June 26, 2006
Keynote Speech at the National
Conference on the Sacred Heart
(John Dear's keynote address to the National Conference on the Sacred
Heart, on June 26, 2005,
in Waltham, Massachusetts, to the association of religious congregations
connected to the Sacred Heart.)
Dear friends, like all of you, the Sacred Heart of Jesus has been
central for me throughout my life. It moved me to enter the Jesuits, and
then disarms me and is trying to fashion my own heart, and all our
hearts, after his own heart, that we too might have disarmed, unarmed,
nonviolent, that we might follow him on the journey of Gospel
nonviolence into God's reign of justice and peace, so that's what I
would like to share with you, the social, economic and political
implications of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
These are horr
endous time. We stand at a critical moment in history. You
recall that the night before he was killed, the holy prophet to our
country, Martin Luther King, Jr., said "The choice is no longer violence
or nonviolence. It's nonviolence or nonexistence." I think that's where
we stand today--on the brink of destruction, called to become people of
radical, Gospel, creative nonviolence.
But this is not a new message. According to Wendy Wright's great book,
Jesus said the following words to St. Margaret Mary on December 29,
1673: "My divine heart is so impassioned with love for humanity, it
cannot contain the flames of its burning charity inside. It must spread
them through you and show itself to humanity so that they may be
enriched by the previous treasures that I share with you, treasures
which have all the sanctifying and saving graces needed to draw them
back from the abyss of destruction."
"The abyss of destruction!" That's where we are today. In this world on
the brink, we are called to "proclaim the heartbeat of God." So I'd like
to reflect with you about the culture of violence that is leading us to
the abyss of destruction, and the alternative of Gospel nonviolence, the
Sacred Heart's way to peace for all people, and how we can become people
of peace and nonviolence.
The Culture of Violence and war
First, we live in a culture of violence and war, an empire and world of
injustice and death. If we want to think about the heartbeat of God in
our world today, we have to understand that it is being silenced,
crushed, and killed. We live in a culture that is anti-heart,
cold-hearted, with hearts armed.
Today there are 35 wars currently being fought with our country involved
in all of them. According to the United Nations, some 50,000 people die
every day of starvation. Nearly two billion people suffer in poverty and
misery. We live in the midst of structured, systemic,
institutionalization of violence which kills people through war and
From this global system comes the litany of violence--executions,
sexism, racism, violence against children, violence against women, guns,
abortion, the destruction of environment, from the ozone layer to the
rain forests to our oceans and the war on Iraq. But on August 6, 1945,
we crossed the line in our addiction to violence when we vaporized
140,000 people in Hiroshima and another 40,000 people, 3 days later in
Today, we have some 25,000 nuclear weapons with no movement toward
dismantling them; instead, we increase our budget for killing to over
$400 billion annually, we send nuclear weapons and radioactive materials
into outer space; we put missile shields around the planet; and we plan
even greater nukes. Violence, war, and death are the normal, legal,
legitimate ways to resolve conflict. And we maintain this imperial
military, economy to support a handful of corporate billionaires and
their generals with the necessary requirements of ongoing war, creating
enemies and victims, and keeping the American people indifferent and
The False Spirituality of Violence
But underneath this culture of war and injustice is a sophisticated
spirituality of violence, a spirituality of war, a spirituality of
empire, a spirituality of injustice that has nothing to do with the
living God or Jesus. In this false spirituality, we believe violence
saves us, war brings peace, might makes right, nuclear weapons are our
only security, God blesses wars, we seek not forgiveness and
reconciliation but victory and domination, and the good news is not the
love of enemies but the elimination of enemies. It's heresy, blasphemy
and idolatry. The empire always tries to instruct the church on sin and
morality, telling us that certain personal behavior is sinful or
immoral, while saying nothing about the murder of 100,000 Iraqis, as if
that were not sinful or immoral.
