[A lecture given at the University of Alberta, Augustana Campus, in Camrose, on 13 October 2007; the context was a conference sponsored by the Chester Ronning Centre and co-sponsored by the Thomas Merton Society of Canada. This was the Augustana Distinguished Lecture for 2006. The event was made possible by the Hendrickson Family Endowment Fund.]
by Jim Forest
Living as we are in a period of endemic fear, it may help us to look back on an earlier period of extreme collective fear.
Some of you are old enough to recall the anxiety we were living with when the nineteen-sixties began, but for those whose memories don’t extend that far, let me mention some aspects.
In 1960, the period of social dislocation and counterculture known as “the Sixties” hadn’t really started. Culturally it was still “the Fifties.” Male hair was short. The Beatles were unheard of. There were no hippies. Millions of North American homes were still without a television. Marilyn Monroe’s latest film was “Let’s Make Love,” a phrase with a more innocent meaning than it has today. The Second Vatican Council had not yet started. Abortion was still illegal in nearly every country outside the Soviet bloc.
1960 was the year in which John Kennedy was elected President of the United States — the first Catholic in the White House. Stalin had died seven years earlier but, even in death, he was a political presence still shaping Western perceptions of the USSR. Nikita Khrushchev was in his third year as premier of the Soviet Union. Fidel Castro was in his first year as head of a Marxist government in Cuba. The C.I.A. was secretly preparing the Cuban Bay of Pigs invasion that was to occur in the spring of 1961. The Cuban Missile Crisis was nearly two years away.
The Cold War was blowing its icy winds across every border. American military involvement in Vietnam was in its early stages.
It was a time of keenly felt apocalyptic possibilities. Millions of people took it for granted that they would die in a fast-approaching nuclear war. It was only fifteen years since atom bombs developed in the U.S. had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and eleven years since the first nuclear weapon had been exploded in a Soviet test. It was eight years since the US tested the first hydrogen bomb, a weapon vastly more destructive that the atom bomb. Inevitably, the Soviet Union followed suit. It seemed that hardly a month passed without another open-air test of a nuclear weapon. Many have since died from cancers brought on by radioactive fallout fromn those texts. The toxic results are still with us and indeed will last for millennia to come.
Both the U.S.A. and the U.S.S.R. had developed intercontinental missiles that could deliver nuclear weapons to a broad range of targets in less than an hour. Politicians, generals and authors of editorials, while advocating building more and bigger missiles that could deliver bigger “payloads,” wrote anxiously about “missile gaps.” In 1960 the military strategist, Herman Kahn, published On Thermonuclear War, in which he argued that nuclear war, despite the death of millions, could be a winnable option. It was not regarded as insane for responsible people to use the Strangelovian term “mutually assured destruction” — M-A-D for short.
You can get a good idea of just how mad the times were by watching Stanley Kubrick’s film: Doctor Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” It may well be this work of satire helped prevent World War III. Kubrick should have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
The development of bomb shelters was a major U.S. priority. Not only were there thousands of public shelters, but suburban families were encouraged to build them either in their basements or under their back yards. In 1961 a respected Catholic theologian, Fr. Lawrence McHugh, wrote an article in America magazine, a Jesuit journal, in which he argued that the occupants of fallout shelters had the right to use deadly force to keep out neighbors who had been improvident enough not to build shelters of their own.
My impression is that Canadians were not caught up in the shelter mania of the period, but children in the U.S. routinely participated in “duck and cover” exercises — practicing to survive nuclear war by diving under their schoolroom desks and, backs upward, getting into a fetal position, their hands over the backs of their necks.
What about myself as the sixties began? In 1960, I was in the military, part of a small Navy unit at the U.S. Weather Bureau headquartered just outside Washington, D.C. Our most disturbing weekly exercise was to plot the fallout pattern over 12-hour intervals across a three-day period should a 20 megaton nuclear explosion occur over the capitol in present weather conditions. For a young meteorologist, it made nuclear war quite real.
