Peace Talks Radio Host Paul Ingles talked with John Dear, author of The Beatitudes of Peace
Paul Ingles: You write often in here that Gandhi, not a Christian, was totally devoted to and revered the Sermon on the Mount.
John Dear: Yes, and that’s what got me to write this book after years ago working on the Gandhi collection and then traveling to India with Arun Gandhi, Gandhi’s grandson. I discovered in the process that Gandhi read from The Sermon on the Mount every morning and every evening for 45 years! It’s still astonishing to me! He’s not a Christian. Although Martin Luther King said famously; “He was the greatest Christian of modern times,” which was a real slap in the face –nonviolently- to most Christians, saying this Hindu is a much better follower of Jesus.
Anyway, Gandhi based his life of nonviolence on chapter two of the Bhagavad Gita and chapter five of the Book of Matthew. That’s very powerful! He kept going back there every morning, every evening to hear these teachings; “Blessed are the peacemakers who hunger and thirst for justice, offer no violent resistance to one who does evil. Love your enemies.” He got excited about it by the way by Tolstoy who dedicated the last 25 years of his life to that one sentence from Matthew; “Offer no violent resistance to one who does evil.” You’re not allowed to respond with violence.
PI: I’m going to separate that out and talk more about that later, but continue.
JD: I’ve been studying and teaching the Sermon on the Mount really vigorously for 15 years, but I’ve always been interested in it. I think there is a great teaching there that everyone who considers themselves a Christian should be basing their life like Gandhi did on the core teachings of Jesus. Then you read it from Gandhi’s perspective, he’s saying these are the greatest teaching of nonviolence in the history of the world! The greatest writings of nonviolence ever; Matthew 5, 6 and 7. It’s like a catechism or a handbook on how to be a human being; you’re peaceful, you’re merciful, you’re compassionate, you love everybody, you offer no violent resistance, you seek the Kingdom of God and Gandhi kept returning to it to live according to those teachings. I wonder sometimes on bad days if he was the only person who did that in modern history. I’ve been trying to do it and it’s hard! The teachings are weird and they’re not discussed in the Catholic Church or any Christian Church. We talk about everything but the beatitudes and the Sermon on the Mount.
PI: You do something interesting in here that I think makes it a bit more approachable. Before you go into breaking down and deconstructing each beatitude, you present the anti-beatitudes which say in part; “Blessed are the rich, blessed are those who never mourn, blessed are the violent, the oppressors, the dominators. Blessed are those who thirst for injustice,” and so on. What did you find effective about this way of doing it?
JD: Again, that’s helped me understand what this non-violent Jesus is trying to teach us and Gandhi is saying, “I’m basing my life of nonviolence on the teachings of the non-violent Jesus and then King and Dorothy Day and their teachings from Gandhi. Again, the beatitudes which you read are complicated and unusual.
There is not what I would say in my major campaign platform speech. That’s the way Matthew frames it. So you look at the culture around us; a culture of total war, corporate greed, 800 million people starving, 16,000 nuclear weapons, destruction of the earth, there is very little talk of these values and teachings of Jesus.
It’s a clumsy way to put it, but the culture of violence and war has its own anti-Sermon on the Mount. They have their fundamental teaching and it begins with their own anti-beatitudes. I’ll say them again; “Blessed are the rich.” That’s what the cultural church and the religions of this culture teach. If you are rich, God blesses you and that’s not the teaching of the New Testament of Jesus. “Don’t ever mourn,” “Blessed are the violent,” those who dominate, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice,” “Don’t be merciful.” Who cares what’s going on inside of you? “Blessed are the impure of heart.” But the key one which you did read; “Blessed are the war-makers.”
PI: You invert “peacemakers."
JD: It’s the fundamental teaching of this culture of war and every country in the whole world throughout history; all the military Chaplain’s in every empire in every nation have always said, “God blesses our wars.”
PI: “God on our side,” as Dylan said.
JD: As Dylan said brilliantly and that is just not the way of Jesus and it’s shocking to put it that way because then when you see what he says, when you see how we act, you realize of course we’re not following Jesus at all. He says; “Blessed are the poor.” “Blessed are those who mourn.” “[Blessed are] the meek.” Thomas Merton said that biblical word means the nonviolent; “Blessed are the nonviolent.” “Hunger and thirst for justice” “Be merciful and pure in heart.”
