Fr. John Dear "The Revolutionary Beatitudes of Jesus" | Episode Transcript
Karen Pascal: Hello. I’m Karen Pascal, the Executive Director of the Henri Nouwen Society. I want to welcome you to a new episode of our podcast, Henri Nouwen: Now and Then. Over a year ago, I interviewed Father John Dear in preparation for our Voices for Peace conference. But unfortunately, because of COVID, we had to cancel this live gathering. We’ve rescheduled this as an online webinar for September 15th. I hope you’ll join us for this very important international gathering. In preparation for our webinar, I have asked John Dear to join me for a podcast.
John Dear is an internationally recognized voice and leader for peace and nonviolence. He’s the co-founder of Campaign Nonviolence and the Nonviolent Cities Project. He’s been nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize and he’s the author or editor of more than 35 books. Today we’re going to do a deep dive into John’s latest book, The Beatitudes of Peace: Meditations on the Beatitudes, Peacemaking and the Spiritual Life.
John, as I read your book, the word that leaps out to me from every page is nonviolence. You state, “God is nonviolence, God’s kingdom is based on nonviolence and God’s justice requires nonviolence.” It’s through this prism that you look at the Beatitudes found in Matthew chapter 5. John, the Beatitudes outline how Jesus wanted his followers to live. I confess your take is very fresh and challenging. Tell us what you want us to grasp deeply from your understanding of the Beatitudes.
John Dear: Oh, well, thank you so much, Karen, for having me on and everybody at the Henri Nouwen Society. It’s wonderful to be here. And, see, what happened for me was I discovered in putting together an anthology of Gandhi’s writings that Gandhi read from the Sermon on the Mount every day in the morning and the evening for 45 years. And he’s not even a Christian. And that really shocked me. That was about 25 years when I discovered that. And I’m a real student of Gandhi and Dr. King. And Gandhi says this clumsy word, nonviolence, is the only way to sum up all of Christianity and humanity and our hope.
And so, I’ve been studying and teaching nonviolence for over 40 years now. But he says, Gandhi, [that] the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5, 6, and 7, are the greatest teachings of nonviolence in human history. They’re like a “how-to-be-a-human-being” book. And so, Gandhi thought, “Well, I want to be a person of nonviolence.” Remember, he’s leading the revolution in India and all hell is breaking out around him. And he says, “I have to go back and read my manual of nonviolence every day.” And he did a one-hour meditation every morning and then one hour in the evening. And they would have read a few verses from Matthew 5, some of the Beatitudes or some of, “Offer no violent resistance to one does evil and love your enemies.” And I went to India with Gandhi’s grandson to see where he did that. And so first of all, I started to try to do that. And then I started teaching and writing about the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount and Karen, and you know, all the books!
There are only five books in the world in like the last 75 years on the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount. All these books on the spiritual life and nobody’s talking about the Sermon on the Mount or the Beatitudes. We’re talking about everything else. And it’s a problem, because we are literally doing everything but the one thing Gandhi said, which is study nonviolence and learn nonviolence from the nonviolent Jesus who proclaims in Matthew 5 that God is nonviolent, that the kingdom of God is nonviolent, and it’s all right there. So, I wrote my little book, The Beatitudes of Peace, to begin to unpack that. And I even have a blurb from Jimmy Carter. I met with him. He invited me to come out and give a little retreat session with him at his house a few years ago. And he was amazing and put a blurb on the book.
Anyway, I’m just saying for me, it’s all or nothing. And in terms of Henri Nouwen my friend, I remember he would love all this, because he was always supporting my work to promote nonviolence. But shortly before he died, he wrote a little pamphlet on the Beatitudes, which was privately published. And I remember him sending it to me, based on a retreat he did for L’Arche, using the Beatitudes as the way to live the Christian life at L’Arche. So, I know Henri would love what I’m trying to do, because I’m trying to say the Beatitudes are the blueprint for our personal lives, how to be nonviolent in the day-to-day life, which is so hard now in North America, in the whole world and facing nuclear war and catastrophic climate change and global poverty. It’s all there. I’m really convinced the older I get, every sentence that Jesus says has a way out for us. And the Beatitudes are kind of like Zen “koans”, Karen. You know, you really can’t answer them. You just have to sit with them every day as Gandhi did and let them work on you so that you begin to live your life according to the Beatitudes. And that’s the invitation.