In a spirituality of violence, the church rejects Jesus and the Sermon
on the Mount as impractical, takes up the empire's just war theory,
launches crusades and blesses Trident submarines and remains silent
while Los Alamos churns out nuclear weapons and enjoys the comforts of
the culture of war and injustice rather than taking up the cross of
Gospel nonviolence. We have a private relationship with God, fulfill our
obligations and go right along with the mass murder of our sisters and
brothers around the world. So we become Flannery O'Connor's "Church
Without Christ" which she described in her book, "Wise Blood," where
"the lame don't walk, the blind don't see, the deaf don't hear and the
dead stay dead." That's where we're headed.
The empire wants the church to be indifferent and passive; it wants us
to be divided and fighting and silent, or better, to bless its wars and
injustices. When the church teaches the just war theory, it teaches and
promotes sin, and not just sin, but mortal sin.
But God is trying to teach us a hard, new lesson, the great truth that:
Violence doesn't work. War doesn't work. Violence in response to
violence always leads to further violence. As Gandhi said, an eye for an
eye only makes the whole world blind.
As Jesus said, "Those who live by the sword, will die by the sword.
Those who live by the bomb, the gun, the nuclear weapon, will die by
bombs and guns and nuclear weapons." You reap what you sow. The means
are the ends. What goes around comes around.
War can not stop terrorism because war is terrorism. War only sows the
seeds for future wars. War can never lead to lasting peace or true
security or a better world or overcome evil or teach us how to be human
or deepen the spiritual life.
If we want peace, we have to denounce the lie of war and the false
spirituality of violence that justifies war and say: War is not the will
of God. War is never blessed by God. War is not endorsed by any
religion. War is the very definition of mortal sin. War is demonic,
evil, anti-democracy, anti-human, anti-God, anti-Christ, anti-life. For
Christians, war is not the way to follow Jesus. Peaceful means are the
only way to a peaceful future and the God of peace. Until we renounce
violence and war once and for all, we have not understood the spiritual
life, the church, the Gospel, or the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
So if we want to be Gospel people of peace and justice, if we want to
help the Sacred Heart lead humanity from the abyss of destruction, we
have to take the advice of Martin Luther King, Jr. and practice
The Alternative of Gospel Nonviolence
What is nonviolence? I urge you to reflect on this word, to define it
and practice it in your life. Active nonviolence begins with the vision
of a reconciled humanity, the vision of the heart, the reign of God in
our midst, the truth that all life is sacred, that we are all equal
sisters and brothers, all children of the God of peace, already
reconciled, all one, all already united, and so, we could never hurt or
kill another human being, much less remain silent while our country
wages war, builds nuclear weapons, and allows others to starve.
This is the spiritual life and the work of the church: to end war, feed
the hungry, heal, liberate, disarm the world, make peace, and love every
human being with unconditional, all-inclusive, all-encompassing,
non-retaliatory, sacrificial, universal love. We are called to practice
the ethics of the Sacred Heart, to be mindful of the social, economic
and political implications of the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
So nonviolence is much more than a tactic or a strategy; it is a way of
life. We renounce violence and vow never to hurt anyone again. It is not
passive but active love and truth that seeks justice and peace for the
whole human race; resists systemic evil; persistently reconciles with
everyone; disarms our hearts and the world; but insists that there is no
cause however noble for which we support the killing of any human being;
and instead of killing others, we are willing to undergo being killed in
the struggle for justice and peace; instead of inflicting violence on
others, we accept and undergo suffering without even the desire to
retaliate as we pursue justice and peace for all people.
Nonviolence is not passive; it is active, creative, provocative,
challenging! It's a life force, Gandhi said, that when harnessed becomes
contagious and can disarm nations and change the world; a force more
powerful than all the weapons of the world. We're just beginning to tap
The world says there are only two options in the face of violence: you
can fight back or run away. Nonviolence gives us a third option:
creative, active, peaceful resistance to injustice. We stand up and
resist violence with creative love, trusting in God, willingly suffering
but insisting on the truth of our common humanity until the scales fall
from the eyes of our opponents and we are reconciled.
