John Dear

by Taylor Sisk
A Jesuit priest, he was willing two years ago to steal onto Seymour Air Force Base and risk losing a decade of his life to incarceration for "beating the hell out of an F-15 with a ball-peen hammer."
"Isn't Jesus wonderful," says the divinity school's Stanley Hauerwas, "that he can produce someone like John Dear right here in Jesse Helms Country." Hauerwas has a point. Elizabeth City, North Carolina, up the Pasquotank River off Albemarle Sound, is a nice little town, alive in the sleepy Southern sense--a community where Sir Walter Raleigh meets Colonel Sanders. Frankly, the prospect of Elizabeth City presenting the world with a radical Jesuit priest--a peace activist, tenacious advocate for the poor, prolific writer of seminal theology--seems somewhat remote at best. The very wonder of it is enough to make you go out and get religion, if you haven't already done so.

Even if you have, though, John Dear '81 is just liable to rock your theological perspective--a thunderbolt from, say, the heavens. In his thirty-six years on this earth, Dear has made quite an impression. He's traveled the world witnessing for peace and justice. He's lived and worked with the poor in the barrios and refugee camps of El Salvador and on the most desperate streets of Washington, D.C., in the shadow, literally, of the Capitol dome. He's spent years studying the violent ways of the world and nine months in an eastern North Carolina jail cell experiencing the reality of powerless isolation. In truth, though Elizabeth City is the place of Dear's birth, he seems to be at home most anywhere; he navigates the world purposefully, unassuming, stepping softly, but making one hell of a racket.

Watch Dear move through his current neighborhood in downtown Richmond, Virginia. He certainly stands out, this decided white man in the "black" section of town. Down Perry Street, across Blackwell, and over to Bainbridge. This is old Richmond, here on the south bank of the James--loaded with history but by no means the "Historic District"--where at one time segregation mandated residency. Today, de facto economic segregation works almost every bit as well.

John Dear is a new arrival to these streets, sent by the Jesuit order to serve as director of the Sacred Heart Center, to work with the impoverished, the marginalized, the damaged and displaced. It's a monumental chore. With a staff of thirty and a $700,000 budget, the center sees some 250 people a day, mostly single mothers and children, providing a daycare and adolescent program, literacy classes, recreational activities (including nightly, full-out, in-your-face basketball), emergency fuel, food assistance, and more. Already, though, as Dear makes his way down Bainbridge on this almost-autumn afternoon, enters Brewster's diner, says his hellos to waitresses and the cashier, you can see the man belongs here. Already known, accepted, respected...home.

But Dear moves in so many worlds that, ironically enough, the one place it seems singularly odd to see him is behind a pulpit. Too little berth; confinement. Not that he doesn't appear priestly. Certainly he looks the part. His smile immediately engages; his warmth and compassion are manifest. Unfailingly serene, even as he's excitable, a believer through and true, Dear has arrived in Richmond, fervent to spread The Word: Love others as yourself.

And it's this commitment, this fervency, that seems inhibited by the pulpit. There's someplace else for Dear to be. As his friend and colleague Father Daniel Berrigan has written: "We are living our lives in the uneasy feverish twilight of hot war and cold, and there is no peace. Yet somehow the truth must be heard and spoken and accepted, first of all, by ourselves."

Dear has spent his adult life searching for truth and revealing it. On the streets of Richmond, on this very night, scores of young and old will bed down in alcoves and alleys--a truth that for Dear is simply unacceptable. That's why he's come. Equally unacceptable to this young Jesuit is the fact that the United States doles out boggling billions a year in the name of national defense. Dear believes there are better ways for that money to be spent.

"Listen to the voice of Jesus," he said recently from a D.C. pulpit, "in the poor and the marginalized who suffer the fallout of our $588-billion budget for warfare. Listen to Jesus in the city of liberation, from the imprisoned and the tortured, the homeless and the hungry, the ill and the dying. Listen to Jesus in the dead of Bosnia and Rwanda and on our city streets, saying, 'Stop the violence, stop the bombing, stop the killing.' Listen to the voice of Jesus in our hearts."

