“I see no poverty in the world of tomorrow--no wars, no revolutions, no bloodshed.
And in that world, there will be a faith in God greater and deeper than ever in the past.”
-- Mohandas Gandhi
“Imagine all the people living life in peace. You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us, and the world will live as one.”
The story is told that in the early 1980s a small group gathered in their church basement in East Germany to ask a daring question: “What will Germany look like a thousand years from now when the Berlin Wall finally falls?”
There was no question of the Wall coming down soon. Such a prospect was unimaginable. Communism was here to stay. The grip of the Soviet empire was permanent. The suicidal competition between the two nuclear superpowers seemed preordained.
And yet, they asked the question. They allowed their imagination free reign. What would a world without the Wall look like? And what must we do now to hasten that great day a thousand years from now?
I believe that asking such a question, letting our imaginations challenge us and daring to dream of a new world unleashes a spirit of transformation that can actually change history.
According to the story, the small group felt energized as they discussed their dream. They decided to meet again a few weeks later. Soon word of the meetings spread and more people began to meet in church basements to dream of a world without the Wall. Over the next few years, a grassroots movement grew. Ordinary people on both sides of the Wall pursued the vision of unity and reconciliation. They met, organized, prayed and spoke out. Then, out of the blue, Mikhail Gorbachev announced his new policy of perestroika. The Polish Solidarity movement pushed the Soviets out and a new democracy was born. Events moved quickly. Communism collapsed and the Soviet Union imploded.
The God of peace is hard at work trying to disarm the world. But God needs our help. God needs every one of us to be part of God’s global transformation for peace and justice. God needs our grassroots movements of nonviolent resistance to disarm the world.
The grassroots movement begun in East Berlin by a handful of faithful dreamers made all the difference. In November 1989, tens of thousands of people marched in East Berlin to demand the fall of the Wall. Every day, more people marched. Soon, hundreds of thousands were marching. Then all of a sudden, on November 9th, the Wall fell down. It took the world by surprise. Yet the Berlin Wall could not have come down peacefully without the grassroots visionaries who dreamed, imagined, met, discussed and organized over the years. Gorbachev needed a grassroots movement to make his vision bear fruit. In other words, the Wall fell because ordinary people imagined a world without the Wall. They held up the possibility of a world without the Wall and they acted as if such a world was possible and inevitable.
Their daring vision reminds me of the abolitionists who imagined a world without slavery. “Every human being is equal,” they said. “Everyone has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, regardless of race. No human can be bought, owned or sold. Therefore, slavery must be abolished--now!” They were dismissed as unpatriotic revolutionaries, unrealistic idealists, and crazy lunatics. “Slavery has always existed,” they were told. “This is the way things have always been and always will be. Some people are not human. Even St. Paul endorsed slavery! You cannot change the course of history.”
“No,” they said. “The time of slavery is over. A new world without slavery is coming.” The great herald of the abolitionist movement, William Lloyd Garrison, set the tone for the movement when he published his newspaper, “The Liberator,” in 1831 and declared to the world that the age of slavery is over. His front page editorial in the first issue stirred the nation. “I am in earnest. I will not equivocate. I will not excuse. I will not retreat a single inch, and I will be heard,” he announced. With the help of hundreds of committed activists, Garrison wrote and spoke out day and night against slavery. He encouraged people to join the movement, smuggle slaves into Northern freedom, disrupt the culture of slavery and demand equality for all. These abolitionists were attacked, mobbed, threatened, jailed and even killed. They practiced steadfast nonviolent civil disobedience against the laws which legalized slavery. Their vision and determination paved the way for the abolition of slavery.
Like the abolitionists who envisioned a world without slavery, we are new abolitionists who envision a world without war, poverty, injustice and nuclear weapons. We give our lives to that vision, creating movements for disarmament and justice, trusting that one day, the vision will come true.
Reclaiming Our Imaginations
We have much to learn from these imaginative visionaries. Like them, we need to reclaim our imagination. We have to begin to dream again of new possibilities. We need to exercise our imaginations, and envision a new world, no matter how crazy others think we are. In a world of war and nuclear weapons, that means imagining a world without war or violence.
One of the casualties of our culture of war is the loss of our imagination. We can no longer imagine a world without war or nuclear weapons or violence or poverty. Few dream of a world of nonviolence. If we do, we are dismissed as naïve or idealistic. Yet without the imagination for peace, the vision of peace, we will never get out of the downward cycle of violence that is destroying us.
If we want to discover the blessings of peace, we have to renounce war and dedicate ourselves to a new world without war. Every human being has to join this global campaign for peace if we are to lead ourselves away from the precipice of global catastrophe. We need to rediscover our shared humanity and reclaim the higher principles of love, justice, compassion and equality. We need to demand food, clothing, housing, education, healthcare, and dignity for every child on the planet. We need to give our lives for a future of peace.
The Blindness of Violence
But if we want to envision such a world, we must recognize that we are blind, that we can no longer see clearly. We can no longer see our way to peace. We cannot see our way toward dismantling our arsenals, ceasing our bombings raids, supporting the world’s poorer nations, ending hunger and poverty, and pursuing universal brother and sisterhood. Instead, we see only war and further wars. We can imagine all kinds of weapons of mass destruction and ever greater invasions and wars. We can dream up astonishing new weapons. We put our best minds, our time, our funds, and our energies into this vision of war. In the process, we blind ourselves to the vision of peace.