In the spring of 1961, having received a special discharge as a conscientious objector, I left the Navy. I had gotten into very hot water for taking part in a protest of the Bay of Pigs invasion. Once out of uniform, I joined the staff of the Catholic Worker in Manhattan, a community of hospitality for street people in what was then one of the most run-down areas of New York City. The community was led by Dorothy Day, a woman frequently jailed for acts of protest, most notably for refusing to take shelter during compulsory “civil defense” tests. Instead of seeking shelter in the subways, as was required, Dorothy would be found sitting quietly on a park bench directly in front of the mayor’s office.
The community also published a controversial but widely read newspaper, The Catholic Workee. About 70,000 copies were mailed out each month. For a time I served as the paper’s managing editor, proof that sometimes one’s main achievement in life comes early.
One of my chores that first summer was to deliver the mail addressed to Dorothy. In those days, while busy writing a book, she was mainly staying either at the Catholic Worker farm on Staten Island or at her nearby beach cottage. Her practice was, once the mail reached her, to make a large pot of tea, open the envelopes and then read the letters aloud to whoever was present, adding stories and background information as needed. Most letters she answered herself, but occasionally she would hand one over to someone at the table with suggestions about how to respond.
A letter from Thomas Merton was in a bag of mail I delivered to her one summer day in 1961. This amazed me. I had been reading Merton for nearly two years and knew from The Seven Storey Mountain, his autobiography, that Trappist monks were normally allowed to write only four letters a year. I had no idea that the rule had been completely relaxed for Merton, but even if I knew he was allowed unlimited correspondence, the last person in the world I would have expected him to be writing to was Dorothy Day. Her name was synonymous with engagement in the world while Merton’s name, thanks to his autobiography, was synonymous with withdrawal from the world. She represented the active life, he the contemplative. But as Dorothy read Merton’s letter aloud, I began to see how much common ground they shared.
His letter that day was confessional. “I become more and more skeptical about my writing,” he wrote. “There has been some good and much bad, and I haven’t been nearly honest enough and clear enough. The problem that torments me is that I can so easily become part of a general system of delusion … I find myself more and more drifting toward the derided and possibly quite absurd and defeatist position of a sort of Christian anarchist.”
As I was later to realize, Merton had a gift for finding bridge words between himself and his correspondents. Dorothy often called herself an anarchist (a Greek word meaning a person without a ruler). This was, as far as I know, the first and last time Merton ever described himself as an anarchist, though in an essay written that same year he also applied the term to the Desert Fathers, as the founders of monasticism are called. When Dorothy used the word “anarchist,” she meant a person whose obedience was not to secular rulers, states, or ideological systems, but to Christ. (It is interesting to note the qualifications Merton works into his use of the word “anarchist,” modifying it with “Christian” while noting it’s a derided, defeatist and possibly absurd designation. In fact Merton had a greater aversion to ideologically-charged labels than Dorothy.)
In a letter Merton sent to Dorothy a few weeks later, he expresses again the anguish he felt in failing to address publicly matters that had placed the human race in a situation of unprecedented danger:
“I don’t feel that I can in conscience, at a time like this, go on writing just about things like meditation, though that has its point. I cannot just bury my head in a lot of rather tiny and secondary monastic studies either. I think I have to face the big issues, the life-and-death issues: and this is what everyone is afraid of… ”
I later understood whom he was referring to by “everyone.” Chief among them was his Abbot General in Rome, Dom Gabriel Sortais. Dom Gabriel eventually ordered Merton to stop writing essays on war and peace; it wasn’t a topic, he said, that was appropriate for a monk. But in 1961, the silencing of Merton was still in the future, two years away.
It was about a month later, perhaps August 1961, that Merton submitted his first article to The Catholic Workee. For us this was a major event. Here was the best-known and most-respected Catholic writer in the English language joining forces with a journal that regularly raised issues that most religious publications carefully avoided: war and peace, social justice, voluntary poverty, conscientious objection, community, racism, hospitality, the works of mercy.
