Following Fr. John Dear’s challenging lecture last night on the Road to Peace, I offered the following reflection on the tension between contemplative and active forms of peacemaking in chapel at Drew this morning: 


  •  Are you an active or a contemplative Christian?
  • Are you an activist who prophetically speaks truth to the power…or a contemplative who prays for peace and tries to live a life of compassion? 
  • Are you a contemplative-active or an active contemplative?

(It’s complicated.  It’s a spectrum.  The two poles are in tension.)

Last night Fr. John Dear was in the house [at the annual Henri Nouwen Lecture at Drew].  We heard a radical gospel according John –the peace and justice activist.  We also heard him talk appreciatively about his friend, Fr Henri Nouwen, the more contemplative peacemaker—who died 14 years ago this week (Sept 21, 1996). 

Henri Nouwen is a well-known writer of 40+ books on contemplative spirituality, including The Return of the Prodigal Son and Life of the Beloved.  He was a professor of pastoral psychology at Notre Dame, Yale and Harvard before moving to L’Arch Daybreak community of people with physical and mental disabilities as their pastor.

Fr. John Dear, SJ is a Jesuit priest, peacemaker, community organizer, author/editor of 25 books, including The God of Peace: Toward a Theology of Nonviolence. Nominated by Archbishop Desmond Tutu in 2008 for the Noble Peace Prize, Fr. John former executive director of Fellowship for Reconciliation, the largest interfaith peace organization in the United States where he ministered with the Berrigan brothers in direct actions of non-violent civil disobedience.  Currently, John is working on a nonviolent campaign to disarm Los Alamos, New Mexico, and shut down the government’s War Drone program in Nevada. 

John’s peace work has taken him to El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Haiti, the Middle East, Colombia, Philippines; Northern Ireland, and Iraq–Seeking to live out the radical Beatitudes of Jesus in every dimension of his life.

John believes that social change occurs when enough good people break bad laws.  Toward this end, he has been arrested over seventy-five times in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience for peace, spending more than a year of his life in jail.  He also has organized hundreds of demonstrations for peace and justice across the country over the last 25 years.

For example, after protesting housing cuts and lack of funding for the homeless in Washington DC in 1989, John was arrested again. Someone had given him a copy of Henri Nouwen’s little book, In the Name of Jesus.  A prophetic leadership book about the three temptations of Jesus (which also are common to leaders): 1) the temptation to be relevant (“turn these stones into bread”); 2) to be spectacular (“throw yourself down from the temple top and the let the angels catch you”); and 3) to be powerful (“rule the kingdoms of the world”). 

John had the book in his pocket when he was arrested, and he read that day in his cell.  “I was hooked on Henri Nouwen,” writes John. “I found the book both consoling and challenging.”  With paper and pencil provided by other cellmates, he wrote a book review which he later sent to Nouwen.  Thus began a 7-year, warm and engaging, regular, correspondence between a young and very active priest and an older more contemplative priest, as they exchanged ideas and admonitions. 

In 1992, Henri Nouwen sent John a copy of his latest book, Life of the Beloved, in which he writes: (quote p. 30-31)

John read the new book just after getting back from a peace mission in Haiti where he was trying to stop new waves of violence.  As he told us last night, the book made him angry, and he wrote an angry letter to his friend Henri about what the book left out: 

“I agree with you that we are all the beloved of God, but in a world of violence and injustice, we are required to work for justice, and this book neglects this crucial next step….We must seek justice…and oppose war, and any form of killing God’s other beloved children—or we renounce our  belovedness…” (The Road to Peace, p. xv).

Henri responded graciously to John’s challenging letter, and they continued writing.  (Knowing both Henri and John, I can feel the tension between them about whether it’s better to be an activist or a contemplative peacemaker.)

In 1993 at the Air Force Base in Goldsboro, North Carolina, John was arrested again (with Fr. Philip Berrigan) for hammering on the head of an F-16 Air Force fighter bomber…in a demonstration of how to ‘beat your swords into plowshares, your spears into pruning hooks’ according to the prophet Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom.  The protesters were jailed, indicted, arraigned, tried, and convicted with a felony charge of destruction of government property. 

During their 8-month imprisonment, “we were never let out of our cells, never went outdoors,” John writes. “I received many letters of support, but Henri’s weekly letters…were particularly encouraging. He felt in solidarity with our peace witness, and read aloud my hand-written letters to him at Daybreak liturgies and community meetings, ‘so that our work for peace and your work for peace will be the same.’” (Road to Peace, p. xvii)

After the death of Henri Nouwen in 1996, John put together Henri’s published and unpublished writings on peace and justice in one edited volume. The Road to Peace is one of the text books I use in my courses and seminars on the spirituality of Henri Nouwen.

Fast forward to April 9, 2009: John Dear and 14 others are arrested for “criminal trespassing” at Creech Air Force Base, Nevada (headquarters of the U.S. drones), for protesting “remote-controlled warfare.” 

Their trial ended just last week in Las Vegas.  Expert witnesses, including former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark and others, argued that

·       Intentional killing is a war crime, as embodied in U.S. constitutional law.

·       Drone strikes by U.S. and coalition forces kill a disproportionate number of civilians. (John referred to a finding that 9 out of 10 people killed by war drones are bystanders–‘collateral damage’)

·       People have the right, even the duty, to stop war crimes.

·       According to the Nuremberg principles, individuals are required to disobey domestic orders that cause crimes against humanity (including trespassing on government property).

·       And when enough good people break bad laws, social systems change.

The Judge announced that he needed three months to “think about all of this” before he could render a verdict. “There is more at stake here than the usual meaning of trespassing,” he noted. The Creech 14 were assigned a court date of January 27, 2011 to hear the verdict.

The Gospel according to John (Dear) addresses the global crises of war drones, nuclear weapons, poverty, hunger, AIDS, and the threat of environmental destruction:  “Jesus dedicated himself passionately to justice for the poor and a global vision of God’s reign of peace on earth, and he gave his life to the formation of a community of peacemakers who would confront institutionalized, imperial injustice head on, just as he did.”

Blessed are the peacemakers (in the active sense of that work) for they shall be called the children of God. (Foreword, Peacework, p. 8)

The Gospel according to Henri Nouwen is simply that “you and I are the beloved children of God. That we are loved by God from eternity to eternity.  Long before we were born, we were held in the palm of God’s hand.  And long after we die, we will be embraced by the God of love.  The voice that Jesus heard at his baptism—You are my beloved child—is the same inner voice of love that calls us Beloved.  Prayer and meditation connects us to the truth of who we are, and this deeper truth is what sets us free to love ourselves and others.   It doesn’t matter how short or long our life is.  We’re only here a short time-10-20-30-40-60-80 years on earth.  But long enough to come to know that we are loved, and to say back to God: I love you too!”

John’s Gospel is more activist:  By social analysis and speaking truth to power, by community organizing and non-violent civil disobedience, we call forth the Beloved Community of peace and justice.  And if you as a follower of Jesus Christ are not living on the prophetic edge, you’re taking up too much room.

So how do we live in the tension between contemplation and action in a world of violence and injustice?

Here’s a two minute video clip about John Dear’s active approach to ministry in his book “A Persistent Peace”; followed by a video clip about Henri Nouwen’s contemplative approach to being a peacemaker.  Somewhere on the spectrum may we find our gift and calling.