The following article was written last year during John Dear’s pilgrimage to South Africa and was published in the “Worldwide Magazine”
Written by Fr. Joseph Rebelo and Manuel Giraldes
Renowned American nonviolence activist Fr. John Dear, made a long-delayed pilgrimage to South Africa at the beginning of 2014, especially to visit Anglican Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town, Desmond Tutu. Dear thinks that “we are all addicted to violence” and “war is the ultimate blasphemy, because it kills sisters and brothers, children of the God of peace.” Thus, he advocates the return to the nonviolence of Jesus in the Gospels. He considers the work for justice and peace “a thankless hard job” that leads to suffering. He also admits that living the Beatitudes and spreading the seeds of the Kingdom in our so troubled earth looks like an impossible task, but he challenges: “Let’s all do our part!”
John Dear, has a long ‘criminal record’. In December 1993, he entered Seymour Johnson Air Force Base in North Carolina, and hammered on an F-15 fighter jet. Dear’s symbolic act—inspired by the prophet Isaiah’s vision of nations beating “swords into ploughshares”—cost him eight months in jail. That was just one of the 80 times he was arrested for acts of civil disobedience in protest against war. For the last three decades, Dear has travelled the globe proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus, a Gospel of creative nonviolence. Not highly regarded in his own land, the USA, his work has been praised in the international arena: Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa nominated him for the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize. Now 55, he was a member of the Society of Jesus for over 30 years until late last year when he parted ways with the Jesuits over a dispute about his role in the religious order. He left the Jesuits, and joined the Catholic Diocese of Monterey, California, and so has remained a priest, and continues to advocate for peace and justice.
Has your pilgrimage to South Africa been successful? Are you re-energised for the work of justice and peace by visiting this land of struggles?
– Yes. It has been one of the greatest experiences of my life and I’ve had a lot of great experiences. I always wanted to come here. We tried to see everything in a short period. We drove across the country, my friends and I. We were in Johannesburg. We went to Soweto. By chance we met with Winnie Mandela whom I used to correspond with and she remembered that. That was very great. We went to Pietermaritzburg and Durban to see where Gandhi lived. I have done a lot of work on Gandhi. It was a dream come true. We drove along the coast to Cape Town. We didn’t have much time to be with animals. Part of the life for peace has to do with animals and we are killing all of them around the planet and here in South Africa too. That is insane. Gandhi said: “The measure of your humanity is your treatment of animals.” We were in a nature reserve. I’d never been with a hundred elephants before, a lion, a zebra, an antelope—it was so moving! Then, we went to Cape Town and visited Robben Island. I spent a very good session with Archbishop Tutu who has been a friend. We chose to close with a visit to Regina Mundi in Soweto, the famous Catholic church. All of this has inspired me to continue to work for justice and peace—the way the suffering people of South Africa have brought down apartheid and produced these extraordinary leaders, Mandela and Tutu.
Is this your first time in South Africa?
– My first time. I have wanted to come for 30 years. I don’t think that I could have got into South Africa before. I have a long criminal record because of my civil disobedience actions against war and injustice.
You were active against apartheid. How important is South Africa for you, for your journey?
– South Africa has always been important to me. I remember the day when Steve Biko died. I was in college and started learning about apartheid. I have always wanted to work to end war and injustice. In the early 1980s, I was living in Washington DC and New York, two important places, and the Jesuits wouldn’t let me go to any anti-apartheid rallies or vigils. They wouldn’t allow me to do civil disobedience against apartheid, and I was very upset about this. In 1985, I was living in El Salvador where the war was happening and the Jesuits were later assassinated. I quickly learned that the struggle for justice and peace is all one struggle. That’s when I wrote to Winnie Mandela and I got a great letter back from her, very powerful.
Around 1989, I joined an anti-apartheid demonstration with friends and was arrested in front of the White House and went to jail for a few days. Our action was on the front page of The Washington Post. We were US Church people learning from Archbishop Tutu and South Africans that apartheid was about faith. Apartheid said that some people were not children of God. This, they said, was idolatry, because the living God says that every human being is a child of God. That was very powerful for me as a young Church person who wanted to follow Jesus and serve humanity. I was very inspired by the people of South Africa who gave their lives to end apartheid. I wanted to give my life, like them, in the cause of justice and peace.
What did the end of apartheid and the role played by great figures such as Nelson Mandela or Desmond Tutu mean to you? Do you think that their legacy is at risk?
