Monday, November 10, 2014

John Dear's Prompt

Thomas Swann shares his thoughts on Earlham School of Religion’s 2014 Ministry of Writing Colloquium featuring Father John Dear:

One would be hard pressed to slip into sleep when listening to John Dear even if you were prepared for the exuberant words that come out of his mouth. He is a very passionate speaker. Perhaps for most even shocking. Though for many at the weekend ESR Writers Colloquium their heads moved up and down with agreement towards much of what he said. This is not a language and thought for the meek, not at all. 

My back went soft in the presence of his spoken truth when I heard him quote Daniel Berrigan, an early and constant influence, "The point of this life is to make our story fit into the story of Jesus".  Oh my.  What a contrary flow of theology in this day when we seem to do our very best to make the gospel of Jesus mold to our modern day sensibilities. A wonderful amount of research has sharpened our understanding of the historical realm of Jesus. Yet at the same time we seem to be stuck in making the understood life of Jesus still comply with the Constantinan demand for an imperial order. Non-violence is a way back to the call to peace beyond empire.

Dear was the keynote speaker at the Colloquium and seemed truly delighted by the opportunity to speak with a group of fellow "holy writers".  We were not his typical audience coming to hear his strong call for a more radical life of justice for all. The talk is recorded,, and well worth the time to watch. As we were a group of writers, it struck Dear that we should write while we were together. In the spirit of his friend Natalie Goldberg, he offered several prompts to write on for 7 continuous minutes. Once our pen started we were not to stop. Fresh off such a masterful and impassioned talk on Non-Violence and Jesus, for me it seemed only fitting that I respond to his prompt, "what does living a non-violent life mean for me"?

I could still hear those words of Berrigan ringing out loudly surrounded by the testimony of John Dear and his conviction that we are called to take our place alongside God in the Peaceful Kingdom, once we meet the challenge to create it.

The Prompt (with later editing)

It seems that living a nonviolent life demands that I not hold onto my life as tightly as I sometimes do. I must value all life but my life cannot be more significant than any one person's life or the collective good of a peaceful life of existence. For me there is a fear that, just perhaps, God's endless love does not exist for me and I hold onto the sense of control that I can avoid death. That delusion is precious but beyond reason or good living.  If I can let go of the need to believe that I alone control my life and that I am more than a mere physical body then the realm of nonviolent existence becomes obtainable. I do not earn this life opportunity but choose to actively participated by example and thus become an active agent of transformation to the kingdom Jesus radically intended. My belief in a universal unceasing love for all offers the freedom to live a nonviolent life but it must be practiced. Gandhi spoke of this, he called it Satyagraha; a process of non-violence and self-suffering.

In the freedom to love I become free to sit with my intrinsic values and stand strong in the midst of the threat of harm. I cannot be compromised by my fear. I can join in as an agent of change, which is the third way that Jesus offers. I do not to have to fight, I do not have to run but I do have to stand my ground and change myself and demand the same of those who wish for a different norm. I do this not by force but by example and sacrifice. It is not so much a process of becoming courageous but of understanding deeply that I am called as a person of faith to my place in the Peaceful Kingdom. This is the radical alternative of Jesus. Not a theology but a way of being, a way of living.

If I fear death then I can be pulled off course by any threatening force that is willing to take my life or freedom or lifestyle or the endless pursuit of materiality. If I know that my life is truly a spiritual life then in spite of the fear I must overcome, I cannot be compromised.  Only shunned, detained, arrested or ultimately killed.  The great practitioners of nonviolence knew and know this and practiced placing themselves in jeopardy for the creation and maintenance of peace for all in the Kingdom Jesus calls us towards. Simple? No, but what a wonderful point on the horizon.

"That's what I'm trying to do, to take seriously what Jesus says about loving our enemies, making peace and seeking justice, to follow his story and live it out today in these times of war and injustice." -John Dear

Thomas Swann is a member of the Earlham School of Religion community and studies writing as ministry. Thomas may be reached at and

1 comment:

  1. Thank you Thomas... I could not make it, but feel like I have connected to this profound experience through your heart and words... Nick Patler