Merton’s Dance of Death

Marker commemorating Thomas Merton in Downtown Louisville, Kentucky. (Credit:  W.marsh / Wikimedia Commons)

Marker commemorating Thomas Merton in Downtown Louisville, Kentucky. (Credit: W.marsh / Wikimedia Commons)

Thomas Merton’s Peace in the Post-Christian Era was written in 1962 but not published until 2004. Even as superpower rivals held the world hostage to the suicidal doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction, Dom Gabriel Sortais banned the publication of Merton’s timely critique of war culture. The Abbot General of the Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance wanted his Trappist monk to stop writing on issues of war and peace.

Reading Merton’s Cold War critique in a post-9/11 context can be a jarring experience. It reveals retrospectively why terrorists today are America’s perfect enemy.

Images of the enemy are caricatures that make us look good by comparison. They are exercises in self-definition, as Nicolas Jackson O’Shaughnessy observes, through which we construct our antithesis (Politics and Propaganda, p. vii). Our enemies ritualistically serve as scapegoats on which we can place all the blame for our own sins and shortcomings. Projecting our unacknowledged shadow conveniently cleanses us of guilt.

The guilt in question is terrorism. Today’s enemy is an impulsive projection of the sin of Cold War nuclearism. The guilt of nuclear terrorism is symbolically transferred and purged by prosecuting a global war on terror.

This symbolic link between then and now suddenly came clearly to mind as I read Merton’s chilling chapter on “The Dance of Death” (pp. 20-26). He began ominously by observing, “No one seriously doubts that it is possible for man and his society to be completely destroyed in a nuclear war.” The immorality of a “balance of terror” was impossible to ignore. Moreover, Merton insisted, “far from producing the promised ‘nuclear stalemate’ and the ‘balance of terror’ on which we are trying to construct an improbable peace, these policies simply generate tension, confusion, suspicion and paranoid hate.” Americans were morally accountable for risking the end of civilization. “It is for us to decide whether we are going to give in to hatred, terror and blind love of power for its own sake, and thus plunge our world into the abyss, or whether, restraining our savagery, we can patiently and humanely work together for interests which transcend the limits of any national or ideological community.”

We decided to take the risk, not to restrain our savagery, but to adopt the policy of terror and to succumb to immorality. That was a heavy burden for the Cold War victor to bear, especially after the demise of the evil Soviet enemy. To reclaim our identity as a virtuous nation, we needed to concoct a new enemy, to engage in the fantasy of antithesis. We looked into the mirror and saw the face of a terrorist, which we did not recognize as our own reflection.


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