– First of all, I was in prison during Mandela’s election and inauguration. I was facing 20 years in prison for hammering on a nuclear weapon. I will never forget the moment. I was in a tiny jail cell watching TV as Nelson Mandela was being inaugurated. All of America was watching. The American TV journalist goes up to Mandela right afterwards and asks: “Mr Mandela, did you ever think in all your life you WOULD BECOME President of South Africa?” Mandela looked at him and said: “I planned for this for 30 years. Every single day for 27 years in prison they called me Mr President.” My friends and I looked at one another. We were barely surviving our day-to-day existence in jail, much less planning for a world without war or nuclear weapons. Yet, Mandela said when he was in prison, he prepared every day for a new South Africa. What a powerful witness! Mandela is such a great visionary and I’ve learned from him to be bolder, to think big, to prepare for great things.
Archbishop Tutu is a great figure, a real hero, a true Christian, and I’m blessed to be his friend. I heard him speak in 1986, at the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, and he announced that one day apartheid would end. It was such a bold prophetic speech! I learned from him, too, to be hopeful, to proclaim God’s reign, and to go forward no matter what. Despite all the problems I face, I feel greatly blessed to know him, as well as other great Christians such as Mother Teresa, Dom Hélder Câmara, Philip and Daniel Berrigan and Mairead Maguire of Northern Ireland.
Archbishop Tutu proposed you for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2008.
– It is actually incredible because I am a white male from the United States much less a Catholic priest. He hasn’t nominated many people. He made a very strong push for it too. It has changed my life because nobody takes me seriously but having Tutu’s support is a problem for a lot of people who just dismiss my work for peace. He has been a great blessing. That’s why I came because he is 82 years old. I used to talk on the phone with Mother Teresa a lot, but I never went to see her in Kolkata, and I always regretted that. I thought last year: I have to drop everything to go and be with Tutu. That’s what we did. We spent a day with him.
For you, what is Mandela’s key lesson?
– I think they are many, not just one. One of them is the importance of committing one’s life to resisting the systems and the structures of injustice. We need more people who are willing to give their entire lives to justice and peace. This is what I am trying to do with my friends. It is not enough to give something to justice and peace. One has to give the entire life—whether it is prison, travelling, speaking, organising—it is a thankless hard job. It is doing the impossible. As Mandela said, it always looks impossible until it gets finished and then you think that it was inevitable. I am moved by Mandela’s commitment to resistance. Secondly, how he personally decided to forgive, let go and move forward. As an activist, I find it very powerful. I don’t know about something similar elsewhere in the world. We Americans can be very mean and violent. Any time you stand up publicly and speak out against war and injustice, people hurt you and denounce you. Friends, Church people and the general public put you down: you are constantly being put down. Mandela says: “Forgive that, move forward and let us pursue a new vision of a reconciled society!” That is an important lesson and Tutu took that further. I don’t know about becoming President anymore, I don’t know about working for the military establishment, serving the corporations—those sides of Mandela don’t work for me. I probably come from a tradition of Dorothy Day (once considered a rebel, but whose process of canonisation is now under way—Ed. note) as a Christian anarchist who thinks that all governments are bad. The ANC is corrupt too. But as a person, Mandela’s vision and his example is very helpful and we need to continue to build global movements—not just national movements—for the abolition of poverty, war, nuclear weapons and environmental destruction. That is what I take from Mandela.
Where, in the world, would you find someone with the moral stature and character of a Mandela? Do we know some possible ‘successors’?
– Desmond Tutu, I think. Bono said recently that he thinks that Archbishop Desmond Tutu is the greatest living person. One of the first things Archbishop Tutu said to me yesterday was: “What about Pope Francis? In a short time he has given the whole world new hope. He has become a source of hope to the whole planet overnight. Wouldn’t you agree? With three simple strokes of the brush he changes the whole picture.” That’s lovely. But I still think that Tutu is the greatest source of hope on the planet. I think that the Burmese Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is a great, great leader. I find Leymah Gbowee from Liberia (a Nobel laureate and peace activist responsible for leading a women’s peace movement that helped bring an end to the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003) is a living successor of Martin Luther King. My friend, Mairead Maguire, a Nobel Peace laureate from Northern Ireland is surely one of the greatest Gandhians and Kingians on the planet, a person of profound nonviolence. But Tutu is so important because he is a prophetic figure in the biblical tradition. He speaks out relentlessly against injustice in the name of the God of justice and peace. He is probably the greatest living prophet. What we need are more prophets of justice and peace—people who speak out on the behalf of the voiceless. He is right now speaking out against the ANC and many people are upset about that, as he spoke out against the inaction over AIDS and wars. He is an image of what the Catholic community should be doing. Every priest should be a prophetic voice, every Christian should be a prophetic voice. Tutu models that for me and all of us.
How do you see Pope Francis’s style and actions?
