Foreword to "Peace in the Post-Christian Era" by Thomas Merton

by Jim Forest

The book you hold in your hands was intended for publication in 1962. While Thomas Merton would be pleased that 42 years later this labor of love is at last in bookshops and libraries, it would distress him that, far from being a poignant memento of a bygone era, it remains both timely and relevant.

1962: Culturally it was still the fifties. What would be known as “the Sixties” hadn’t quite started. “West Side Story” had won the Academy Award for best film of 1961. The Beatles were unheard of.

John F. Kennedy was serving his second year as President of the United States. Nikita Khrushchev was in his fourth year as premier of the Soviet Union. It was three years since the revolution led by Fidel Castro had taken charge of Cuba. American military involvement in Vietnam was steadily building. The Cold War was still blowing its icy winds across every border. Russians en masse were regarded as godless Communists. The United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and France were the only countries with nuclear weapons. It was ten years since the first hydrogen bomb had been exploded, seventeen years since the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by much less powerful atom bombs. Americans were spending hundreds of millions of dollars on fallout shelters as a means of surviving nuclear war.

Politicians, generals, and experts of the period spoke of “missile gaps” when they advocated building missiles that flew further and delivered bigger payloads.

Nuclear weapons were by no means the only systems of mass destruction. Both the United States and the Soviet Union had large programs for the development and stockpiling of chemical and biological weapons.

“Peace” was a suspect word. Those who used it risked being regarded as “reds” or “pinkos.”

Yet profound change was underway in the United States. Racism was being challenged. Activists in America’s Civil Rights movement were struggling to integrate schools, public transport, and restaurants. Martin Luther King had acquired an international reputation.

The Roman Catholic Church in America in 1962, after many years of struggle with anti-Catholic prejudice, could be relied on to have a supportive attitude regarding America’s economic system and foreign policy. Over many a Catholic parish or school entrance were carved the words, Pro Deo et Patria — for God and country. Many Catholics had made a career in the military, the FBI and the CIA. For the first time, there was a Catholic in the White House.

One of America’s most widely read religious writers was a Trappist monk, Thomas Merton. Orphaned in his youth, a convert to the Catholic Church while studying at Columbia University, in December 1941 he had given up a teaching job at St. Bonaventure’s College in western New York State in order to begin monastic life at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in rural Kentucky. When his abbot became aware of his talents as a writer, he was encouraged to write an autobiography. Published in 1948, The Seven Storey Mountain became a runaway best-seller. Merton, only six years a monk and only 33 years old, found himself a famous man. Every subsequent book he wrote was assured excellent sales both in English and in translation. For years his main themes were the monastic vocation, contemplation, prayer, sacramental life, the lives of saints and the quest for holiness, but there were also books that revealed his struggles as a monk. Though he occasionally revealed critical social views — there was a blast at racism in The Seven Storey Mountain — many of his readers were unprepared for his criticisms of the arms race and the Cold War that began appearing in Catholic journals in 1961.

There was also the Catholic Worker movement, let by Dorothy Day, another convert. Founded during the Depression in 1933, it had not only brought into existence many houses of hospitality to welcome the down-and-out but often took part in protests against preparations for war. While regarded as marginal by most of the hierarchy, it was a center of much ferment and enthusiasm. It was one of the few Catholic groups at that time deeply engaged in the Civil Rights movement. Its publication had many thousands of readers.

Thomas Merton was one of those who had a high opinion of Dorothy Day and the movement she led. In the summer of 1961 he submitted the first of a series of articles — “The Root of War is Fear” Endnote — to The Catholic Worker. It appeared in the October issue. (At the time I was part of the Catholic Worker community in New York. Dorothy Day, aware of my interest in Merton’s writing, asked me to prepare his essay for publication and also encouraged me to correspond with him. Thus began a relationship of letters and occasional visits that was to last until Merton’s death in December 1968.)

In April 1962 Merton completed Peace in the Post-Christian Era. He had hoped it would be released by Macmillan in the Fall. Instead it was banned by Dom Gabriel Sortais, Abbot General of Merton’s order: the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance, better known as the Trappists. Just days after completing work on Peace in the Post-Christian Era, a letter from Dom Gabriel was delivered to Merton which forbade him to do any further writing on the subject of war and peace. Endnote

The following day, Merton sent me the most distressed letter that I ever received from him:

Now here is the axe. For a long time I have been anticipating trouble with the higher superiors and now I have it. The orders are, no more writing about peace…. In substance I am being silenced on the subject of war and peace.

