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Paths to Peace

Action challenges war addiction


In honor of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, several hundred people of faith and conscience gathered in New York City for a weekend of prayer and discussion about the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan, the U.S. sanctions on Iraq, the U.S.-funded occupation of Palestine and King’s teachings on nonviolence. Then we all walked to the U.S. Mission to the United Nations for a vigil. Forty-seven of us blocked the entrance to the building, held banners calling for an end to the war, sang hymns and read from King’s speeches. After an hour, we were arrested and carted off to jail until early the next morning.

You may say, Well, what good did that do?

My friends and I have come to the conclusion that actions speak louder than words, that years of peace pastorals, encyclicals, sermons, conferences and petitions will not break the culture’s addiction to war. As the gospel makes clear, only nonviolent resistance, direct intervention, can help us take a step toward peace.

When we read the lives of the great Catholic peacemakers from Francis of Assisi to Dorothy Day, it is clear that their deeds, not just their words, made the difference. They were not concerned with big numbers and dramatic results, but deeply committed to putting the gospel into practice. They spoke out for peace with their own lives. Francis walked into enemy territory in a time of war to meet the sultan. Dorothy sat down in Washington Square in New York City, refusing to cooperate with the U.S. nuclear air raid drills, and was arrested and jailed. Their small, loving actions continue to reverberate throughout history.

Liberation theology insists that we cannot think ourselves into a new way of acting; we have to act our way into a new way of thinking, of being, of living.

Enough books, enough homilies

I had the chance to spend an evening in conversation with César Chávez shortly before he died, and asked him what Catholic peacemakers should do. Without missing a beat, he said, “Public action! Public action! Public action!” Tell everyone to act publicly for justice and peace. We have had enough books on nonviolence from people like you, he said with a smile, enough homilies, conferences and classes. We need to act publicly for peace and justice.

The Pentagon, White House, weapons manufacturers and corporate executives want us to bicker over questions of morality and the just war theory so they can keep on murdering thousands of people in Afghanistan, Iraq, Palestine and elsewhere halfway around the world without any disruption.

But our silence is complicity. To make true peace we have to disturb the false peace. The gospel demands we disrupt the government wars.

Non-cooperation with evil is as much a duty as cooperation with good, Gandhi taught. We can’t worship both the God of peace and the false gods of war. We must obey God’s law of nonviolence, and that requires disobeying the culture of war.

“But peacemaking is not my vocation,” many people say to me. But every Catholic, every Christian, is called to be a peacemaker, to live the life of active nonviolence in confrontation with the state’s systemic violence.

Blessed are the peacemakers, Jesus declared. They shall be called the sons and daughters of God. Every one of us is a son or daughter of God, every one of us is the beloved child of the God of peace. That means every one of us is a peacemaker. We all need to engage in the public witness for peace, whether we like it or not.

As Catholics living in this culture of war, our first allegiance is not to the Pentagon, the flag, the government, the president or America. It is to the peacemaking Jesus.

Jesus’ life of action

Jesus lived a life of action. He practiced public, provocative, creative nonviolence, with regular acts of nonviolent civil disobedience. He was a one-person crime wave, breaking every law that violated God’s law of peace. He organized the poor in Galilee and walked to Jerusalem in a campaign of active nonviolence. He entered the corrupt temple, turned over the tables of the moneychangers, drove out the cattle, and declared the place a house of prayer. He did not hurt or kill anyone, but he took dramatic, direct action for justice. For this deed, he was arrested, tried, tortured and executed.

As his followers, every one of us has this same vocation of active nonviolence. We are called to love our enemies. Right now, that means simply trying to stop our government from killing them.

But how can my government be so wrong? And what will people think of me if I get involved in these messy issues?

Our government has been waging war since its founding. The media have long supported the Pentagon, and the church has justified war for centuries in violation of the gospel, so many of us have not learned the wisdom of gospel nonviolence. If we pledge our allegiance to the God of peace and start acting publicly like Jesus did, then many eyebrows will be raised, people will get upset, and some relatives and friends may even walk away from us.

But we will become faithful disciples.