– I am very grateful that he has started off giving so much hope to all of us, he was very bold to choose the name of Francis—I hope he can live up to it! I want him to do some very bold moves and, forgive me, I don’t want to get my hopes up. I think the Church is so sick because of the abuse crisis, the corruption of the bishops and the priests, its continued support of the “just war” theory, its treatment of women, and I want all of that to change, I want us to be really serving the poor and become a Church of the poor. I’d like Pope Francis to become like Archbishop Tutu speaking out not just against this war in Syria but against the United States, nuclear weapons and all wars—in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Yemen. I would like Pope Francis to proclaim the nonviolence of Jesus and call the Church to start practising the nonviolence of Jesus and seriously teaching the Sermon on the Mount.
Can Pope Francis be so free to speak as he wishes?
– Sure. He is a follower of Jesus. Any follower of Jesus can be free. Let him be killed, let him be hated—we follow someone who was executed. That’s the job description of a Christian—to be brutally crushed. That’s why when I feel I am doing my job I am in a lot of trouble. If people think you’re great, Luke says “Woe to you when all people speak well of you”. The Pope, more than anybody else, should be leading the way for justice, for the end of poverty and war, and he is going to suffer for it. We haven’t heard that for a millennium. I have great hopes and I hope and pray that Pope Francis will continue to speak out. I wrote to him recently about this: I would like him to abolish the “just war” theory, to call Vatican III, to focus on Jesus and nonviolence and to publish an encyclical about Gospel nonviolence. The whole Church has to return to the nonviolence of Jesus in the Gospels. You cannot be a Catholic and have anything to do with war or any military action from now on. From now on, a Catholic, a Christian, is a person who loves enemies, who puts down the sword, who makes peace, who seeks God’s reign of peace on earth. Christians have to be known as peacemakers, not war-makers.
Can war be considered a “moral enterprise” as a book by Nigel Biggar, professor of moral theology at Oxford, tries to do?
– I say war is the definition of mortal sin because war brings death to our sisters and brothers around the planet. Death! It uses death as a social methodology. Not only is it not moral, not only is it immoral, impractical, and illegal, it is the ultimate blasphemy, because it kills sisters and brothers, children of the God of peace. Jesus said in the culmination of Matthew: “Whatever you do to the hungry, the homeless, the thirsty, the sick and prisoners, you do to Me.” War makes people hungry, homeless, sick and imprisoned and also kills them and vaporizes them and just leaves them like ashes. There are billions of people involved in war. We are totally rejecting Jesus.
For me, morality is a complicated word that doesn’t work anymore. That’s why I go with the Gandhian word that everything has to be “nonviolent”. The beginning of morality is nonviolent behavior. You can begin to live a moral life once you have agreed to the boundaries of nonviolence, once you make nonviolence the framework of your life. We are all addicted to violence. But once we have agreed to be nonviolent, we can get somewhere. We agree not to kill others. We end the killing and work to institutionalize goodness. We seek the fullness of life for everyone. We agree not to bring death to one another.
Many Catholics think that the teachings of the peaceful Jesus are utopic and non-practicable. What would you tell them?
– First of all, I point out that war is a total failure. The culture of war, violence and injustice has been a complete disaster. The nonviolence of Jesus, the possibility of institutionalizing the Sermon on the Mount—this has never really been tried. There were a 100 million people killed in the last century, and today there are 20,000 nuclear weapons, 30 wars, a billion people starving to death and catastrophic climate change upon us. How has our war-making worked? How has violence and the response to violence made anybody happy? It just brings further death and continues the downward spiral of violence. War has led us to the brink of global destruction.
When Gandhi tried to implement Jesus’ way of nonviolence, and organised it on a national level, he was able to make dramatic changes. Likewise, Martin Luther King Jr. changed the United States. He ended segregation through Jesus’ way of steadfast nonviolent resistance. In the last 30 years, there have been 85 nonviolent revolutions. Where it’s tried, Gospel nonviolence works. The problem is that the Churches have failed and the universities have failed to teach the methodology of nonviolence as a practice.
I think we need to get rid of our 20,000 nuclear weapons which threaten us all and take those trillions of dollars to feed everybody and institutionalize the training of nonviolence. Ultimately, we want to train every child on the planet in the way of nonviolent conflict resolution. This can be done, and this is our only hope. The United Nations says we can easily end hunger, poverty and rampant disease. We just lack the political will, not the money or know-how. Even if we don’t understand Jesus’ teaching, we should do what he says, since we are his followers, and trust that one day soon we will live our way into a new understanding. This is what Jesus demands in the Sermon on the Mount. In the fifth antithesis, he says: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ but I say to you, offer no violent resistance to one who does evil” (Mt 5: 38–39). We are commanded to practice nonviolence. I think that Gandhi and King have proved that it is not just unrealistic and idealistic, but actually practical, realistic and can be done.
