The Monotony of the Nonviolent Vision

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As proposed by Fr. John Dear, nonviolence is the single, monolithic impulse of the entire Christian message:

from Transfiguration
Fr. John Dear

The cross then is the way forward for Jesus and for anyone who wishes to pursue his vision of love and peace. None of us can sit by idly while the world consumes itself with violence and war. Each one of us--if we want to pursue the morality and sanctity of Christ, if we want to plumb the depths of the spiritual life--must engage in some public nonviolent action for justice and disarmament. Sooner or later, we too will turn toward our own modern-day Jerusalem and confront the culture of war and injustice. We too will have to speak out against killings, executions, racism, poverty, war, nuclear weapons, corporate globalization, and environmental destruction through public, nonviolent action. We too will have to face our culture's preference for violence, and suffer the consequence of social noncoooperation with systemic injustice.

So then, it seems, we are not "many parts and all one body," but rather we are all to be a single part directed toward a single set of actions. If we are to achieve a spiritual life, we can't dedicate our lives to prayer within a monastery or to quietly raising a family to love and honor God. No, it seems that the only way to true spirituality are public acts of nonviolent resistance to injustice. So a great many of the Saints of prior times are not really so much saints as spiritual self-aggrandizers. Those who did not speak out against the injustices of their times--those who lived quiet lives behind solid walls, they did not achieve the heights of spiritual awareness.

People who quietly donate food to the pantries or who stock those pantries, or who counsel one-on-one with unfortunate women contemplating abortion--these people don't know the heights of spirituality.

It is this blinkered insistence on a single strain of the Gospel message that constantly weakens the real truth behind Fr. Dear's argumentation. My quiet avoidance of establishments that mistreat their employees and exploit migrant workers is not sufficient. I must get out with my signs of protest and make the whole world know what not to do. But the reality is that the informed person already knows what to do--all I do by carrying a sign is bring attention to myself as a holier-than-thou protester and rabble-rouser.

Jesus did not tell us that we all were to do exactly the same thing. We must work for justice in the social sphere, but it need not be public protest or public admonition of sinners or public anything. Our quiet charities and our continued prayers for those less fortunate than ourselves are actions that have every bit the validity of what Fr. Dear suggests. They are every bit the source of spiritual life and grace and they are the appropriate venues for most people. We are not called to be a people of constant outrage and in the public eye constantly. We are not called to be thrown into jail at every turn, regardless of Fr. Dear's contention that our actions must be public.

Indeed, the greatest nonviolent resistance to evil takes place when we participate in the holy sacrifice of the Mass, when we pray with the Church Militant, when we spend time with Jesus in contemplation and prayer. There our souls are refined and strengthened to our real work in the world--be that nonviolent resistance to social injustice or wiping away a child's tear. Both are productive, socially responsible, Christian acts that stem from the theological virtue of Charity.

We are not all called to the nonviolence of Father Dear--a monotonous, grey, wan, etiolated vision of the whole of the Gospel message. Many of us are called to some part in this as a portion of living a full-Gospel life. We stand holding hands to form a a chain of life on Roe v. Wade day. We serve in many ways. But those who cannot so serve may find other ways to strengthen the kingdom of God here on earth. We are MANY PARTS, each of which performs a function that maintains the health of the body of Christ. We cannot all be the part that spends our entire lives in public protest. Someone must feed those poor for whom others are demonstrating.

And, to be fair, perhaps Fr. John includes this in his vision of nonviolent resistance. But honestly, it does not seem so. If our service does not include an element of the public--in the sense of advertised or blatant--it seems that it does not suffice to bring us to the heart of spirituality.

Somehow, I find this message too restrictive, too small a vision of what Christianity is all about. Redemption and salvation seem to have little or no place in this vision of the Gospel--the only salvation appears to be social salvation--the only redemption public. Prayer's only purpose is to fuel this activist action. So we have, ultimately, Christianity as activism, the Gospel as manifesto.

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And, to be fair, perhaps Fr. John includes this in his vision of nonviolent resistance. But honestly, it does not seem so.

Yes, exactly. I kept waiting for the mask to slip, maybe an afterword or a footnote or a parenthetical aside to the effect that the absolute terms used were not intended to be absolute.

But honestly, it does not seem so.

To compound the effect, he leaves the reader with no leverage against him. That Jesus' vision of love and peace is identical to Fr. Dear's is axiomatic, so appeal to Scripture would be rejected as a misreading (at best). Appeal to Tradition or tradition or Church teaching is appeal to violent, cowardly, at-best somnolent patriarchy.

I suspect it might be more productive to go back to Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton and try to work forward with them -- not that that would be all that easy -- than to distill the toxins out of Fr. Dear's work.

Dear Tom,

Alas, I think you're correct. The bad thing is that I am very sympathetic to the idea of nonviolence and pacifism as a Gospel lesson. But it Fr. Dear doesn't make a case for it in any coherent fashion.

It's really too bad because there is much good in the book, but it is all so colored by this grey and narrow vision of the Gospels. I think you said it best in your third paragraph (after the quotation). I would really like a clear and convincing case to be made for the view I would like to hold, but I find myself unconvinced by this one--it tends to be strident and even overbearing, using a kind of verbal and intellectual violence to support nonviolence.



I haven't read this book but from what I have read of Fr Dear it seems to me that you are reading into Dear things which are not his position at all.

Let's be honest, any non-violent activist or prophet in the imperial heartland is going to have a hard time winning much acceptance amongst most citizens and social conditioning will see to it that most misunderstand his message.

It was the same in Palestine 2000 years ago.

We are all called to non-violence but we're not all called to the type of activities Fr Dear engages in.

God Bless

Dear Chris,

While I think I may agree with you to a greater or lesser extent, I fear that Fr. John really quite explicitly makes the point that you refute here. He may not intend that point, but all of his language explicitly states that everyone is called to a non-violent activism. In this, I disagree entirely. There are any number of ways to realize the vocation of nonviolence without engaging in activism.

So, while Fr. Dear may not mean it, indeed probably does not mean it in the way it sounds, he certainly does say it and as Tom pointed out never makes a diminishment of this demand for nonviolent activism on the part of all.





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This page contains a single entry by Steven Riddle published on February 19, 2007 8:25 AM.

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