Merton’s submission to us was an expanded version of a chapter that had originally been part of Seeds of Contemplation, a book published in 1949. It is the only book Merton ever revised, and the revision was major. In the preface to New Seeds of Contemplation, Merton explained that the earlier book was written in isolation from other people, while in the years that followed his solitude had been modified “by contact with other solitudes; with the loneliness, the simplicity, the perplexity of novices and scholastics” as well as with “the loneliness of people outside my monastery; with the loneliness of people outside the Church.”
The title of the chapter sent to us — “The Root of War is Fear” — was unchanged from the earlier book, but what had been just over three pages in 1949 had been developed, in the 1961 revision, into a thirteen-page essay. In addition, Merton added four paragraphs of new text written specifically for The Catholic Workee. This addendum, as we later discovered, had not gone through the usual process of Trappist scrutiny. It may have been the only text by Merton to reach an unrestricted reading public without having passed first under the eyes of one or more censors.
Among my first significant editorial jobs at The Catholic Workee was to decide whether to put these special paragraphs at the end of the essay or at the beginning. Merton wasn’t sure which order was better. Neither was Dorothy. I ended up putting the new material up front, but if I were doing the editing today, I would put it at the end — not to bury it, but to allow the text to lead off with essay’s key sentence: “At the root of war is fear; not so much the fear that men have of one another as the fear they have of everything. It is not that they do not trust one another; they do not even trust themselves.”
Merton went on to say that “the first real step toward peace would be a realistic acceptance of the fact that our political ideals are perhaps to a great extent illusions and fictions to which we cling out of motives that are not always perfectly honest: that because of this we prevent ourselves from seeing any good or any practicality in the political ideals of our enemies — which may, of course, be in many ways even more illusory and dishonest than our own. We will never get anywhere unless we can accept the fact that politics is an inextricable tangle of good and evil motives in which, perhaps, the evil predominate but where one must continue to hope doggedly in what little good can still be found.”
In the context of the Cold War, in which most Americans preferred to see pure good on one side, their own, and the most profoundly concentrated evil on the other, these were challenging words. But The Catholic Workee addendum was still stronger stuff. Here it is in full:
The present war crisis is something we have made entirely for and by ourselves. There is in reality not the slightest logical reason for war, and yet the whole world is plunging headlong into frightful destruction, and doing so with the purpose of avoiding war and preserving peace! This is true war-madness, an illness of the mind and spirit that is spreading with a furious and subtle contagion all over the world. Of all the countries that are sick, America is perhaps the most grievously afflicted. On all sides we have people building bomb shelters where, in case of nuclear war, they will simply bake slowly instead of burning quickly or being blown out of existence in a flash. And they are prepared to sit in these shelters with machine guns with which to prevent their neighbor from entering. This in a nation that claims to be fighting for religious truth along with freedom and other values of the spirit. Truly we have entered the “post-Christian era” with a vengeance. Whether we are destroyed or whether we survive, the future is awful to contemplate.
What is the place of the Christian in all this? Is he simply to fold his hands and resign himself for the worst, accepting it as the inescapable will of God and preparing himself to enter heaven with a sigh of relief? Should he open up the Apocalypse and run into the street to give everyone his idea of what is happening? Or, worse still should he take a hard-headed and “practical” attitude about it and join in the madness of the war makers, calculating how, by a “first strike” the glorious Christian West can eliminate atheistic communism for all time and usher in the millennium? I am no prophet and seer but it seems to me that this last position may very well be the most diabolical of illusions, the great and not even subtle temptation of a Christianity that has grown rich and comfortable, and is satisfied with its riches.
