Thomas Merton (1915 – 1968) in his study.(Credit: The Merton Center)
Thomas Merton—Trappist monk, social critic, and political activist—was alert to how people tend to exaggerate differences between themselves and others in order to separate right from wrong and good from evil. He called such exaggeration a trait of “the devil’s moral theology,” in which “the important thing is to be absolutely right and to prove that everybody else is absolutely wrong,” which “does not exactly make for peace and unity among men” because to be absolutely right, we must “punish and eliminate those who are wrong.”[i]
Who among us has never succumbed to moralism? It is habit forming, contagious, and toxic. It is today’s norm. Hyperbole is the trope of choice. Moderation in language, respect for the complexities of life, and deliberation of differences are rarely manifest in public discourse. (more…)
“Four Horsemen of Apocalypse,” by Viktor Vasnetsov. Painted in 1887. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Like Gabriel sounding the trumpet for the Final Judgment, or like an unwanted guest who names the rope in the hanged man’s house, Francis I stood before our Clown Congress and spoke the names of four American warrior saints. If our legislators would know them, or come to know more about them, they would realize that the Pope was urging upon us the consequences—in the course of time—of following the words of these Four Riders of the Apocalypse. (more…)
U.S. nuclear weapon test Ivy Mike, 31 Oct 1952, on Enewetak Atoll in the Pacific, the first test of a thermonuclear weapon (hydrogen bomb). (Photo courtesy of US Atomic Energy Commission)
Writing in the context of US-Soviet nuclear rivalry, Thomas Merton argued that the US had a right to self-defense but a moral obligation to work for peace. He opposed the policy of massive retaliation and advocated nuclear disarmament. He warned against something he called “demonic activism, a frenzy of the most varied, versatile, complex and even utterly brilliant technological improvisations, following one upon the other with an ever more bewildering and uncontrollable proliferation” (Peace in the Post-Christian Era, p. 103).
The problem of war, Merton maintained, was first and foremost a matter of attitude. Even at the risk of nuclear annihilation, Americans succumbed to a truculent and suspicious state of mind that precluded any solution other than violence. Such a mood undermined confidence in negotiation. Yet, he insisted, “we can no longer afford to ignore our obligation to work for the abolition of war as a means of solving international problems” (p. 5).
Merton’s critique of US war culture as an amoral state of mind that yields to the hegemony of power remains relevant to the present challenge of peacemaking. We still lack the motives required to build a peaceful world, to resist fear and hatred and to restrain our savagery, which is “a fatal deficiency” (p. 19). (more…)
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. (more…)