But we don’t want the nonviolence of Jesus. Very few people want His way. The scandal of the Gospel is that God is nonviolent. It’s right there in the Sermon on the Mount: “Love your enemies … that you may be children of your heavenly Father, for he makes his sun rise on the bad and the good, and causes rain to fall on the just and the unjust” (Mt 5: 44–45). That’s not only the most political teaching in the Bible; it is the best description of the nature of God as unconditionally nonviolent and loving. But we don’t want that kind of God; we want a mean, violent God of war. That’s why the question “Who is God?” is so important. Our image of God is very important. We need to re-imagine, to discover the nonviolence of God, and to begin to worship a nonviolent God; then, we will become nonviolent people.
Throughout my life, I’ve been asking people: “Do you really want to follow Jesus or not? Was He nonviolent as Gandhi said, or not? If He is violent, who cares? If He is totally, perfectly nonviolent, as Gandhi and King taught, then we are getting somewhere.” This is really a story worth staking our lives on. The nonviolent Jesus is the only one worth following. I think He was totally right and each one of us should grapple with His nonviolence, practice it, pursue His vision of a nonviolent world, and stake our lives in faith on its coming. That’s what He wants of us, and those who have tried to do that have made the world a much better place. War and injustice are such a waste of time. We shouldn’t spend our lives like that. Putting Jesus’ teachings of nonviolence into practice is what the spiritual life is all about and it’s worth the time and energy and risk.
There is no doubt that to turn the other cheek is one of the harshest commandments, at individual or social level. How to achieve such a goal?
– You are talking about Matthew 5: 39: “When someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn the other one to him as well.” Do you know what Walter Wink taught about that? If you try it, it is not possible to strike anyone on the right cheek! When you go to strike someone, you end up striking them on the left cheek. So Jesus is talking about a specific type of violence. He’s not describing an insult or fistfight. He’s talking about the violent humiliation of a slave owner or Roman soldier who stands over an oppressed person in rural Galilee, and looks down on them, and strikes them with the back of the hand. It’s about humiliation—which is at the heart of injustice and oppression. Turning the other cheek in the face of such humiliation would stop the oppressor and assert one’s dignity, equality and humanity. It is a way of saying: “I am a human being; you have to treat me as an equal.” It would be scary to do this, but Jesus is giving them a way to resist the Roman soldiers without using violence. He’s teaching them not to be passive, but to resist with active nonviolence. This is a classic Gandhian and Kingian tactic. Jesus was teaching them a way to resist imperial occupation through active nonviolence. Jesus is constantly forming His disciples to be nonviolent. He’s building a grassroots movement of nonviolence and sending them out as peacemakers into the culture of war.
In Luke 10, Jesus sends them out in pairs to announce peace. This is the beginning of the end of the empire. Then He goes to Jerusalem, where He engages in civil disobedience in the Temple. He practices what He preaches, resists systemic injustice, models perfect nonviolence, and lets His suffering love and martyrdom lead to resurrection and social transformation. This is the person we claim to follow. Martin Luther King Jr. did this in the US. He taught oppressed people to respond to injustice with active nonviolence, to stand up and resist injustice but not to use the means of violence. He organized a movement, and ended segregation. He was trying to build an even greater movement at the time of his death. Every Christian needs to study the methodology of nonviolent resistance and experiment with it and join local movements of nonviolent resistance to injustice.
Today, we need a new global grassroots movement of nonviolence. I would like billions of people to resist the systems of violence and injustice and work for an end to poverty, war, racism, oppression, nuclear weapons, and the destruction of the animals and the environment. We need to train everybody to live peacefully, to resist violence through nonviolence and to join the global movement. It is possible. We saw it in India and here in South Africa with the end of apartheid. There are many, many other examples. Leymah Gbowee’s nonviolent movement in Liberia, for example, was a miracle. This is not only practical and possible; it’s actually been done many times in the last few decades. War is not working. So let’s get on with the program of the Gospel.
What would you recommend to the common people who dream about a better and peaceful world? (Mainly to those who don’t feel in themselves the strength to become martyrs for peace?)
– I don’t think that everybody has to be a martyr, but everybody is called to be a peacemaker. I have just published a book called The Nonviolent life. There, I propose three ways to practice nonviolence, but you have to do all three simultaneously. Firstly, we have to be nonviolent to ourselves. In America people really hate themselves. They are very violent towards themselves. That’s why we are so sick as a people. We have to say to ourselves: “I will be nonviolent to myself and cultivate interior peace, through prayer, the sacraments, and enjoy the beauty of life. I let go of violence, and welcome the peace of the risen Jesus.”
Secondly, at the same time, we have to be consciously nonviolent toward everybody around us and the whole human race, as well as all creatures and all creation. We have to learn how to treat people in a nonviolent way, especially those who are mean to us, or even violent to us.
