The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers

Root of War_lr-page-001Thomas Merton is one of the most influential religious figures of modern times, yet many readers remain unaware of his deep preoccupation with the theme of peace — a subject that runs throughout his life, from his early stance as a conscientious objector to his prophetic writings on nuclear war and nonviolence. Drawing in large part on the letters Forest received from Merton, the book offers spiritual encouragement and guidance for those engaged today in efforts to rid the world of war and violence.

Jim Forest became one Merton’s correspondents in the 1960s. He is the author of many books, including Living with Wisdom: A Life of Thomas Merton, All is Grace: A Biography of Dorothy Day, and Loving Our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment. He lives in Alkmaar, the Netherlands.

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Winner of the International Thomas Merton Society’s “Louie” award.

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From the book’s introduction

The Cistercian monk Thomas Merton remains a source of spiritual inspiration and a guide for many people. Merton was above all a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the Church. He was also a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions. — Pope Francis

Just as I was finishing this book, Pope Francis, speaking before both Houses of Congress in Washington, D.C., on 24 September 2015, described Thomas Merton as one of four Americans he especially admired. The other three were Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Dorothy Day. Probably only the names of Lincoln and King were familiar to most of the pope’s audience. In the hours and days that followed many newspaper articles and web postings sought to answer the question: Who was Dorothy Day? Who was Thomas Merton?

Hoping their curiosity lingers, I’d like to think some members of Congress and other puzzled people might become readers of this book.

Anyone who searches the name “Thomas Merton” will quickly discover that he was a famous convert, a man of the world who amazed his friends by entering a more-or-less medieval Trappist monastery in rural Kentucky, who wrote an autobiography that became a surprise bestseller, and helped acquaint a modern audience with the living monastic tradition as well as the practice of contemplative prayer. They will learn that through his many books he became one of the most widely read and influential spiritual writers of his time. They might also learn that in his later years he branched out beyond traditional “spiritual” themes to address the burning social issues of the day — particularly the threat of nuclear war, racial injustice, and the war in Vietnam. Many people, including members of his own religious order, were surprised or shocked by this turn, which put him far outside the mainstream of Catholic opinion at the time. During the last decade of his life his advocacy of peace, disarmament and nonviolence made him controversial to the point of his being silenced on the topic of war by the head of his monastic order.

It was through Merton’s engagement with these contentious themes that I came to know him. First through the Catholic Worker community, and then my engagement in the emerging Catholic peace movement, I engaged in frequent correspondence plus two visits with Merton during the last seven years of his life. The topics involved not only Merton’s thoughts on peace and nonviolence, his own struggles within the church and his order to express his views, but also his critical eye on peace activism. Not everything done in the name of peace, for Merton, truly advanced the spirit of peace. Merton’s spiritual discernment was not only focused on what he saw as the pathologies of modern ideology and power, but also on the spiritual temptations and risks faced by those who, seeking peace, were struggling to build a less destructive world.

Would that the major themes that were at the core of our conversation were less relevant in the present world! Yesterday’s “cold war” has evolved into today’s “war on terrorism” — contrasting phrases animated with a similar idea: that because “our side” stands for freedom, democracy, reverence for life, whatever we do (torture, mass bombing, etc.) is good, while whatever our enemies do is evil.

We find ourselves in the midst of what Pope Francis has aptly described as “a piecemeal world war three.” Wars are being fought and innocent blood being shed in the Middle East, large parts of Africa, areas of Asia and Latin America as well as parts of the former Soviet Union. Countless innocent people, mainly the most vulnerable members of society, die or are gravely wounded each day. The non-physical damage of even “minor” wars also has to be considered — Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a dry clinical phrase for the psychological, moral and spiritual damage suffered by countless people, whether soldiers or civilians, who have found themselves caught in the hurricane of military violence. Weapons of mass destruction stand poised for use. The possibility confronts us of war using nuclear weapons, a war of incalculable destruction that would dwarf the two world wars fought in the twentieth century, a war in which not only vast numbers of people are targeted but the planet’s environment becomes a casualty of war.

While Merton’s writing ended with his death in December 1968, the subtitle of this book, Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers, is intended to stress that the guidance Merton offered social activists half a century ago remains timely. The question is how can I, drawing on Merton’s advice, become a better peacemaker in today’s world?

Re-reading his many letters to me not only revived memories of Merton and myself as we were in the tumultuous Sixties but also awoke a feeling that what Merton shared with me then could speak intimately to a new generation of those inspired to take up the struggle for peace and justice.