But this fundamental teaching; “Blessed are the peacemakers.” Then the scandal which Jesus goes way beyond Gandhi is he was always saying these weird consequences for this social justice vision of nonviolence. “Blessed are the peacemakers. They shall be called the sons and daughters of the God of Peace.” So there, Jesus is saying God is a peacemaker. God is a god of peace.
Billions of people who have lived throughout history believe in a God of War. God always supports our wars, blesses our wars, wants us to go to war,” and that’s a great lie! We’ve all been lied to. If God is a god of peace and nonviolence according to Jesus, we are the sons and daughters of the God of Peace and Nonviolence. This is our fundamental identity is to be a peacemaker. I think this is brilliant psychology, not just spiritual teaching. So we go into the culture of war and we make peace and practice nonviolence because we’re sons and daughters of the God of Peace.
These are such profound spiritual teachings! As I’ve said through my whole life to audiences and churches around the country and the world; “You cannot claim to be a follower of this guy Jesus and support war. You can have nothing to do with violence, the military, guns, if you follow this non-violent Jesus. If you do support the culture, just know that you’re totally going against the non-violent Jesus.
PI: You said something interesting that I think is the value of you breaking down each one of these and spending some time on each which is (I forget your exact wording) are little riddles, a little obtuse somehow, they’re a little difficult to grasp in the modern world. For example, just talk me and us through our reluctance on this particular one in the modern day.
I see the poor on our streets on the off-ramps, the medians, the stoplights. In my home city, there is one legless veteran in a wheelchair there almost every day at the post office I drive to almost every day. I pull up and I give to him fairly often, but some days I don’t. Some days I change lanes because I don’t have change or bills or don’t want to slow down or I hear the voice of the city authorities saying, “Don’t give to these people. It’s dangerous for them to be in traffic. It encourages them.” How do we settle with these competing thoughts in the modern world? Fix it for us John!
JD: Well, what Gandhi did was he based his life on these teachings and I’m supposed to be a Christian. Any Christian is supposed to live according to these teachings of Jesus. It’s as simple as that; we don’t follow anybody else, not even the teachings of any bishops or ministers, much less Clinton or Trump or Bush. It’s “What does Jesus teach?”
Later in the Sermon on the Mount and throughout the Gospels, it’s very explicit; you can be my disciple and have money or possessions. You can’t serve God and money. Renounce your possessions. Jesus is like Gandhi going on the salt march. He’s marching to Jerusalem, he’s going to do civil disobedience and they’re going to kill him. This is the guy we claim to follow.
The whole teachings of the Sermon on the Mount are really one great vision of nonviolence in my opinion. They describe an entirely new way of life which goes completely against the culture we’re in, especially first world Americans; 4.7% of the world’s population having 40% or more than the world’s natural resources.
PI: I’m interested – and maybe you’re getting there, but I’m interested in this practical struggle that I imagine people go through, I go through. Just taking this as an example, our response to the poor, our response to our own wealth, people saying, “Does this mean I shouldn’t save for my retirement, my senior healthcare, leave money to my family?” Family issues confuse a lot of us I think.
JD: I think it means that you can take it as far as you can. In other words, yes, it can mean all of that and that’s how Gandhi ended up; no money, total poverty. He was always practicing downward mobility and he was getting it from this sentence and from the rest of the Sermon on the Mount.
The question is always; how far do you want to follow the teachings of Jesus?” “Blessed are the poor in spirit” or “Blessed are the poor” as it says in Luke. Luke goes farther; “Blessed are those who are hungry.” “Blessed are those who weep.”
Jesus I think is saying get rid of your money, give it to the poor and follow me. He’s describing a life of downward mobility. By the way, you’re going to die anyway! You can’t take it with you, so share everything you have with those who are suffering and join my campaign of nonviolence.
This is such a mysterious sentence. He’s talking about the economics of the Kingdom of God where everybody has food, clothing, healthcare, shelter, education and so forth and dignity, but nobody has more than anybody else. It’s a completely radical vision.