Karen: Well, I certainly felt that as I went through chapter after chapter, as you kind of opened them up. I found that you were looking at them through kind of a fresh prism for me, and I was seeing them freshly. But you’re absolutely right: They are the guidebook for how to be a follower of Jesus; that Jesus said, “This is the way.” And it is a profound sermon. It deserves our attention.
It’s interesting to me that you connected to the Beatitudes way back in 1982 when you were on an adventure in Israel and you visited the Beatitudes Chapel at the Sea of Galilee. And at that point I read this: that you prayed that you’d become a Beatitudes person, that you would become somebody where this would be a focus and a life guide for you. Are you sort of amazed to see that it’s still kind of the thing that pulls you forward?
John: Well, I think this is what it means to be a follower of Jesus. Unfortunately! That in other words, he actually wants us to live the Sermon on the Mount. He doesn’t want us to do a lot of the stuff we’re doing and you know, at the end, wow! Karen, I read the collected hundred volumes of Gandhi’s writings and he used to quote often throughout his life the end of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus says, “Why do you call me Lord, Lord and not do what I say?” And Gandhi thought, “Why do all these Christians go around saying, ‘Lord, Lord,’ but don’t live according to the Sermon on the Mount?” He couldn’t figure it out. They were saying they’re fundamentalists, “we live according to the word of God” – except the Sermon on the Mount.
But anyway, what happened to me was I went to Israel in the summer of 1982, just before I entered the seminary. And I literally hitchhiked through Israel to see where Jesus lived. And I camped out at the Sea of Galilee for two weeks illegally. And Israel broke out into war with Lebanon. It was all orchestrated by the U.S., of course, and we killed 60,000 people there. And the Sea of Galilee is right on the border of Lebanon. So, I’m camping out there and I’m hanging out at the Chapel of the Beatitudes. Now, there were no tourists there. Everything was canceled because of the war. And I was all alone, literally, and literally sleeping by the water. And I’m in the Chapel of Beatitudes reading them. And they hit me like a thunderbolt, because the thought was, “I thought someone else is supposed to do this. You mean to tell me that if I am going to be a pious priest that you want me to live the Beatitudes?”
That was my conversion. I think every Christian has to go through that conversion where you think, well, it’s the point of the priest or the bishop or the minister, or the Pope – somebody else – to live the Sermon on the Mount. No, that’s not what they say. This is what the genius of Gandhi was. He wants us to take them personally. And I decided . . . I was standing there by the Sea of Galilee trying to say, “How could I do that? What?” when I saw all these jets swoop down over the Sea of Galilee. And they broke the sound barrier. So, there were these huge sonic booms knocked me off my feet and they flew overhead and dropped a whole bunch of bombs, killing people just as I was grappling with that sentence. And I thought, you know, I took it as a revelation of the world versus God’s word and decided, right, I would try to spend my life on the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount.
And here I am, 40 years later – actually, Karen, to the week – oh, maybe it’s 39 years later, but anyway, I’m still grappling with this. And as you know, recently, last year because of the pandemic, I organized a new online group, which we can talk about later, The Beatitudes Center for the Nonviolent Jesus. But I can’t stress enough that to me, this is the most, this is the core, this is the teachings of Jesus. And we avoid them like the plague because the culture, how shall I put it, the culture teaches the anti-Beatitudes, and the anti-Sermon on the Mount, which is, you know, blessed are the rich, blessed are the warmakers, kill your enemies. And it’s very easy to go along with the culture and not with the Beatitudes of Jesus, which are very tough, which is why Gandhi read them every day.
Karen: You know you state war-making is the ultimate spiritual lie. War has nothing to do with God, the God of peace. I find that profound. Is there such thing as a just war?
John: No. And all of that is over with and Pope Francis has been saying that, and the Vatican has begun to start saying that. And as you may know, five years ago, I was at this historic conference at the Vatican. Eighty Catholic leaders from around the planet for three days. And we issued a statement with the Vatican, that there is no such thing as a just war anymore. And we helped Pope Francis draft the church’s first statement ever on nonviolence, which I hope everyone will look up. It was the January 1st, 2017 World Day of Peace statement. And we asked the Pope to write an encyclical on nonviolence. The Pope has done dramatic things based on that conference. He’s now completely outlawed every inch of the death penalty in the Catholic church. And then he’s outlawed deterrence and the existence of nuclear weapons, and working on building nuclear weapons is a mortal sin. Catholics can’t do it.
