Fr. John Dear, Dismissed from Jesuits: “It Is So Strange to Be Hated by So Many Church Leaders”

“This week, with a heavy heart, I am officially leaving the Jesuits after 32 years.” This was how Fr. John Dear announced his dismissal from the Jesuit order in his NCR column in January—a “divorce” (as Joshua McElwee put it that same week) that seemed to many to have been inevitable, if deeply regrettable. Dear, a widely respected peace activist, has been arrested over 75 times for civil disobedience, but it was his “obstinate disobedience” toward the directives of his Jesuit superiors that resulted in his dismissal.

He talks here with RD about his commitment to radical nonviolence, the future of the Church—and closes by offering some strong words to the spiritual-but-not-religious cohort.

MS: You recently published The Nonviolent Life, and you describe it as the culmination of your life’s work. What is a nonviolent life and why is it so important?

JD: Nonviolence is the center of Christianity and all world religions. It is the most needed thing in the world. Mahatma Gandhi insisted it is possible, and Martin Luther King, Jr. said that if we don’t do it, we will destroy ourselves.

This book is a very simple explanation of what nonviolence requires: first being nonviolent to yourself; then being nonviolent to all other human beings, all creatures, and all creation; third being a part of the global grassroots movements of nonviolence for justice and peace.

As you wrote this book, you were in the process of discerning your future with the Jesuits. Did this influence your writing?

Anyone who works for peace in the world of total war and is involved in radical acts of public nonviolence is in a lot of trouble.

Jesus, Gandhi, Dr. King, and my friends, the Jesuits in el Salvador, were deliberately executed. I have been arrested many times, spent a lot of time in jail, received tons of hate mail and death threats, and been opposed by most mainstream church leaders in the United States. I recently was barred from speaking in Archdiocese of Seattle.

This has gone back since I entered the Jesuits in 1982, but it has gotten really bad in the last ten years as the Catholic Church leaders in the United States became more and more involved in the Republican Party, supporting the war in Iraq.

Very few Jesuits espouse nonviolence either. We run 28 universities, all of whom train young people to kill through ROTC. There was a lot of pressure in the Jesuit order to stop me, and they stopped me, and I eventually I left.

It is all very sad and tragic, but in many ways what happened to me was inevitable. I am still called like any other follower of Jesus to practice and espouse and teach the Sermon on the Mount and the gospel of nonviolence. It is going to be part of the way that change will come. First they resist, and then eventually, they will be converted to nonviolence.

How do you respond nonviolently to those who oppose your work?

That is the whole question, not just in my book, but of life. Is Gandhi right? Is Jesus right? The whole world has said they are wrong—that violence is the only way to respond to violence. Or passivity—run away and do nothing.

Jesus is very clear in the Sermon on the Mount—offer no violent resistance to one who does evil, he says. Gandhi says nonviolence is infinitely creative: you have to pray over it, think about it, talk about it with friends, try experiments with nonviolent conflict resolution.

You have to be really centered and on your toes, letting go and forgiving people who hurt you and moving on. It requires constant mindfulness, reflection, inner work and letting go of our violence.

Have you gotten to a place of forgiveness with the church?

As I have gotten older I realize that forgiveness is at the heart of nonviolence. Jesus dies forgiving his killers, but that doesn’t happen overnight. I figure he had people who wanted to kill him every five minutes because he was doing these outrageous things, but he is always forgiving. He said in the Gospel of Mark, whenever you stand to pray, forgive those who have ever hurt you.

Peter says, “Do I have to forgive seven times every day?” and Jesus says, “77 times seven times.” Imagine forgiving 500 times a day. Forgiving someone seven times a day is a lot. You think, “I really forgive that person,” and then later at noon, “I really forgive that person,” and then at 2 o’clock, and then Jesus says do it 500 times a day! This is how serious this journey is. Then you will be able to forgive your killers.

Yes, I am learning to forgive everyone who ever hurt me, including church leaders. I keep saying every day that I forgive everyone who has ever hurt me. I say that in my prayer and I have moments of healing and feeling more compassion. It is a journey from anger to peace and compassion and I am still on it, like anyone who has been hurt.

But I am going to keep speaking out to bishops and priests: “Hey friends, if you are going to speak in the name of Jesus, you have to be nonviolent.” Most have never been told that, and people are going to get upset. It really means an entirely new way of understanding the church and the spiritual life.

How would you change the Church, if you could?

The early church was a community of nonviolence. During the first three centuries, to be a Christian meant you could not be a part of the Roman army, you could not claim Caesar as god, and therefore you were probably going to be killed —there were lots of martyred Christians.

