A Persistent Peace: One Man’s Struggle for a Nonviolent World by Father John Dear, SJ. Loyola Press (Chicago, 2008). 440 pp., $22.95.
Gandhi and Jesus: The Saving Power of Nonviolence by Terrence J. Rynne. Orbis Books (Maryknoll, N.Y., 2008). 228 pp., $20.
Witnessing the violence of the Middle East during a 1982 visit, a young and shaken John Dear, while hiking in Galilee, promised God that from that moment on he would “hunger and thirst for justice” and love his enemies. He told God, “For the rest of my life I’ll work for peace and the end of war.”
A rapid transformation had occurred in the young man’s life since the start in 1978 of his university years at Duke University in Durham, N.C. Then he thought the future might hold a career for him as a newspaper publisher, a lawyer — or a rock star.
A Persistent Peace: One Man’s Struggle for a Nonviolent World, his autobiography, describes his journey from fraternity life at Duke to life as a Jesuit priest and peace activist, to life in recent years as a circuit-riding pastor of several New Mexico parishes. Father Dear has been arrested more than 75 times while protesting war, nuclear weapons, violence and injustice.
Father Dear traces the roots of his commitment to nonviolence back to the Sermon on the Mount, the beatitudes and Jesus’ instruction to love one’s enemies. Among his ancestors in nonviolence he also counts Mahatma Gandhi, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Dorothy Day, Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu and others. Father Dear credits Gandhi with prompting many Christians to shake the dust from their Bibles and peer again “at the core teachings of Jesus.”
A Persistent Peace is joined in presenting this tradition of nonviolence and peacemaking by another 2008 book, Gandhi and Jesus: The Saving Power of Nonviolence by Terrence J. Rynne, who founded the Marquette University Center for Peacemaking.
Gandhi believed that violence never will result in nonviolence, that violence cannot bring peace, Rynne explains. He says that “in our time, because of the example of Gandhi and the many who have been inspired by him, … nonviolence has been given new credibility.”
Many readers will welcome the opportunity Rynne offers to gain a fresh understanding of the Hindu Gandhi’s conception of nonviolence and his appreciation of Jesus”” teaching, particularly as found in the Sermon on the Mount. Rynne’s book should prove valuable at a time when Catholic leaders consider the development of more positive relationships among the world’s religions essential to peace.
I wonder, though, if some readers will find Rynne’s examination of the theology of salvation appearing late in the book a little hard-going, as if directed principally to other theologians.
Rynne is at pains to explain that Gandhi’s nonviolence had nothing to do with passivity. He notes Gandhi’s conviction that people should refrain from violence in the face of oppression and violence — not because they are “incapable of it,” but because they are “instead exerting soul force, an even more powerful weapon.”
Father Dear makes essentially the same point, explaining the confidence placed in the power of “disarming love” by practitioners of nonviolence. His is a book that reveals the “makings” of someone who could devote his life so thoroughly to nonviolence and peacemaking. Perhaps not surprisingly, some of Father Dear’s religious superiors found their patience tested by his activities and commitments, while other superiors encouraged him. And there were people who judged his anti-military stances as unpatriotic.
A Persistent Peace may well be an apologetics for nonviolence, but some will find its story of Father Dear’s development in the ways of spirituality of equal interest — how he needed to learn to pray, listen to others, listen to God, forgive, become “aware of God’s action” in his life and rid himself of violence.
Jesuit Father Daniel Berrigan, who appears to have served as one of Father Dear’s mentors in the ways of nonviolence and peacemaking, once advised him, influentially, that “the point is to make our story fit into the story of Jesus.”
In Father Dear’s book, readers are introduced to the many well-known people he has met and worked with. Some readers may wonder if he indulges at times in a little name-dropping. I suspect, though, that part of what makes for enjoyable reading here is the fact that Father Dear is the sort of person who would decide to telephone Mother Teresa of Calcutta when he needed her assistance, who befriended the Nobel peace laureate Mairead Corrigan Maguire, who protested alongside, was arrested with and was visited in jail by the actor Martin Sheen.
In the foreword to A Persistent Peace, Sheen describes Father Dear as a person “of moral and physical courage,” one who from a young age became “fiercely independent” and “spiritually disarming,” and who “would never quite be comfortable unless he was at the very least slightly uncomfortable.”
Gibson was the founding editor of Origins, Catholic News Service’s documentary service. He retired in 2007 after holding that post for 36 years.