Prophetic Wisdom From A Modern-Day Peacemaker

Judith Valente
6 min readMar 10, 2024
Man kneeling in grass against backdrop of a sunrise.
Peace activist Father John Dear says “our whole identity” as Christians is found in the gospel Beatitudes, which say blessed are the peacemakers.

“The times are bad. Buckle your seat belts, it’s going to get much worse.”

With this sobering thought, the well-known social justice activist, ambassador for peace and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Father John Dear began a talk in Chicago last week on the gospels’ call to practice nonviolence in a world steeped in war.

Dear has written a new book titled “The Gospel of Peace: A Commentary on Matthew, Mark, and Luke from a Perspective of Non-Violence.” In it, he lays out how to be peacemakers in “the culture of war” that we live in.

The idea of ending conflict through nonviolent means would sound very pie in the sky if it were not coming from a man who stared down machine gun-toting soldiers in El Salvador in the 1980s, a time of bloody civil conflict in that country that took the lives of Dear’s fellow Jesuit priests as well as Archbishop Oscar Romero and other missionaries. Dear has since traveled to most war zones in the world. He was imprisoned for taking a hammer to a U.S. fighter aircraft. And he has been nominated 85 times for the Nobel Peace Prize, including by the late Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

This is someone who walks the walk he advocates.

Listening to John Dear, though, is not easy. It is challenging. One gets a sense of how the ancient Israelites might have felt hearing tough calls for transformation from the prophets Isaiah or Jeremiah. What is then to be done about a world where 45 conflicts are occurring simultaneously? Dear quotes his mentor the late activist and Jesuit Father Daniel Berrigan, who would often answer, “All you have to do is make your story fit into Jesus’ story.”

Another tough order. Still, one people like Dear and Berrigan insist is possible if everyone who proclaims to be a Christian would place the Beatitudes spoken by Jesus at the heart of their faith.

When Jesus says “Blessed are the peacemakers, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Dear maintains, “this is our whole identity” as Christians.

Still, Dear is a realist. We can’t magically stop wars, gun violence in our streets or even conflict within our own families. “Nobody can do everything,” he says, “but everybody can do something” to advance the cause of peace.

Photo of Father John Dear speaking at microphone with both hands raised in front of him.
Father John Dear: “Just praying, keeping silent without any activity” is not enough to bring about peace.

Like all peace activists, Dear talks about the “Third Way” of reacting to violence. You don’t fight violence with violence. You don’t run away, either. Rather, you engage your opponent without using violent means.

A great example of this is how some Ukrainians have used nonviolent tactics to thwart their Russian invaders. Using cement slabs and sandbags, they blocked roads where Russian troops sought to advance. They removed road signs to confuse advancing soldiers, replacing the originals with alternatives that say in Russian, “Go [expletive] yourselves.”

Orthodox priests worked clandestinely to provide safe passage for civilians fleeing conflict. Ukrainian sympathizers who worked on the railroads in Belarus tore up tracks so supply trains could not get to Russian military posts.

There is a wonderful scene in the film based on the novel “To Kill A Mockingbird” in which a white supremacist spits in the face of lawyer Atticus Finch for standing up for a black man. As his attacker braces for what he expects will be a physical fight, Finch instead looks the man in the eye, pulls out a handkerchief, wipes the spit from his face, and walks away.

Dear told of when soldiers in El Salvador who had been arresting priests who worked with the poor showed up at a house he was sharing with other Jesuits. He invited the soldiers in for coffee. “They must have thought, ‘This guy is totally crazy.’ They turned around and left,” he says.

Of course, others who practice nonviolence are not so lucky. Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated. So was Martin Luther King and Archbishop Romero. Maryknoll Sisters Maura Clarke and Ita Ford and lay missionary Jean Donovan were raped and killed in El Salvador. Jesus was killed.

Dear has faced his share of backlash. The Jesuits dismissed him from the order in 2014 for disobeying his superiors by not taking an assignment in Maryland. Dear wanted to return to doing parish work in New Mexico. He has written that his superiors had tried for years to curtail his peace work, which led to him being arrested 85 times, mostly for acts of civil disobedience. Dear is now a priest in the Diocese of Monterey, CA.

Because of his arrests, (for such acts as damaging federal weapons facilities), several U.S. bishops have banned him from speaking at parishes in their dioceses.

Still, Dear continues like a modern-day Jonah to press his message. It is this: if Christians don’t seek to build a grassroots movement for nonviolence in the age of nuclear weapons, our world is doomed.

What does it take to actually embrace nonviolence? It means more than “just praying and keeping silent without any activity,” Dear says. Rather it involves three decisions:

  • To practice nonviolence to one’s self, meaning, Dear notes, “giving Jesus your wounds and bitterness and letting him give you his Resurrection peace.”
  • To practce “interpersonal nonviolence,” which means doing no violence to other human begins, or even other creatures. “That most difficult person in you life is your greatest teacher of nonviolence,” Dear points out.
  • Finally, it requires working toward peace on a global level. That might consist of participating in peaceful protests or writing the White House and Congress members about supporting a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, a negotiated peace in Ukraine, and about scrapping funding for nuclear and other weapons of war.

“Nobody can do everything, but everybody can do something.”

I was struck by another point Dear made. At the Last Supper, Jesus said, “This is my body broken for you.” He did not say, “Go break the bodies of other people for me.” Likewise, Jesus said “This is my blood shed for you.” He did not say, “Go shed their blood for me.”

Still, Christians have not only supported wars now and in the past, they have instigated bloodshed over the course of history. This is the antithesis of Jesus’ message to Peter, to “put down the sword.”

Indeed, nonviolence was a key characteristic of the first three centuries of the Christian church. The second-century theologian Clement of Alexandria referred to the early church as “an Army that sheds no blood.”

The task is ours, then, to return to that most fundamental teaching. John Dear’s message is a tall order, but what better time than the liturgical season of Lent to confront our deepest sins and refocus on Jesus’ teachings of mercy and compassion.

This being Catholic Sisters Week (March 8–14), I would be remiss if I did not thank the Chicago Cenacle Sisters for having the courage to invite Dear to speak, and the Felician Sisters of Chicago for offering their meeting space for the event. Chicago Cardinal Blaise Cupich deserves credit too for allowing Dear to speak at various venues within the diocese.

Whether one agrees with Dear’s methods of not, his message is urgent. More than one million people died in wars in the 20th century. Sadly we are on our way to matching that record in our current century. It need not be that way.

Blessed are the peacemakers.

A heart with the world’s continents painted on it, suspended in a starry blue sky.
The work of peace involves practicing nonviolence toward one’s self; practicing nonviolence in interpersonal relationships and working for peace on a global level.



Judith Valente

Author of 4 spirituality books & 2 poetry collections. Award-winning reporter for Wall Street Journal, PBS-TV, Washington Post & 2 IL public radio stations.