What are we to do? The duty of the Christian in this crisis is to strive with all his power and intelligence, with his faith, his hope in Christ, and love for God and man, to do the one task which God has imposed upon us in the world today. That task is to work for the total abolition of war. There can be no question that unless war is abolished the world will remain constantly in a state of madness and desperation in which, because of the immense destructive power of modern weapons, the danger of catastrophe will be imminent and probable at every moment everywhere. Unless we set ourselves immediately to this task, both as individuals and in our political and religious groups, we tend by our very passivity and fatalism to cooperate with the destructive forces that are leading inexorably to war. It is a problem of terrifying complexity and magnitude, for which the Church itself is not fully able to see clear and decisive solutions. Yet she must lead the way on the road to the nonviolent settlement of difficulties and toward the gradual abolition of war as the way of settling international or civil disputes. Christians must become active in every possible way, mobilizing all their resources for the fight against war.
First of all there is much to be learned. Peace is to be preached, nonviolence is to be explained as a practical method, and not left to be mocked as an outlet for crackpots who want to make a show of themselves. Prayer and sacrifice must be used as the most effective spiritual weapons in the war against war, and like all weapons, they must be used with deliberate aim: not just with a vague aspiration for peace and security, but against violence and war. This implies that we are also willing to sacrifice and restrain our own instinct for violence and aggressiveness in our relations with other people. We may never succeed in this campaign but whether we succeed or not, the duty is evident.
What I would like to do now is take a closer look at these four paragraphs. Forty-five years have passed, but they have not become less timely. In a compact form, they prefigure themes Merton was to develop in his extensive writing on war and peace in later essays.
Merton began by observing that “the present war crisis is something we have made entirely for and by ourselves.”
The point here is the necessity of breaking our ingrained habit of blaming others. Taking personal responsibility is the essential first step toward becoming the peacemakers that Christ called his followers to be. We cannot simply blame other nations or the President or the Prime Minister or God or the devil for the situation of mortal danger in which we find ourselves. This is not to say that personally we had anything to do with the development of weapons of mass destruction (Canadians have wisely chosen not to have them), still less that we are among the few who have a finger on the button of mass killing. And yet we are all complicit in various degrees with the sins of our nation and our world.
It’s interesting that in one of Merton’s early letters to Dorothy Day, he mentioned his particular admiration for Elder Zosima in Dostoevsky’s novel, The Brothers Karamazov, a book that had greatly influenced Dorothy Day. At the heart of the Zosima narrative is the old monk’s confession to his cell attendant, Alyosha Karamazov, that “each is guilty of everything before everyone, and I most of all.” This is an insight reflected in the Orthodox prayer recited aloud before communion at the Liturgy each Sunday, in which the communicant identifies himself as the “worst of sinners.”
What was currently happening in the U.S.A., Merton insisted in his Catholic Worker text, is “true war-madness, an illness of the mind and spirit that is spreading with a furious and subtle contagion all over the world.”
The question of sanity versus madness was one Merton would return to in what he wrote in the last eight years of his life. What was regarded as sanity often turned out to be nothing more than blind obedience.
In his essay on Adolf Eichmann, chief bureaucrat of the Holocaust, Merton emphasized that Eichmann, far from being a psychotic madman, had been found perfectly sane by the Israeli psychiatrists who examined him before his trial. It seemed to Merton that Eichmann was the perfect archetype of all those who were designers or operators of technologies of mass murder, people for whom it was enough that those in higher authority had authorized what they were doing.
“The sanity of Eichmann is disturbing,” Merton wrote. “We equate sanity with a sense of justice, with humaneness, with prudence, with the capacity to love and understand other people. We rely on the sane people of the world to preserve it from barbarism, madness, destruction. And now it begins to dawn on us that it is precisely the sane ones who are the most dangerous. It is the sane ones, the well-adapted ones, who can without qualms and without nausea aim the missiles and press the buttons that will initiate the great festival of destruction that they, the sane ones, have prepared…. No one suspects the sane, and the sane ones will have perfectly good reasons, logical, well-adjusted reasons, for firing the shot. They will be obeying sane orders that have come sanely down the chain of command.”
