The following review of John Dear’s book The Nonviolent Life was written by Christie Walkuski, a residential student in Earlham School of Religion’s Master of Divinity program. It was originally posted on the ESR website here.
“The time has come to unlearn the ways of violence,” says long-time peace and nonviolent activist, John Dear, in the introduction to his latest book, The Nonviolent Life. Dear insists that part of this un-learning is practicing three dimensions of nonviolence: nonviolence towards ourselves, nonviolence in our interpersonal relationships, and nonviolence out in the world, by joining, in whatever way we can, the global movement for peace and justice.
I am struck by Dear’s inclusion of practicing nonviolence toward self, which may sound like a lovely, uplifting and affirming exercise, but in practice is really huge spiritual work–the work of healing our own woundedness–through constant prayer, meditation and self-examination. Tending to our own inner healing, Dear says, and learning how to be nonviolent toward ourselves and others, is the work of a lifetime, and what the spiritual life is all about. Amen to that. This spiritual work is not one that this reader hears many people in activist or faith circles talking about. As a seminary student, I don’t hear much about this piece of the spiritual life among my peers and professors, and in my public theology class for which I wrote this review, we have talked more about the idea of engaging faith in the public sphere, a way to assert Christian or moral values into political discourse, rather than a way of being the change we wish to see in the world.
It makes simple sense: how do we serve as agents of peace if we are practicing violence in our own hearts? We can say we are for nonviolent peace-making and social justice, but unless we practice nonviolence personally, unless we commit to the work of our own conversion, how are we to understand, for example, and foster, the principles of non-retaliation, reconciliation, or Christ’s call to not be angry (Matt. 5: 21-22). The book challenges readers to be fully invested in the nonviolent life and serves as a kind of guidebook to “being the change”.
Being the change we wish to see in the world is not some catchy slogan to merely think about as an alternative approach, nor a way to absolve ourselves of the need to engage in the world and focus only on ourselves, but a necessary ingredient, a requirement. Nonviolence starts in my own heart. If we are not practicing all three dimensions of nonviolence, Dear says, we are not living a nonviolent life.
How do we “be the change”? This is what Dear lays out for us, and it’s not for the weak in spirit. It takes daily prayer, meditation, and self-examination. It takes self-awareness. It takes a commitment to heal our own woundedness. It takes not only a willingness to change, but change itself. “Question yourself!”, Dear seems to be saying, “not only authority!” This spiritual work, when overlooked or avoided, produces angry activists that cannot sustain their work for change, people who burn out and become bitter, people who harbor resentments and self-hatred. They, in the end, may offer more harm and violence to the world.
Then there are those who only focus on their own healing. They think this is enough. Dear quotes King: “An individual has not started living until he (or she) can rise above the narrow confines of his (or her) individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.” If we do not broaden our concerns, we are not reaching our true potential as sons and daughters of God, Dear writes. “We need to help God,” he asserts, in disarming and transforming the world.
What a beautiful idea. However, while this is certainly compelling to me, I’m sure there are some who are perfectly content to ignore the violence in the world! And they find ways to justify their arguments for a faith that keeps them only tending to their own wounds. They think they cannot do anything about the world. They give in to hopelessness, the kind which is not about spiritual surrendering and self-emptying, but that is spiritually irresponsible and self-protecting (that’s self with a capital S). They never join movements for change. They never take a stand against injustice. In the end, they only go so far in their own healing which makes them unable to bring much healing into the world. They too, I believe, might offer more harm and violence than good to the world.
At first while reading this book I had the thought, ‘is John Dear living in reality?‘ The message seemed too simple. As I read on, it hit me. Oh. This is calling me to actually change. The seeming simplicity in message–for example, suggestions to not get angry, or to win difficult others over with loving kindness–highlights just how counter-cultural Dear’s message is. It seems simplistic and fantastical because it is a message so opposed to the violence we live with every day and that is so ingrained in our culture. “Maybe we should take Jesus on his word,” Dear says as a reply to those who would raise similar questions.
Everyone engaged in activism and in self-healing work should read this book. Each chapter includes queries for further personal reflection and small group discussion, encouraging both contemplation and action in our daily lives, in the world. If we want to, as Dear says, radiate personally the peace we seek politically, this book should become our companion and workbook, referred to often.