So nonviolence begins in our hearts, where we renounce all the violence
inside ourselves, and then moves out with active nonviolence to our
families, communities, churches, cities, our nation and the world. We
practice it personally in the face of violence. When organized on a
large level, active nonviolence can transform the world, as Gandhi
demonstrated in India's revolution, as Dr. King and the civil rights
movement showed, as the People Power movement showed in the Philippines,
and as Archbishop Tutu and the churches of South Africa showed against
Nonviolence is a method to confront and transform injustice and war. We
organize, publicly challenge, and where people down until the
After years working at the Fellowship of Reconciliation and meeting
religious peace activists around the world, I've come to the conclusion
that all the religions of the world are rooted in nonviolence. Islam
means peace. Judaism upholds the magnificent vision of shalom, where
people beat swords into plowshares and study war no more. Gandhi
exemplified Hinduism as active nonviolence. Buddhism is all about
compassion toward all living beings. May I suggest that even
Christianity is about nonviolence.
Jesus and nonviolence
Mahatma Gandhi once said that Jesus was the most active practitioner of
nonviolence in the history of the world, and the only people who don't
know Jesus was nonviolent are Christians.
The only thing we can say for sure about Jesus is that he practiced
active, public, creative nonviolence. He called us to: "love our
neighbors, love one another, show compassion to everyone, seek justice
for the poor, forgive everyone, do unto others as we would have them do
unto us, turn the other cheek, take up the cross in the struggle for
justice and peace, lay down your lives in love for humanity. Whatever
you do to the least of these, you do to me."
The most significant, revolutionary words he ever said are the climax of
the Sermon on the Mount: "Love your enemies." If this is the message of
Jesus, if we want to be faithful to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, we have
to reject the false spirituality of violence and war and follow the
nonviolence of Jesus and love our enemies, no matter what anyone else
Jesus organizes the poor and walks from Galilee to Jerusalem on a
campaign of active nonviolence into the Temple, the symbol of imperial
and religious oppression of the poor, the center of systemic injustice,
and in an act of nonviolent civil disobedience, turns over the tables of
the moneychangers. "This is a house of prayer," he says. He doesn't hurt
anyone, kill anyone, or bomb anyone. But he does engage in peaceful,
nonviolent action; he is not passive. Jesus gave his life for peace.
Jesus was a nonviolent revolutionary, a one person crime wave.
For this, he is arrested, tried, tortured, and executed, a victim of the
death penalty. His last words to the community, to the church, to us, as
the soldiers drag him away, could not be clearer or more to the point:
"Put down the sword."
Now you might say this is the one moment where violence is justified.
Peter was right to take up a sword, to kill to protect our guy, the Holy
One. But Jesus issues a new commandment: "Put down the sword." That's
it. We are not allowed to kill. That's why they run away; they realize
he is serious about nonviolence, that we follow a martyr. Then he shows
perfect nonviolence, standing before the whole cohort, 600 soldiers,
mocked with a crown of thorns, and he doesn't fight or even get angry.
So Jesus dies on the cross saying, "The violence stops here in my body,
which is given for you. You are forgiven, but from now on, you are not
allowed to kill." And God raises him from the dead, and he says, "Peace
be with you." Then he sends us forth into the culture of violence as
people of nonviolence. They can kill us because our survival has already
been guaranteed. We are people of resurrection. We know that life is
stronger than death, love is stronger than hate, peace and compassion
are stronger than war.
Just as the crucifixion, the execution, of Jesus was completely legal,
but his resurrection was totally illegal. It was an act of civil
disobedience! The soldiers had put to guard the tomb, as if to say to
Jesus, "Now you're dead; stay dead." Jesus broke the law when he rose
from the dead.
From now on, we will never hurt another person again. We will never
support war or killing again, regardless of what our country tells us,
our parents tells, or what anyone else tells us. We have been disarmed
and we are going to love our enemies, beginning with the people of Iraq,
Palestine and Afghanistan. For us, there is no such thing as a just war
theory. It has nothing to do with the Gospel of Jesus.
I submit that we cannot claim to be people of the Sacred Heart, we
cannot proclaim the heartbeat of God to the world and support war and
nuclear weapons at the same time. We have to go all the way into the
great nonviolent, universal love of the Sacred Heart, and accept the
social, economic, and political implications of his Sacred Heart and be
people of peace, justice and disarmament.