Thirdly, we all have to join the global grassroots movement of nonviolence, and work for a new world of justice and peace. Grassroots movements are the way change occurs. If everyone gets involved and does their part, the world will change. Even if you don’t live to see the change, your life will have great meaning. Jesus said all this in the Sermon on the Mount: “Hunger and thirst for justice, blessed are the peacemakers, blessed are you when they persecute you, love your enemies, seek first the Kingdom of God and God’s justice and everything will be taken care of for you.” These are the things we have to try to do. You don’t have to do everything. You just have to do something. I would say: pick one cause and get involved. Each one of us has to contribute to the disarmament of the world.
Are peace and justice separable?
– That’s a powerful question: I would say no. I am trying to figure out what peace and justice are. For us as Christians, peace and justice involve life with the God of peace and justice. They come from our relationship with the God of peace and justice. God is a God of infinite peace; God is also a God of justice who sides with the poor and the oppressed, who is trying to liberate them through loving nonviolence. In the process, God liberates the oppressors and the unjust as well, so that everyone can live in God’s reign of peace and justice. For me it’s all about the reign of God. Everything is about God. The presence of God is the reign of God. We are moving beyond any particular nation-state. From now on, we are all citizens of the reign of God, which means, we all practice peace, love, justice, nonviolence and compassion. I don’t think of myself as an American anymore; I think of myself as a citizen of the reign of God, as St Paul says. That means that we are people of nonviolence, we love everybody, we want justice and peace for everybody on the planet. So for me, peace and justice are about welcoming the reign of God here on earth right now. When God’s reign comes to earth, then there will be peace with justice. Everyone will be nonviolent. There will be no more starvation, no more war, no more nuclear weapons, no more killing, no more injustice. Everyone will know they are loved by the God of peace and will love every other human being on the planet as a sister and brother, a child of God. So peace and justice are inseparable. They speak of life in the reign of God. As followers of Jesus, we seek the reign of God first and foremost, and try to live in it here and now.
What has been your life’s most inspiring moment so far?
– The most inspiring moment of my life was when I was about 21 years old, just before I was going to enter the Jesuits. I decided to go to Israel for several months to see where Jesus lived. But the week I left, Israel invaded Lebanon and killed 60,000 people in three months. It was the summer war of 1982. That war was orchestrated by the Pentagon and they called it “Operation Peace for Galilee”. I didn’t understand what was happening and went ahead anyway. There were no tourists. I was in Jerusalem and I hitchhiked up to Nazareth and I camped out illegally at the Sea of Galilee for two weeks. One day, I made my way to the Chapel of the Beatitudes and prayed over the Beatitudes while overlooking the Sea of Galilee. Just as I was debating whether or not I needed to try to live according to the Beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount, I saw several big black Israeli jets fall from the sky, breaking the sound barrier, setting off sonic booms and swoop down over the Sea of Galilee and drop a whole bunch of bombs nearby in Lebanon. It changed my life. I said to myself: “You really do want us to be peacemakers and love our enemies.” I saw war and killing at the place where Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” So I decided I would try to spend the rest of my life living the Sermon on the Mount and trying to teach it. I don’t claim to have done that, but I claim to have been trying to do that. It has got me into a lot of trouble. I didn’t know that would happen when I started. I thought everybody would be interested in this. It was the most inspiring moment of my life. It led me to El Salvador, where I worked with the six Jesuit priests who were killed in 1989. It led me to my teacher and friend, Jesuit Father Daniel Berrigan, as well as to all my civil disobedience actions, to my time in jail, to my travels and lectures and organizing, to my work with Mother Teresa and so many others to end war, poverty, nuclear weapons and the death penalty. It was a difficult and challenging moment, but a great blessing.
And the darkest moment?
– The darkest side has been surely when I was in jail facing 20 years behind bars. I was in a little cell like Mandela’s—only he got out; I never went outside. For eight months or so, I was stuck inside a tiny cell with only a bible. It was the worst experience of my life, but also one of the greatest, because God was really present.
Are the jails in the States so bad?
– They are much worse than Robben Island. I said that to the people in Robben Island. They whispered to me: “We know. You activists who come over here are shocked by how wonderful Robben Island is.” I am not comparing myself with Nelson Mandela. I cannot imagine being stuck there for so many years. I am just saying it was horrible. I was in a little cell and basically never left for eight months. The walls began to close in and I became very depressed. I had a lot of letters from people around the country, some 50 letters a day, but it was very hard for me personally. I don’t know if I can do it again; I don’t know what would happen to me. They try to break you. They broke and destroyed many, many resisters of apartheid whom we will never know of until we get to heaven. Thank God, they didn’t destroy Mandela.
How do you assess your commitment to peace and justice?