— Jim Forest

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first two chapters of The Root of War is Fear

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advance praise…

Merton’s witness for peace
is more urgent than ever in a world becoming rapidly more insane and feverishly impatient. His analysis of the cost of war not only to lives but to minds and imaginations, to the integrity of whole societies, is still unsurpassed. In this vivid and compelling book, Jim Forest — who has already contributed so much to our understanding of Merton — weaves together a comprehensive reading of Merton’s own thinking with personal testimony and reflection. A book of enormous richness and serious challenge.
— Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge University

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When Dorothy Day
handed her young co-worker, Jim Forest, a letter from Thomas Merton and asked him to answer it, a transforming journey began. The monk and the activist bonded in a profound correspondence and friendship. Its latest fruit is Jim’s beautiful exploration of his friend Tom’s passion for peacemaking and the abolition of an evil, war, before it abolishes us. Forest goes to the heart of Merton’s understanding of our fearful predicament. May we have the courage to go with them into the light.
— Jim Douglass

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In these times marked by seemingly endless war, organized selfishness, systematic irresponsibility, entrenched indifference, incessant distraction, and increasing social alienation and isolation, Jim Forest gives all who yearn for peace a much needed “word” from the Cistercian monk, Thomas Merton. Jim’s echoing of Merton’s advice to peacemakers not only shows us with purgatorial truthfulness who we have become and who we are in danger of becoming, it prophetically names the problems and dangers that beset us in this present age and marks war as our common enemy. Rather than leaving us frozen in despair, this text casts out the fear that it names and asks us to answer God’s call to radical spiritual purification and a total conversion of heart. This wise and hopeful book calls each of us to undertake the apostolic work of patiently pursuing, praying, and sacrificing for peace by directing us to live in communion with the Truth — the perfect love who is our peace — Jesus Christ.
— Shawn T. Storer, Director, Catholic Peace Fellowship

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Here is one of the best tributes honoring Merton as a contemplative peacemaker, written by someone who is himself a faithful ‘living text’ on non-violence.
—Jonathan Montaldo, former director of the Thomas Merton Center, Louisville

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Jim Forest has written a stunning work focused on Thomas Merton as a pastor to peacemakers. Written in an inviting style, carefully researched, and rich in insight, thanks to Forest’s friendship with Merton, this book introduces a new generation to Merton’s legacy as one of American Catholicism’s most dynamic advocates of nonviolence in the nuclear era. Not only does Forest share a generous serving of Merton’s spiritual nourishment, but he ably illuminates the tensions faced by Catholic peacemakers in the crucial years before, during, and after the Second Vatican Council. The Root of War Is Fear is destined to become a classic study of Merton’s contribution to American Catholic social and religious thought.
— Anne Klejment, Professor of History, University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN

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Jim Forest’s lucid account of Merton’s advice to social activists illuminates how relevant the monk’s ideas are to our time. Forest’s own long engagement in the struggle for justice and peace, as well as his close friendship with Merton, make him the ideal chronicler of this important aspect of Merton’s thought.
— Bonnie Thurston, New Testament scholar, founding member and former president of The International Thomas Merton Society

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Jim Forest’s new book is as timely and needed now as Thomas Merton’s antiwar writings were in their own day. If anything, our fears and our conflicts have only increased since the Vietnam era, and our contemporary age is faced with the potential of even more catastrophic wars to come. Jim Forest has given us both a useful history of the peacemaking efforts that engaged Merton half a century ago and, through the lens of that history, a relevant vision of how we can apply Merton’s wisdom to our own age of unrest. But Forest does even more than that. He was himself also directly involved (even jailed for his stand), knew Merton personally (and many other of the key figures about whom he writes), has spent many years since in peacemaking work in the US and Europe, and consequently, from that experience, he provides us with the sort of authoritative account that few others could have. I found The Root of War is Fear utterly absorbing from start to finish, and — more — it gave me the sort of encouragement and guidance that I need to face these current grim days with renewed hope.
— Addison H. Hart, theologian whose books include Knowing Darkness: Reflections on Skepticism, Melancholy, Friendship, and God, Strangers and Pilgrims Once More: Being Disciples of Jesus in a Post-Christendom World

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Receiving Jim Forest’s new book feels something like how Forest must have felt to receive mimeograph copies of Merton’s “Target Equals City” and other censored Cold War materials in the early 1960s. It is a serious, at times playful, and utterly breathtaking work. In light of recent events here in the US, it comes to me like cave paintings on a wall speaking of some beautiful secret language — the imagination of peace, in Denise Levertov’s words — that our nation knows almost nothing about. The Root of War is Fear is a field manual for courage and hopefulness in a time of desperation.
— Christopher Pramuk, author of  Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton, awarded the International Thomas Merton Society’s 2011 Thomas Merton Award

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Orbis Books will publish the book in August 2016.

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