Returning to The Catholic Workee version of “The Root or War is Fear,” Merton stepped onto very thin ice in asserting that “of all the countries that are sick, America is perhaps the most grievously afflicted.”
Merton would be the first to insist that America has no monopoly on great sins, or that it is unique in its readiness to commit mass murder, yet one must ask if the United States wasn’t then and isn’t still imbedded up to its eyebrows in a vision of itself as being a uniquely virtuous and righteous nation, a messianic nation, a nation everyone envies? In reality, it is a country that has developed nuclear weapons and various other methods of mass destruction, a country that engages in “preemptive war,” a country in which millions live in extreme poverty and huge numbers are without health care. (We now find many Americans coming by the busload into Canada where the medications they depend upon can be bought more cheaply.) Is it likely that the United States would be the special object of God’s favor, admiration and blessings?
Merton points out: “This is a nation that claims to be fighting for religious truth along with freedom and other values of the spirit.”
The truth is that, under cover of idealistic rhetoric about democracy, human rights, liberty and the rule of law, America is fighting to maintain its wealth and power. Would there have been war over Kuwait or the current war in Iraq if the principal natural resource of the two countries was cauliflower? Were it not for the oil factor, would U.S. troops, along with military forces from several U.S. allies, be occupying Iraq today? Or would the U.S. have been far more patient about the U.N. inspection process?
Merton goes on: “Truly we have entered the ‘post-Christian era’ with a vengeance. Whether we are destroyed or whether we survive, the future is awful to contemplate.”
When I first read the manuscript Merton had sent us, I recall being disturbed by his use of the phrase “post-Christian era.” How could one speak of a society in which so many people were attending Christian churches as being post-Christian? Yet on reflection I had to admit that much of American Christianity was something like a western town on a Hollywood movie lot. The fronts of the buildings were convincing, more real than the real thing, but there was an emptiness behind the facades. How many people were practicing Christ’s commandment to love enemies and pray for them? Weren’t these words of Jesus simply shrugged off? How many Christians were feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, welcoming the homeless, caring for the sick and visiting the prisoner? Not many. Yet, according to Christ, these were the main themes of the Last Judgment. It turns out we will be judged not for what we claim to believe, but rather for how we respond to the least person. How many us do without luxuries so that others might have necessities? Christianity is not a label or an attendance record or an association or an ideology. It is a way of life that centers in love of God and neighbor. The love of God minus the love of neighbor will not save us. And who is my neighbor? Any stranger in desperate need. Do we not have to admit that, despite our plenitude of churches, we not only live in a post-Christian culture, but that most of us qualify as exemplars of post-Christianity in which the national flag has far more to do with our definition of identity and choices than the Gospel?
Then Merton asks a hard question: “What is the place of the Christian in all this? Is he simply to fold his hands and resign himself for the worst, accepting it as the inescapable will of God and preparing himself to enter heaven with a sigh of relief? Should he open up the Apocalypse and run into the street to give everyone his idea of what is happening? Or, worse still, should he take a hard-headed and ‘practical’ attitude about it and join in the madness of the war makers, calculating how, by a ‘first strike’ the glorious Christian West can eliminate atheistic communism for all time and usher in the millennium?”
Indeed there were, and are, many Christians who seem untroubled by the wars in progress, the daily slaughter, not to mention the vast numbers of people who, while limitless money is available for war, lack food, clean water and the most basic health care. But the message in many churches is: Don’t be upset. Behave yourself. Go to church on Sunday. Put money in the collection plate. Pray before meals. Vote for the candidate who says “God” most often. Do this and you will eventually be one of the fortunate ones to be welcomed into heaven. Meanwhile pay no attention to the troubles of this world.
There are even those who see war as God’s holy work in which the good Christian is called to cooperate. We have theologians who will eagerly explain war as God’s will, as foretold in the Bible. The message many Christians hear is not “Blessed are the peacemakers” but “Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition.”