Intense stuff--the articulation of a profound believer. Thus is he here now, putting these words into practice. Thus was he willing two years ago to steal onto Seymour Johnson Air Force Base (in the heart of Jesse Helms Country) and risk losing a decade of his life to incarceration, by, in Stanley Hauerwas' words, "beating the hell out of an F-15 with a ball-peen hammer."

Perhaps "losing" is the wrong word. Dear would find, has found, work to be done behind bars (Peace Behind Bars is the title of his latest book). But there's so much more to be done out here, in Richmond, in the world.

"The deepest thing, I would think," Daniel Berrigan continues, "is not that we counter the ways of the world, but that we are standing somewhere." And Dear is firm upon where he stands.

But things weren't always so clear for John Dear. His Duke years, he explains, were "kinda wild." As a Kappa Sig, Dear sampled the broader collegiate experience, uncertain of where he was headed. "I wanted to be a newspaper publisher, like my father; a lawyer; or a rock star." Then, junior year, came a defining experience, and a young man who might otherwise have been Elizabeth City's answer to Johnny Rotten was catapulted into a different world. "I started doing volunteer work," he says, "to get a better grade in an Abnormal Psych class." He was sent to Butner, North Carolina, to the federal correctional institute for inmates with mental disorders, where he was "locked in with prisoners from nine to five. It really blew me away--total culture shock." Each Friday, all day, then back to the frat section.

"It was a powerful lesson," he says, "and it pushed me into a search for what my life was about. 'Do I believe in God? No; God doesn't exist.' So I set out toward making money. But I was done with all that by the end of my junior year."

He went on to work for the Robert Kennedy Foundation in Washington, D.C., an organization that funds centers just like the Sacred Heart. Then he spent a summer in Israel. A lapsed Catholic, Dear found his way back to the Church; in 1982 he joined the Jesuits. "My parents just don't know what happened to me. They were quite shocked when I joined the Jesuits." He grins. "It's just gone downhill since then."

In addition to El Salvador (where five of his Jesuit brothers were gunned down by a government death squad), he's lived in Guatemala and traveled throughout Nicaragua, the Philippines, the Middle East, and Haiti. He's been arrested more than fifty times around the U.S. in anti-nuclear-weapons demonstrations. Along the way he became versed in the works of the liberation theologians, mostly Catholic priests, the majority of whom live and work in Latin America.

The theology of liberation has a rich, if short, history in the social-political landscape of Latin America. In 1962, Pope John XXIII startled Catholics across the world by convening the Second Vatican Council (the first such council in nearly a hundred years), as a response to growing concerns that the Catholic Church was in serious trouble--most notably in its response to the poor and oppressed. The Church was widely seen as elitist, removed from the everyday realities of these people's lives, in league with assorted demagogues and dictators.

Liberation theology was a direct reply. It began to gain currency after Vatican II, first in South America and later Central America, as a growing number of priests, sisters, and lay people felt it incumbent upon them to reach more effectively the faithful, and the would-be, in the barrios and the countryside--to transform the Church into a positive force at the grassroots level. They "opted" for the poor, going among them to live and work and teach--reading from the Bible, interpreting it in terms of the people's own struggles and concomitant sense of salvation, or lack thereof. From "base church communities" came a heightened awareness, a sense of possessing the power to respond to injustice through an activist-oriented, non-violent Christian ethic.

Dear is an advocate of liberation theology and is close to a number of its theologians. But his own theology has, over the years, become more directly focused on non-violence: taking, as he says, "the old categories of theology and putting them in a context of nonviolence, just as the liberation theologians take those categories and put them in a context of liberation of the poor." Daniel Berrigan--writer, fellow Jesuit, an activist peacemaker since Vietnam and before--has been a tremendous influence.

"When I first met John," says Berrigan, "I could see that our sympathies were in tandem over nuclear arms and peacemaking. John was very single-minded in that regard and it was a natural basis for friendship."

Such unwavering commitment to nonviolent resistance has been the source of an extended criminal record. Dear has been associated for some time with communities and individuals around the country who have carried out some fifty acts of nonviolent protest, entering military bases and sites of weaponry manufacture--"Plowshares" actions they're called, the first coming in 1989 at a General Electric plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania.

