A Persistent Peace. An Autohagiography.

Throughout Christian history there has been quite an interest in men and women who did great things, whether in this world or within their soul. These men and women weren’t seeking self-satisfaction. Rather, they were truly seeking God and his work in them and in this world. The interest in such people often insisted they be viewed as saints, objects of devotion if not worship. Biographies written were often filled with stories of great victories, moral pronouncements, heroic stands. Little was said that would suggest these people had real personal histories or daily struggles or lived in complex times.

Glossing over the negatives, and thus the whole truth, these biographies were meant more as inspiration than history–inspiration for those already walking in their footsteps, devoted to the cause and method.

A Persistent Peace: One Man’s Struggle for a Nonviolent World is such a book, though oddly enough not one written by a later disciple but rather written by the man himself, John Dear. This fact makes the book curious to review. I do not share his views on pacifism, yet I am sympathetic to them, and was very open to being convinced, enlightened and taught. I was curious how he formed his views, how he wrestled with the Catholic Church’s official teaching, and in general the overall story of a man who has been on the frontlines of peace protests for the last thirty years.

I was disappointed, however. A Persistent Peace is a history of the icon, John Dear S.J, and even more the story of the names and places involved in the Peace movement since Reagan.

But we never really get to know the man, John Dear. The gift of an autobiography is that we can see not only the events, but also the internal perspective, wrestling, frustrations, development of the subject. John Dear seems to open up, but often only in ways that bolster the sense of his superiority. People around him don’t understand him. They are bored or angry or confused. Dialogue is pontifications of his teaching to the ignorant, even hateful, opponents or less ignorant friends. This is coupled with a hero worship of sorts, in which Dear seems to reveal himself most by talking about the people he wants to be like. But, all throughout it seems a lot of the real John Dear remains hidden, hidden because it seems he is still unwilling to be truly transparent about who he is and where he came from.

In the foreword, Martin Sheen writes, “I suspect that much of John’s character was formed, as it is for all of us, during adolescence, that critical period when every level of physical, emotional, physiological, sexual, and spiritual development begins to emerge.”

I suspect this too. Only A Persistent Peace gives nothing of this. We begin with John in college at Duke. We are given only the barest glimpse of his family life, which is decidedly upper class and filled with powerful influences. Indeed, he mentions his father and mother only in passing again and again, often as sources of introductions for people he proceeded to lecture about peace issues.
A Persistent Peace
So, we don’t really ever get to see the man, only the image of the peace activist seeking the way of Jesus in this world as he sees it, fighting against the benighted masses who disagree, not only with the goal but also the method–public protest and nuisance. This is not a review to argue such tactics, however, I can’t help but think that being empowered because of arrests for public behavior is entirely different than the martyrs arrested for their message. Speaking the message is perfectly fine and accepted, a fact I think grates against those who seek to find identity within a pampered martyrdom.

Because of this I was disappointed with the book. We are left with more of a polemic than a story, again and again told rather than shown. Which places me outside of the target audience, to be sure, which is almost certainly the choir of people who already celebrate the message, goals, and tactics of John Dear as being the true expression of a “faith that does justice”.

Giving this a star rating was difficult even still, because I realize for many this is precisely what they want and need. Hagiographies were popular, and still are, because people need heroes presented in a certain light and need the empowerment that comes from seeing their causes as black and white, good versus evil. I give it three stars because I do not share the initial assumptions and was seeking a history of the man rather than a story of places, and celebrities, and events that make up the Peace movement. I wanted to learn about the man, not the symbol.

Here is a quote that I think would best help readers to determine the worth of this book. John Dear upon arriving at the Pentagon says, “it was the center of death for the whole planet, its prime purpose to organize the empire’s killing sprees at the behest of the multinational corporations and their politicians.”

If you agree with this, then you will see this as a five star book, speaking truth to power, and modeling heroic activism. If you disagree, you will find this book likely confirming what you like least about the Peace movement, even if you happen to agree with many of their ideals.

This is not particularly an interesting or insightful autobiography. It compares poorly as such to the recent works by Jurgen Moltmann about his life in theology, A Broad Place: An Autobiography, or Billy Graham about his life in evangelism Just As I Am: The Autobiography of Billy Graham. Both were significantly more open and self-aware, maybe because both of these were written much later in their lives, after retirement and after perspective had given them added insights. Nor does this come near the masterpieces that are The Long Loneliness or The Seven Storey Mountain.

This is a book for the choir. If you’re wearing the robes then have at it, enjoy it, for it is certainly written with passion. It is also a good history of the last decades of the Peace movement. In fact, I wish Dear had not styled this a story of one man’s struggle and instead more honestly made this a book of many people’s participation.

As such, I’m left thinking Dear is trying to impose himself as a major figure, seeking the identity of his heroes Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby Kennedy, but falling flat despite his many arrests and popularity within a certain segment of particular activists. He wants to be seen and applauded and affirmed.

Which makes me wonder what his life was like before Duke and with his family. Which makes me also wonder if maybe he really should have become a Franciscan after all.

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