Patrick B. McGuigan
OKLAHOMA CITY – In a lifetime of opposition to capital punishment, Father John Dear has developed a powerful collection of stories about pivotal moments in the latter cause. He shared some of them in the keynote speech he delivered at the May 4 annual dinner of the Oklahoma Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (OK-CADP).
He is widely known for his battle to save the life of Billy Neal Moore, a man guilty of two murders, for which he had been placed on Georgia’s death row, a cause he detailed previously in a 1999 article for America magazine. Rev. Dear had corresponded with Moore for some time at that point in his life. In seeking mercy, he was fighting for the life of a man he considered a friend.
“Billy had been on death row longer than anyone else up to that time,” Dear has written. “He and a friend got drunk one night, robbed a liquor store and killed its elderly owner. The next morning, he wept and begged forgiveness of his victim’s family. He spent his years on death row praying, studying the scriptures, and counseling other inmates in Jesus’ way of nonviolence.”
After years at the cusp of execution, it appeared the string had run out for Moore. Father Dear flew to Georgia, where he organized prayer services and press conferences, demonstrations and vigils to advocate clemency. He contacted a certain nun in Calcutta, India, known as Mother Teresa.
She unleashed a powerhouse of prayer, through her worldwide order of sisters, begging God to change hearts and spare Moore’s life. And, she called the chairman of the Georgia Board of Pardon and Paroles.
From prison, in the midst of all that, Moore sent Dear a message. In that America article, Dear recalled Moore’s message from his prison cell, urging supporters “to be sure that we grant clemency in our hearts to all those who have personally hurt us. Otherwise, he said, we cannot expect the God of clemency to take us seriously and answer our prayer.”
Hours before he was scheduled to die, the family of his two victims went before the Georgia panel and begged that Moore be spared.
“Forgiveness and clemency were the only way to healing. In an historic, miraculous decision, clemency was granted. Several months later, Billy was quietly released from prison,” Dear remembers. Moore went on to minister to prisoners, teaching the ways of Jesus and paths of love.
As a young priest working in Scranton, Dear was first drawn into passionate activism against the Ultimate Sanction. After learning Pennsylvania was on its way to its first execution in decades, Dear went to work.
The governor was Robert Casey, a Catholic who had overcome three previous defeats to gain election to the state’s top job in 1986, going on to serve two terms as chief executive of the Keystone State.
That was the first of eight times Dear played the Mother Teresa card. A Catholic monsignor, who worked at a church office, had led multiple retreats for Teresa and her holy sisters. He told Dear, “I’m sure she would help.”
The young cleric contacted Casey’s office and learned he would be willing to talk to Mother Teresa. A stay of execution was granted in a timely manner.
Dear recounts, “Over the next few years, I arranged Mother Teresa’s intervention on behalf of death row inmates on eight occasions. Each time, she eagerly offered her support and the prayers of her community in an effort to stop the killing and end the death penalty.”
Not all such efforts met with success. His diminutive ally did not always get her way.
In 1990, studying in Berkeley, Father Dear’s efforts focused on Robert Harris. He told the nun exactly what Harris had done to get a capital sentence. She then contacted California Governor George Deukmejian, and asked him to “Do what Jesus would do.” She later told Dear, as he relates it, “He started talking about how he had to do this, that this was the law.”
“What did you say?” Dear asked. “I just said, ‘Do what Jesus would do,’” she answered.
Dear recalled, “I was stunned. No arguments. No statistics. No invocation of sin or immorality or injustice. No lecture. No angry denunciation. Just: Do what Jesus would do. She cut right to the heart of the matter.”
He relates her narrative: “That’s all I said. He talked again about how it was in the state’s hand, so I repeated what I said, ‘Do what Jesus would do if he was in your position.’
“We have to pray,” she continued. “We all have to pray so that he gets the grace and the courage to do what Jesus would do. Pray hard. Get as many people to pray for courage for him. Get everyone in the country to pray. And then, we have to respond to his decision with love and compassion. And keep praying for the family of the victims, too.”