The decision, he said, reflected

an astounding incomprehension of the seriousness of the present crisis in its religious aspect. It reflects an insensitivity to Christian and Ecclesiastical values, and to the real sense of the monastic vocation. The reason given is that this is not the right kind of work for a monk and that it “falsifies the monastic message.” Imagine that: the thought that a monk might be deeply enough concerned with the issue of nuclear war to voice a protest against the arms race, is supposed to bring the monastic life into disrepute. Man, I would think that it might just possibly salvage a last shred of repute for an institution that many consider to be dead on its feet… That is really the most absurd aspect of the whole situation, that these people insist on digging their own grave and erecting over it the most monumental kind of tombstone.

Beneath the surface of the disagreement between Merton and his Abbot General was a different conception of the identity and mission of the Church. For Merton the monk was obliged to be among the most attentive to what was going on in the world at large and had a role to play in renewal:

The vitality of the Church depends precisely on spiritual renewal, uninterrupted, continuous, and deep. Obviously this renewal is to be expressed in the historical context, and will call for a real spiritual understanding of historical crises, an evaluation of them in terms of their inner significance and in terms of man’s growth and the advancement of truth in man’s world: in other words, the establishment of the “kingdom of God.” The monk is the one supposedly attuned to the inner spiritual dimension of things. If he hears nothing, and says nothing, then the renewal as a whole will be in danger and may be completely sterilized.

But these authoritarian minds believe that the function of the monk is not to see or hear any new dimension, simply to support the already existing viewpoints precisely insofar as and because they are defined for him by somebody else. Instead of being in the advance guard, he is in the rear with the baggage, confirming all that has been done by the officials. The function of the monk, as far as renewal in the historical context goes, then becomes simply to affirm his total support of officialdom. He has no other function, then, except perhaps to pray for what he is told to pray for: namely the purposes and the objectives of an ecclesiastical bureaucracy. The monastery as dynamo concept goes back to this. The monk is there to generate spiritual power that will justify over and over again the already pre-decided rightness of the officials above him. He must under no event and under no circumstances assume a role that implies any form of spontaneity and originality. He must be an eye that sees nothing except what is carefully selected for him to see. An ear that hears nothing except what it is advantageous for the managers for him to hear. We know what Christ said about such ears and eyes.

Merton wondered aloud if it he should obey:

Now you will ask me: how do I reconcile obedience, true obedience (which is synonymous with love) with a situation like this? Shouldn’t I just blast the whole thing wide open, or walk out, or tell them to jump in the lake?

But he was convinced disobedience would do more harm than good and that, in any event, it could not be his path:

Let us suppose for the sake of argument that this was not completely excluded. Why would I do this? For the sake of the witness for peace? For the sake of witnessing to the truth of the Church, in its reality, as against this figment of the imagination? Simply for the sake of blasting off and getting rid of the tensions and frustrations in my own spirit, and feeling honest about it?

In my own particular case, every one of these would backfire and be fruitless. It would be taken as a witness against the peace movement and would confirm these people in all the depth of their prejudices and their self-complacency. It would reassure them in every possible way that they are incontrovertibly right and make it even more impossible for them ever to see any kind of new light on the subject. And in any case I am not merely looking for opportunities to blast off. I can get along without it.

I am where I am. I have freely chosen this state, and have freely chosen to stay in it when the question of a possible change arose. If I am a disturbing element, that is all right. I am not making a point of being that, but simply of saying what my conscience dictates and doing so without seeking my own interest. This means accepting such limitations as may be placed on me by authority, and not because I may or may not agree with the ostensible reasons why the limitations are imposed, but out of love for God who is using these things to attain ends which I myself cannot at the moment see or comprehend. I know He can and will in His own time take good care of the ones who impose limitations unjustly or unwisely. That is His affair and not mine. In this dimension I find no contradiction between love and obedience, and as a matter of fact it is the only sure way of transcending the limits and arbitrariness of ill-advised commands.