– Poorly. I wish I was doing a lot more! I feel I am not making any difference at all. But I know this is a cultural temptation. We Americans we want results, we want to do things, we are very driven towards accomplishment. I know that is not the Gospel way. Jesus doesn’t say: “You really are my disciples if you are effective.” He never says that. He says: “If you love one another and if you love God, your lives will bear good fruit.” So I want my life to bear good fruit, and I’m mindful of that. It’s a very nonviolent, slow image. I look at my teacher Daniel Berrigan and my heroes such as Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton, Martin Luther King Jr.—their lives have borne very great fruit over time. Just before he was killed, Martin Luther King Jr. said: “In the end what I want is to leave behind the example of a committed life.” That has been very moving for me. Can I live a committed life to justice and peace? There’s so much injustice and there are so many evils in the world. It’s not going to end fast. One person is not going to make the difference; everybody is needed if we are going to change the world. We need everybody involved and we need everybody to give their lives to it.
Even with that question, for me the key issue is discipleship to Jesus more than accomplishments for peace and justice. Can I follow him and stay faithful to Him even at the risk of the Cross? What does it mean to take up the Cross in the United States of America, in this world of total violence? It means resisting war and accepting the consequences, getting into trouble with the Church and the nation for this work of justice and peace, even going to prison and maybe being killed. I feel I am just beginning to follow Jesus. That’s why I came to sit at the feet of Archbishop Tutu. I asked him: “How am I doing?” His reply was: “You are doing great”, but he also said: “You have no right to give up. You have to keep working for peace and justice to the day you die.” I asked him how he was able to do that. Do you know what he said? “My favorite prophet is Jeremiah. He cries a lot. I cry a lot. I take time to cry every day and I also laugh a lot.” That’s a very great teaching. In the United States very, very few activists cry and very few activists laugh. We are angry at George W. Bush and Obama, at the world and the Church, for letting us down. Jesus says: “You have heard it said, ‘Thou shall not kill.’ I say to you, ‘Do not even get angry.’” Jesus instructs us in the Sermon on the Mount about the emotional life of nonviolence: “Blessed are those who mourn, and cry; rejoice and be glad if you are persecuted.” We are called to mourn and grieve and cry over what is happening; as well as to rejoice that we are persecuted for justice. Archbishop Tutu does that. I am just learning to do that, to weep and mourn and rejoice. I’m still very much on a journey and I very much want to live a committed life. I try to be patient with myself, to be nonviolent to myself, and to keep at it, whether I make a difference or not. I’m trying to be faithful to Jesus, to doing what I can for justice and peace, to practicing nonviolence. The ongoing commitment is the main thing, and I do know, that every step of the journey brings great blessings.
Let us look at some of today’s evils. Do you find any similarity between the apartheid regime and the Israeli/Palestinian apparently unsolvable conflict?
– Yes. Archbishop Tutu said that the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians is worse than apartheid. That’s a harsh, but true statement. We both have friends in the Palestinian Christian Church. I think that apartheid ended ultimately through global nonviolence. The global movements and the international sanctions helped end apartheid, and we need to do the same thing to end the unjust occupation of the Palestinians. It has to start with the United States cutting its military aid to Israel. The Israeli occupation of Palestine cannot continue without the US giving three billion dollars a year to Israel. If we cut that, the occupation will end. Americans need to pressure the United States government to stop supporting the Israeli occupation of the Palestinians, and to support nonviolent Israeli and Palestinian leaders. We also need many more solidarity trips with the Palestinian Christians as well as with Israeli peace activists and Israeli Jews working for peace. Meanwhile, the US is waging war in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and Pakistan and supporting injustice throughout the region and selling weapons to all sides in all countries. That’s why the US is at the heart of all of this. We need to pressure the United States to stop funding these wars, to stop supporting their wars and injustices, to stop stealing the oil in the Middle East, and to promote nonviolent democracies. We are basically an oil and weapons-based economy, so we want to keep selling weapons which means we need more wars. We all need to work for the abolition of war, poverty, nuclear weapons and environmental destruction, and fund and support nonviolent conflict resolution.
Is the actual world situation more dangerous than during the Cold War, when the nuclear holocaust seemed imminent?
– Yes. I think that it is inevitable that nuclear weapons will be used unless the whole world rises up in a global grassroots’ movement of nonviolence for nuclear disarmament. No-one should have such weapons. These weapons are bankrupting every nation that has them. They are not good for the environment, they are terrible for children, they haven’t made us safer, they are poisoning the soil and they could lead to a global holocaust. They go against everything Jesus taught, everything a Christian believes in. If you love your enemies, you cannot support the preparations to vaporize them. It is so unconscionable that nuclear weapons continue to spread and the threat continues. We need more leaders who advocate and pursue total nuclear disarmament. We need everybody to join the grassroots movements for peace and justice and to work for the abolition of these weapons, so that we can abolish them and use those trillions of dollars to end poverty and hunger, and create a more just, nonviolent world.