He went way beyond John Paul. And now he’s issued this call for nonviolence. So those days are all over and I can cite chapter and verse, but they basically have nothing to do with the gospel, because Jesus commands us in the Sermon on the Mount, “Love your enemies.” He doesn’t say, “However, if they’re really bad and you follow these seven conditions, you can bomb the hell out of them.” It’s all been made up for 1,700 years, just to get away. We want to do everything we can to get away from the Sermon on the Mount. And we have. So, it’s heresy and blasphemy, the way Christians are living. If you’re going to be a Christian, you can have nothing to do with war. You can’t support war, wage war, have guns, build weapons, vote for war, because you’re a peacemaker according to the Beatitudes. You’re a person who practices universal, nonviolent love and all our lives have to change. And you’re going, Karen, “John, chill out, man!”
Karen: No, I think we need fierce and ferocious and excited people like you to wake us from the dead, to be quite honest. I think that’s one of the calls on your life. I love the way you quote Joe Hill, who’s an inspiration to you. And he says: “Don’t just mourn, organize.” And that really reminds me of you, John. There’s a kind of vitality in you about this that has caught the vision, and won’t be still about it, and won’t be quiet about it. Now you say here, “The gospel proposes a specific set of economics,” what you call the “economics of God’s reign.” Can you explain that to me? What do you mean?
Karen: You can’t explain it? You just wrote it! Tell me!
John: That’s why Gandhi had to read this every single day. And I can write that sentence, but you know, to understand it is the spiritual journey, Karen. So, for example, I remember thinking if you were Christ and you were going to sum everything up in a great sermon, your great sermon, what would it be? Well, you and I would not say the Beatitudes or the six antitheses: “You have heard it said, … but I say to you, ‘Love your enemies.’” The first sentence is about the economics of God’s reign: “Blessed are the poor, the reign of God is theirs.” And that’s shocking. So, the first sentence in Jesus’ major speech – this was like, I call it his basic campaign platform speech. And right away, you know, throughout the rest of his life, when it says he’s teaching the crowds and does the multiplication of loaves and fishes, he’s teaching them the Sermon on the Mount. And when he does the civil disobedience in the temple, and it says he spent the rest of the day teaching, he’s teaching them the Sermon on the Mount. This is his message, but it starts with the poor. God is on the side of the poor. And the poor in spirit don’t have money. Those who don’t cling to pride, privilege, possessions, and those who are on a journey of, I call it downward mobility, into the economics of God’s reign.
Saint Francis said that when you read the Beatitudes, the only way to understand them is to stand upside down. Isn’t that great? He said everything in the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount is upside down. And so, we have to stand on our heads to begin to see the world the way Jesus does. So, Jesus is saying, “God is with the poor and the oppressed and the marginalized and the disenfranchised,” which by the way means God is not with the rich, with the powerful. If you’ve got money and possessions you’re moving away from God.
Why? Because if you’ve got money and possessions, you don’t need God. You’ve got a nice bank account. And you’ve got investments in Wall Street, and you’re good to go, and you’re not going to die. If you’re poor, you don’t have anything, and you need God. And that’s all you’ve got. And Jesus says – everything he says is a scandal. He says, “The kingdom of God already belongs to the poor.” Not just when they die; they have the kingdom of God now. You and I don’t, Karen. So, that’s what Henri taught us, that’s why Henri was so radical. It sounds so obvious. But to leave Harvard and move in with L’Arche is one of the most radical stories I’ve ever heard, because he gave up the world of wealth and pride and privilege to be with, not just poor people, but total powerlessness and vulnerability, which is the definition of the poor in spirit. And Henri, believe it or not, in his own crazy way was on a journey of downward mobility. And that’s where we all have to be.
It’s a powerful thing, but I don’t understand it. So, the kingdom of God is the complete opposite of the world. Because the anti-Beatitudes, the culture of war and the culture of violence, the culture of greed says, “Blessed are the rich. The reign of this world is theirs.” Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor. The reign of God is theirs.” And which side do you want to be on, you know?
But let me just suggest to people we’re all headed towards death – just to cut to the chase: We’re going to end up dying in bed of cancer or something and being poor in spirit. And I’m just saying, “Hello, you want to start getting ready instead of having to go through a massive shock. You want to start letting go now of everything and getting rid of your possessions and tithing your money to the poor and befriending the poor.” Which I’ve tried to do all my life, in the hopes that they will share with me the one thing they already have, which is the kingdom of God. And I’ve experienced that. But I don’t understand it. I don’t understand it; it’s a teaching and we have to read it every day.