While the number of people killed by Christ is zero, many Christians have made themselves at home with killing not only their enemies but the parents of their enemies, the children of their enemies, the neighbors of their enemies, and even their anticipated enemies. Apparently it is no problem for them that, given the nature of modern weapons, those most likely to survive modern war are the soldier and political leaders while those most likely to die are the most vulnerable members of society — the youngest, the oldest, the least healthy, the poorest. These are the people whose deaths or injuries are now referred to with the antiseptic phrase, “collateral damage.”
Merton continues: “I am no prophet and seer but it seems to me that this last position [that is the Christian who justifies or advocates war] may very well be the most diabolical of illusions, the great and not even subtle temptation of a Christianity that has grown rich and comfortable, and is satisfied with its riches.”
Merton denies being a prophet and seer, yet in fact he was one of the few prominent Christians of his time expressing the realization that we are prisoners of fear walking a suicidal path in the general direction of Hell.
Merton asks another question: “What are we to do?” His response is clear and remains as relevant today as it was when published in October 1961 issue of The Catholic Workee:
“The duty of the Christian in this crisis is to strive with all his power and intelligence, with his faith, his hope in Christ, and love for God and man, to do the one task which God has imposed upon us in the world today. That task is to work for the total abolition of war. There can be no question that unless war is abolished the world will remain constantly in a state of madness and desperation in which, because of the immense destructive power of modern weapons, the danger of catastrophe will be imminent and probable at every moment everywhere. Unless we set ourselves immediately to this task, both as individuals and in our political and religious groups, we tend by our very passivity and fatalism to cooperate with the destructive forces that are leading inexorably to war.”
Did Merton go a bit overboard in saying that the top priority for Christians today is the abolition of war? I would say no, not if we understand how close we were — and still are — to a creation-destroying catastrophe, and also if we understand the phrase “abolition of war” in a deep sense.
The process of abolishing war is not a task only for politicians and specialists. It involves each of us. It has to do with daily life, how we pray, and what we do — and refuse to do. It requires us to identify item by item all those things which, unattended to, contribute to war.
The roots of war are deep. They reach far and wide. War is connected to abusive words and actions in one’s home. War is connected to a lifestyle of selfishness. War is connected to environmental destruction. War is connected to aggressive driving. War is connected to our locked doors, our privately owned weapons, our unwelcoming faces, and our fear of hospitality. War is connected to racism and other forms of hatred, contempt and dehumanization. Is there any one of us who, looking closely at his or her life, cannot find some of the roots of war?
Merton continues: “[The abolition of war] is a problem of terrifying complexity and magnitude, for which the Church itself is not fully able to see clear and decisive solutions. Yet she must lead the way on the road to the nonviolent settlement of difficulties and toward the gradual abolition of war as the way of settling international or civil disputes. Christians must become active in every possible way, mobilizing all their resources for the fight against war.”
Merton may have been a pacifist, a word with Latin roots meaning peacemaker, but certainly he was no passive-ist. Passivity will not turn the tide. Merton’s view regarding evil is that it must be actively resisted. The question is not whether but how. How can we live without becoming either victims or executioners? In common with Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Merton stressed the development of methods for the nonviolent settlement of conflict. He was not a utopian who envisioned a world in which there is no conflict, but he could imagine a world in which nonviolent options were seen as effective rather than dismissed as naive, idealistic or unrealistic. When we think of the immense and irreparable harm war does, how realistic is war?
In his final paragraph, Merton notes that there is much to be learned. “Peace is to be preached, nonviolence is to be explained as a practical method, and not left to be mocked as an outlet for crackpots who want to make a show of themselves.”
In fact how often do we hear anyone, whether in church or in the legislature, speak about nonviolent alternatives? We are captives of a fatalistic, fear-driven culture in which it is taken for granted that human beings must sooner or later kill. This is our basic story.
