By Del Keeney
Participants in this year’s Church of the Brethren Minister’s Association were privileged to receive the teaching and story telling of Fr. John Dear, a Jesuit priest, author, and activist for nonviolence. John (who preferred that we call him that and not “father dear”) came to speak with the Brethren with the strong conviction to affirm who we are as a living peace church, and to challenge us to step further into that calling.
His presentation, “Walking Toward Peace,” was based in large part on his book titled “The Non-Violent Life,” one of some 30 books he has written related to nonviolence and peacemaking. Each participant received a copy of this resource.
He described his task with us to be a cheerleader, calling us to take our peacemaking heritage “a step further” in our own lives as pastors. In our culture and society, he candidly stated, “we are experts in violence.” To counter that, we need to consciously choose to be nonviolent in our responses to situations and to each other.
The compelling question that pervaded his presentations was, “Where are you on the road to peace?” He spoke of this path as a journey for the followers of Jesus, and offered his particular challenge to pastors through these three commitments:
— To be perfectly nonviolent to oneself
— To have a ridiculous commitment to nonviolence toward all people and all of creation
— To have one foot in the global grassroots movement of nonviolence.
Fr. John Dear’s story itself is a profound testimony of the road to peace. As a young man, he found himself challenged by the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. In the Chapel of the Beatitudes in Galilee, confronted with the words of Jesus emblazoned on every wall, he had the compelling sense that Jesus was serious about peacemaking and nonviolence. His days of learning and experience of nonviolent civil disobedience with Daniel Berrigan shaped him powerfully. His journey could be summarized as a response to Berrigan’s answer about how to proceed on this path of peace. Berrigan told him, “All you have to do is to make your story fit into the peacemaking story of Jesus.” In his current work in a parish in New Mexico, he continues to challenge the pervasive powers of violence with a persistent activism of nonviolence.
Guiding his testimony is the core conviction that our work as followers of Jesus is to promote the reign of God as Jesus did. He reiterated the consistent actions and words of Jesus, from the gospel accounts, that addressed the violence of his world and culture with nonviolent responses. While a departure for many of us from traditional interpretations of the Eucharist and the cross, he reminded us that the Eucharist or Communion is the new covenant of nonviolence, and that Jesus’ last words to the church (his followers) before his crucifixion were “put away your swords,” and the testimony of the cross is that “violence stops here.”
His prophetic perspective challenged pastoral leaders to stand up against what he calls the “anti-reign” of God, exemplified in the pervasive culture of violence that often uses the language of peace to describe its conduct. Drawing on the testimonies of Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi, and the Berrigan brothers, he reminded us of the power of unconditional and sacrificial love.
Through exploration of the Beatitudes and Luke 10, he compelled us to see our calling in Jesus’ work of nonviolence, to be public but not political in our nonviolent activity aware that our citizenship is in the kingdom of God, and to remember that we ourselves are “recovering addicts of violence” and need to address the violence toward and within ourselves as we work on nonviolent responses to our culture.
Jokingly describing his many incarcerations, he made us aware that being a follower of the nonviolent Jesus has serious implications. Sprinkled throughout his presentations was the reminder that we as peacemakers are a part of the prophetic community. As such, we are called to be people of hope, which in the words of King “is the final refusal to give up.”
— Del Keeney pastors Mechanicsburg (Pa.) Church of the Brethren.