This book review for John Dear’s recent publication of The Nonviolent Life was written by Beth Franzosa who teaches religion at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago, IL.
The first time I heard John Dear speak, at Loyola University in Chicago in October 2007, I came foolishly unprepared to take notes. I leaned forward in my seat when he began speaking about whether nonviolence is “practical.” And when he pointed out that Jesus had insisted on a nonviolent response from his disciples, even when he was in danger of death, there I was, finding a pen and scribbling in the margins of my program, not wanting to lose a word of what he said.
So it is with this book. In the introduction, Dear recommends reading The Nonviolent Life slowly and prayerfully. He has a gift, in his speaking and in his writing, for making us think again about nonviolence. Dear asks us, in a clear and direct way: What’s taking us so long? Why are we still living in fear? Why are violence, anger, and military action still our first answers to conflict?
He begins this book with Jesus, reminding us that in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls us to “offer no violent resistance to one who is evil” and “love your enemies and pray for your persecutors, that you may be sons and daughters of the God who makes the sun rise on the good and the bad and causes the rain to fall on the just and the unjust.” (Look at Matthew 5 again to see what he means about the centrality of these teachings.) Because Jesus always knew who he was, as the son of a non-violent God, he was able to be unfailingly nonviolent in his life.
For Dear, this is the fact of our existence that we so often forget: We are beloved sons and daughters of God, and we are called to more than the way we are living now. Dear invites us to look into the ways we have been raised among violence and lack of love (which may at first offend or confuse those raised in troubled families) but ultimately invites into realizing that the violence of our world has affected us in ways we don’t always realize. Through all this, God calls us to the consistent work of meditation and letting go of anger.
This invitation to nonviolence begins at home, with the practice of “meticulous” nonviolence with our families, friends, coworkers, and all people. Especially, Dear gently asks us, to recognize and let go of our need to “win” or “get even” in our relationships. In this section about personal nonviolence I was also surprised to see a short chapter on driving, but peaceful driving is much needed, and the chapter on living at peace with creation gives both a beautiful reflection on nature’s grandeur and some useful and practical steps to preserve the environment.
Dear ends with a section on worldwide nonviolent action and the ways that bottom-up action, again and again, has created social change. In explaining why we don’t know more about the success of these movements, Dear uses some “the media is against us” rhetoric that I sometimes find reductive, but he strengthens his point with reason and facts, perhaps anticipating that a call for global nonviolence without exception would be the point where a few readers would begin to doubt. And, of course, Dear ends with practical suggestions for how to get involved in nonviolent action in our own lives.
Near the beginning of the book, Dear laments that few theologians, with the exception of his friend Henri Nouwen, write enough about what it means to be the beloved of God. I thought of Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved often when I was reading The Nonviolent Life; both books have the same simplicity and depth. Nouwen wrote Life of the Beloved for a non-religious friend, but found it well-received by Christians looking to strengthen their faith. In the same way, I imagine that The Nonviolent Life is as good an introduction to nonviolence as it is a meditation for those already committed to a nonviolent life.
Anyone who knows Dear’s reputation knows that he’s an unapologetic and unequivocal opponent of violence. His tone, though, is always gentle and welcoming as he invites and encourages us to give the way of the God of Peace a chance in our lives and in our world. This short book is a strong resource for meditation, contemplation and discussion, with reflection questions included after each section, and I recommend it to anyone interested in deepening their understanding of nonviolence.