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A Pacifist in the Trenches

Dear, Living Peace: A Spirituality of Contemplation and Action (Doubleday, April 2001), $19.95 hardback.

John Dear’s mission in Living Peace is twofold: to promote spiritual renewal through non-violent collective action. As such, the work belongs in the company of Dorothy Day’s The Long Loneliness (1952), Martin Luther King’s Jr.’s Stride Toward Freedom (1958), and Daniel Berrigan’s America is Hard to Find (1972).


That Dear is less well-known than these figures is far less a reflection of the author’s importance than an indictment of the current political scene, in which the peace movement and non-violent struggle barely register on our radar screens.


Father Dear, a Jesuit priest and the executive director of the peace movement’s stalwart Fellowship of Reconciliation, has authored eight books as well as edited six collections about non-violent struggles over the last two decades. Like his primary mentor, Daniel Berrigan, Dear has also repeatedly done time for participating in protests against the American war machine. In Living Peace, Dear offers up his own experience as an example of better living through radical political activity.


Peppered with references to Gandhi, Thomas Merton, and King, Dear’s opening section stresses the “Inner Journey” of non-violence, reminding us that “peace begins within each of us.” It is a message that Dear will drive home throughout the book. “As we choose a life of peace,” he writes, “we end the wars raging within our own hearts and root out every trace of violence. We let go of violent language, habits, manners, and jobs, and cease whatever actions, however subtle, that hurt or threaten others.” On one level, Dear’s point is indisputable: those driven by hatred and violence toward their enemies can hardly be seen as prophets of peace.


Though it serves his activist aims well, and reflects the consistency of his Christian perspective, Dear’s notion that “personal change precedes political change” is rather simplistic, a bit too New Age. Why the American government clings to the policies Dear detests—nuclear proliferation, sanctions against Iraq, the death penalty, etc.—stems less from the violence in our hearts (although that surely does exist) than from the complacency of those who do not protest. To wake the slumbering, in other words, anger and moral outrage might be greater catalysts.


Yet for his part, Dear’s activism is unrelenting. To use one of his favorite terms, he has “stood witness” on any number of fronts: death row, the D.C. ghetto, El Salvador, Northern Ireland, and Iraq. He has joined the battles over America’s public memory of Hiroshima, and gone to prison for monkey-wrenching the military’s nuclear hardware. On trial for one of the disarmament actions, a prosecutor clarified the boundaries of the permissible—“we were not allowed to discuss any of the following items: the U.S. military; nuclear weapons; international law; the Nuremberg Principles…war crimes by the U.S. government; U.S. government foreign or domestic policies; the Bible, theology, philosophy, divine, or natural law; and God.” In one of the book’s lighter moments, Dear explains how on the stand he finally gave in to the prosecutor’s demand to know who drove them to the Air Force base by saying, “the Holy Spirit!”


Dear’s passionate commitment to peace and social justice is indeed inspiring, reminding us that these ideals still thrive in some quarters, if not in our mass media-dominated political life. Yet his recurring solution – “finding peace through Christian revelation, and reconciliation with other faiths”—provides only vague outlines of a practical politics. In his closing section on the “Horizons of Peace,” for example, Dear reiterates his outrage against the impact of U.S. sanctions against Iraq. Such a position is clearly justified, but sanctions are also generally presented as the alternative to renewed warfare. Meanwhile, “Loving your enemy, then winning him over,” as Dear says should be done even with Saddam, hardly seems like a realistic solution for any of the problems in the Middle East.


But in the end, Living Peace is not a manual for policy wonks. It is instead a call to arms—as in those that link together—for everyone not content to let American foreign policy go unchallenged, not to let poverty and all forms of social inequality remain un-addressed. Even if you dispute some of Dear’s conclusions, his is a voice that needs to be heard.



Theodore Hamm


The Brooklyn Rail


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