Following Christ’s lead on devotion to peace

  • March 9, 2007
transfigurationTransfiguration: A Meditation on Transforming Ourselves and Our World by John Dear (Image Books, soft cover, 238 pages, $14.95 list)

If there is one lesson we can never learn too many times it is how to read the Bible. Jesuit Father John Dear’s Transfiguration shows us clearly and concretely how it’s done.

Having spent his whole priestly life being dismissed as a marginal figure on the far left of the church in the United States forces Dear into a kind of clarity. He can’t afford to airily theorize or draw conclusions from grand assumptions. Knowing the phalanx of archers waiting to shoot him down, Dear grounds everything he says in Scripture and tradition.

{sa 038551008X}Dear’s readers will mostly know the conclusions he draws before they ever open his book. As a writer, teacher, pastor and spiritual director, Dear has become famous for a life dedicated to peace activism. He has been arrested and served eight months in a North Carolina jail for taking a hammer to an F15 nuclear fighter-bomber — physically beating swords into ploughshares. After Sept. 11, 2001, he worked as a Red Cross chaplain at the site of the World Trade Centre, and at the same time spoke out against U.S. bombing of Afghanistan. He has condemned U.S. foreign policy while working in parts of the world the United States dominates economically and militarily — Guatemala, the Philippines, Nicaragua, Haiti, the Middle East. While his government was starving Iraq of medicines for children eight years ago, Dear led a delegation of Nobel laureates to Iraq to condemn the sanctions.

In conservative, pro-American circles, Dear is not well liked. He confronts the war machinery of his country, and not just as a political imperative of the greatest imperial power on Earth. He also confronts the ways war has wormed its way into American culture, even American religion.

Transfiguration is about the spirituality that sustains Dear and the people he works with in Pax Christi and the peace movement generally. Every prophet needs a prayer life, and Dear’s is based on the Gospels.

The central event which keys Dear’s understanding of who Jesus is comes from the Gospel of Luke 9:28-36 (Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8) — Jesus’ transfiguration. For Dear, the transfiguration shows us the meaning of Jesus’ life, and therefore the meaning of the Christian life.

“We have to get ready for transfiguration,” he writes. “Like (Martin Luther) King and (Thomas) Merton, we have to take a stand, be faithful to God, say our prayers, speak the truth, love everyone, practise non-violence and be open to the action of God in our hearts and lives.”

This isn’t a weak, feel-good spirituality. It calls people to sacrifice.

“Church people today seem to talk about everything but the cross,” writes Dear. “If we were on Mount Tabor, the cross would probably be the last thing we would talk about. We would discuss the light and glory of Jesus, debate the finer points of the law with Moses, ponder the lessons of Elijah, comment on the beautiful view or focus on our own personal problems. They (Moses and Elijah), by contrast, get right to the heart of the matter. They address the upcoming passion and death of Jesus and what it means in the context of salvation history.”

It might seem that a whole book dedicated to the seven or eight verses it takes the Evangelists to tell the transfiguration story would be excessively narrow. But when Dear gets done putting those verses in context he has dealt with Jesus’ incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection.

Oddly for such a pivotal figure in what is thought of as the Catholic left, Dear is naturally conservative. His heroes include St. Francis, St. Ignatius, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, Dorothy Day and the Berrigan brothers. Most of them are dead. As an American he is firmly grounded in the politics of the civil rights movement of two generations ago. As a Catholic he looks to the lives of the saints and the encyclicals of Popes Pius X, John XXIII, Paul VI and John Paul II.

If it doesn’t sound like the agenda of a radical, it may be because it is the agenda of Christ. If it is the agenda of a radical, then it is almost certainly the agenda of Christ.

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