Beth recently attended a leader’s conference in New York City in which Thomas Merton’s writings played an unexpected, serendipitous role.
The conference host shared with his audience this quote from Merton’s book Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, page 86:
Douglas Steere remarks very perceptively that there is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist fighting for peace by nonviolent methods most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are on a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone is to succumb to violence. More than that, it is cooperation in violence The frenzy of the activist neutralizes his work for peace. It destroys his own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of his own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.
I turned to that page in the book this morning, and began reading.
And I found something even more serendipitous, given the political posts I read all too often.
In the very next paragraph in Conjectures, Merton writes,
The tactic of nonviolence is a tactic of love that seeks the salvation and redemption of the opponent, not his castigation, humiliation, and defeat. A pretended nonviolence that seeks to defeat and humiliate the adversary by spiritual instead of physical attack is little more than a confession of weakness. True nonviolence is totally different from this, and much more difficult. It strives to operate without hatred, without hostility, and without resentment. It works without aggression, taking the side of the good that is able to find already present in the adversary. This may be easy to talk about in theory. It is not easy in practice, especially when the adversary is aroused to a bitter and violent defense of an injustice which he believes to be just. We must therefore be careful how we talk about our opponents, and still more careful how we regulate our differences with our collaborators. It is possible for the most bitter arguments, the most virulent hatreds, to arise among those who are supposed to be working together for the noblest of causes. Nothing is better calculated to ruin and discredit a holy ideal than a fratricidal war among “saints.”
…and I had an epiphany.
As if Douglas Steere’s and Thomas Merton’s words about activism weren’t clear enough, the next paragraph rocked me back in my seat because I suddenly realized the spiritual context of Merton’s letter to then-President L. B. Johnson, as printed in the book The Hidden Ground of Love, page 439.
The letter is dated May 31, 1964. The war in Vietnam rages on. Merton writes to President Johnson to express his deep concern about the situation.
As a priest and monk of the Catholic Church I would like to add my voice to the voices of all those who have pleaded for a peaceful settlement in Vietnam. A neutralized and united Vietnam protected by secure guarantees would certainly do more for the interests of freedom and of the people of Southeast Asia, as well as for our own interests, than a useless and stupid war. Quite apart from humanitarian and ethical considerations which, to me, are primary, it would seem that experience and realistic awareness of the situation ought to warn us that a prolonged war in Asia is not something that is going to benefit a non-Asian power, still less the interests of democracy. On the contrary, the only long-run effect will be a strengthening of communism— or else a desperate resort to nuclear weapons, in a possible extremity, which would be disastrous for everyone. I therefore respectfully recommend a prudent and rational course, along the lines (which are universally acceptable, I believe) laid down in Pacem in Terris. With cordial good wishes and the assurance of my prayers for the success of your policies in the area of civil rights and the war on poverty, I sign myself as a supporter of your campaign in this election year. (Merton, Thomas. The Hidden Ground of Love: Letters, Kindle Locations 10203-10212. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Kindle Edition.)
Note: Merton begins with, “As a priest and monk of the Catholic Church I would like to add my voice to the voices of all those who have pleaded for a peaceful settlement in Vietnam.”
A few sentences later, Merton calls it “a useless and stupid war.” Then, he “respectfully” recommends “a prudent and rational course.”
Yet, even though Merton was adamantly against the war, he closes his letter with, “With cordial good wishes and the assurance of my prayers for the success of your policies in the area of civil rights and the war on poverty, I sign myself as a supporter of your campaign in this election year.”
“A supporter of your campaign.”
I read that again.
“A supporter of your campaign.”
Merton could have dismissed the entire Johnson presidency (as well as the man himself) because of Johnson’s continued involvement in the Vietnam War. He could have allowed Johnson’s position in that one area to be the springboard for name calling, divisiveness, bitterness, and blinding anger.
But he did not.
Merton did not dismiss President Johnson in toto. He took his own advice, found the good in him, and took the road of love. Furthermore, he prayed for President Johnson, and wished him success in his other efforts.
This is why I appreciate Thomas Merton so deeply. His wisdom speaks to us today, in so many ways.
When we can view “the tactic of nonviolence” to be “a tactic of love” we may begin the healing process to build bridges that have been burned – and are still burning.