How far do we want to practice it? I just encourage everybody, to use Gandhi’s phrase, “experiment with it,” which is a lovely, helpful way of living the Sermon on the Mount, not judging yourself, but saying, “What new step can I take?” Befriending poor people, making serious contributions, looking at your lifestyle and trying to simplify more and more. How are you in solidarity with the poorest people on the planet? For me, that is literally traveling the world and living in refugee camps and working in homeless shelters and soup kitchens.
PI: Which more people could arguably do, but most people will not take that step.
JD: Well, very few are following Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount. Most Christians support war! This is just the first step!
PI: What I hear you saying is that there are plenty of steps.
JD: There are plenty of steps. I can’t tell people what to do just to urge people to take a step and to discover the new freedom there and the peace and the blessings which come with it! Gosh, I could tell so many stories of how my life has changed from living in solidarity with very poor and disenfranchised people for example in a refugee camp in El Salvador. To be there, everyone had to have lost a loved one. This was in 1985 right in the heart of the war.
I’m not patronizing the poor, but they had something I didn’t have. They had faith and hope and joy and love for one another. That’s still something very mysterious. I think that’s what Jesus had. We don’t have that in the United States by and large and we’re poor in every which way and the richest people are so miserable. The icons of that are people like Michael Jackson and Elvis Presley who were so miserable.
That’s what Jesus is getting at, this beatitude and all of them in the Sermon on the Mount call us to be universal people and that’s getting us out of ourselves and our families. I know many people who are working on this with kids who really are trying to be universal people, people of universal love, universal solidarity with the poor, with the enemies, with people who are being bombed by our country, people of universal peace, universal compassion and they’re raising their children to be like that. I see them to be much happier people, not relying on money.
PI: So when you say “getting out of your families,” you’re not speaking literally, but more about how to bring this into the family.
JD: I’m talking about living with a heart of universal love toward everybody and raising your children to be that way too and therefore to living a life of nonviolence and compassion and solidarity with all the suffering peoples of the earth. It’s ideal to do that as a family. You may say, “That’s not possible.” I know many people who do that and more and more of us, if we’re going to follow this guy, need to start experimenting with his teachings. But again, I think Paul, they only make sense when you line them all together; solidarity with the poor, grief for those who are being killed around the world, meekness, gentleness and justice. It’s not just charity. For Jesus, he’s talking about justice and then once you’re working on justice, you’re getting at the roots of injustice which is war and so then you’re working on disarmament and you end up like Gandhi as a person of universal nonviolence.
It’s a big journey! I actually think that this is what it means to be a human being.
Peace Talks Radio Host Paul Ingles talked with Marc Wortman, author of 1941: Fighting the Shadow War
Paul Ingles: You wrote in your acknowledgements that you spent a lot of time doing research in the New York Public Library. You wrote in the acknowledgement that research there, you said, “crystalized your understanding of the depth and breadth of anti-interventionist sentiment and the political and social complexities of the time that helped explain Americans unwillingness to enter WWII.” I think that’s the purpose sentence of your book right there. I thought maybe we could break it down and start with the “depth and breadth” part first of the anti-interventionist sentiment. How would you generally describe that to someone who has never been asked to think about it before?
Marc Wortman: Well, first let’s talk about the breadth. Quite simply, when polls were taken in the spring of 1941 with the strong possibility that Great Britain could still fall to Hitler with Hitler in control of the entire continent of Europe and on the verge of invading the Soviet Union, at that point Americans said that the fall of Great Britain would be a serious threat to the United States. Seventy-five percent of Americans polled agreed with that idea, but 80%+ said even at the risk of the fall of Great Britain, the U.S. should not get involved as a fighting force in the war. That was the breadth; Americans were massively opposed to intervening in the war.
Then you get into the depth. The depth is quite remarkable because we think there were fascists in America who were opposed to entry into the war or communists who, right up until June 22, 1941 when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, we were deeply opposed to intervention in the “Imperialist Wars” it was being called.
But the reality is that former President Herbert Hoover, a mainline republican was strongly isolationist. Norman Thomas, perennial socialist candidate for President was deeply opposed.
