John Dear’s idea of what it means to be a Christian [“What Jesus Would Do,” interview by John Malkin, June 2009] is right on the mark. It is not a matter of imitating Jesus but of simply paying attention to his words as recorded in the Gospels. Jesus makes clear, unequivocal statements that any grade-school child could understand. Just get a red-letter version of the Bible (with Jesus’s words in red print) and see for yourself what Jesus teaches, without commentary, theologizing, or Church pronouncements. Unlike the dangerously deluded members of the so-called “Christian” Right, Dear has taken Jesus at his word.
The interview with John Dear is an affirmation of the strength of the human spirit when sustained by the divine. Our tendency toward violence sometimes seems as deeply entrenched as our instinct for survival, but as Dear and many others have evidenced, it can be overcome.
Nonviolence is practiced not only in courtrooms and jail cells, where Dear has spent time, but wherever people stand their ground peacefully against domestic violence, child abuse, and intolerance. Each individual effort adds to the collective momentum toward a world at peace — maybe not tomorrow, but inevitably.
Reading the interview with John Dear, I am puzzled by how he can deliver Christ’s message of peace and at the same time give his obedience to the Roman Catholic Church, which teaches its faithful to refrain from using birth control in a world overflowing with people, and which forbids condoms in a world where many thousands are dying from HIV.
It is important that we stand for peace, but it is also important that we stand for justice, and justice is not being served by Father Dear’s Church. In Dear’s own words, “Everything is connected — every aspect of how you live and what you do: it’s all one.”
I respect John Dear’s courageous efforts to build a nonviolence movement, but I disagree with his stance on vegetarianism. (I eat a mostly vegetarian diet but occasionally eat meat.) Dear states that modern meat production is so harmful to the health of both the planet and its people that Jesus would be a vegetarian if he were alive today. I agree that global vegetarianism is one solution to modern factory farming, but is it realistic? Vegetarianism is a modern concept born from economic prosperity and our separation from agriculture and animal husbandry. Food production was once a family or community effort in which those who ate meat were actively involved in raising and slaughtering animals. They cared for them in life and respected them in death.
I would argue that, rather than discouraging people from eating meat, we could save the planet and ourselves by supporting grass-fed animal husbandry at a local or community level. Animals are a necessary part of small-scale, organic agriculture. They provide valuable manure and turn grass into eggs, milk, and meat. This kind of agriculture was practiced successfully for thousands of years without harming the earth. I think Jesus, with his own experience in the Middle East of two thousand years ago, would agree.
It’s amazing to me that a man can claim to know the thoughts of a deity. The interview with John Dear is a fine example of human arrogance masquerading as piety.
Dear considered it his duty to protect the “boys” — as he called the National Guardsmen in New Mexico — from “the forces of evil,” even though his proselytizing was unwelcome and caused the soldiers “to burst out laughing.” When the “boys” returned from service in Iraq unharmed, Dear implicitly took credit for their safety.
Protesting war is valid, but the religious do not have a monopoly on being decent human beings. Without an innate sense of morality, we could not have survived as a species for more than a hundred thousand years before Abraham showed up. Survival and prosperity are sustainable only when we all get along. Our ancestors understood this, and our very presence here is proof.
Dear practices a kind of corrupt salesmanship, failing to mention the fine print while fetishizing his own sense of martyrdom. The works of missionaries like him are deep manipulations of social responsibility, each act of kindness coming with a threat of eternal punishment. Nonviolence and social progress are realizable in a secular society without talk of hellfire.
Although John Dear has no doubt done much good with his nonviolent resistance, words are actions, too. As a Jew I’m struck by the unconscious violence in the wording of his Christian theology, which describes Jesus as opposing a corrupt system represented by the Judaism of his time. Jesus, Dear says, “marched into Jerusalem, to the source of the problem, where the religious authorities were working with the empire to steal from the people in the name of God.”
