Jesus’ message to followers is nonviolence, speaker says

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Jesus’ message to followers is nonviolence, speaker says

Father John Dear a well-known lecturer, peace activist and author of 35 books on peace and nonviolence, spoke on his new book “The Gospel of Peace: Reading Matthew, Mark & Luke from the Perspective of Nonviolence” at St. Patricia Parish in Hickory Hills on March 7, 2024. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Father Michael Meany, pastor of St. Patricia Parish, introduces Father John Dear on March 7, 2024. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Dear shares his message. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Ellen Kindeen laughs during the lecture. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)
Dear greets Father Paul Maina Waithaka and Deacon Andy Beierwaltes after his talk. (Karen Callaway/Chicago Catholic)

The heart of Jesus’ message to his followers is nonviolence, Father John Dear told an audience at St. Patricia Parish in Hickory Hills on March 7, and those who would be followers of Christ must also commit themselves to opposing a culture of violence.

At a time when the world is awash in violence, from the wars in Gaza, Ukraine and Africa to violence on the street to the violence of extreme poverty, having hope can be difficult, he acknowledged.

“We’re going to need something more than American politics and TV to get us through,” Dear said. “I propose the nonviolent Jesus from the Gospels. I really invite you read them and study them from the perspective of nonviolence, and let Jesus touch you and heal your violence.”

Dear, an advocate for nonviolence and peace activist since the 1980s, was in the Chicago area to promote his new book, “The Gospel of Peace: A Commentary on Matthew, Mark and Luke from the Perspective of Nonviolence” (Orbis), speaking at St. Patricia and St. Giles Church, Oak Park, and celebrating Mass and preaching at St. Sabina Parish.

He came to his commitment to nonviolence when he went on a walking pilgrimage in Israel in the summer of 1982, prior to entering the Jesuits. The country was virtually empty of tourists and pilgrims because Israel was at war with Lebanon, and he walked, hitchhiked and camped until he came upon the Chapel of the Beatitudes.

The meaning of the Beatitudes struck him, and he felt that God was calling him to make it his mission to work for peace. But he was not sure he was up to the task, so he decided to ask for a sign.

The sign came in the form of three Israeli jets screaming overhead and dropping bombs over the border with Lebanon.

The Beatitudes and the rest of the Sermon on the Mount encapsulate Christ’s message of nonviolence, Dear said, especially the sentence in Mt 5:43 about loving one’s enemies.

“It says, ‘You have heard it said, love your countrymen and hate your enemies, but I say love your enemies,” Dear quoted. That applies, he said, to nation-states as well as to individuals.

“So love the people who are targeted by your nation-state --- Central America, Iraq, Afghanistan --- Jesus is saying love the people your country is killing, and then you’re going to get in trouble, so pray for your persecutors. Didn’t we just agree that you were the sons and daughters of the God of peace? Now you’re really sons and daughters of the God of peace, and that’s, I think, the most spectacular sentence in the entire Bible.”

Dear’s career in ministry as a Jesuit took him to El Salvador in 1985, where he lived and worked in a refugee camp under the direction of Jesuit Refugee Services and the Jesuits who would be assassinated four years later. In addition to teaching in Jesuit institutions, he has run a homeless shelter, spent a year in Northern Ireland, ministered in poor parishes in New Mexico, was the American Red Cross coordinator of chaplains at the Family Assistance Center following 9/11 and been part of numerous organizations advocating for peace, including the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2017.

As a young Jesuit, he became friends with Philip and Daniel Berrigan, and since then has been arrested at protests and demonstrations about 85 times; he learned, he said, that friendship with the Berrigans necessarily included civil disobedience.

In 2016, he left the Jesuits after the society told him to step back from his work advocating for nonviolence, and now is a priest of the Diocese of Monterrey, California. The following year, he helped draft Pope Francis’ World Day of Peace message on nonviolence.

In 2020, he started the Beatitudes Center for the Nonviolent Jesus, which hosts Zoom workshops and podcasts on the nonviolence of Jesus.

Over the years, he has worked with people such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Thich Nhat Hanh and Mother Teresa, whom he invited to call the governors of states where inmates were to be executed in hope of winning their reprieves.

His talk, however, focused on the way Mahatma Mohandas Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. understood the nonviolence of Jesus.

Gandhi, Dear said, was known to say that Christians are the only people who don’t seem to know that Christ was nonviolent.

Jesus’ sacrifice of his very human life shows his commitment to nonviolence, from offering his broken body and his blood at the Last Supper — at a time, Dear suggested, when many in the Roman Empire would have expected a messiah to order his followers to go out and break other people’s bodies — and his insistence that his disciples not oppose the men who came to arrest him at Gethsemane with violence.

“If there was ever a just war in all of human history, if there was ever a moment to kill for God, it was then,” Dear said. “It was, ‘We’ve got to kill to protect our guy.’”

But when Peter tried, Jesus said, “Put down the sword,” Dear said. “Those were the last words of Jesus to the church.”

That was the moment when the disciples understood their mission, Dear said, and they all ran away.

But, he said, that’s not the only time in the synoptic Gospels that Jesus tried to make the mission of nonviolence clear.

In Luke Chapter 10, Jesus sends 72 disciples out, defenseless, with no staff or purse, to teach and heal. They return rejoicing that they were able to cast out demons. Jesus reminds them that their joy should not be because of their power, but because their names were written in heaven. Then he rejoices, too.

“It was the only time in the Gospels that he was happy,” Dear said. “Because someone finally listened to him. So when you get discouraged (in advocating for nonviolence), do it anyway —just to make the poor guy happy.”

The audience, who enjoyed a meal together before the talk, included Edward Ososki and his wife, Maryjo Ososki. The couple are longtime peace activists themselves, who have met Dear before.

Edward Ososki said they enjoyed the message, but they would have liked to see more young people in attendance.

“He did make the point that it’s a difficult message, especially now,” Edward Ososki said. “I think speaking to churches is a good idea.”

Elfriede Wedam, a sociology professor at Loyola University Chicago, and vice president of Nonviolence Works in Chicago, said it’s important to help Catholics understand the Gospel message of nonviolence.

“Catholics are part of the culture like everyone else,” she said. “Catholics are part of the United States. The country is at war, or supports countries at war. The language of nonviolence can be scary. People can think it is a sign of weakness. So it’s hard. How do we change the culture?”



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