According to the 2000 census, New Mexico is the poorest state in nation, and yet it also ranks number one in nuclear weapons. We’re planning to go to Los Alamos with sackcloth and ashes to repent of the sin of nuclear weapons.
In your talks on peace to church and university groups, do you ever encounter opposition?
In every group, there are people who don’t agree with me. Before the election, I spoke at a Christian college in Pennsylvania. I had been asked to speak on a passage from Scripture, so I chose the Beatitudes. The 2000 students were required to attend. I told them that when Jesus says ‘Blessed are the peacemakers,’ that means the warmakers are not blessed, so we have to be people of nonviolence and stand against the war in Iraq.
The place exploded. A third of the students stormed out, and the rest began chanting ‘Bush, Bush, Bush.’ Then I flew to Idaho to give a day on nonviolence, and even the bishop joined us. It was a thoughtful, peaceful, prayerful gathering. But we’re so used to violence and war now, I never know what to expect.
How do you yourself pray?
Without quality time for private prayer, I’d burn out and give up. So I try to spend 30 to 40 minutes daily simply sitting with Jesus, and tell him my concerns and then try to listen to him, to be open to what he is saying. This has helped me to grow in peace, hope and love. I find Jesus is always encouraging me and sending me out to do the works of peace and justice. I’ve always tried to have a spiritual director also who can act as a kind of unbiased referee between God and me. I see him once a month and he helps me to see where God is present in my life and work. I also try to make an annual retreat.
What is it like to live in such an isolated place in the desert?
Although it’s a place of great beauty, there’s nothing romantic about living in the desert. You notice your inner demons surfacing, so the solitude can be challenging. But it is peaceful and quiet. I live very close to the earth now. The desert experiences of John the Baptist and Jesus, along with the desert fathers and mothers, have also become more important to me. In one of his books, Thomas Merton says that the desert fathers and mothers withdrew to the desert after the church adopted the just war and sided with the empire so that they could keep the vision of the Gospel alive. At the moment, I’m very aware of withdrawing from the culture of war by living in the desert, as a way to stay close to the Gospel of peace, to deepen my experience of peace.
Has your Jesuit training helped you to live your present life of solitude mixed with public speaking?
Yes. The Spiritual Exercises are a great way to prepare for public work for justice and peace. Jesuit spirituality tries to combine both the active and the contemplative life. Fundamentally, it keeps me focused on being a companion of Jesus, to do what he does, to talk about the things he talks about.
When I first met Daniel Berrigan, he said to me, “The point of this life is to make our story fit into the story of Jesus.” I’ve never forgotten that. That’s what I’m trying to do, to take seriously what Jesus says about loving our enemies, making peace and seeking justice, to follow his story and live it out today in these times of war and injustice.
Do you find yourself supported in your work, especially when you were in jail?
I’ve received hate mail and even death threats because of my stand on nonviolence and our campaign against Los Alamos. The local National Guard Unit even demonstrated in front of my rectory before they left for Iraq, to criticize my peace stand. And many Jesuits dislike what I do. But some have supported me–including Fr. Kolvenbach, the Superior General, who wrote me an encouraging letter when I was in jail in North Carolina for a Plowshares disarmament action in 1993.
At that time, with Phil Berrigan and two other friends, I entered the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and hammered on a F-15 fighter bomber in a symbolic acting out of Isaiah’s call to beat swords into plowshares. My provincial gave me his support and permission to do that action. These days I have many good friends who support my work.
Have you found the Jesuit vows difficult?
All the vows are difficult–poverty, chastity and obedience, but the gospels are difficult too. It is hard for anyone to try to follow Jesus and carry the cross. When I was in the novitiate, three other novices and I professed a fourth vow of nonviolence, as Gandhi did. We wanted to commit ourselves to the work of peace and justice, as a way to help us follow the peacemaking Jesus in the nuclear age. It’s a difficult life, but full of blessings.
How do you connect abortion, war and the death penalty?
I support Cardinal Bernadin’s ‘consistent ethic of life,’ which says that all life is sacred, that all violence is wrong–including abortion, sexism, racism, the death penalty, poverty, war and nuclear weapons. Once during a weekend retreat in Rochester, between talks and prayers, our group sat in and risked arrest at an abortion clinic. Then the next day, we drove to the local military base, climbed the fence, and knelt down to pray for disarmament. We were arrested and released a few hours later. We were objecting to both forms of violence.
If we’re going to be pro-life, we have to be against the Iraq war, the ongoing executions in our country, corporate greed and globalization, and our ongoing development of weapons of mass destruction, otherwise we still support the forces of death.
When did you first begin thinking about these issues of peace and nonviolence?
I grew up in a small town in North Carolina during the civil rights movement which my parents supported. They also taught me how wrong the Vietnam war was. Then we moved to Washington, D.C. in 1967, and after Dr. King was killed, my father took me downtown to see the riots and later to see Resurrection City, the remains of Dr. King’s ‘Poor People’s Campaign.’
Those events made a deep impression on me. In college at Duke University in the 1970s, I studied African American history and the civil rights movement. When I entered the novitiate, a group of us spent long hours studying and discussing peace and nonviolence. Those experiences formed me and helped me to understand nonviolence as the key to the Gospel, and the most neglected aspect of the life of Jesus.
Judging from the various Pax Christi groups you started in New Mexico, you clearly have a gift for organizing.
It’s something we all have to do. The great peacemakers–Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Dr. King, the Berrigans–in addition to their writing, speaking and demonstrating, organized people to resist war and injustice. For Gandhi, that meant confronting the repressive British empire. For Dr. King, it meant breaking the segregation laws in the South. For Dan and Phil Berrigan, it means publicly confronting U.S. wars and the nuclear weapons industry. I think we all have to learn how to organize for peace and justice if we’re going to change the direction of our government and help abolish war, injustice and nuclear weapons. Occasionally we will have to cross the line into nonviolent civil disobedience, to break the laws which legalize injustice and mass murder.
Nonviolence is not passive. It is active love and truth that recognizes every human being as a sister and brother, so it demands public resistance to war and injustice and persistent action for the disarmament and transformation of people and society. It means being willing to suffer in the struggle for justice and peace, without a desire to retaliate. Nonviolence is very demanding, as the life of Jesus demonstrates. He organized the people of Galilee and marched to Jerusalem to confront injustice. We have to do the same.
Are you hopeful about what the peace movement can accomplish?
I’m hopeful about what the God of peace can accomplish! The peace movement is just beginning, and I think we all have to be part of it. I’m hopeful that we can create a world without war, injustice and nuclear weapons. I was in India for several weeks right after the tsunami with Arun Gandhi, Gandhi’s grandson, studying and learning about nonviolence and how powerful it can be when we organize it.
The nineteenth century Abolitionists like William Lloyd Garrison were ridiculed because they wanted to abolish slavery. The Suffragettes were harassed for seeking women’s right to vote. Pete Seeger says that not too long ago, we could not even imagine that Nelson Mandela would be freed and become president of South Africa, or that the Berlin Wall would fall or that communism would end.
So there is always hope. As people of faith and resurrection, we know that the God of peace can do anything, that even the impossible is possible, that a world without war, injustice and nuclear weapons is coming. The challenge is to be on the side of hope, to spend our lives doing hopeful things, to do our part to help welcome that new world of peace and justice.