Behind the silencing, Merton wrote me a few weeks later, was the charge that he had been writing for “a communist-controlled publication,” as The Catholic Worker was said to be by some of its opponents. Endnote

Merton responded to Dom Gabriel’s letter with the promise of obedience but also a defense of his book. In mid-May Merton received a reply in which the Abbot General renewed his order, stressing the difference between religious orders which teach and those that pray. “I am not asking you to remain indifferent to the fate of the world,” Dom Gabriel insisted. “But I believe you have the power to influence the world by your prayers and by your life withdrawn into God more than by your writings. That is why I am not thinking about hurting the cause you are defending when I ask that you give up your intention of publishing the book you have finished, and abstain from now on from writing on the subject of atomic warfare, preparation for war, etc.” Endnote

Ironically, as Merton points out in Peace in the Post-Christian Era, Machiavelli’s The Prince, an unabashedly immoral book, “has never been on the Index of books forbidden to Catholics.” Endnote

Merton obeyed Dom Gabriel, if in a limited way. Never given to a publisher nor vetted by Trappist censors, Peace in the Post-Christian Era remained generally unknown, yet was not altogether buried. Merton resorted to samizdat methods for putting his book in the hands of others, much as a Russian might in that same era. Dom James Fox, Merton’s abbot, though far from a radical, decided that Dom Gabriel’s ruling only barred publication in a widely-distributed commercial form. He also saw no need for the order’s censors to review material that wasn’t being offered to the general public — thus anything mimeographed or offered to publications with a small circulation. Endnote

Dom James gave one of the abbey’s young monks the job of typing the book on stencils for a mimeographed edition. In the first printing, several hundred copies of Peace in the Post-Christian Era were produced by this means. By June Merton began mailing copies to a wide variety of his correspondents, including Ethel Kennedy, sister-in-law of President Kennedy, and Cardinal Montini in Milan, later to become Pope Paul VI. Not long afterward, a second printing was run off. By the end of 1962 there were five or six hundred copies of the book in circulation. Hot item that it was, few of them stayed long at any one address. Merton’s banned book must have reached thousands of attentive readers within a few months. Many of them were people of influence.

Part of the distribution of Peace in the Post-Christian Era was in my hands. In the course of the summer of 1962, by which time I was on the staff of Catholic Relief Services, Merton sent me at least twenty copies to distribute to others. I still have one copy that wasn’t given away, though I can see from marginal notes in it that I shared it with at least one other reader.

I no longer have a carbon of my letter to Merton responding to the book nor has it survived in the Merton archives in Louisville, Endnote but I see from a reply dated July 7 that I had put forward a number of suggestions for revision in the event he was ever able to do more work on the book. I expressed disappointment that Merton’s own convictions about war, so similar to Dorothy Day’s, were not expressed more explicitly, and proposed he add a section about Francis of Assisi, a saint particularly important to Merton. During the Fifth Crusade, Francis had given an example of unarmed peacemaking, traveling to Egypt to meet with one of Christianity’s chief opponents, Sultan Malik-al-Kamil. Francis had also founded a “third order” for lay people whose members were forbidden to possess or use weapons of war.

Merton wrote in reply:

What a mess one gets into trying to write a book that will get through the censors, and at the same time say something. I was bending in all directions to qualify every statement and balance everything off, so I stayed right in the middle and perfectly objective . . . [at the same time trying] to speak the truth as my conscience wanted it to be said. In the long run the result is about zero. … Certainly if I ever get to work over the book again, I will bear in mind your requests. Endnote

Reading this again after all these years, I am struck by how the white-hot anger Merton has expressed in his previous letter had either receded or been put under wraps. I’m also impressed by his reluctance to defend his book in the face of the criticisms I had voiced. There is a stunning modesty in his reply to a reader not half his age. Yet one sees in Merton’s journal entries and letters to other friends how hard the struggle was to come to terms with being silenced on what he remained convinced was a crucial issue. Certainly he did not believe that he had been wasting his time in writing the book nor could he agree that it was just as well that it went unpublished.

Had publication not been blocked, perhaps there might have been a final round of revisions, but in its broad outlines I doubt the final text would differ significantly from the book as now published.

Fortunately much that Merton had been forbidden to say was being said by Pope John XXIII. Endnote A succession of papal statements critical both of the arms race and nuclear weapons culminated in the publication of Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), issued in April 1963. It quickly became the most widely discussed papal encyclical of modern times. Addressed not only to Catholics but to all people of good will, Pope John stressed that the most basic human right is the right to life. John spoke out passionately against such threats to life as the arms race, said that war was no longer “an apt means for vindicating violated rights,” and called for legal protection of conscientious objectors to military service. Far from sanctioning blind obedience to those in authority, the pope stressed the individual responsibility to protect life and uphold morality: “If civil authorities legislate or allow anything that is contrary to the will of God, neither the law made nor the authorization granted can be binding on the conscience of the citizens since God has more right to be obeyed than man.” Endnote

Writing to the Abbot General to say “it was a good thing that Pope John didn’t have to get his encyclical through our censors: and could I now start up again,” Endnote Merton asked if he might now return to work on Peace in the Post-Christian Era so that it might finally be published. Unmoved, Dom Gabriel renewed the prohibition. Merton commented in his journal, “At the back of [Dom Gabriel’s] mind obviously is an adamant conviction that France [of which Dom Gabriel was a citizen] should have the bomb and use it if necessary. He says that the encyclical [Pacem in Terris] has changed nothing in the right of a nation to arm itself with nuclear weapons for self-defense.” Endnote

A Council of the Roman Catholic Church, the first one in nearly a hundred years, had been announced by Pope John in January 1959 and had gotten underway in October 1962 — the same month, as it happened, of the Cuban Missile Crisis, when the United States and the Soviet Union found themselves on the verge of nuclear war.