It’s the Gospel According to John Wayne: the story of the decent man who at last has to take the gun out of the drawer, strap it on, and dispatch evil people to the graveyard. The hero is a good man who hates violence, but the story makes clear that he has no honorable alternative. Violence is the only language evil people understand. Regrettably, their deaths provide the only solution. What else can you do? Movie by movie, we see just how evil the evil people are — evil right down to their most minute strands of DNA. Thousands of films repeat the story, setting it not only in the Wild West of the nineteenth century but in contemporary urban ganglands and in space dramas in which six-shooters become laser guns. The details change but the story of necessary violence against irredeemably evil people is retold to us on a daily basis.
Nonviolence, on the other hand, has a biblical foundation: According to Genesis, no one is genetically evil. Each person bears the image of God, even the most damaged person, the most hardened criminal. Each person is capable of change, a phenomenon known in the New Testament as repentance and conversion.
It’s a truth the Russian writer, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, discovered while among Stalin’s prisoners in the Gulag Archipelago. He later wrote:
“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of hearts, there remains … an un-uprooted small corner of evil.”
Solzhenitsyn had been a convinced Communist and an atheist, but in the hell of a prison camp, he became aware of God’s presence and underwent conversion, becoming an Orthodox Christian. Much the same had happened to Dostoevsky while a Siberian prisoner in the nineteenth century. For both men, life was set on an entirely new course.
Conversion is a possibility for each of us. Ideally each life is a series of conversions. But conversion is no longer a possibility for those we have killed. The triumph of the early Church was that Christians, far from seeking the death of their enemies, sought their conversion and salvation.
In his Catholic Worker essay, Merton goes on to stress the spiritual aspect of the struggle against mass killing in war: “Prayer and sacrifice must be used as the most effective spiritual weapons in the war against war, and like all weapons, they must be used with deliberate aim: not just with a vague aspiration for peace and security, but against violence and war. This implies that we are also willing to sacrifice and restrain our own instinct for violence and aggressiveness in our relations with other people.”
The search for nonviolent methods of confronting evil is a struggle for conversion, not only the conversion of my adversary, but my own conversion, for these two events are bound up in each other. Neither I nor my enemy is yet the person God intends us to become. Prayer and sacrifice are ordinary tools of spiritual life meant to help us overcome our selfishness and vanity, our inability to love, our unwillingness to forgive. Such basic tools of spiritual life help equip us for combat against war, whether the micro-wars that occur within families or the macro-wars that fill vast cemeteries with the dead.
Merton’s final sentence in his essay is not sanguine: “We may never succeed in this campaign but whether we succeed or not, the duty is evident.”
Merton was no optimist. ‘He didn’t assume that, by being better followers of Christ, we would inevitably produce a world without war. As he put it to me in a letter five years later:
“Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing the sort of work you have taken on, essentially an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end, it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.
“You are fed up with words, and I don’t blame you. I am nauseated by them sometimes. I am also, to tell the truth, nauseated by ideals and with causes. This sounds like heresy, but I think you will understand what I mean. It is so easy to get engrossed with ideas and slogans and myths that in the end one is left holding the bag, empty, with no trace of meaning left in it. And then the temptation is to yell louder than ever in order to make the meaning be there again by magic. Going through this kind of reaction helps you to guard against this. Your system is complaining of too much verbalizing, and it is right.
“The big results are not in your hands or mine, but they suddenly happen, and we can share in them; but there is no point in building our lives on this personal satisfaction, which may be denied us and which after all is not that important.
“The next step in the process is for you to see that your own thinking about what you are doing is crucially important. You are probably striving to build yourself an identity in your work, out of your work and your witness. You are using it, so to speak, to protect yourself against nothingness, annihilation. That is not the right use of your work. All the good that you will do will come not from you but from the fact that you have allowed yourself, in the obedience of faith, to be used by God’s love. Think of this more, and gradually you will be free from the need to prove yourself, and you can be more open to the power that will work through you without your knowing it.