The Catastrophe of Iraq
What the U.S. is doing today in its occupation of Iraq is a total
disaster. Iraq is not a liberated country. It's an occupied country,
that has to do what it is told, and we are the imperial, military
occupiers, and there is going to be more and more senseless bloodshed as
long as we remain there, and we are turning the whole world against us.
It is a complete, utter disaster, and it goes completely against the
Sacred Heart of Jesus. If you love the Sacred Heart of Jesus, you have
to be against the U.S. occupation of Iraq!
In March 1999, I led a delegation of Nobel peace prize winners to
Baghdad. We met with religious leaders, like the Papal nuncio and Imans,
United Nations officials, and non-governmental organizations, (including
Margarat Hassan, who was killed last November) and even government
representatives, but most importantly, we met with hundreds of dying
children and saw with our own eyes the reality of suffering inflicted by
the sanctions, because we have systematically destroyed Iraq's
infrastructure. From 1990 until now, our sanctions have killed over 1
million Iraqis, half of them children under 5.
When we arrived in Baghdad, we went first to visit the remains of the
Ameriyah shelter, which we bombed on February 12, 1991, Ash Wednesday,
killing over 500 women and children who were asleep at 4 a.m. I will
never forget going to the girls school in Baghdad, and being greeted by
500 school girls, with them singing in Arabic the old civil rights
anthem, "We Shall Overcome." "Deep in my heart, I do believe," they
sang, "We shall live in peace in someday." Then, they said, "Why is your
government trying to kill us? What have we done to you? We want to be
friends with the kids in America!" We visited the hospitals, held the
dying children, and at the press conference, Mairead Maguire and Adolfo
Perez Esquivel said that the US is practicing genocide.
The massacre of 100,000 Iraqis last year and the U.S. imperial
occupation is not about Sept. 11th or stopping their weapons of mass
destruction, since they were destroyed years ago, or about democracy or
disarmament or the Kurds or the Iraqi people.
If we cared about democracy, we would have asked them how to support
democracy, as we did, and they said to us, "Don't bomb us, give us food
and medicine, fund nonviolent democratic movements." We responded
militarily instead with sanctions and bombs.
If they cared about the possibility of Iraq having one part of a weapon
of mass destruction, we would dismantle our own 20,000 weapons of mass
destruction. Last year, I said in Santa Fe, that Pres. Bush is looking
for weapons of mass destruction, but we found them, they're right here
in our backyard in New Mexico. He doesn't have to bomb New Mexico, just
dismantle every one of them!
It's all about Bush and Cheney's goal to control Iraq's oil fields, at
any price, to gain financial control of the world economy. We bombed
every single major building in Baghdad except for the Ministry of Oil.
We have an imperial economy based entirely on oil and weapons, and to
maintain this empire, we have to wage war and wars require the blood of
children, the blood of Christ. I think this imperial, corporate greed is
sowing the seeds of global catastrophe, and our job is to call for an
end to the occupation, the immediate return of our troops, the end of
all U.S. military spending in the Middle East, and nonviolent solutions
through the United Nations.
Every empire in history has fallen and I think we are witnessing the
beginning of the fall of the American empire, and it's going to be
messy. We can help by making that fall less catastrophic for the poor
around the world, to help the fall of the empire happen nonviolently.
My Journey to Peace
As Gandhi said, you try every legal avenue--praying, fasting, marching,
speaking, preaching, teaching, lobbying, organizing, talking with the
press, then the Spirit leads you across the line and you break the laws
which legalize war, to obey the higher law of God, so that led me to
take up the life of crime, and I've not be rehabilitated since. So I've
been demonstrating and acting for peace and disarmament like you for
many years and been arrested over 75 times for nonviolent civil
disobedience against war and injustice. I've been a full fledged
criminal, with a real problem with recidivism.