Karen: I love the way you connect, through your book, the Beatitudes to the care of the planet. That is so much a concern today. We are concerned by injustice. I mean, if we talk about what’s slamming us these days, it would be the injustice that just refuses to stay behind closed doors. And the fact that we’re surrounded by a planet that’s saying, “Enough, enough, enough, enough.” But you connect the Beatitudes to that. Tell me a bit about that journey that has connected all of that.
John: I will. And my friends of course, Karen, say, “You’re totally over the top, John,” but I wrote this book on the Beatitudes and then I wrote an entire book on the third Beatitude and they, my friends, said, “Oh you’re crazy, because Jesus said that 2,000 years ago.”
Let me just talk a little bit about that. “Blessed are the meek, they shall inherit the earth.” Okay, fine. We’ve all heard that. Isn’t that nice and lovely. Very pious. Who knows what the hell it means? Blah, blah, blah. And so – forgive me, I write books that nobody reads – but I was writing this book on Thomas Merton, called Thomas Merton: Peacemaker, for Orbis. And I’m trying to unpack Merton’s teachings on nonviolence. So, Merton wrote this very, very difficult, very scholarly essay on nonviolence in 1965, called Blessed are the Meek: The Christian Roots of Nonviolence, which he dedicated to our mutual friend, Joan Baez.
I’ve read it a hundred times. I still don’t understand it. And I’m writing about that in my Merton book. And Merton says the biblical word “meekness” is not humility, passivity, “isn’t that nice, you’re meek.” It’s not that at all. I mean, it certainly has part of that in gentleness, but Merton says (I’m not kidding you), “‘Blessed are the meek’ is ‘blessed is Martin Luther King’ – radical, active, daring, public non-violence.” Isn’t that shocking? Merton said that, that the biblical verse there is Jesus is affirming Gandhi and Martin Luther King, and Dorothy Day. There’s nothing passive about those people. And I remember thinking, “wow,” and I really was taking that to heart, and spent a lot of time sitting with it. And then one day, I mean, I’ve read this every day for 40 years, and I suddenly go, “Wait a second. What does that have to do with inheriting the earth?” And I start to put two and two together, because I never heard that in my whole life. I never heard – and I’ve been in the peace movement for 40 years – I never heard anybody say, “Active nonviolence leads to oneness with creation.” Think about that.
So, Jesus, 2,000 years ago, is talking about what we would call now Gandhian, Kingian nonviolence, and he says that leads to total oneness with creation. And I remember, I was living on a top of a mountain in New Mexico, one day going, “Why have I never heard that? Daniel Berrigan never talked with me about that, my friend and teacher Henri didn’t talk about that.” And I realized none of us had ever been taught that. So why? Well, because 1,700 years ago with Constantine, we threw out the Sermon on the Mount, began to come up with the Just War Theory and for the last 1,700 years we basically ignored the Sermon on the Mount and said, “You don’t need to do that anymore. You can have the Just War Theory.” So those are just nice, pious platitudes, but they don’t apply to the world and so we’ve rejected nonviolence.
If you reject gospel nonviolence, you will not be one with the earth. You will not inherit the earth. If you go into total violence, you will end up destroying the earth. And I remember thinking, “Oh my God, catastrophic climate change.” It all makes total sense. What we’ve done, especially over the last 150 years and the last 50 years, digging up fossil fuels, raising the global heat and melting the polar ice caps, now having all these terrible storms and droughts. We’re not one with the earth, we’re destroying the earth. And I said this to the number-one environmentalist in the planet, my friend, Bill McKibben, who has a blurb on my book. And he said to me – he was the first person who wrote a book on climate change 40 years ago – and he said to me, “John, I’ve never thought of nonviolence and violence being connected to climate change and solidarity with the earth.”
He said, “John, you’re the first person on the planet to say that!”
I said, “No, Jesus said that 2,000 years ago.”
And Bill went, “Oh yeah, that’s right.”
Even he didn’t see that. But Karen, there it is, the third sentence of the Beatitudes. Incredible. When you start to unpack it like that? Forgive me for getting excited because it so excites me.