In my book, I have figures like Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., the son of Teddy Roosevelt, President Teddy Roosevelt, the Rough Rider who had been so adamant about the U.S. getting into WWI and sent his four sons there including Ted Roosevelt, Jr. who was badly wounded in the war. He was a leading isolationist during the period. Eventually he came back and rejoined the army and was famously leading the invasion at Utah Beach on D Day.
There were people across the political spectrum and it wasn’t simply people who had radical sentiments on the left or right or who had any kind of ethnic hatred that was driving them.
PI: Is there any way to quantify what you call the more noble opposition who just had absorbed the awfulness of the death toll of WWI called the “war to end all wars,” and just thought that war is something that we should avoid at all costs on a principle basis?
MW: I don’t know that I could quantify it exactly, but there was a very deep anti-war sentiment on American college campuses. In many ways, as forceful as took place during the Vietnam Era. There were protests against the war. There young people basically saying I don’t want to go fight a war among the great powers and fight a war of attrition. The assumption was that it would end up being another war like the First World War in which essentially an entire generation was slaughtered in the trenches facing off against each other.
PI: And there was a draft established before the U.S. actually entered the war wasn’t there?
MW: Yes, indeed. While there was a tremendous force against entering the war, the White House, President Roosevelt was convinced that U.S. intervention in the war was going to be necessary. He wasn’t ready to commit American troops to the fight, but he was convinced that eventually the U.S. was going to have to play a big part in the war.
He, in the summer of 1940, pushed through Congress, over the objections of a large percentage although not a majority of Congress who were isolationists, it was a very powerful isolationist component within Congress, but by and large, he had a small majority who supported him.
He was able to get through the first peacetime draft in American history. If you think about that, that’s an extraordinary fact that the United States, up to that point, had been 164 as an independent nation, we had never drafted a soldier in peacetime. He got that through and he also was brave enough to, one week before the 1940 election in which he was running for an unprecedented third term, one week before that, he had the first lottery numbers pulled as he was there to draft 800,000 men. Now getting that draft army established required him to agree that that army was forbidden to fight foreign wars. So he created this first conscript army, but said they’re not going to go fight outside the Western Hemisphere.
Nonetheless, it was a first step. Of course it was also compared to the fighting forces that the axis powers had in the field, it was nothing. Germany had ten million hardened, more experienced armed forces, men in arms and here the United States was trying to establish its first army that had less than one million men.
I should point out to show you just how deep the opposition was to U.S. intervention in the war, while FDR and Prime Minister Winston Churchill were meeting for the very first time in a summit off the Coast of Newfoundland, Canada.
At the same time, they were meeting and beginning to set plans for possibly U.S. intervention and for a post-war world, at that very same moment, Congress, the House of Representatives was holding a vote on whether to continue the draft and it passed by one single vote. So this already relatively small army would have gradually dissolved if that vote had gone through.
PI: I want to back the history lesson up a few steps. In some ways it might sound like 20th century history 101 here, but in the context of the 20 years after WWI ended, you’ve got some things happening that I think you make a point of obviously in your book 1941 that get into the mix of anti-interventionist and peace movements. The League of Nations was formed, but it failed. There was this economic depression, of course the crash of 1929 that must have had some role in trying to suggest that the U.S. getting bogged down in another international war wouldn’t help although I think that turned out to be counter intuitive. Talk a little bit about some of those other factors that get into the mix that explain the poll numbers.
MW: Well, of course there is the very first issue which was that Americans understood very well that the great war had resolved nothing and at a horrific price paid, not so much by Americans. The U.S. entered WWI at a fairly late date and the armistice ending it in 1918 came quickly before the United States could really fully engage, but they were very aware of just how horrific the violence had been both for their allies and for the opposition forces.
The Americans were also rather bitter that the British had borrowed an enormous amount of money from the United States to wage that war and that money had not been fully repair by any means. There was that aspect.
There was the other aspect that many Americans quite simply disliked the King of England. There were a lot of Irish Americans. There were also a lot of Americans who just said why in the world should we be supporting the world’s largest colonial empire.
Then there was the notion that the conflicts that went on in Europe were eternal balance of power issues; should Germany dominate the continent or should France dominate the continent? Should England have sway over continental affairs or should another power? Ultimately it was colonial rivalries; who had the biggest colonial empires. There were all these elements that Americans looked at with quite a jaundice eye.