“The great thing after all is to live, not to pour out your life in the service of a myth: and we turn the best things into myths. If you can get free from the domination of causes and just serve Christ’s truth, you will be able to do more and will be less crushed by the inevitable disappointments. Because I see nothing whatever in sight but much disappointment, frustration and confusion … .
“The real hope, then, is not in something we think we can do but in God who is making something good out of it in some way we cannot see. If we can do His will, we will be helping in this process. But we will not necessarily know all about it beforehand …”
End of letter.
It’s interesting that a certain detachment from achieving quick results can equip us to persevere so that, in the long run, we may help achieve something that seemed absolutely impossible.
What might Merton have to say if he were with us today and could update “The Root of War is Fear”?
Not much would require revision, but I take it for granted Merton would stress face-to-face contact with Muslims, especially those who are living in our own communities. Islam is largely unexplored territory for most of us, and while books on Islam can help us overcome our ignorance, there is nothing that takes the place of actual face-to-face encounter. Islam is as complex as Christianity, with its major traditions and numerous sects. My own experience is that Muslims tend to know as little about Christianity as most Christians know about Islam. It is, on both sides, a dangerous ignorance.
Merton would probably have had more to say about fear. Given his interest in the work of twentieth century Orthodox theologians, he would have become familiar with the work of Metropolitan John Zizioulas and might well have incorporated this paragraph or a paraphrase of it into his essay:
The essence of sin is the fear of the Other, which is part of the rejection of God. Once the affirmation of the “self” is realized through the rejection and not the acceptance of the Other — this is what Adam chose in his freedom to do — it is only natural and inevitable for the other to become an enemy and a threat. Reconciliation with God is a necessary pre-condition for reconciliation with any “other.” … The fact that the fear of the other is pathologically inherent in our existence results in the fear not only of the other but of all otherness. This is a delicate point requiring careful consideration, for it shows how deep and widespread fear of the other is: we are not afraid simply of certain others, but even if we accept them, it is on condition that they are somehow like ourselves. Radical otherness is an anathema. Difference itself is a threat. That this is universal and pathological is to be seen in the fact that even when difference does not in actual fact constitute a threat for us, we reject it simply because we dislike it. Again and again we notice that fear of the other is nothing more than fear of the different. We all want somehow to project into the other the model of our own selves.
To sum up: Even more than was the case in the Sixties, we live in a culture of fear, the post-nine-eleven world. The sale of pills to treat stress and depression is thriving as never before — the use of tranquilizers and similar medications for anxiety and sleeplessness has reportedly nearly doubled since New York City’s World Trade Center was destroyed.
A recent study has shown that every time the Bush administration rachets up the fear level, President Bush’s job approval rating goes up. The constant message of the White House is: Be afraid! Be very afraid! The Bush administration has discovered that if people are afraid enough they will make any sacrifice of liberty — especially the liberty of others. We are used to living in “code orange” and “code red” contexts. Just to fly from one city to another, each of us must now be regarded as a possible terrorist. God forbid you should look something like a Muslim! I know an Orthodox bishop living in Oxford, a man as English as Queen Elizabeth, who is often subjected to body searches when he travels abroad — suspiciously, he wears a black robe and has a beard. We now have the monitoring of e-mail and phone calls. An unknown number of men and women have been held at Guantanamo and other prisons without charges and without legal rights. In the body politic, we argue as to whether the beating or near-drowning of suspects should be regarded as torture. Meanwhile, while seeking to prevent others from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, American weapons of mass destruction are numerous and poised for use.
Ours is in many ways a more frightening and dangerous world than Merton addressed in 1961. It is encouraging to notice, however, that articulate dissent can make a great difference. The worldwide nuclear war that seemed so close at hand as the Sixties began has not yet happened. Merton was one of the many people whose articulate opposition was a significant factor in preventing an unprecedented catastrophe. That we are alive today is thanks to such people. May we provide a similar service to future generations.
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