Then the emperor converted, theoretically to Christianity, and threw out the Sermon on the Mount. That began Just War Theory, which said, Jesus was wrong, you can kill, and even mass murder is justified. It has nothing to do with the four gospels, nothing to do with the commandment to love your enemies, and we still hold to it today.

The church has to renounce Just War Theory, return to the Sermon on the Mount, and require nonviolence for its membership. If you are going to be a Catholic—or any type of Christian—you are going to have to get rid of your guns, withdraw from any military, have nothing to do with weapons manufacturing or killing, and practice nonviolence at every level.

We are followers of the greatest person of nonviolence in history, according to Gandhi and King: this means the church has to change completely.

It could happen. The church is changing and that is why there is so much resistance. Things are so bad in the world with war and poverty and climate change—we are realizing our violence is destroying us and that maybe Jesus was right. I wrote a letter to Pope Francis and I particularly asked him to write an encyclical on the nonviolence of Jesus and to renounce Just War Theory.

What do you think of Pope Francis?

He has made some very nice gestures, and I hope he will make some very bold moves.

How have you been doing personally since leaving the Jesuits?

I am on a 45-city speaking tour so I stay very busy—too busy—but then I also retreat to this desert solitude in New Mexico. This has been a very hard time for me. It is so strange to be so hated by so many church leaders.

However, I just had an incredible few weeks in South Africa. I met a lot of great people, saw a lot, and learned a lot about the thousands who gave their lives to struggle against apartheid. I spent a great day with Archbishop Tutu, who is one of my heroes and my friend—that is an enormous blessing.

And I have met all the greatest saints. My life has been so unusual, from time in jail and traveling war zones to being with Mother Teresa, Dom Helder Camara, the Berrigans and many Nobel Laureates. Archbishop Tutu catered a meal for me—no bishop in the U.S. has done that for me!

Tutu said that we have to keep working for justice and peace until the day we die; we have no right to give up. He is 82 and not in the best of health and he was leaving for Iran. I was very inspired and energized by that.

I am hoping to stay a Catholic priest and am in discussion with a bishop right now so that might happen. I’m trying to take care of myself and remain as peaceful and calm and centered as I can.

Why do you want to remain a Catholic priest after all that has happened?

Those are very big questions, and they are almost non-rational, from my humble experience. It is really a matter of discernment. This is what I think God wants me to do, but I am discerning and we will see what happens.

The church has terrible problems, and it is a great blessing as well. Hopefully, the church is calling people back to the story of Jesus and to his way of nonviolence and peace and justice. It can be a very prophetic voice in the world on behalf of the poor and for an end to war.

That’s what Archbishop Oscar Romero said: The church should be the voice of the voiceless. Dr. King said the church is the place you go from—a very powerful definition. Most people say it is the place you go to, but no, we come from community and we go into the world of violence and war as peacemakers.

I have known really great priests, from the Salvadoran Jesuits who were assassinated to my friend Father Daniel Berrigan. Being a priest is a way to preach and to offer the sacraments and be a voice for peace and justice.

What’s the role for non-Christians or the unaffiliated in the movement for nonviolence?

I learned from meeting thousands of faith activists that nonviolence is part of all religions. The word Islam means peace, and hundreds of thousands of Muslims are radically committed to nonviolence because of the Qur’an. Hinduism is embodied by Gandhi’s nonviolence. The prophet Isaiah said someday that people would beat their swords into plowshares. That is the ultimate vision of nonviolence and that is the heart of Judaism. And Buddhism is all about showing compassion to all sentient beings, which means doing no harm. Though nonviolence is part of all religions, many people of each tradition reject it.

For me the greatest scandal is Christianity, which should be the epitome of nonviolence because Jesus was the epitome of nonviolence. I think Christians are the problem because they’ve rejected the nonviolence of Jesus. I hope everyone will not throw out Jesus just because so many priests support war and injustice. In fact, what I am choosing to do is to stay very involved and try to help change the whole church for the sake of Jesus.

I know that many young people are still searching. My philosophy has always been whether you are young or really old, we’re still on this journey of nonviolence—a discovery of what it means to be a human being, what it means to be spiritual, who is god—and for those of us who are Christian, what it means to follow Jesus.

For those who say they are spiritual but not religious, I hope they will really pursue that. Gandhi spent two hours a day in quiet meditation and was trying to unpack the political implications of the spiritual life, and that meant ending poverty and war and injustice. I also think it helps if you have a community. Churches are supposed to provide a community of peace-making friends.

But if you are going to be spiritual and you still end of up supporting U.S. wars, then don’t bother. That is not spiritual living. Spirituality is nonviolence. It is all about universal love.

Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a book with Daniel Berrigan which they called, The Raft is Not the Shore. It doesn’t matter how you get there, the point is to get there, into this new way of life, of peace and love.