When Doubleday requested that I review Transfiguration: A Meditation on Transforming Ourselves and Our World by John Dear I was rather hesitant and I really don’t like writing negative reviews. John Dear is a Jesuit priest heavily involved in the peace movement and being another collarless priest he fit many of my bias stereotypes. Being though that this was the start of Lent I decided not to judge a priest by his collar and to read the book. One of my many faults is that I really don’t like to listen to contrary opinions. In years past when I use to watch Hannity & Colmes I often had the mute button on half the time. Over the last year I have read a lot of G.K. Chesterton and found that I greatly admired his ability to have friends like George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells; people with opinions and philosophies quite at odds with his own. He was able to keep them as friends while at the same time critiquing them in his books. Though he would accentuate the good and give arguments about what he disagreed with which were never at the personal level.
With this attitude I set about reading this book over the last week. The book is a reflection on the Transfiguration as seen through the peace movement. When he is writing about prayer and following Christ is when the book succeeds. Some of the chapters that had this as their main focus were quite good. All of the chapters ended with questions/reflections and a prayer. He is a good writer and the book is an easy read even at 240 pages.
Unfortunately the more I read the more I was annoyed and later chapters verified what I suspected from previous ones. One of the biggest problems of the modern peace movement is their total pacifism. In the book Fr. Dear wants the elimination of the Just War theory from the Church. In his eyes there can be no just war for any reason and calls war "a mortal sin." Besides disarmament he also wants the total elimination of our military and to "close down every military base." To be consistent he should also demand the closing down of all police stations since sometimes they to use violence to control a situation.
The old arguments that violence never solves anything or that violence only begets violence are used repeatedly (Germany and Japan anyone?). He gives as evidence Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and the People’s Power Revolution in the Philippines as evidence that non-violence always works and in fact he says that non-violence always works. Though strangely Tiananmen Square was not mentioned. Now as as 20 year retired Navy veteran these statements were extremely irksome. Now I truly believe that "Blessed are the peacemakers" and think the general statement about war by Pope John Paul II that War is not always inevitable. It is always a defeat for humanity," is right on the money. Even a just war is always a defeat in that a military response was required because all others efforts failed. Response in a just war results in the unintended deaths of civilians and of course the deaths of soldiers on both sides. The fact that a response is just does not make up for those families who lose family members.
Any of us thought might be called to respond non-violently to a violent situation that could mean laying down our lives. The martyrs many time did exactly this and proved a witness to Christ and in many cases lead to further violence against others being restrained. For example it was soon after the beheading of the Carmelite Martyrs of Compiègne that the executions ceased. The cases of non-violent resistance given by Fr. Dear have a common thread. These countries were sufficiently soaked with the Gospel that they could see that a violent response to these people was unwarranted. The Philippines is a thoroughly Catholic country and the soldiers in their Army were quite hesitant about firing on the unarmed protesters at the end of Marcos’ reign. Gandhi could succeed because England was a Christian country and they could listen to his arguments even if they disagreed with his goals. In China though where Christianity has not made major inroads they drove tanks over protesters.
Father Dear also goes on to give some of the causes of war as poverty and illiteracy. I guess that explains our current war with Mexico, South America, and Bangladesh. Oh wait that didn’t happen. He also goes on to talk about injustice with the Church. You know that "male hierarchy" as he says and of course progressives can’t write a book on any subject without clamoring for women priests and a married priests and Father Dear does not disappoint in this regard and throws in global warming to boot. One of the greatest lacks on this book is that it has no Catholic vision. It could easily had been written by some Universalist minister. Though you can imagine why he doesn’t quote from Church documents since there are none that support his case. He quotes extensively but selectively from scripture, conveniently ignoring whatever does not fit into a pacifist world view. Lots of square pegs pounded into round holes until they fit. He used the word nonviolence so often that if they were removed the book would likely be 40 pages shorter.
Writers like Fr. Dear do great damage to the peace movement. Their one-size-fits-all pacifism makes them very hard to seem credible and even when they are right on something, they make themselves easy to ignore.
"Even when the oppressor try to murder everyone, one day they will see the pain they cause and repent. No matter how noble the cause or the fervor to the culture’s patriotism, people of nonviolence refuse to support war."
Yeah I remember Stalin’s tears of regret. Let us try a parable. A man is in the process of being beaten to death. A priest in the peace movement walks by and ignores him in able to maintain ritual nonviolence. Another person walks by and ignores the situation as well. Then a Samaritan saw the situation, jumped in, and helped to beat off the attackers. Which one of these people would Fr. Dear consider has loved his neighbor as himself?
He also says that we must not listen to the President, the Pentagon, the CIA etc and then says we must listen to our enemies. I found this highly ironic since the first people on the list he certainly sees as his enemies. I also found it ironic his praising the fall of the Berlin wall, but maybe he thinks it fell because people marched against U.S. Military bases kind of like in this Onion [parody story. He doesn’t realize that not only can there be a just war, but that there can also be an unjust peace. Certainly we need to redouble our efforts to spread the Gospel, to act justly and to help to right injustices, to fast and pray when situations can lead to open warfare. We can certainly prudently choose to lay down our life when violently attacked, but is it prudent to do the same when we are all that are stopping them from doing the same to our family?
"The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him." G.K. Chesterton.
If you want a book with insights on the Transfiguration then look to the Church Fathers or other reliable authors. If you want one where the Transfiguration is about Moses and Elijah talking to Jesus about nonviolence then Fr. Dear has the book for you.
Tom at Disputations previously reviewed the same book, though I waited till after writing my own review to read his. His makes some of the same points as I did, but says it much better than myself.