For a time, at least, the prayers seemed answered. For more than two years, Dear and his allies staved off Harris’ execution. Then, Pete Wilson succeeded Deukmejian. Despite another appeal from Mother Teresa, the execution took place.
When he talked to her about it, Dear wrote, she expressed grief, but said, “God sees only love. God only sees the love that we put into what we do.”
As a young man, Dear had made a pilgrimage the Holy Land. At the time, he told his Oklahoma City audience, tourist areas were virtually deserted due to a resurgence in the region’s war and violence. From atop the Mount of Beatitudes, he watched as Israeli jets carried out a strike on a target in the distance.
He read the words of Jesus, the “Blessed are” phrases from the Gospel of Matthew (Chapter 5:3-11), on the wall of the chapel atop the mountain adjacent to the Sea of Galliee.
Dear reached a determination to pass his years advocating consistent non-violence. He has been arrested several dozen times and his record includes felonies. Among other things, he joined the Berrigan brothers (Daniel and Philip) in wielding a hammer against a nuclear weapon. Ultimately, he departed from the Jesuit order he joined as a young man, but remained a priest.
He remembers, and honors, the Christians who gathered in Berlin in the early 1980s, imagining what the world might be like a thousand years hence, when the wall dividing east and west came down . He marveled as the impossible happened. Small demonstrations became large demonstrations, and, in 1989, the wall was toppled.
He is aware of those who say capital punishment flows from the Bible’s words, “An Eye for an Eye; a Tooth for a Tooth.” (Exodus: 21:24) In his speech here, Dear reflected on the rejoinder attributed to Mohandas Ganchi: “An eye-for-eye and tooth-for-tooth would lead to a world of the blind and toothless.”
And Dear affirms this, from the poet, and conscientious objector, Edna St. Vincent Millay: “I shall die, but that is all I shall do for death.”
To those who say the dream of a nation, and a world, without capital punishment is impossible, he points to English abolitionists of the 1820s, whose combination of idealism and pragmatism eroded support for the slave trade, and ultimately ended slavery in the British Empire.
The same vision for the death penalty, he insists, is within reach “for Oklahoma and the whole world.”
Dear supports “Havens of Hope” in a world he believes is marked by “Dungeons of Despair.” He was among the many thousands who went to the nation’s capital early this year to protest the inauguration of the current president.
It’s no surprise that Mother Teresa remains a touchstone for Dear, the author of many books, including “The Nonviolent Life,” “Peacemaker,” “Lazarus, Come Forth,” and “Walking the Way.”
In a 1995 visit to her order’s headquarters in Rome, John Dear met in person his blessed telephonic ally, the little lady who did big things, in careful and meticulous ways.
As he wrote years ago, “She was badly stooped over by then. When I was introduced, she reached up and put her hands firmly on my cheeks and held them there for about fifteen seconds, while she smiled and starred into my eyes. Then, she folded her arms, pretending to be stern with me, as if to reprimand me for doubting her, and asked with a suppressed chuckle, ‘What did I say they should do?’
“You said they should do what Jesus would do,” he answered.
Remembering Moore, she queried, “And what did they do for your friend?” “They did what Jesus would do; they granted him clemency.” “Thank God!,” she said, with, as he reported, “an enormous smile.”
For John Dear, Mother Teresa’s words – “Do what Jesus would do” – became the animating mantra of his life. He believes, “She wants us not only to read about Jesus, to think about Jesus, but to do the things that Jesus did. Simple advice, yes, but rarely put so bluntly in the face of such a politically charged issue.
“The logic of her wisdom, though politically incorrect, is theologically, biblically and spiritually sound. As we do what we can to abolish the death penalty and promote peace; as we try in our own way to do what Jesus would do if he were in our shoes; as we too radiate that same unconditional, compassionate love; God will see each one of us, just as God sees Mother Teresa, and will grant the same verdict: clemency for all.”