Number 48 came at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base--the road that led John Dear back home.

Who drove the car?" asked Assistant U.S. Attorney William Webb. The setting was a federal courthouse in Elizabeth City, where Dear, Lynn Fredriksson, Bruce Friedrich, and Philip Berrigan (brother of Daniel Berrigan, and a former Catholic priest and longtime nonviolent resister) were being tried for pounding with hammers on the nose of an F-15E Strike Eagle, pouring blood on it, and then laying down their implements to await arrest--a sequence of events that took precious little time to carry out.

None among the four denied that on December 7, 1993, they had entered Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro, North Carolina, and had done damage to the aircraft, nor did they dispute a $27,000 invoice for damages. Their defense rested on the word "willful." In the minds of the four, they had not "willfully" damaged government property, they had enhanced it. They had seen this F-15 as a blasphemy, had heard the words of the prophet Isaiah--"They shall beat their swords into plowshares"--and had spilled their own blood in an act of redemptive sacrifice.

In asking who had driven the car to Seymour Johnson, Webb was trying to establish conspiracy charges; he was attempting to convey to the jury that this act had been premeditated and had involved co-conspirators. Dear was on the stand as a character witness for Berrigan. The question lay before him, unanswered, as the cramped courtroom drew still. "I refuse to incriminate anyone," said Dear. "I take full responsibility for my own action."

At this point, Judge Terrence Boyle, a Catholic himself, sent the jury out and informed Dear that his options were these: to answer the question or receive five years for criminal contempt.

"Okay, I'll tell you who drove the car," said Dear. And the jury was brought back in. In that moment, as he now recounts it, he looked out over the room at his friends and colleagues. "'Oh, God,' they were all thinking, 'John's going to betray the whole peace movement.'"

Extemporaneously, he responded: "Thank you, Mr. Webb, for insisting that I answer this question. You have helped me to articulate the truth about what we did on December 7." Getting through to the F-15--as, incidentally, war maneuvers were in progress--"could only have been an act of God. I'm being very sincere when I say that the Holy Spirit drove me to Seymour Johnson Air Force Base." At which point the courtroom fell to chaos, the jury was sent back out, and Judge Boyle hit the roof.

Dear had broken the rules. The prosecution had successfully argued that the case was one of "general" rather than "specific" intent. In other words, the jury was to determine only if the four had committed the physical damage; motivation and perspective were entirely irrelevant. Any mention of God, of nonviolent resistance or the use of military force, was not permitted. Naturally, this act of nonviolent resistance had been premeditated. Dear and his co-defendants had spent six months preparing: defining the situation and the intent of their gesture, praying, and bracing for prison.

The blood, Dear explains, "symbolized the taking of blood; the blood of Christ on the cross. We must be willing to offer our own blood in struggle, and not take the blood of others. The hammering was effective in the very ridiculousness of the gesture." They were causing actual damage, but only a trifling, as the initial act of disarming. But Dear wasn't allowed to explain any of this to the jury prior to sentencing, only in his closing statement (a statement that further infuriated Judge Boyle). The four were found guilty. Dear was given twelve months' active time--of which seven-and-a-half months were active custody (and included time served, mostly in Edenton, North Carolina, awaiting trial), and four-and-a-half months home confinement--with three years of supervised parole.

Dear estimates he received more than 5,000 letters during what he refers to as his "federal fellowship," including those from his immediate superior, from the head of the Jesuit order in Rome, and from Mother Teresa. They were, understandably, very difficult days. But in Peace Behind Bars, he refers to them as "intense, grace-filled days."

"I learned in jail the powerlessness of the poor, the uncertainty of the future," he writes. "We talked every day about trying to be respectful and loving. As Dr. [Martin Luther] King was to segregationists, as Gandhi was to British imperialists, we have to be so to the people who make nuclear weapons. And so I read Gandhi and I read King and I read the Scriptures and I'm supposed to love my enemies and respect them and nonetheless call them out of the mindset that has left them trapped in their own oppression--to liberate them."

Along the way, Dear, Berrigan, and Friedrich (Fredriksson was jailed elsewhere) became friends with Edenton chief jailer Michael Chinsolo. "While they were here," says Chinsolo, "I came to know them and I came to respect them. I didn't agree with what they did, but I did respect them for standing up for it. They never backed down."