Then you mentioned the Great Depression. Inevitably, when you are under deep economic duress like Americans were throughout the 1930s, you look inward. You look for what it is that you could do to help yourself.
Indeed, as you mentioned, there was the counterintuitive realization that war actually could power the economy back up and get Americans out of that Depression, but when the war did break out in Europe, Americans were actually the principle beneficiaries because the orders for American industrial goods; American grain, American scrap metal, American oil, American aviation fuel were enormous and put Americans to work. In that context, they said finally, wow, the good times are starting to roll. Why in the world would we want to spoil that by going off and fighting a war?
To me, it’s always one of the great ironies that the airplanes the Japanese sent to attack the United States at Pearl Harbor were flown using American aviation fuel and dropping bombs and torpedo built with American scrap metal. The U.S. was an active trading partner with Japan until just a few months before the attack.
PI: Now moving down the timeline a little bit Marc Wortman, tell us about the Neutrality Acts in Congress of 1935, ’36, ’37 and ’39 and how they began and how they bent the tort allowing ultimately more and more U.S. involvement in Europe. Tell me a little bit about those.
MW: In the context of American resistance to getting basically sucked back into another European war, which most observers believed that it was inevitable that Europe was going to fall back into war. They were seeing the rise of Hitler and the rise of Mussolini and the warlike attitude that was being taken and the violation of treaties and of course eventually the annexations of territory by Hitler. It did not take a very keen observer to realize that war was on the horizon.
In that context, the isolationist leadership in Congress pushed through a series of so-called Neutrality Acts that forbid the United States from arming a nation at war, forbid any contracted material from private manufacturers to be sent to a belligerent power and then eventually, that was amended to say that any weaponry or other material that was send from the United States had to be paid for in full and in advance before delivery and then on top of that, the Neutrality Acts that American ships could not be used to deliver the material to any warring nation and that American naval vessels couldn’t be used to protect any ships that carried American-made goods to a warring power.
PI: Let me pause you for a second there Marc because this word “belligerence” really didn’t distinguish between aggressor and victim in judging where support went or didn’t go. That created some issue in terms of what the neutrality act actually meant. You couldn’t choose sides; it was whoever’s side was involved in it, right?
MW: Yes, exactly. Henry Stimson, who eventually became the Secretary of War under FDR at the time before there was as Defense Department as such, he was the head of the Army, the civilian head of the Army, a cabinet secretary. He described them as shackles against our own interest and against morality because basically no, there was no distinguishing between Hitler and Belgium. There was no distinguishing between Mussolini and Ethiopia. There was no distinguishing between Japanese attacks on Nanking and the Chinese people. We cannot provide any kind of aid to any nation at war.
Now as things went on, the Neutrality Acts were gradually being amended, but when war first broke out, the U.S. was essentially held to a standard that said that the only course for the United States was to remain neutral.
PI: Yes, and then eventually they allowed for or somewhat replaced by the Lend Lease Act that actually defined what kind of support that the U.S. could offer to Britain specifically, right?
MW: Yes, at the start of 1941, Roosevelt proposed that we become what he called the “Arsenal of Democracy” and what he meant by that and by the idea of Lend Lease was that we would become a supplier for nations that we deemed as fighting in our security interests, in our own defense interests.
PI: In a way, your book ends the way you said it would. Japan attacks America and is it fair to say that as soon as the attack happened on U.S. soil that the anti-war and the pro-isolationist movement pretty much dissolved? Even Lindbergh was trying to sigh up for service.
MW: Yes, that’s quite true. There was, among some diehard American-firsters, a desire to continue the organization as a kind of watchdog for American liberties in wartime. There were certainly pacifist elements within the American population who simply were opposed to war of any kind against any enemy, but when war comes, it’s like a raging river and it sweeps everything away with it.
Once the U.S. declared war on Japan, Americans almost to a person said this is our war now and we have to fight it and we have to win.
One of the great ironies of this entire period and of my book is of course that the expectation had always been that the war would be against Hitler and not against Japan, but of course what happened was the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. I guess if you want to consider it a lucky turn or a fortunate turn that Hitler declared war on us a few days later.