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The Gospel of Peace. A Commentary on Matthew, Mark and Luke from the Perspective Of Nonviolence

By John Dear

Review by Rob Esdaile, Catholic Commissioning Editor for Homilies For The Preacher and Parish Priest Of Woking and Knaphill

Orbis Books, Maryknoll (NY), 2023, £24.99. ISBN 978-1-6269-8533-9

<strong><em>The Gospel of Peace. A Commentary on Matthew, Mark and Luke from the Perspective Of Nonviolence</em></strong>

John Dear’s commentary employs a distinctive (and somewhat circular) hermeneutic. Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr., ‘the legendary apostles of non-violence,’ are the most reliable interpreters of ‘the holistic nonviolence of Jesus’ – and therefore ‘his campaign of creative, disarming, troublemaking non-violence’ is most reliably understood in the light of their vision.

The premise may seem reductive, but what we have in this volume is the fruit of a lifetime’s exploration of creative non-violence. A former director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation in the USA, Dear has been arrested 85 times in protest actions for peace, has visited war-zones, pleaded for prisoners on death rows and written 35 books in the process. His own witness undergirds his commentary.

Over the course of 400 pages he holds the Christian churches’ feet to the fire in the face of Jesus’ clear and unequivocal teaching in the Sermon on the Mount that the logic of retaliation and a version of justice which gives as good as it gets – ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ - is replaced by the commandment that we ‘offer no [violent] resistance to one who is evil.’ Rather than passivity, the new commandment mandates active and total non-cooperation with oppression, both because that is the route to transformation and, more importantly, because ‘that is the methodology of God,’ a methodology made visible in Jesus’ own ‘lifelong nonviolent direct action.’

According to Dear, ‘Everything in the Sermon on the Mount and everything in the entire Bible leads up to’ Matthew 5:44 [‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’] yet ‘for the last 1700 years, we Christians have done our best to pretend Jesus never said them.’ Jesus says in effect, ‘Love your enemies because God loves God’s enemies. This is the very nature of God.’ Thus, the very notion of Just War stands condemned as ‘a heresy and a blasphemy in the face of the God of peace.’

His approach may so enrage some readers that they are unwilling to give him a hearing. Most of us would prefer to ignore the sorry saga of compromises with imperial power stretching from Constantine to 20th Century Concordats with Dictators and the blessing of 21st century Weapons of Mass Destruction. But those who do let the book find a place in their homily preparation will find here plenty of new insights and challenges to provoke their preaching.

Dear has little interest in the critical apparatus of academic commentaries and includes no commentaries at all in his bibliography. The Synoptic Problem is dealt with in a couple of pages. Yet the book’s limitations are also its strength, relentlessly pursuing its theme. In the introduction he asks the reader ‘to be patient and generous and to use my efforts as a help to stir your own reflections on those big Gospel themes and questions about violence, nonviolence, universal love, compassion, discipleship, the cross, resurrection, God and the person of Jesus.’ God knows, our world needs Christian preachers who will speak on such matters and challenge the drumbeat which seems to be marching us ever closer to a cataclysmic war.

Ultimately, the book is a call to prayer. After reviewing each Gospel Dear offers an invitation to ‘pause, take a deep breath and offer a prayer of thanks and wonder.’ And, despite the challenges we face, Dear ends on a hopeful note: ‘Every day is Easter Sunday for us because we are now people of resurrection, people who practise resurrection, who are preparing for resurrection … From now on, we go forth as apostles of Gospel nonviolence and proclaim the Gospel of peace.’

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