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Peacemaking and the Questions of Jesus

General Assembly 2008 Event 5009

Nobel Peace Prize nominee Father John Dear brought a passionate and radical vision of global non-violence to a large and enthusiastic General Assembly crowd on Sunday afternoon. And, as one might expect from a committed Jesuit priest speaking at the invitation of the Unitarian Universalist Christian Fellowship, he didn't stint for a moment on the God-talk.

"If you dare enter into the depths of that spiritual realization that we are all one, you can never hurt another human or creature again. Non-violence is not passivity, or a tactic or a strategy—it's a new way of life, pursuing the truth of common unity and oneness, persistently reconciling with all humanity and creation. We must allow the God of Peace to disarm our hearts and turn us into instruments of disarming love. We are not going to co-opt the culture of killing—but, like Gandhi and King, we must be willing to be killed in the service of this universal love."

That kind of talk—which flows from Dear like a rushing waterfall in spring—has gotten him into a lot of trouble over the years. In fact, he had to get written permission from the federal government to come speak to us at General Assembly (GA). He's been arrested over 75 times on various charges of civil disobedience, and spent up to eight months at a time in jail. "I'm as high on the terrorist watch list as you can get," he told he audience. "I can't vote, can't travel to most countries, and am constantly monitored by the government."

Still, Dear, now 48, got around plenty in his younger years. He embraced radical non-violence in 1982, while visiting Israel. That nation invaded Lebanon while he was there: he recalled watching bombers drop bombs on nearby towns with his own eyes, right in the place where Jesus had preached peace.

A few years later, Dear went to El Salvador, where he joined a team of Jesuit priests serving as witnesses for peace in that war-torn country. There, he absorbed the lessons of liberation theology before returning to the U.S.

The Questions of Jesus is the latest of Dear's 20 books. It's premised in the idea that, contrary to popular belief, Jesus isn't the one with all the answers. Instead, Dear noticed, his specialty was asking questions. Dear went through the Gospels and counted up over 300 questions asked by Jesus—of which he only supplied answers to two. The book looks at a selection of these questions, and their implications that call us to a non-violent life.

Dear was visibly moved by our First Principle, noting that "honoring the inherent worth and dignity of all people" is the very foundation of non-violent thinking—and the root of every religion. Violence can only occur when that Principle is somehow forgotten. And, says Dear, our culture is largely set up to make sure that we forget it.

"Many of us are racing down the road to war—it's as though we're entering Orwell's predicted era of perpetual war," declared Dear. "We're making war on the poor, the children, the earth, democracy, and even the universe as we send our weapons into space.

"We don't want a non-violent god. We've spent 2000 years wishing Jesus never said 'love your enemies,' because we want a God that will bless our wars and let us kill our enemies." As a result, says Dear, there are 35 wars going on in the world right now. Nearly half the world's people live in poverty; 900 million are starving. And this is because we've created a world of war and corporate greed that allows poverty, hunger, disease, and all these other evils to persist.

Out of this world of violence, says Dear, comes the violence we know about—racism, sexism, torture, and all the rest. We are so inured to it—or so deeply in denial—that we don't even remember that our country vaporized 200,000 people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Dear recalled ministering to the people working on The Pile in lower Manhattan while serving as the Red Cross' coordinator of chaplains in the days and weeks after 9/11. One of them told him, "This is the worst thing that's ever happened in history." Losing 2900 Americans was tragic—but it should give us some new and better perspective on the trauma we inflicted on Japan.

"This violence is in all of us now," continued Dear. "It's grown into our spirituality. Religions have thrown out their non-violent core, and come down to 'might makes right.' God's nice, we think—but he can't protect us. We need weapons."

"In early days of Christianity, they had big words for this kind of thinking: blasphemy, idolatry, heresy. We need to be using these words again."

Dear was also contemptuous of "Just War" theology. "Just War says that if you follow these seven conditions, you can bomb anybody you want to." Dear noted that Jesus set a very different example when he insisted that Peter put down his sword when the Roman soldiers came to arrest him at Gethsemane. "Peter thinks: It's my job to protect my guy. After all, if violence was ever divinely justified at any time in history, it was that moment. Peter thought that this was a Just War.

