John Dear is not, I suspect, an easy man to live with. Then again, the same would probably have been said of Jesus Christ. Dear is a Jesuit from the United States, approaching fifty, who has committed himself for the last three decades to labouring for peace throughout the world. A Persistent Peace is an autobiographical work telling the story of how he came to hold his radical views, and the variety of ways in which he has lived them out over subsequent years.
The year 1982 marked a turning point in Dear’s life. In the spring of that year he was accepted by the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus, to enter their novitiate in August. During the intervening months he travelled to the Holy Land, spending some time camping alone by the Sea of Galilee. It was there that he received what he refers to as his ‘second calling’. Reflecting on the Beatitudes near the spot where tradition has it they were first spoken, he suddenly realised, as he puts it, that ‘Jesus is serious’. His account continues:
“Okay, God,” I called out to the blue sky, “I promise to live out your Beatitudes – to hunger and thirst for justice, to work for peace, to love my enemies, to practise the Sermon on the Mount for the rest of my life, on one condition: if you give me a sign!”
At that very moment the peace was shattered as two Israeli jet aircraft appeared from nowhere and flew low over the water, then on over his head, on a bombing raid into Lebanon just fifteen miles to the north. This was all the sign he needed. The remaining 400 pages of the book describe his attempt to remain true to these two callings, to the Jesuit order and to a radical commitment to peace, as they sometimes support each other but often appear to pull in different directions.
In his song ‘Waiting for the Great Leap Forwards’, Billy Bragg insists: “If you've got a blacklist I want to be on it”. At times it feels as if these words might be Dear’s own. He has opposed U.S. involvement in the civil war in El Salvador; campaigned on behalf of the homeless in Washington D.C.; been detained for protesting outside the Pentagon; been thrown in jail for marking Hiroshima Day in Manhattan; caught dengue fever on the border between Nicaragua and Honduras; and travelled to the Philippines to stand between Communist rebels and the government forces opposing them. And all of that only takes the reader as far as 1990. He even manages to get himself arrested in the Vatican, for wandering (inadvertently) into the Pope’s private garden.
There is no let-up in the pace in the second half of the book. Iraq is a constant concern, while at home he campaigned ever more strongly against nuclear arms. His final year of Jesuit training (tertianship) took place in Northern Ireland under the direction of Ron Darwen SJ – “a witty Brit”. Inevitably he got drawn into the Peace Process there. On September 11th 2001 he was in New York, being visited by his parents; one of the most affecting chapters of the book describes his experience at the Family Assistance Centre where he spent three months offering support to those who came to look for news of their relatives who went missing in the attack on the Twin Towers.
The book takes a surprising turn in its final chapters. In 2002 Dear’s superiors decided that he should no longer remain in New York. Since that time he has been based in New Mexico, initially as a pastor to a number of parishes and more recently as co-ordinator of Pax Christi. Readers wanting to bring the story right up-to-date will find more on his website, www.persistentpeace.com. This year he was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Desmond Tutu.
John Dear makes few attempts here to hide his faults. He can be a bit of a name-dropper: Martin Sheen contributes a foreword, as well as making a number of appearances; at a demonstration supported by the legendary folk singer and activist Pete Seeger, Dear “sang along with Pete’s faltering voice, weaving in a pleasant harmonious line”; Mother Teresa greets his ordination with “a laundry list of suggestions [on] how to be a good priest”; and the index reads like a liberal Christian Who’s Who. He reports one meeting with a Provincial where the man struggles to get a word in edgeways, and as a novice master myself I sympathised with the efforts his own made to contain him. Yet it has been said that it is the function of prophets to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. John Dear’s story shows him to be a true prophet in this mould. Few Jesuits have the chutzpah to compose an autobiography before reaching fifty. Let us hope for many more actions to bring about a more peaceful world in volume II.
The reviewer, Paul Nicholson SJ, is Director of Novices at the Inter-Provincial Jesuit Novitiate in Harborne, Birmingham. He is also Editor of the spirituality review, The Way.