Karen: Well, I’ll tell you what you’ve done for me. I mean, it’s really a call to read these daily and dig deeper into it, but I’m going to encourage people to get your book, because I love the wonderful, in a sense, angle or prism that you take on it, and what you give us. And here’s a lovely quote from your book, “Seek justice as if it were your food and drink, your bread and water. As if it were a matter of life and death, which it is, because the struggle for justice for the world’s poor and oppressed is a matter of life and death. It is a spiritual matter within our relationship to the God of justice and peace. Those who give their lives to that struggle, Jesus promises, will be satisfied.”
I know it’s something you’ve done. I know you’ve given yourself to that struggle. Can I ask you something? This is a crazy thing, but I don’t know if our audience knows: How many times have you been arrested and put in jail for this struggle that you refuse to give up?
John: Not enough. I’ve been arrested about 85 times, done about a year in prison and been in court hundreds and hundreds of times. I’ve done a lot of other actions where the police didn’t arrest us. My last action was just before the pandemic. Jane Fonda and I, and 140 others, Reverend William Barber, shut down the Senate Office Building, calling for an end to digging up fossil fuels. And we spent a day together in jail. This is with Jane Fonda’s great new environmental group called Fire Drill Fridays, which I hope everybody will look up: firedrillfridays.org, which I’m very involved with now. So, it’s very strange, Karen. That’s why I say the Beatitudes are Zen “koans”. They’re not poetry, but they’re mysterious wisdom sayings that you have to sit with and live your way into. So, he’s saying, “Blessed are the meek, blessed are people of active nonviolence.”
This should lead into oneness with creation. And that’s why I walk every day now outside. I’m trying to be at one with creation as a radical way of resistance to catastrophic climate change and killing Mother Earth. I’m trying to appreciate Mother Earth. Well, that is going to lead you to work for justice.
The next Beatitude is, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, they will be satisfied.” So, the more you’re one with how earth and the poor are being destroyed, the more you’re going to stand up publicly through a nonviolent life and work for justice and peace. And, it’s a way of life. So, you learn to let go of results. And that’s what Merton and Henri would have talked about with me. You know, that’s why he was so encouraging to me: “John, you’re onto something here. This is the Christian way of life, whether you make a difference or not.”
And what I found, I mean, what the heck does Jesus mean, “you’ll be satisfied?” I think I wrote in the book that for me, it means you’ll find ultimate meaning in your life. Now when I die, I hope to be able to say it doesn’t matter so much whether or not I made a difference, because God is on the side of justice. But I have a deep sense of meaning and purpose that I spent my life trying to be on the side of justice for the poor and Mother Earth. And that’s no joke, because a lot of people don’t have meaning in their lives anymore. They’re so lost. And I say, “Get with the struggle, pick some cause that you feel passionate about: the poor or children or the environment, animal rights.”
In some ways, I don’t care what it is. As long as you’ve got one foot in the global movement for justice and peace. And you’re tithing your time a little bit to be on the side of justice. It’s going to have a very positive effect on your life and a disarming, a healing effect, because it’s spiritual work. Now you’re doing God’s work.
And just to go on with that, Karen, just for a second, it’s very strange that the next verses are then, “Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.” And I think there’s some mysterious connection there that I don’t get, but you’re working for justice on the one hand, you’re hungry and thirsty for it. That’s how passionate you are. On the other hand, you’re infinitely merciful. You don’t condemn anyone. You let everyone off the hook. You’re exploring new depths of nonviolence and compassion, and you’re experiencing the mercy of God. These are so beautiful mysteries.
Karen: Now you did one thing that was very special and it is a treasure. People might not know about it. There’s a beautiful book called The Road to Peace. And it was a book that you edited after Henri died. Henri died 25 years ago, but after Henri died, you went into the archives at Yale and you found some treasures. Tell me a little bit about how Henri got involved in your life and what kind of words did he speak into you that have stayed with you.
John: Thank you. Well, I heard Henri speak at the Sojourners Peace Pentecost in May 1985, the day before I flew to El Salvador to live for the summer in a refugee camp that was getting bombed by the United States. And I was going to be under the tutelage of the Jesuits at the university, who were all later assassinated. So, I was terrified, excited. And here comes Henri Nouwen. And he spoke for almost two hours. Can you believe that? And he had a thousand people in the palm of his hand. I’ve never heard anything like it to this day, his life-changing talk. Basically, he was quoting John 21 and he was saying, “You’re all working for peace and justice” – this was all activists he was speaking to – “but the question is not, Jesus isn’t saying, ‘What have you done for me?’ The question is, ‘Do you love me? Do you love me? Do you love me?’ like he says to Peter at the end of the gospel.”