"But Jesus tells him: 'Put down your sword.' Those are the last words of Jesus to his community—and for the first time, they truly understand nonviolence. And they run off, because they know that if they can't fight back, they're going to die. So Jesus is crucified—a sacrifice that says, 'You are forgiven—but the violence stops here. There will be no more killing.'"

Dear noted that peace activists from Dorothy Day to Gandhi to Martin Luther King have reminded us, over and over, that violence doesn't work. "Violence in response to violence always leads to more violence. War never brings peace; it sows the seeds of future wars. It doesn't guarantee security or build the human family or nurture the future...War is not the will of God. And there are people who want to kill me for saying that.

Dear offered a series of steps for people seeking to cultivate non-violence.

  1. Bring nonviolence into our contemplative life. When meditating, allow the violence in our own hearts to come up. Look it over, experience it, and then give it to God. "Allow God to disarm your heart of wounds, brokenness, and hatred. Let the God of Peace bring you peace. Become a revolutionary mystic. Discover who this God is."
  2. Learn to become non-violent in our personal interactions with others. Dear warns that this is a lifelong challenge: we are so addicted to violence that there's always somebody we really want to get.
  3. Become students and teachers of non-violence, sharing what we learn with others in our communities.
  4. Become activists. Dear recalled Cesar Chavez' last advice to him: "Tell everybody: Public action, public action, public action."
  5. Become visionaries. A new world without war, poverty, nuclear weapons, and global warming will not happen until we announce that vision boldly. "People will think you're nuts—but lift up the vision, so change will happen."
  6. Become prophets of non-violence. "This means saying the unpopular truth, like this:
    • IN THE NAME OF THE GOD OF PEACE: Stop the war and occupation of Iraq. Bring our troops home, let the UN solve the crisis, and make massive reparations to Iraq. Don't bomb Iran. Seek non-violent solutions for peace.
    • Stop the militarization of the Mideast; end all U.S. military aid to Israel; stop funding to occupation of the Palestinians; stop supporting Israeli war criminals; and start supporting non-violent Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers, saying we're not anti-Semitic nor do we support suicide bombers—we want the Jewish version of shalom, we want human rights for Palestinians.
    • Welcome every immigrant to our country; support the undocumented; stop U.S. military aid to Colombia and the Philippines; close Guantanamo; close our own terrorist training camps like the School of the Americas in Georgia; close our 730 military bases around the world, close Los Alamos and Livermore Labs as well as the CIA, NSA, and the Pentagon.
    • Leave the World Trade Organization, lift the entire Third World debt, house the homeless; give away free medicine to anyone with AIDS/HIV; give free universal healthcare; abolish the death penalty, torture, and abortion; undertake treaties for nuclear disarmament, join the world court, obey international law, sign the Kyoto accord, find alternatives to fossil fuels, stop global warming, end the Star Wars program, cut the military budget, abolish every nuclear weapon and mass destruction....
    • And then, redirect those billions and billions of dollars toward the hard work for a lasting peace and feed every starving child and refugee on the planet, end poverty, and fund the education of non-violence for the whole world.

A tall order—but if you don't know what you want and are willing to step up and demand it, you're never going to get it.

Dear concluded that the most important peace work in the world is the work that we do right here in the United States , because so much of the problem begins here. We do not have to convert others—we are the ones who will be converted by this work. He notes that two-thirds of the world's people are already engaged in non-violent resistance movements. They're well ahead of us already.

And we also need to detach ourselves from expectations and outcomes. "If you can see everything you do for peace and justice as a prayer, it brings you hope," he said. "The meaning of life is a journey to peace—making peace with myself, my friends, my neighbors, my relatives, the planet, the animals, and all of creation; living and breathing in peace, walking the road of the God of Peace."

Reported by Sara Robinson; edited by Jone Johnson Lewis.