The shadow of war and conflict is always impending over Africa. What can we do to bring about peace?
– First of all, we all need to learn the lesson that war doesn’t work at any level. It just kills innocent people. Secondly, Christians and Catholics in particular have to begin to learn the lessons of Jesus about nonviolence and claim their fundamental identities as sons and daughters of the God of peace, which means, we have to renounce violence and become peacemakers. Thirdly, the only way change happens is through grassroots movements. In Africa, we need more and more nonviolent grassroots movements. Every African should be part of the nonviolent grassroots movement for justice and peace. We have three incredible examples of Christian movements: Wangari Maathai, the great Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize woman who planted trees; Leymah Gbowee who helped bring down Charles Taylor with the women’s revolution; and thirdly, Tutu and Mandela and the entire anti-apartheid movement which is giving birth to a struggling new democracy. Everybody has to get involved. I always say. “Pick a cause which means a lot to you, and get involved. Join your local peace and justice group or start one in your church or in your city. Start organizing, calling meetings, and speaking out. Talk to the media, meet with politicians and tell them what we want—agitate, agitate, agitate.” That’s the lesson of Jesus and all the saints and peacemakers. We all have to get involved in our local grassroots movement for justice and peace. The good news is that this works.
The two superpowers tried to reign through despotic figures, and both failed. Conflict followed. Is anyone paying attention or learning the lesson?
– I tell people around the world: “Please do not be naïve about America or even the American people. Yes, there are nice Americans but the American system and government really want global domination and that is evil.” I think the country is moving towards a situation like Germany in the 1920s, that period before fascism. That is where the United States is now. It is very dangerous for the whole human race. We need nonviolent pressure from the whole human race to stand up against our nuclear weapons and global domination. A few years ago, Vice President Dick Cheney was talking openly about “Imperial US domination”. He said our goal is to steal the resources of other nations, and kill people if we have to, and set up military bases everywhere and dominate the world. This is evil and unjust. The world needs to resist the United States and defend its own resources in nonviolent ways, so that we can one day live in peace with justice together.
Africa is a continent that has the misfortune of having many resources, disputed by the global powers. Many African governments are corrupt and easily bribed. Where can people find some hope to escape hunger and find a better future?
– Leymah Gbowee of Liberia has shown all of Africa the way forward. She built an amazing grassroots movement of nonviolence which said, “We are not helpless. We can stand up, resist injustice and corruption and demand a better life for us all.” Africans need to claim their incredible power, not just as Africans and human beings, but as sons and daughters of God, and work for a new more just, more peaceful Africa. That’s what apartheid and colonialism have done to you. They told Africans: “You are nobody!” You have to reject that and claim your power as equal human beings with the rest of the human race. You have to say No to anyone who seeks to dominate or oppress you. The Chinese, for example, should not be allowed anywhere in Africa if they are going to steal its resources and take advantage of cheap labor. The US should not be bullying anybody with its military might. I hope every African can rise to a higher level, reject corruption and greed, and serve the greater good of the people through nonviolence and justice.
Why do you want to be having shopping malls and rampant consumerism like unhappy Americans? You have beautiful cultures here that should be nurtured and nourished. Money should be spent on free education, food distribution, healthcare, homes, jobs and culture, so that every African lives in peace with dignity. You should not tolerate the corruption of your governments. The minute you sit back and let it happen, then you get what you deserve. That’s not the way of nonviolence or the way of Jesus. We all have to organize and take action for justice, disarmament and peace, for everyone. The ones in power will not pursue justice; they need to be pushed. They need the movements of ordinary Africans demanding justice and peace. Gandhi, Gbowee, Mandela and Tutu show us the way forward through active nonviolent resistance to injustice and the steadfast pursuit of new nonviolent, just democracies where everyone can live in peace. That is the future of Africa, and the world, but we all need to work for it together.
One of the worst genocides of modern times took place in the mainly Catholic Rwanda, and there were priests and sisters who took an active part in it. In fact, Nazism and all sort of fascisms, as well as the two World Wars, started in Catholic and Christian countries. Has salt lost its taste of peace?