He just turned the whole conference upside down. And he said, “So I say to you what Jesus said to Peter: ‘When you were younger, you did what you want, but when you’re older, someone will put a belt around you and lead you where you’re rather not go. Follow me.’”
And that was my mantra through El Salvador and for many, many years. Actually, for the next 10 years of my life. And I wrote Henri a long letter about it. And he just took me under his wing and wrote to me regularly. Literally, I think he sent me every book he ever wrote, every manuscript, every pamphlet, and encouraged me.
And then I went to prison for a Plowshares action, and I was thinking, Karen, recently, I think he must have had a note on his desk because I’m facing 20 years in prison. I only ended up doing nine months in a cell. I never went outside, but he understood that I was 33. We were good friends by then and I think he had a note on his desk that every Monday morning “Write John in prison,” because I would get a package from him every Friday and he didn’t have to do that. And it was really helpful, because he was the last person I would expect to support me, frankly. He’s a busy guy. I could go on and on about that. And I wrote a book about my journal from jail, which Henri really loved.
But anyway, he died and I was just negotiating with them. I was going to come and spend Thanksgiving with them that year, and at his funeral the scales fell from my eyes. And you know, I’ve told you this before. I was, let’s just say, quite full of myself as a young whippersnapper activist, and I used to tell Henri, “Hey man, when are you going to start doing something serious for peace and justice?” Can you imagine? Yeah, but he could handle me. He was my pastor and he wasn’t afraid to take my young activist anger and let it go. I mean, he may have been hurt by me, but he stayed with me.
And then, so at the funeral, I realized all he had done, because I met all his friends, from these activists to Fred Rogers. All his friends became my friends very quickly and like, actual friends. So, I went to Yale and I’m going through the archives, and I was told I was the first person to actually go through his archives. I mean, really spend a week with them. And that’s when I found, among other things, Henri’s journal from Selma. And none of his friends knew he’d even gone to Selma. He wrote about it for a Dutch newspaper. So, it was in Dutch. So, I found it and didn’t know what it was, but I had it translated into English. Oh my God, it’s brilliant! And some people have said, it’s the best thing ever written about the Selma March. You know, John Lewis, the bridge over Selma, Dr. King, people shot and killed. And I was just re-reading it the other day. And it still stands up.
I found a lot of other stuff that he wrote – passionate essays against nuclear weapons and basically living a life of peace. And I think the book is terrific. It’s called The Road to Peace. It’s still in print. We then did another, smaller book, just with his writings against nuclear weapons, called Peacework, which is in a beautiful hardback edition. And I hope people will get it. And you’ll see there, he uses the Beatitudes. He talks about “Blessed are the peacemakers.” And Henri says outrageous stuff. I say it and people get, you know, mad at me or roll their eyes, but Henri Nouwen can say it and no one will say anything, because he’s our spiritual teacher. He says, “Peacemaking is not a sideline for activists like me. This is the hallmark of Christianity.”
I urge listeners to go and read Henri, just on the Beatitude “Blessed are the peacemakers.” He’s saying they shall be called the sons and daughters of God. That’s at the core of Henri’s teachings. The life of the beloved, we are the beloved sons and daughters of God. And I used to correspond with Henri about this: “Henri, that means we’re peacemakers. If you’re following the Beatitudes, and Henri, you’ve got to stop” – this is what I told him – “You can’t just tell people that they’re the beloved of God. They’re the nice beloved sons and daughters of God. You have to reverse the Beatitude and say, ‘therefore, they’re peacemakers like God. And they need to go into the culture of war and make peace.’”
And Henri wrote to me and said, “People are too sick, John. They can’t handle it. You can try to say that, John, but all I can tell people is God loves them.” And I told him he was wrong and here I am today still saying it. But I think as I’ve gone back to Henri’s writings, I think he still said it. How did Henri live it? Had he lived I would have had that argument. I would have continued to argue with him: “You’re Henri Nouwen and you need to step up like Thomas Merton did and push people farther.” Remember, he didn’t publish his book on peace during his lifetime. And so, I did, after he died. But all of that was just to say thank you to Henri, because he helped me so much to stay focused on Jesus. Exactly what I needed.
Karen: I love that. Now you have started something called the Beatitudes Center. Do you want to tell us what that is and tell us a little bit about what you’re doing right now?
