The More Things Change... Finding a Mentor in Brother Merton
“There is only one winner, only one winner in war. The winner is war itself. Not truth, not justice, not liberty, not morality. These are the vanquished.” – Thomas Merton, Target Equals City, an essay, February 6, 1962.
Over the past few years I have discovered a mentor and a soulmate in the Trappist monk from Gethsemani Abbey (Bardstown, Kentucky). Fr. Thomas Merton was one of the most respected spiritualists of the last century and even while cloistered in a silent order of monks, a prolific writer.
I am concerned by the saber-rattling between our country and North Korea while I wonder about how real is the potential for a nuclear war, or if something less, an attack by one side or the other that could quickly escalate into mass destruction. Even more, I am mortified by the lack of voice from the Church on this matter! Where are the peacemakers? Where are the advocates of non-violence, diplomacy, and working pre-emptively before war breaks out? Where is the voice of Jesus saying “blessed are the peacemakers…love your enemies…if you live by the sword you will die by the sword”?
Two months ago it was reported that Saudi Arabia contracted to purchase $110 billion of weapons from the United States, part of a ten-year, $350 billion commitment. That announcement, combined with a report that the proposed U.S. national budget for 2018 calls for an increase of $54 billion in Pentagon spending caught my attention.
My concern turned me to a book that seemed relevant, The Root of War is Fear. This book is a compendium of Thomas Merton’s correspondence during the Viet Nam War and the cold war with Russia. Merton had a serious concern about a nuclear event. He corresponded frequently with Dorothy Day (The Catholic Worker) and Jim Forest (Catholic Peace Fellowship) and counseled them on the voice of peace and the effort to non-violently convert opponents rather than humiliate and destroy them. As I read Merton’s social commentary and wise counsel in the 1960’s and then reflected on our world today it occurred to me that things have not changed very much. Have we not learned from our past!
Merton lamented, “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 façade 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. Not only non-Christians but even Christians themselves tend to dismiss the Gospel ethic on nonviolence and love as ‘sentimental.’”
Further, “Violence rests on the assumption that the enemy and I are entirely different: the enemy is evil and I am good. The enemy must be destroyed and I must be saved. But love sees things differently. It sees that even the enemy suffers from the same sorrows and limitations that I do. That we both have the same hopes, the same needs, the same aspirations for a peaceful and harmless human life. And that death is the same for both of us. Then love may perhaps show me that my brother is not really my enemy and that war is both his enemy and mine. War is our enemy. Then peace becomes possible.”
When the Saudi arms sale was announced last month, I wondered to myself, rather than buying arms, what if they had used that money to provide farming equipment and medicine, build schools and hospitals, fund infrastructure, and support NGO’s on the ground in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria? What if they attempted to turn swords into plowshares? I am continually reminded of the military experience and wisdom of President Dwight Eisenhower, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. The world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.” (1953) I can only imagine what General Eisenhower would say today!
I write this article not to raise your frustration and sense of hopelessness, but rather to remind you that you have a choice and a voice. You can bury your head in the sand and ignore our nation and the world’s continued militarization or you can elect to follow the precepts of Jesus and wise counsel of Merton and Eisenhower. You can advocate for a moral budget that promotes peacemaking and peacekeeping. You can teach your children and grandchildren the way of peace, the art of diplomacy, and the difficult task of seeing the enemy as a mirror of our pain. You can support our congregation’s hunger appeal or join our immigrant and refugee ministry. You can pray the Kingdom into being. Every day is a new day to make important decisions. We don’t choose the history that we inherit but we do choose what we learn from it.
After that serious reflection, now let me offer a bit of levity and another angle on why I find in Merton, a soulmate. Listen to Merton, circa. 1967 on technology. “One critic had taken Merton to task for being too negative about technology and even making fun of it. This struck a nerve. In his letter Merton commented that he just couldn’t buy the utopian view that technology necessarily equals progress and a better life. In fact, ‘machines do not guarantee that things will be better for the poor worker’ – what ‘new, improved’ machines will often mean is not less backbreaking employment ‘but no employment, period. And no eating also.’ He added, ‘I don’t have to be part of anybody’s in-group and keep up with the cozy current opinions…In fact there is every reason for someone like me to keep on uttering opinions that are a bit divergent and that come from an unexpected angle. The secular city does not need me in it, but out of it looking in.”
About the Author: Pastor Henry Zorn is Co-Pastor of Lutheran Church of the Resurrection in Cincinnati, OH. A vibrant and welcoming community of faith and a congregation of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.