Violence blinds us. We think we see, but we have grown blind to our shared humanity. We do not see one another as human beings, much less brothers and sisters. Instead, we see non-humans, aliens, outsiders, competitors, objects of class, race or nationality. When that happens, we label people as enemies, and declare them as expendable.
If we want to see our way toward a new world without war, we need to recover our sight. We need to meet together in church basements and small grassroots communities to discuss the daring, provocative question, “What would a world without war look like?” As we ask the question, we can begin to imagine such a world. Then, we can discuss and enact ways to make that new world a reality.
In order to reclaim this vision, we need to teach each other that war is not inevitable, that war is not our future, that nuclear destruction need not be our destiny, that peace can come true for all people. We have to rekindle the desire for the vision of peace. Once we desire it, we will pray for it, work for it, and welcome it--and move our culture from blindness to vision, from numbness to imagination, from war to peace.
Since our blind leaders are driving us to the brink of destruction, we have to take the wheel, turn back, and lead one another away from the brink. We cannot expect vision from the warmakers or their media spokespeople. Only peacemakers can see the way forward toward a world of peace.
To be visionaries of peace we need to be contemplatives of nonviolence, people who imagine the God of peace, who let God disarm our hearts, who allow the God of peace to show us the way to peace. As visionaries and contemplatives of peace, we can then become a prophetic people who not only denounce imperial violence as ungodly, immoral, and evil, but announce God’s way of nonviolence, justice and peace.
The Vision of Nonviolence
Martin Luther King, Jr.’s most famous speech outlined his dream of a new world of equality and justice. He upheld the vision of nonviolence. Five years later, on the night before he was killed, he spoke of being on the mountaintop and seeing the promised land. “For years, we have been talking about war and peace,” he said. “But now, no longer can we just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence; it’s nonviolence or nonexistence.” With these last words, the great visionary pointed the way forward to make his dream a reality.
Nonviolence employs a vision of a disarmed, reconciled humanity, the reign of God in our midst, what King called “the beloved community,” the truth that all life is sacred, that we are all equal sisters and brothers, all children of the God of peace, already reconciled, all one, already united. Once we accept this vision of the heart, we can never hurt or kill another human being, much less remain silent while our country wages war, maintains nuclear weapons, executes people or allows millions to starve to death.
Active nonviolence is much more than a tactic or a strategy; it is a way of life. We renounce violence and vow never to hurt anyone ever again. Nonviolence demands active love and truth that seeks justice and peace for the whole human race, resists systemic evil, and persistently reconciles with everyone. It insists that there is no cause however noble for which we support the killing of a single human being. Instead of killing others, we are willing to be killed in the struggle for justice and peace. Instead of inflicting violence on others, we accept and undergo suffering without even the desire to retaliate with further violence as we pursue justice and peace for all people.
Nonviolence is a life force, Gandhi said, that when harnessed becomes contagious and can disarm nations and change the world. It begins in our hearts, where we renounce the violence inside us, then moves outward with active, contagious truth and love toward our families, communities, nation and the world. As we practice it personally in the face of violence, we also join grassroots movements for justice and peace to organize nonviolence on the national and international level for the disarmament of the world. When nonviolence is put into action, it always works, as Gandhi demonstrated in India’s revolution, as King and the civil rights movement showed, as the People Power movement showed in the Philippines, and as Archbishop Tutu and South Africa showed against apartheid.
Next August 6th marks the 60th anniversary of our atomic vaporization of 130,000 people in Hiroshima. My friends and I are trying to imagine a world where this horrific violence will never happen again. We are working through the global grassroots disarmament movements to make our voice heard and welcome such a world.
This vision of peace means we have to disarm Los Alamos, the birthplace of the bomb, not far from where I live in New Mexico and transform New Mexico and the entire nation from a land of nuclear violence to a land of nonviolence. I hope and pray that all of us will pursue this vision of peace, and use this upcoming anniversary as a moment to call the nation once again to disarmament.
Shortly before he died, John Lennon was asked why he devoted so much of his time and energy to peace. “Isn’t that a waste of time?” the reporter asked. Lennon answered that he believed that Leonardo de Vinci help make flying possible because he imagined it, discussed it, painted it and brought it into people’s consciousness. “What a person projects can eventually happen,” he said. “And therefore, I always want to project peace. I want to project it in song, word, and action. I want to put the possibility of peace into the public imagination. And I know, as certain as I am standing here, that someday peace will be.”
If we dare imagine a new world without war and reclaim the possibility of peace, as John Lennon believed, we will raise human consciousness and help pave the way toward a new nonviolent world. Our mission, our duty, our vocation is to reclaim that vision of peace, and pursue the abolition of war, violence and nuclear weapons. All we have to do is open our eyes and take another step forward on the road to peace.
John Dear is a Jesuit priest and the author/editor of 20 books, including “Living Peace,” “Disarming the Heart,” “Jesus the Rebel,” “Mohandas Gandhi,” “The God of Peace,” “Peace Behind Bars,” and most recently, “The Questions of Jesus” (Doubleday). For info, see: www.johndear.org