October 4, 2001, Thursday
PUBLIC LIVES; On the Front Line,
Pursuing the God of Peace
By JOHN KIFNER
LIFE as a Christian, a follower of what he unstintingly calls the ''God of
Peace,'' has taken the Rev. John Dear, to a North Carolina jail for whacking
an F-15E fighter jet with a hammer. (''I didn't even dent it,'' he recalled
sheepishly.) It has taken him to Belfast, to Iraq and to a stint in a Salvadoran
refugee camp whose misery and poverty, like that in much of the world, he
blames on America, the land that he loves.
"The whole government of El Salvador, the death squads, were funded by our
government,'' he said, recalling the 75,000 people, including 6 Jesuit priests
-- his friends -- killed during that conflict. ''In so much of the world,
we are on the wrong side. Millions of people around the world are angry at
But these days, Father Dear's duties have taken him to Pier 92 on the Hudson
River, where he is coordinating chaplains and other clergy members trying
to console relatives of the more than 5,000 victims of the terrorist attack
on the World Trade Center, often escorting the families to ground zero.
''I'm really very sad, just hurting and grieving,'' said Father Dear, a 42-year-old
Jesuit. ''I've met literally hundreds of people, probably 700, relatives and
police officers and firefighters. They're in the throes of tremendous grief,
from the richest families to those of the busboys in Windows on the World
who now have nothing. I'm listening, listening, literally embracing them.
''I also understand their anger,'' he added softly. ''I feel it myself.''
But he is still devoted to nonviolence.
''My faith is absolutely unshaken,'' he said. ''I believe in the God of Peace.
In fact, I believe in it more than ever. God doesn't want war. I don't want
one person to be killed in response to this.
''I'm not saying don't do anything,'' he continued, struggling for an answer.
''So what can we do? Perhaps rely on international law and the World Court.
Just don't kill thousands of women and children in the mountains of Afghanistan.''
It is a journey that began in his senior year at Duke, a fraternity boy studying
Afro-American history, from slavery to the civil rights movement. ''Like St.
Paul, I got knocked off the bar stool,'' he remembered.
He struggled with the question of whether God exists, deciding at first,
no. ''Then I came to the conclusion that of course God exists,'' a conclusion
that, he said, inevitably led him to become a priest ''battling for peace
and justice on the front lines of the church,'' like the Rev. Daniel Berrigan,
the antiwar activist, an early hero who would later become a friend and housemate
on the Upper West Side.
AFTER graduation, in 1982, before entering the seminary, he decided to follow
in the footsteps of St. Ignatius Loyola and St. Francis of Assisi, who traveled
the Holy Land at the beginning of their religious lives. But the day he boarded
a plane at Kennedy Airport, Israel invaded Lebanon. ''It was to be a backpacking
pilgrimage,'' he said. ''I was by myself, studying the gospel, reflecting
on the Sermon on the Mount. I was camping on the Sea of Galilee and I could
see the jets overhead, the tanks going in. This is where Jesus walked and
it was a war in the name of God.
''It's been downhill ever since,'' he added with a smile.
He traveled much of the world campaigning against violence and war. Until
recently he directed the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith peace
organization. He has also worked with the homeless in Washington, New York
and Virginia, and taught theology at Fordham. His book ''Living Peace,'' describing
his life and philosophy, was published in April.
He lives in an apartment at 98th and Broadway, monastic in size, if not in
décor. The walls and shelves are filled with religious icons, many related
to liberation theology (awards for some of the books he has edited hang in
the bathroom), and the pictures over his desk reflect his own galaxy of saints:
Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and Dorothy Day, along with Archbishop Óscar
Romero of San Salvador, gunned down by a rightist death squad as he said Mass,
and Father Berrigan's brother, Philip, with whom he was arrested for hammering
on the F-15E.
In the late 1960's, the apartment building was known as Woodstock, the base
for 125 fiesty young Jesuit activists protesting the Vietnam War at a time
when the local church hierarchy was blessing helicopters. Today, there are
only 22 left, including Father Berrigan, among the increasingly gentrified
tenants. Once the area was drug-infested, rat-ridden. Now in addition to their
other causes, the Jesuits are fighting a more typical New York battle: the
landlord is trying to oust them from their rent-stabilized apartments.
''War only sows the seeds of further violence,'' Father Dear said, admitting
to mixed feelings about the blossoming of American flags.
''It's a symptom of trying not to be overwhelmed by the horror of this event,''
he said. ''But I think we need something more than flags. The way out is compassion,
the compassion we see now in New York.''
The New York Times Company