Early on, Judge Boyle had suggested to Berrigan and Dear the option of going free on bail while awaiting trial, providing they make nice and, presumably, acknowledge contrition; they refused. "I told them I couldn't ever do what they were doing," Chinsolo says. "If I'd been told I could get out if I promised not to do it again--hell, I'd have promised not to do it in two lifetimes."

Throughout their long months in the Edenton jail, Dear and the others were allowed outdoors only twice. "I was only half aware of how difficult this time was for John," says Philip Berrigan, who's served over the years many long stints of incarceration. "John just looked at the grass and the trees, he wanted to interact with nature so much. It's a measure of his faith that he took it all in silence."

So how does Dear feel today about having carried out this act of nonviolent resistance? Was it, in the practical sense, worth it? Daniel Berrigan speculates that Dear "feels as I do that despair is a lux-ury we can't afford. I think he's detached from any crude idea of proving anything. The outcome of any good work is, after all, in God's hands; we don't need proof. I believe that allows one a great freedom."

Certainly the support he received from his order was encouraging. "I was surprised at the support John received from his [superior]," says Philip Berrigan. But, he goes on, there are signs the Church is "coming out of a deep sleep. It's hit a select number of superiors, because they have remarkable priests under them."

Yet another Berrigan, Jerry, puts it more succinctly: "After hearing John Dear testify [on behalf of his brother Philip], I believe there's hope for the Jesuits."

Dear takes solace in this belief that the Church is moving forward in fits and starts--and an ironic wonder in his status as a felon. "My probation officer came here to see me," he says, seated now in the Sacred Heart library, "and he's an old Catholic, hasn't been to mass in thirty years. He was nervous about seeing me." After some circuitous conversation about this and that, the officer ends up asking Dear if he'd be willing to supervise fifteen of his other clients; they never discussed Dear's own case.

It all comes with the territory, this inability of others to categorize. What do you say to a felon priest? To many, this must seem an untenable contradiction: outlaw/man of God. It makes perfect sense to Father Dear. "I'm supposed to be a public figure, a priest; more than

anybody else I should be living out the Scriptures and paying the price. Everything Jesusdid was illegal. 'Love your enemies' was hismost radical statement. They're your salvation; when they're converted, it'll happen."

Determining exactly what "it" is is part and parcel of this search for truth--a search Dear will tell you begins right at your own front door. "As more and more Catholics begin to take the side of the poor, to walk in solidarity with the poor and to speak out for justice and peace, and then begin to become what I think the Church is all about, we're going to transform the mainstream institutional Church. Dr. King said that the church is a place you go from to work for justice and to seek out peace. And in that sense, ours is really a grassroots movement."

Connectedness. Seeing the plight of the residents of this Richmond community as being a direct result of those billions spent on nuclear weapons is the ultimate cohesion of John Dear's journey, his vision. Examining the connectedness, and attempting to enact the "greatest good."

"From having been at places like the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base and the Pentagon," he explains, "where billions of dollars are being spent for war--and then to see here in the neighborhood people who are suffering, who have nothing and are barely surviving--the connections are very real. I see the money going to war and for nuclear weapons, and the whole country supporting that, and then I see the reality of life for the poor on the other hand, and they have no money, and they're being crushed, and I think it's all very much connected."

"Systematic immorality," he calls it.

And so Dear continues to "prick people's conscience." Phillip Berryman says in his book Liberation Theology that the prophets saw no difference between the political and the religious realms. Certainly Dear sees no distinction.

"Our journey begins on the edge of the mainstream society," he says. "We must create a church on the edge. What is the greatest good now? The protection of life, saving the human planet from destruction. This is what we have to be about."

In Peace Behind Bars, Dear quotes Gandhi as saying, "An eye for an eye only makes the whole world blind."

Just keeping a few eyes open would be quite an accomplishment in itself. The important thing is that you're standing somewhere.

Sisk is a freelance writer living in Chapel Hill.
Back to contents page

Share your comments

Have an account?

Sign in to comment

No Account?

Email the editor