All of this led me on December 7th, 1993, with Philip Berrigan and two
friends, to walk onto the Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in Goldsboro,
North Carolina, right through the middle of wargames, and invoking the
biblical commandments to beat swords into plowshares and love our
enemies, hammered twice on an F-15 nuclear-capable fighter bomber in a
"Plowshares disarmament action." We were surrounded by soldiers and I
said on behalf of the group, "We are unarmed, peaceful people; we mean
you no harm; we're just here to dismantle this weapon of death." And we
all hoped, that everyone would come to their senses, and the soldiers
would say, "What were we thinking? Of course, go right ahead. Thank God
you came." But that didn't happen. For that action I faced 20 years in
prison. I was found guilty of two felony counts, destruction of
government property and conspiracy to commit a felony crime. I spent
eight months in a tiny jail cell with Phil and never left it except for
a few days in court. It was a powerful experience of God, from the
action to our imprisonment to the trials.
I'm learning the old lesson from the abolitionist movements, the
suffragettes and women's movement, the labor and civil rights movements,
and the anti-war and anti-nuclear movements, that positive, nonviolent
social change comes about through risk and sacrifice; when good people
break bad laws which legalize injustice and war and accept the
consequences; when we accept suffering without retaliating as we insist
on the truth of justice and peace with love; that peace and justice
comes about, in the end, through our participation in the paschal
mystery, when we share in the cross and resurrection of Jesus.
I was supposed to be having breakfast with my parents on 9/11 at the top
of the World Trade Towers, but at the last minute, they changed their
minds, and we were having breakfast at the top of a hotel overlooking
central park when the planes struck. They left town and I started
immediately volunteering like thousands of other New Yorkers and was
asked by the Red Cross that Thursday to be the local coordinator of all
the chaplains at the Family Assistance Center, where all the families
came, and supervised over 500 chaplains of all religions and personally
met with over 1500 grieving relatives and escorted hundreds to Ground
Zero, and also talked with hundreds of rescue workers at Ground Zero. At
the same time, like many of you, I was speaking out against the war on
Afghanistan, organizing vigils, going to marches, engaging in civil
disobedience, trying to practice these commandments of Jesus, that we
love our neighbors and love our enemies, to show compassion both near
and far, to be for peace at home and abroad.
I now live and work now in New Mexico, which is the poorest state in the
country, and number one in military spending and number one in nuclear
weapons. I've been working in parishes in the desert among the poor, and
starting Pax Christi groups and calling for the closing of the nuclear
weapons labs at Los Alamos.
You may have heard what happened to me about a year and a half ago. I
live in the desert of New Mexico, and had been serving in five parishes,
and speaking out against the war, and one morning, on November 20, 2003,
the day after it was announced that the local unit of the National Guard
was going to Iraq, at 6 a.m., 75 soldiers came marching down the street
in front of the rectory and church where I live, shouting battle
slogans. They marched passed the church for an hour, then the shouting
got real loud and I looked out the window and discovered that they were
standing right in front of my house, filling up the street, shouting
out, "Kill, kill, kill!" so I went out and gave them a speech, saying,
"in the name of God, I order you to quit the military, not to go to
Iraq, not to kill anyone or be killed, and to follow the nonviolence of
Jesus." They just looked at me with their mouths hanging open, and then
broke up laughing. So now I'm totally notorious. But I've been telling
my peace movement friends, that I no longer have to go to
demonstrations. From now on, the soldiers come to me!
On August 6th, 2005, Hiroshima day, we're going to Los Alamos for the
60th anniversary of Hiroshima, and this time, like the people of
Ninevah, we're going to put on sackcloth and ashes and repent of the sin
of war and nuclear weapons. You are all invited! (see:
What can we do? I want to suggest three steps for proclaiming the
heartbeat of God in our world today:
1. We need to be contemplatives of nonviolence, mystics of nonviolence
The only way to deepen in nonviolence whatever our religious tradition
is through prayer, which means we have to become contemplatives and
mystics, people who sit with the God of peace, who take intimate time
each day for our relationship with the God of peace, who allow the God
of peace to disarm our hearts of our violence and the wars within us so
that we can be disarmed and become people of nonviolence. We have to
allow the God of peace to disarm our hearts!
Keep giving God your own inner violence and resentments. Grant clemency
and forgiveness to everyone who ever hurt you, and move from anger and
revenge and violence to nonviolence and compassion for everyone, so that
we can become people who radiate personally the peace we seek
Catholicism is about love, compassion, understanding, forgiveness and
nonviolence. Don't be mean, angry Catholics.
