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Passion for Peace

| 15.2.05
Passion for Peace: The Social Essays, by Thomas Merton

This collection of essays, edited by William H. Shannon, show the evolution of Merton's anti-war, pacifist stance as it evolved in the wake of the Vietnam War in the 1960s. As Shannon writes in the introduction, ". . .most of the articles that follow have been previously published, but in books that are now out of print. This book contains the substance of Seeds of Destruction, published by Farrar Straus and Giroux in 1964, and most of the articles compiled by Gordon Zahn in The Non-Violent Alternative, published by Farrar Straus and Giroux in 1980." (pp. 6-7)

Merton's stance against war and violence is rooted in self-awareness. "[E]very form of oversimplification tends to make decisions ultimately meaningless. We must try to accept ourselves. . . not only as perfectly good or perfectly bad, but in our mysterious, unaccountable mixture of good and evil. We have to stand by the modicum of good that is in us without exaggerating it." (p. 16). The root of evil is not to be projected onto the other as a prelude to war, but instead, "If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed --but hate these things in yourself, not in another," (p. 19)

According to Merton, "just war theory" or "natural law" or any other number of theological constructs need to be re-interpreted in the light of the Sermon on the Mount. Instead, what for Merton is central often gets relegated to the margins, seen as an impossible ideal, or exaggeration, or hyperbole for effect. When pacifist Christians argue for the application of the Sermon on the Mount to social systems, they need to justify this choice, and also deal with the many passages in the Old Testament that seem to sanction war as a God-ordained activity. While Merton laments, "[i]t is tragic that the nonviolent resistance to evil which is of the very essence of the New Testament morality has come to be regarded as a specialty reserved for beatniks and eccentric cultists," (p. 23) he also needs to provide more argument to support what seems counter-intuitive.

"There is one winner, only one winner in war. The winner is war itself. Not truth, not justice, not liberty, not morality. These are the vanquished. War wins, reducing them to complete submission. He makes truth serve violence and falsehood. . .Though moralists may intend and endeavor to lay down rules for war, in the end war lays down rules for them." (p. 28) As war after war occurs, and war becomes more total and more ruthless, as the tactics taken by "our side" are increasingly justified as necessary to counter the ruthless fighting of our enemies, Merton sees Christian values of peace as rapidly and steadily eroding.

There is a bit of elitism in Merton's writing. The laity are often referred to as being "confused" by the mass media and other sources. One gets the impression that Merton views the laity, and the public in general as sheep that are incapable of thinking for themselves.

This is somewhat mitigated in one of Merton's most interesting essays, "Danish Non-violent Resistance to Hitler." Here Merton outlines the amazing way in which the Danish resisted German attempts to exterminate the Jews in their country during World War Two by consistently and steadfastly, from the King on down to ordinary people, refusing to co-operate with the SS on moral grounds. (pp 150-153.) One can't help but wonder why such exceptions to Nazi oppression in Europe are not more widely known, and proposed as counterbalances to the meta narrative that says World War Two was a "just and necessary war."

While I commend Merton's forward thinking, encouraging Christians to think about the eventual consequences of moving down the slippery slope from countenancing certain wartime activities in "defense" to using these methods preemptively themselves, he seems somewhat naive. "Ambiguity, hesitation and compromise are no longer permissible. War must be abolished. A world government must be established. We have still time to do something about it, but the time is rapidly running out." (p. 47) Certainly this statement is made in the context of a cold war between two superpowers, with a monolithic mass media mediating the national conversation in the United States. To such a monolithic problem, maybe the monolithic solution of world government seemed justified. In today's context of decentralized sources of information (the Internet and hundreds of cable channels) and an amorphous war against multi-national terrorists, the faith in big institutions seems more naive.

Still, many of his observations remain timely. In speaking of the Communists, Merton writes, "We have no right to abandon the Christian moral values on which our society was built and adopt the moral opportunism and irresponsibility of atheistic materialism. If we live and act like atheists we will turn our world into a living hell, and that is precisely what we are doing --for the Russians are not the only men in the world who are Godless!" (p. 52) It's hard not to see both parallels and irony as a materialistic west, led by the United States, now fights militant Islamists like Al-Qaeda, often using methods that meet with objection on both pacifist, and civil libertarian grounds.

"Let us remember this formula: in the madness of modern war, when every crime is justified, the nation is always right, power is always right, the military is always right. To question those who wield power, to differ from them in any way, is to confess oneself subversive, rebellious, traitorous." (p. 55)

I was chilled at how much the names change, but the dynamic stays the same when reflecting on war and peace issues.

PUBLISHER: The Crossroad Publishing Company. New York. 1995. (originally written between 1961-1968); ISBN: 0-8245-1494-7.

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