Long ago, as I was beginning to grapple with this scary gospel life, I asked Daniel Berrigan for advice. He said the whole point was to get your story to make sense in the light of the Great Story, the story of Jesus. Nowadays, when people criticize me for acting against the government’s wars, I take heart knowing that Jesus faced constant criticism and was eventually assassinated for this work, and I feel my life is beginning to fit into his story. I recall too the last Beatitude: Blessed are those persecuted for the sake of justice. Rejoice and be glad!

We have to recognize our fear, hear Jesus’ repeated call not to be afraid, remember that thousands of people are dying because of our government, and stand up and say, “No to war and injustice.”

Two fundamental factors help me to overcome my fears: prayer and friendship. Through regular quiet meditation, I feel new energy from the Holy Spirit to take that next step. Through the love of my friends, I share my fears and find myself less afraid. With every new step on the road to peace, with every public action for justice, with every creative engagement of nonviolent resistance, we discover our true vocation. We become disciples and apostles like the early Christians. We begin to participate in the paschal mystery of Jesus. We learn what it means to be blessed by the God of peace.

Jesuit Fr. John Dear is the author and editor of 20 books on Christian nonviolence, most recently Living Peace (Doubleday). He lives in New York.


Pax Christi USA
532 W. Eighth St.
Erie PA 16502
(814) 453-4955
Committed to Christian nonviolence, it supplies information and counsel to anyone interested in creating the peaceable society.

The Seamless Garment Network
P.O. Box 792
Garner, NC 27529
Distributes the videos: “The Seamless Garment” and “Voices for Peace and Life”

Fellowship of Reconciliation
Box 271
521 N. Broadway
Nyack NY 10960
(845) 358-4601
An ecumenical organization seeking what it calls “a revolutionary vision of a beloved community,” where differences are respected, conflicts addressed nonviolently and oppressive structures dismantled. Publishes Fellowship magazine six times a year.

Catholic Worker
36 E. First St.
New York, NY 10003
(212) 777-9617
As the unofficial motherhouse of houses of hospitality in cities large and small, this is where Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin began their commitment to prayer, life with the poor and Catholic pacifism. The newspaper and its price -- a penny a copy -- and its editorial stand for absolute pacifism have not changed in more than 70 years. There are approximately 175 Catholic Worker communities worldwide. For a listing of one nearest you, contact the address given.

School of the Americas Watch
P.O. Box 4566
Washington DC 20017
(202) 234-3440
An independent organization that seeks to close the U.S. Army School of the Americas under “whatever name that it is called,” through vigils, fasts, demonstrations and nonviolent protest as well as media and legislative work.

Voices in the Wilderness
1460 W. Carmen Ave.
Chicago, IL 60640
(773) 784-8065
Led by Nobel nominee Kathy Kelly, this organization, which seeks to end the siege of U.S. economic sanctions on Iraq, sponsors numerous delegations to Iraq annually, bringing medical supplies in open defiance of U.S. policy. Also engages in fasts, nonviolent protests as well as media and legislative work.

Feminists for Life of America
733 15th Street. NW
Washington DC 20005
Phone: (202) 737-FFLA

American Friends Service Committee
1501 Cherry St.
Philadelphia, PA 19102
(215) 241-7176
With Quaker ties, and a long record of institutional competence, it has multiple programs, including youth and militarism, education, service and political activism.

War Resisters League
339 Lafayette St.
New York, NY 10012
(800) 975-9688
Headed by David McReynolds, it affirms that all war is a crime against humanity. It rejects war of any kind by any nation or group, and strives nonviolently for the removal of all causes of war. Its bimonthly magazine, the Nonviolent Activist, is a primary source for peace essays and reporting.

Jonah House
1301 Moreland Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21216-4116
(410) 233-6238
A resistance community co-founded by noted antiwar activists Phil Berrigan and Elizabeth McAlister. Engages in nonviolent protests and civil disobedience as part of its Christian witness in a nuclear era.

Institute of Integrated Social Analysis
811 East 47th Street
Kansas City, MO 64110-1631
Phone: (816) 753-2057
Fax: (816) 753-7741
E-mail: macnair@ionet.net

National Catholic Reporter, April 26, 2002