Jesuit John Dear’s peace activism has led him all over the world, to war zones, meetings with figures such as Mother Teresa and Desmond Tutu—and jail. He spoke with journalist and musician John Malkin about his experiences and his new autobiography, A Persistent Peace: One Man’s Struggle for a Nonviolent World (Loyola Press).
John Malkin: In A Persistent Peace, you write, “The arrival of dawn comes at a high price. It requires good people to break bad laws.” Tell us about your experiments with breaking bad laws.
John Dear: I’m coming to the conclusion that peacemaking, like the spiritual life, or like life itself, is simply a journey. And living here in the United States has to mean resistance to the culture of war, injustice, greed, nuclear weapons, and so forth.
I’ve tried so many different ways to work for peace: writing books and letters, prayer services, speaking to millions of people, press conferences, met with every politician I could. Gandhi says, “After you’ve tried everything you can nonviolently, you have to cross the line and break the laws that legalize mass murder in your name. And accept the consequences.”
I’ll never forget being in prison with Philip Berrigan. It was horrible. There was nothing romantic about it. Yet more happened when I was in that tiny cell for eight months than all of the other things I’ve done for peace combined. There is a sort of inverse proportionality; the more you try to do for peace and justice, the less happens. It is very American to think “we’re in control, we’re going to end the war.” The more you let go and walk in faith, hope, and trust, and take a leap—a risk of nonviolence for the truth of our common humanity—the more can happen because then the God of peace can work through you.
Malkin: That brings to mind an interesting story you describe about your experience during the Plowshares trial in 1994.
Dear: We were facing 20 years in prison for two federal charges—destruction of government property and conspiracy to commit a felony crime. Each carries 10 years. There were four of us, including Philip Berrigan. All of our friends were there, the place was packed, and there was enormous publicity about it. They gave us four separate trials. This was Philip Berrigan’s trial in April 1994 in North Carolina.
Phil called me as a witness, and I was brought into the courtroom in chains. The jury works at the Air Force base where we were, and the prosecutor works with the Air Force, too. He started shouting at me after I testified about Phil: “Who drove you that day to the Seymour Johnson Air Force base?” I refused to name anybody, saying, “I take responsibility for my own actions.” The judge started yelling; he ordered the jury out and said, “If you don’t answer this, you will get two more years in prison because of contempt of court. I’m ordering that in a minute unless you answer.” I said, “Okay. I’ll answer.” They were all shocked. They bring back the jury, and the prosecutor yells at me, “Tell us under oath who drove the car.” I said, “Well, thank you for pushing me to the truth of our action. The truth is that we were driven to the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base by the Holy Spirit.” The judge started yelling and hammering his gavel, and the prosecutor was yelling. He orders me out, strikes the testimony from the record, and dismisses the court for the day. It was a great moment. It was like the Acts of the Apostles. I have never recovered since.