Seeking a way to play a role in the Council’s discussions, in December 1962 Merton sent copies of Peace in the Post-Christian Era to Hildegard and Jean Goss-Mayr, secretaries of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation. The Goss-Mayrs were in close contact with Cardinal Ottaviani, Secretary of the Holy Office and the member of the Curia most responsible for the process of preparing first drafts of Council documents. One of these was Schema 13, as it was known in the drafting stage — a document on the church’s role in the modern world, including the issue of war.

After two years of drafting and redrafting and many hours of debate, Schema 13 at last was published in 1965 as the Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes).. The culminating work of the Council, it contained the only specific condemnation issued by the Second Vatican Council:

Every act of war directed to the indiscriminate destruction of whole cities or vast areas with their inhabitants is a crime against God and humanity, which merits firm and unequivocal condemnation.

It was a sentence not very different than this passage in Peace in the Post-Christian Era:

I wish to insist above all on one fundamental truth: that all nuclear war, and indeed massive destruction of cities, populations, nations and cultures by any means whatever is a most serious crime which is forbidden to us not only by Christian ethics but by every sane and serious moral code. Endnote

Those who renounce violence altogether, choosing the tools of nonviolence instead, won the Council’s approbation:

We cannot fail to praise those who renounce the use of violence in the vindication of their rights and who resort to methods of defense which are available to the weaker parties too, provided that this can be done without injury to the rights and duties of others in the community itself. Endnote

Supporting legislation for conscientious objectors, the Council urged all governments to make “humane provision for those who, for reasons of conscience, refuse to bear arms, provided that they accept some form of service to the human community.” Endnote

Echoing another major theme Merton had explored in Peace in the Post-Christian Era, the Council Fathers declared that orders which conflict with the “all-embracing principles of natural law” were criminal, stating further that “blind obedience cannot excuse those who yield to them,” and that “the courage of those who fearlessly and openly resist such commands merits supreme commendation.” Endnote

How much Merton’s writings played a role in the Council we may never know, but without a doubt he was a significant influence, mainly thanks to effective distribution of the mimeographed edition of Peace in the Post-Christian Era.

Now, forty-two years after it was written and thirty-six years after the author’s death, the first copy of Peace in the Post-Christian Era bearing a publisher’s imprint is coming off the press. These pages have slept even longer than Rip van Winkle.

How does a book addressing issues that were current in 1962 hold up in a world in which the Soviet Union is no more and the Cold War a chapter heading in history books? Despite many close calls, there has been no use of nuclear weapons in war since 1945. Indeed American and Russian stockpiles of nuclear weapons have been hugely reduced and nuclear tests have gone underground and become a rarity. We no longer hear an ominous phrase that was repeatedly used in the sixties to describe the lynchpin of deterrence strategy: “mutually assured destruction.” Endnote Few remember the names of Herman Kahn and Edward Teller, men mentioned repeatedly in Peace in the Post-Christian Era.

Yet the means of fighting nuclear war are still with us. Despite all the weapons that have been eliminated thanks to a series of treaty agreements of the past thirty years, the United States retains an estimated 10,400 nuclear warheads in its arsenal and Russia a similar number. Endnote Meanwhile, in the United States, the Bush administration has called for development of a “new generation” of nuclear weapons “better suited” to battlefield use. The number of countries known to possess nuclear weapons has grown to include not only Britain and France but China, India, Pakistan, and Israel, while several other countries are suspected to have nuclear weapons or are known to have taken steps toward obtaining them. There is in addition the grave danger of nuclear weapons being procured by such terrorist organizations as Al-Qaeda. The issue of nuclear weapons and other means of mass destruction is not only still with us but the possibility of their use in war is growing.