John: Yeah. So, with the pandemic, I’ve started to do like everybody, in like the Henri Nouwen Society, doing Zoom workshops and podcasts. So, I’ve organized a new online nonprofit organization called the Beatitudes Center for the Nonviolent Jesus. And the website is beatitudecenter.org. And I urge everyone to go and look it up. We have a Zoom every other week where I’m doing teachings on the Beatitudes and Jesus and nonviolence. And I have maybe 20 free podcasts on the Sermon on the Mount, the Beatitudes, Dr. King, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton – all our heroes. Someday I’m going to do one on Henri.
And then we started having guest speakers. So, Robert Ellsberg did an incredible Zoom a couple of months ago with us, on the Beatitudes and the saints. And we’re getting about a hundred people. You know, I’m asking people for a donation because this is how I’m making a livelihood and I’m just getting by. And we had other great people speaking recently.
I’m about to do a series on the Psalms and in September and October, oh my God, Karen, I have Reverend Jim Lawson. I’m going to do a conversation with him. He’s almost 95. He was one of Dr. King’s best friends. He’s the guy who taught nonviolence in the civil rights movement, who brought Dr. King to Memphis. Dr. King said he’s the greatest teacher of nonviolence in the world. He’s been my friend for 40 years. He and I are going to do an hour-and-a-half conversation on October 2nd. I hope everybody listens. He won’t be around that much longer. It’s such a historic event we’re about to have. Then I’m doing a two-Saturday, two-part series with Jim Forest on his friends Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Daniel Berrigan, and Thich Nhat Hanh. He’s written a book on each one of them.
And then in November, I think it’s November 16th, I’m doing a special Zoom with Gandhi’s grandson. He’s 85, Rajmohan Gandhi, he’s my friend, who lived with Gandhi in New Delhi the last two years of Gandhi’s life. He used to have breakfast, lunch, and dinner with Gandhi as a boy, and he’s written the definitive, greatest biography of Gandhi. And I’ve read all of them. And this is incredible. And he’s going to do a conversation. Folks, please join us: beatitudecenter.org
Karen: We will put all sorts of links. I promise you that. We will put links on our page today. You’ll get that. And we want to be sure everyone knows that you’re coming to us September 15th, for Voices for Peace at seven o’clock. And it will be a live webinar featuring John Dear. And we have some other special guests, and I really would encourage our audience. And I promise you we’ll put links to all these other events that you have coming up. I’m excited about it.
I love the way you wrote in your book, “As peacemakers, we are nonviolent to ourselves, nonviolent to all others, all creatures, and all creation. And we work publicly for a new world of nonviolence.” John, I thank you that that’s been your commitment, that you have been doing that, you’ve done it at great cost to yourself. But you’re also calling all of us forward and saying, “Come join the battle. We need you.” I appreciate that.
John: Yeah, well, that sentence is kind of the fruit of my whole life’s work. And I was practically raised by Daniel and Philip Berrigan, the famous activists, to be, you know, a frontline activist for the abolition of war and racism and poverty and nuclear weapons, environmental destruction. But I was also studying Gandhi and Dr. King. And then I have this close relationship with Henri Nouwen and Thich Nhat Hanh, who’s been my friend all along, too.
You know, since I was a kid, I’ve had a very strange life, having these amazing mentors. But they would be saying, “Take care of yourself,” you know. If you’re going to be merciful to others, you have to learn to be merciful to yourself. If you want to be a peacemaker, the Beatitude before that is, “Blessed are the pure in heart, they will see God.” Which Gandhi thought was the hardest sentence in the entire Bible. Isn’t that amazing? In other words, pure of heart means total inner nonviolence. Well, it’s taken me 40 years. I’ve been trying to talk about nonviolence every single day of my life and trying to articulate it.
And so, I come down to that little formula you just read, which I got in part from reading the Beatitudes. That’s why I think we’ve barely begun to study the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount. They really urge people to take the next year and just repeat a little of the Sermon every day for one year and try to work on it. But I came to the conclusion that means, number one: You have to be really nonviolent to yourself. So, that means not beating yourself up. Where is violence inside of you? What part of you doesn’t like yourself? Or the extreme of self-hatred, low self-esteem, anger, rage, hurts, wounds – constantly meditating over those, letting it go, learning to forgive, accepting Jesus’s resurrection gift of peace. Really beginning to cultivate interior nonviolence. And I see that in, “Blessed are the pure in heart.”