There were those Jewish authorities whose positions were dependent on Rome. Their job description involved keeping a lid on insurrection. In doing so, they forestalled retaliation by Rome and also ensured taxes for Rome. Nevertheless, the religion of Judaism was not being practiced to extract money for the empire. Jewish leaders and religious authorities did not constitute a corrupt system burdening the people with rules or guilt. Can Christians not imagine that Jews in Jesus’s day were practicing their religion freely and with deep religious feeling?
It may be that Dear does not realize what he is saying or the harm that words such as his have done over the centuries and are still doing. I challenge him, in the name of his own nonviolent principles, to discover a Jesus who emerges within his Judaism, speaking as a militant against the vested interests and power structure of his own day, but not against Judaism or its practice.
John Dear says that Jesus “turned over the tables of the money changers” in the temple, then claims that “Jesus didn’t hit anybody or hurt anybody.” But everyone who is familiar with the Gospels knows that Jesus fashions a whip or a “scourge” to drive out the money changers. He didn’t just turn over their tables; he whipped them until they left.
Jesus’s pacifism was tempered by circumstances. Sometimes it is better to use nonlethal violence than to be passive. It may, at some point, save a life.
Fred Bahnson’s essay “Martyr’s Mirror” [June 2009] is lively, entertaining, and honest, but its central thesis is untenable.
Bahnson writes, of his experience as a Christian peace activist, “We were all a bunch of silly, middle-class Americans who would never understand real sacrifice.” By “real sacrifice” he must not mean death, because in 2006 Christian activist Tom Fox was tortured and executed by an Iraqi militia. That very sincere volunteer peacemaker followed Jesus even to the grave.
Bahnson apparently considers the commitment and sacrifice of Fox and other volunteers like him to be less than that of his heroes Las Abejas and Dietrich Bonhoeffer because “real” martyrs die at home resisting an evil that descends upon them rather than dying abroad resisting an evil that would otherwise have let them be. Bahnson writes, “By seeking confrontation, we had already failed the test.”
Bahnson’s outlook comfortably relieves him of any duty to resist genocide as long as it doesn’t occur in his immediate vicinity. I suspect this is not his true theology so much as a contrived justification for his dislike of the organization to which he briefly belonged. His amusing and revealing story of a nonviolence training camp that didn’t work for him would be better off with no unifying thesis than with such a self-serving, petty one. Then I might have reached my own conclusions — for example, that Christian peace activists can be naive, fallible, and ridiculous at the same time that they are perceptive, righteous, and courageous.
Fred Bahnson responds:
The “we” of whom I wrote includes only the twenty or so folks who participated in the collective silliness I described. Our training happened in 2001, five years before Tom Fox’s death. In no way do I mean to hold him or his motives up for scrutiny. Nor do I claim that real martyrs die only at home or that attempts at peacemaking abroad aren’t worthwhile. They are. It’s more a question of motives and methods.
Juhnke accuses me of not doing my duty to resist genocide, and he’s right. I confess that I am as baffled and scared and hopeless in the face of such atrocities as the next person. Most days it’s all I can do to try and live peaceably with those in my own community, and in my own home. Not that this lets me off the hook.
I admire those who are called to travel to places like Darfur and Iraq to bear witness, pray, and try to be a peaceable presence. John Dear had it right when he said that the challenge is for Christians to continue the story, by which he means being active peacemakers wherever we are. But any attempt to codify the Christian message into a one-month tactical training camp will end in reductionism and inanity.
I’ve been through an emotionally trying (self-inflicted, of course) spring and summer. My comfort lies in the words of poet Mary Oliver, songwriter Neko Case, and The Sun. Thank you for The Mysterious Life of the Heart, for Readers Write and Sunbeams, for the poems and stories and photographs, and for Sy Safransky’s Notebook. Therapists be damned. All I need is another issue of your magazine.
In the July 2009 Dog-Eared Page we incorrectly cited 1978 as the year James Baldwin died. He died in 1987. We regret the error.