When Jesus called us to love our enemies, he said we should because God
does this. God let's the sun shine on the just and the unjust, and the
rain fall on the good and the bad. God is compassionate to everyone, and
we should too. This is the heart of nonviolence.
As you work for peace and justice, you learn, contrary to what the
Pentagon and the warmaking culture says, that our God is not a god of
war, but the God of peace; not a god of injustice, but the God of
justice; not a god of vengeance and retaliation, but the God of
compassion and mercy; not a god of violence, but the God of nonviolence;
not a god of death, but the living God of life. We discover a new image
If we can begin to imagine the peace and nonviolence of God; to worship
the God of peace and nonviolence; if we can help our communities to
worship the God of peace; then we will refuse to support war and become
people of peace and nonviolence, true followers of the Sacred Heart of
2. We need to be activists of nonviolence.
I asked Cesar Chavez shortly before he died, what we should do for peace
and justice. He said, "Public action, public action, public action! Tell
everyone they have to act publicly for peace and justice for the rest of
None of us can do everything, but as Oscar Romero said, all of us can do
something. Each one of us needs to be involved in some public action
against war, for peace and justice, and to stay with it for the rest of
our lives; to vigil, march, organize, leaflet, fast, protest and cross
the line for peace, to keep the peace movement moving! In particular, we
need to love our enemies, the people of Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine,
Colombia and elsewhere. What can we do?
1.) Keep on organizing vigils to bring the troops home and stop the
2.) Go to Nevada on August 6th; or organize your own peace vigil for
3.) Go to the SOA protest in November;
4.) Start a Pax Christi group in your area.
5.) Join the One Campaign to abolish hunger and poverty and lift the
third world debt;
6.) Support and join the "Nonviolent Peaceforce" to help disarm the war
7.) Support local campaigns to abolish the death penalty.
3. We need to become prophets of nonviolence
I think the task before each one of us now and for the rest of our lives
is to break the silence, the complicity and acceptance of our culture of
war, to disrupt the culture of war, to denounce the false spirituality
of violence and speak the truth of peace and announce God's reign of
nonviolence; to call the country to conversion.
From now on, each one of us must speak out publicly as never before
against our country's wars and nuclear weapons, and call for peace,
justice, and nonviolent alternatives. That means that we must speak out
and say, "Stop the occupation of Iraq. Bring all our troops home, let
the UN resolve the crisis. Seek nonviolent solutions for peace through
We must also call for an immediate end to all U.S. military aid to
Israel; demand our country stop funding the occupation of the
Palestinians; stop supporting Israeli war criminals; and start
supporting nonviolent Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers. We have to
say that we're not anti-Semitic nor do we support suicide bombers, but
that we want the Jewish vision of shalom, that Palestine is all about
We must demand that our country stop military aid to Colombia and the
Philippines; close our own terrorist training camps, like the School of
Americas in Georgia, as well as the CIA, NSA, and the Pentagon. Leave
the World Trade Organization and lift the entire Third World debt.
We must call for dramatic cuts in our military budget; an immediate end
to the Star Wars missile shield program; and the abolition of every
nuclear weapon and weapon of mass destruction, and demand that our
country undertake international treaties for nuclear disarmament; join
the world court and international law; and then, redirect those billions
of dollars toward the hard work for a lasting peace through
international cooperation for nonviolent alternatives; to feed every
starving child and refugee on the planet, end poverty, show compassion
to everyone and protect the earth itself.
Whether we are heard or not, whether our message is accepted or not, our
vocation is to proclaim it. We must speak the truth of peace and
justice; otherwise our silence is complicity with the culture of war. We
have to become prophets of nonviolence, a prophetic people who speak on
behalf of the God of peace, like the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
So my hope and prayer is that we will become contemplatives, activists,
and prophets of Gospel nonviolence, that we will fashion our own hearts
after the Sacred heart of Jesus and proclaim the heartbeat of God to the
Don't be discouraged. Don't despair. Don't be afraid. Don't be silent.
And don't give up. There's too much work to do! From now on, we model
ourselves after the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and proclaim his universal
love to world by resisting war, poverty and nuclear weapons. Thank you.
God bless you.
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