And then, also, working on nonviolence in all your relationships, being meticulously nonviolent toward every human being, especially those you don’t like. And then, trying to figure out how to be nonviolent to creatures. We all have to become vegetarian and be non-violent to the earth. And you have to get involved in the movement. If you’re not involved in the struggle, you’re the problem, because that’s not Christ, either. If you’re just being a very nice, quiet, peaceful person, I don’t think you’re following Jesus. You have to step up publicly and follow him as he’s going on his campaign to Jerusalem, and you’re going to get in trouble. And that leads to, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for the struggle for justice.” You have to start speaking out against war and environmental destruction and racism. People are going to get mad at you. And now you get to practise nonviolence.
Karen: With all the energy I hear in you, with all the dynamism I hear in you, what place does contemplation and meditation have in that? I would guess that Henri must’ve been talking to you about those things as well. Let me hear, John, where does that play itself out in you?
John: Well, so I was raised as a Jesuit, which meant a half-hour of contemplative prayer with Jesus every day. And again, I take that as the Beatitudes, and that means for me not centering prayer. And I have a long history with Buddhism and being with Thich Naht Hanh on and off for 30 years, and I learned a lot from him. But I’m not a Buddhist. I sit with Jesus. I bring all of that, and that’s Ignatian spirituality. I literally, Karen, when I say I sit with Jesus, Karen, I tried to do it this morning. I have an empty chair next to where I sit and I’m at the kindergarten level of prayer. I pretend Jesus is there. I’m not kidding you. And I go, “Good morning, Jesus.” I actually drink coffee, but I pray over what’s happening and the day and what I’m feeling and I ask him how he is, and “Do you want to say anything?”
So, I’m living in relationship with Jesus. So that’s a very Jesus-centered contemplative prayer. And I don’t know, I think that’s the only thing that has saved me from my own violence, because living in relationship with the nonviolent Jesus, it means every single day, I get disarmed a little bit more, and healed a little bit more to stand up and speak for peace and work for peace as a nonviolent person. I’m trying to be a nonviolent person. So, you know, the gospel is a call for nonviolent action, for justice, disarmament and creation, but we are so steeped in violence. And Jesus, Gandhi said, is the epitome of nonviolence. We can’t do that without a contemplative practice. And we’re really talking, Karen, here about contemplative nonviolence.
Our prayer and meditation time should be making us more nonviolent. If it’s not, something’s wrong. And usually, the reason we don’t like to meditate and do contemplation is because the minute you sit down, your violence starts lurking and raising its ugly head. And you’re going, “I’m too busy to do this. I’m so mad at that person at work or the church or something.” And you’d lose your track.
Henri would say, he told a friend of mine, literally, at a little private Mass like, 30 years ago, who’s not Henri’s friend, who’s a priest, and he had a little private Mass, and he said, “That’s the good stuff.” And I know what he means, because meditation and contemplation should be leading to the Beatitude of purity of heart, inner nonviolence. So, you get to give all that stuff to Jesus and pray over it with Jesus, and ask Jesus to take that from you and disarm your heart, and let Jesus give you his resurrection gift of peace – “Here, I give you my peace” – which is his gift of resurrection. Very few people want that. You and I, as contemplatives, as followers of the nonviolent Jesus, say, “Okay, Jesus, we’re going to take your peace to heart and live out of there.” And then we’re going to accept the social, economic, political implications of peace for the planet and follow him on the path to the cross, really insisting that the world has to disarm, and end war, and end weapons. And every human being has to become a person of nonviolence like Gandhi and Dr. King. This is the plan, and contemplation is critical for it.
Karen: Folks, I want to encourage you to get John Dear’s new book, The Beatitudes of Peace. This book is a lively, challenging rant that ties in social and creational injustice to the Beatitudes. It is a good book and it is a rant. All the vitality that I felt in this conversation, John, I really respect and admire. And I’m sure people have been energized just listening to you.
I also hope all of you will register to join us for Voices for Peace on September 15th at 7:00 PM. You’ll find links on our Henri Nouwen website and in our podcast notes, and links to any books or things that have been mentioned during this podcast. Thank you for being with us, John. It’s always a challenge and an inspiration. Your passion and commitment to the nonviolent Prince of Peace is infectious.
John: Thanks for having me.
Karen: You’re so welcome. If you’ve enjoyed this Henri Nouwen: Now and Then podcast, please take time to give us a thumbs-up or a good review. You’ll find links to anything we discussed today in our podcast notes. Until next time, peace and blessings.
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