Keeping Faith Alive

Jesuit priest John Dear is a simple man. For someone bearing the intellectual acumen flowing from many rigorous years of Jesuit formation, he articulates a theology reduced to the most basic of propositions. To be a follower of Jesus, Dear reminds us, requires a life that weaves together the sacred strands of prayer, poverty, and resistance.

John Dear has been expressing his passionate faith in this basic creed for many years now, through his seven books, numerous articles, and countless talks, workshops, and retreats. The most recent installment is his journal from within North Carolina jails, Peace Behind Bars: A Peacemaking Priest’s Journal From Jail. If one picks up this volume with the hope of finding a new theological statement, one might be disappointed. Dear’s latest writing is not a treatise, but a deeply personal, prayerful record of one man’s journey into the heart of darkness.

On Pearl Harbor day 1993, Dear, along with Philip Berrigan, Lynn Fredricksson, and Bruce Friedrich, entered Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina in obedience to the biblical mandate to beat swords into plowshares. All four were veterans of nonviolent direct action. For Dear, though, the commitment to the unknowable outcome of a Plowshares action transformed this event into a shattering experience. Once the brilliance and exhilaration of the action itself have passed, Dear contemplates the prospect of up to 20 years in jail. “The challenge before me is not only to survive, but to use this incarceration as an opportunity of grace and spiritual growth.”

JIM DOUGLASS was one of the first Christian writers of our time to consider imprisonment an invitation to monastic prayer and contemplation. Dear enters into his own long, dark night steeped in the experience and reflection of Douglass, as well as others who have been his spiritual mentors: Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi, and, most of all, his beloved fellow Jesuit Daniel Berrigan. He carries the spirits of these holy men and women with him like a precious bouquet, whose aroma he draws deeply into his core. The days turn into weeks, the weeks to months, as the glory of having risked so much for peace fades into the terrible monotony and violence of jail existence.

Dear’s journal becomes a translucent window of the soul, as he ebbs and flows between peaks of mystical joy and valleys of frustration and anger. Like a psalmist, he cries out repeatedly, When, oh Lord? When will your people rise from their slumber and awaken to the possibilities of living life as Jesus did? When will the killing machine be unplugged, the endless grinding sound of bodies ripped apart by bullets and poverty be silenced forever?

Dear and his male companions (Lynn having to face her sentence alone) maintain their lifeline through the daily discipline of Bible study and Eucharist. They work their way through the gospel of Mark, then continue with the gospel of John. Two or three hours a day they ponder and pray over the sacred stories, finding solace and strength in the memory of Jesus’ own public witness and experience of rejection.

Anyone who has been in jail knows the basic parameters of their experience: the endless blare of TV; the misogynist, racist, and almost randomly violent stream of verbal abuse which fills the air; the casual brutality of guards; the minimal provision of the physical requirements of life. But unless one has spent an extended stretch in the brig, one cannot know the depth of struggle that Dear and his friends must encounter.

Dear’s imprisonment is, for a while, accompanied by much support: an enormous quantity of letters, to which he diligently endeavors to respond with his allotted pencil stub; a stream of visitors from near and far; the love and encouragement of his Jesuit provincial and even the Jesuit superior general in Rome. Over time, however, this lifeline is reduced to a slender thread of hope, as he is confronted with the shadow side of support: the anger of his parents, the challenge to his premises from erstwhile friends, the slowly thinning flow of travelers who stop to offer comfort.

Dear’s soul becomes raw and exposed, tender to the touch. But for Bible study and Eucharist, he withdraws from his companions, as he feels God calling him ever deeper into the mystery of discipleship. In this terrifying spiritual isolation, Dear turns himself completely over to the Crucified One, whose victory against death is our only hope.

My experience of reading this emotionally wrenching journal was both inspiring and exhausting. Readers know what the writer does not, namely, that his incarceration will last eight months. What if it were 10 years or more?

Dear learns in the course of his journey that discipleship is a day-to-day commitment. The gospels remind him and us that the first disciples themselves had no clue of what lay ahead of them. Thus, each day requires for Dear a mantra-like repetition of the most basic truths: God is nonviolent; God wants us to love each other; God calls us into the deepest possible relationship with Jesus, one another, and the Earth.

A cynic might find these behind-bars reflections naive, utopian, even maudlin. For one who claims Jesus as the One sent from God, however, John Dear’s jail journal is a gift straight from the heart. It challenges us to settle for nothing short of giving our very life for the sake of peace, knowing, sometimes dimly and sometimes with crystalline clarity, that God will be with us each step of the way.

Review of Peace Behind Bars: A Peacemaking Priest's Journal From Jail. By John Dear, S.J. (Sheed & Ward, 1996).

WES HOWARD-BROOK is program director of the Intercommunity Peace and Justice Center in Seattle and the author, most recently, of the forthcoming book, John’s Gospel and the Renewing of the Church (Orbis, 1996).

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