– The problem is that the Church long ago rejected the nonviolence of Jesus. In the fourth century, the emperor became Christian, threw out the Sermon on the Mount, urged Christians to join his military force and set up the “just war” theory. This is a complete rejection of the nonviolent Jesus, and it has been going on for 1700 years. Today, the Church needs to throw out the “just war” theory and embrace the nonviolence of Jesus and require nonviolence of every Christian. The Church has to become completely nonviolent. No Catholic can be part of any military action. No Catholic can have a weapon. Every Catholic has to disarm and become nonviolent. We need to start teaching the nonviolence of Jesus and practicing it everywhere. Throughout our history, we have failed the Gospel. Consider the Crusades, burning women at the stake, the Church’s support of slavery, the German bishops’ support of Hitler, the US Catholic bishops’ support of nuclear weapons and war, and so forth. Recently, the Catholic bishop in New Mexico told me: “We don’t need to follow Jesus’ commandment to love our enemies. We need nuclear weapons to protect us.” That’s blasphemy! God will protect us.
The genocide in Rwanda should never have happened. The international community and also the Churches failed to stop it at its roots. The Churches continue to fail throughout Africa and the world to teach nonviolence. Violence and warfare is not the solution to genocide. Archbishop Tutu was in Rwanda just after the genocide and the main message he heard from the people was: “Don’t send us more guns. Send us food and medicine.” So violence and war don’t work, and violence in response to violence only leads to further violence. We need to get rid of poverty, hunger and terrorism through the pursuit of justice and education, so that everyone has what they need and learns the way of nonviolence. So the key, once again, is that we all have to renounce violence, become nonviolent, and work for a nonviolent world.
The party over the fall of the Soviet Empire is over. Some seventy friends of President Putin own Russia. Is there an alternative to an oligarchic capitalism?
– We haven’t really seen it. In the United States, we speak of creating a new democratic, nonviolent, socialist society, where everyone is equal and free and nonviolent. It’s a great question: can we have nonviolent politics, nonviolent economics, a new nonviolent political and economic system? We all need to work for that. Capitalism has completely failed. It is so unjust! Recently, it was announced that the 85 richest people on the planet own more than the bottom 3.5 billion people on the planet. This is totally unfair, and mortally sinful. It’s biblically evil, and it has to change. The Church needs to lead the way in pursuit of economic justice, and every Christian needs to share their wealth with the needy so that no one suffers. Together, we need to pursue a world without hunger, poverty and war, so that everyone has a house, food, healthcare, job, education and dignity. We need a whole new nonviolent economic framework, and a whole new nonviolent society. Christians are called to lead the way through downward mobility, poverty of spirit, gentleness and nonviolence, justice and peace.
China, on the way to becoming the first superpower, has a similar model. The country is flexing its muscles in the Pacific. Do you think a global war is brewing?
– I think it is not only brewing, I think the United States actively wants war with China. I say that because Dick Cheney said that a few years ago. He actually said: “We are preparing for war in 30 or 40 years from now with China.” It was a strange thing to say because everybody was upset about the killing we were doing in Iraq, yet he was talking about China. These government officials are blindly committed to permanent warfare. They want to keep the wars going until they have total, global domination. They are completely blind and will lead us all to global destruction, if we do not organize and resist them. Again: the whole world has to wake up, support the United Nations and stop this mad state of permanent warfare. We have to work to end all wars, and stop preparing for future wars. We need to get rid of these weapons of mass destruction and learn to co-exist peacefully with one another. This is totally possible. Meanwhile, we are destroying the environment, too. We are all going to get hurt the way catastrophic climate change is going. Violence is destroying us.
It seems that an empire follows another, all spreading the some kind of evils. Is it a historical fatality?
– No. Anything is possible with the God of peace. If we choose to be serious, we can organize and build a new nonviolent world. We can even do even greater things than Gandhi or King. This is totally possible. Nothing is inevitable, unless we sit back and don’t struggle. If we let them pursue their mad plans to destroy the planet, then the destruction will be inevitable and we will all be to blame. It doesn’t have to be that way—we can spend our lives working for the disarmament of the world and a new future of peace. Regardless of the outcome, it’s the best use of our lives.
“Archbishop Tutu is a prophetic figure in the biblical tradition. He speaks out relentlessly against injustice in the name of the God of justice and peace. He is probably the greatest living prophet.”
“A Catholic, a Christian, is a person who loves enemies, who puts down the sword, who makes peace, who seeks God’s reign of peace on earth. Christians have to be known as peacemakers, not war-makers.”
“Where it’s tried, Gospel nonviolence works. The problem is that the Churches have failed and the universities have failed to teach the methodology of nonviolence as a practice.”
“Jesus practises what He preaches, resists systemic injustice, models perfect nonviolence, and lets His suffering love and martyrdom lead to resurrection and social transformation.”
“Today, we need a new global grassroots movement of nonviolence—to resist the systems of violence and injustice and work for an end to poverty, war, racism, oppression, nuclear weapons, and the destruction of the animals and the environment.”
“I think that it is inevitable that nuclear weapons will be used unless the whole world rises up in a global grassroots’ movement of nonviolence for nuclear disarmament. No-one should have such weapons.”