Merton did not foresee the collapse of the Soviet Union and the disintegration of the USSR’s Warsaw Pact alliance in Eastern Europe. Neither did he anticipate the current “War on Terror,” as the Bush administration has defined its response to the events of September 11, 2001. Nothing similar to the Taliban or Al-Qaeda existed in 1962. Yet, as one reads Peace in the Post-Christian Era, it is striking how often the word “terrorism” appears — referring not to the activities of secret groups but rather to the acceptance by governments of tactics of war that result in large numbers of non-combatant casualties.

It is interesting how, when Merton speaks of Communism, references to terrorism often work well in its place. For example:

The struggle against totalitarianism is directed not only against an external enemy — Communism — but also against our own hidden tendencies towards fascist or collectivist aberrations. Endnote

The same would make sense today with only a slight alteration:

The struggle against totalitarianism is directed not only against an external enemy — such terrorist groups as Al-Qaeda — but also against our own hidden tendencies towards fascist or collectivist aberrations.

In many ways the world is hardly different than it was in 1962. Then as now, one need not have an overactive imagination to envision Doomsday. Death by nuclear explosion is only one of many grim futures we can all too easily imagine for ourselves.

Always sensitive to the language of propaganda, Merton would not be surprised with such current phrases as “the axis of evil,” nor that Americans still take it for granted that evil is committed by it enemies, not themselves.

The willingness of the United States to participate in the United Nations and other international bodies only when doing so suits national interests would not surprise him. As he wrote in Peace in the Post-Christian Era:

Indeed the big powers have been content to use the UN as a forum for political and propagandist wrestling matches and have not hesitated to take independent action that led to the discrediting of the UN whenever this has been profitable to them. Endnote

The same mind-set is linked with the temptation to initiate pre-emptive war “based not on the fact that we ourselves are actually under military attack, but that we are ‘provoked’ and so ‘threatened’ that even the most drastic measures are justified. Endnote

Also unchanged despite the passage of time is American bewilderment that so good-willed a people are the object of so much enmity:

Faced by the supercilious contempt of friends as well as the hatred of our avowed enemies, and wondering what there is in us to hate, we have considered ourselves and found ourselves quite decent, harmless and easygoing people who only ask to be left alone to make money and have a good time. Endnote

One of Merton’s still-relevant themes is the way that those moral restrictions which warriors pledge to apply to their conduct as they contemplate conflict in the abstract gradually recede and finally completely evaporate as events in actual war push them toward more drastic measures. In the early days of World War II America and Britain vowed not to replicate the city bombing committed by their enemies, but in the end didn’t hesitate to regard entire cities as legitimate targets. As Merton writes:

Moral thinking guided by pragmatic principles tends to be very vague, very fluid. Moral decisions were now a series of more or less opportunistic choices based on short term guesses of possible consequences, rather than on definite moral principles. Endnote

When the first mimeographed copy arrived by post, I recall being startled with the book’s title. Was I really living in a post-Christian world? After all, most Americans professed a belief in God and one didn’t have to travel far to find well-attended churches. I couldn’t deny, however, that our religious life in many ways resembled a Hollywood set: a thin veneer of impressive facades supported by scaffolding in back. As Merton put it:

Whether we like it or not, we have to admit we are already living in a post-Christian world, that is to say a world in which Christian ideals and attitudes are relegated more and more to the minority. … It is frightening to realize that the facade of Christianity which still generally survives has perhaps little or nothing behind it, and that what was once called “Christian society” is more purely and simply a materialistic neo-paganism with a Christian veneer. Endnote … Not only non-Christians but even Christians themselves tend to dismiss the Gospel ethic on nonviolence and love as “sentimental.” Endnote

Yet not all is as it was when Merton finished writing Peace in the Post-Christian Era. One of the changes that would greatly please Merton is that among Christians the word “peacemaking” is no longer the suspect term it was in 1962, a profound change in attitude that is partly thanks to him.

A striking sign of the times is the fact that several years ago the Archdiocese of New York formally proposed that Dorothy Day be recognized as a saint and placed on the calendar of the Catholic Church. The Vatican has already given her the title, “Servant of God.”

The Catholic Church has been a consistent voice for peace since Merton’s time. Its commitment to seek peace has not wilted despite such events as the terrorist attacks of September 11 or America’s subsequent “pre-emptive” war in Iraq.

Were he alive and no longer hobbled by censorship, perhaps Merton would set to work on updating Peace in the Post-Christian Era. But many paragraphs, even chapters, would remain unaltered. He would remind us once again that Christ waves no flags and that Christianity belongs to no political power bloc. He would affirm once again that “an essential part of the ‘good news’ is that nonviolent and reasonable measures are stronger than weapons. Indeed, by spiritual arms, the early Church conquered the entire Roman world.”

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