Friday, April 25, 2008

merton on nonviolence

[Note: The following collection of notes of Merton’s writings on protest and nonviolence were an effort to, in my own life, find some way through the personal stalemate of my work with a young friend’s excessively harsh prison sentence, as well as the war. In both cases I had been angry and felt stuck. In many ways, my struggle for justice for my prisoner friend and my exasperation with world politics felt like the same thing.

I have decided to add these writings of Merton on nonviolence without taking them out of the original context in which I explored them in 2005.]

I have come to see that there is something in myself that needs to be transformed. Like the old saying: “you have to be the change that you want to see in the world”. But just what is this change? And how will it happen?

According to Thomas Merton, what is missing in protest movements is compassion. Those involved in protest tend to become enraged with those that they see as responsible for injustice and violence, and even toward those who uphold the status quo. Without compassion, the protestor tends to become more and more centered in anger and may easily become an obstacle to changing the attitudes of others.

And the angrier we get at the Judge’s decisions, the obstinacy of the prosecution, the more they dig in their heels.

“[People] do not feel at all threatened by the bomb … but they feel terribly threatened by some … student carrying a placard.” (Merton letter to Jim Forrest, Jan 29, 1962)

Without love, especially love of opponent and enemies, neither profound personal nor social transformation can occur:

“It is when we love the other, the enemy, that we obtain from God the key to an understanding of who he is, and who we are. It is only this realization that can open to us the real nature of our duty, and who we are. It is only this realization that can open to us the real nature of our duty, and of right action.

“ To shut out the person and to refuse to consider him as a person, as an other self, we resort to the impersonal “law” and to abstract “nature.” That is to say we block off the reality of the other, we cut the intercommunication of our nature and his nature, and we consider only our own nature with its rights, its claims, its demands. And we justify the evil we do to our brother because he is no longer a brother, he is merely an adversary, an accused. To restore communication, to see our oneness of nature with him, and to respect his personal rights and his integrity, his worthiness of love, we have to see ourselves as similarly accused along with him … and needing, with him, the ineffable gift of grace and mercy to be saved. Then, instead of pushing him down, trying to climb out by using his head as a stepping-stone for ourselves, we help ourselves to rise by helping him to rise. For when we extend our hand to the enemy who is sinking in the abyss, God reaches out to both of us, for it is He first of all who extends our hand to the enemy. It is He who “saves himself” in the enemy, who makes use of us to recover the lost groat which is His image in our enemy.” (Merton letter to Dorothy Day, 1961)
Peace movements identify too much with particular political groups and ideologies. Any actions taken must communicate liberating possibilities to all involved in the conflict. The message that the opponent will also be “free-ed” has to be clear. A way out of the “we-they” standoff.

“One of the most important things to do is to keep cutting deliberately through political lines and barriers and deemphasizing the fact that these are largely fabrications and that there is another dimension, a genuine reality, totally opposed to the fictions of politics: the human dimension …” (Merton letter to Dorothy Day, 1961)

Peacemaking is rooted in spiritual life, not politics.

If I can, in some way, incorporate (become a channel for) nonviolence (peacemaking) in my struggle for Taylor, then perhaps this power can be unleashed in the world.

Important: The truth can never be used as a weapon. We are the instruments of truth, truth is not our instrument.

This is especially true with Taylor’s case, for we do, indeed, have the truth. But we cannot use it to taunt the opponent. We have to use the truth to open the opponent’s eyes:
“One of the problematic questions about non-violence is the inevitable involvement of hidden aggressions and provocations … It is an enormously subtle question, but we have to consider the fact that, in its provocative aspect, nonviolence may tend to harden opposition and confirm people in their righteous blindness. …

“Yet there is that danger: the danger one observes subtly in tight groups like families and monastic communities, where the martyr for the right sometimes thrives on making his persecutors terribly and visibly wrong. He can drive them in desperation to be wrong, to seek refuge in the wrong, to seek refuge in violence. … In our acceptance of vulnerability … we play [on the guilt of the opponent]. There is no finer torment. This is one of the enormous problems of our time … all this guilt and nothing to do about it except finally to explode and blow it all out in hatreds, race hatreds, political hatreds, war hatreds. We, the righteous, are dangerous people in such a situation …We have got to be aware of the awful sharpness of truth when it is used as a weapon, and since it can be the deadliest weapon, we must take care that we don’t kill more than falsehood with it. In fact, we must be careful how we “use” truth, for we are ideally the instruments of truth and not the other way around.” (Merton letter to Jim Forrest, February 1962)

“Do not depend on the hope of results. When you are doing … an apostolic work, you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself. And there too a great deal has to be gone through, as gradually you struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people. The range tends to narrow down, but it gets much more real. In the end … it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything …


  1. I wonder, can we love, for example, a corporate criminal diseminating hate through the media that poisons children's minds, and "put him down" at the same time? I ask this because in my explanations to my daughter about why things are on t.v. - I find she picks up on that the people respoonsible are not as good as us - or something to that effect.

  2. Your daughter sounds very savvy, Marc.

    It's a tough question - we're all human, after all, and who among us does not call the media robots dumb (or bad, or whatever)?

    The challenge, according to MErton (and Gandhi et al) is to not make it personal - condemn the sin and not the sinner, etc. And I'd say it's almost impossible not to feel, in some way, morally and ethically superior to the mindless idiots who are so blindly sucked into the propaganda. (but then, don't I get sucked in as well?)

    I recently came across these 2 quotes from Dag Hammarskjold:

    "It is more important to be aware of the grounds for your own behavior than to understand the motives of another."

    "The other’s “face” is more important than your own."

    All that being said, I don't think any of this gets us off the hook from NAMING THE EVIL. That is what will do the most good for the media people who are propogating poison, and for those of us who are subjected to it.

  3. It is curious to me that in re-reading what I wrote a couple of years ago, I still haven't grasped the heart of compassion.

    I still cling to MY truth.

  4. Very good, thank you for the Hammarskjold quote: it's so much easier and ostensibly more enjoyable to take "someone else's inventory" to use the 12-step jargon.

    Yes, Sophia is savvy, last week she said to me, in reply to my question about why she didn't want to go to Sunday school ;"Godish people are too chipper." I couldn't resist e-mailing that one to friends and family to see what kind of reactions I would get (especially from the Godish chipper ones).

  5. New photo of Sophia here

  6. Go Sophia! (I like her already and sympathise with her sentiments about the "Goddish" people). No doubt, she'll find her way, and it won't be in the mainstream:-)

  7. Hi Beth,
    I have struggled with this also. The danger of becoming exactly what you are protesting. Two books,(and lots of deep breathing) Passion for Peace, edited by William Shannon, and Being Peace, by Thich Nhat Hanh have really helped me. As well as many of your posts here at Louie Louie.
    Thank you!


  8. Thanks for chiming in, Sean. I have the Shannon book. Need to do more deep breathing!

    Isn't amazing that Thich Nhat Hanh is still around and still teaching that same breathing and peace? What a gift he is.

  9. Thank you, Beth. It's good to see these quotes from Merton from time to time as he points in a direction is not much traveled, perhaps least of all in an election year when political fevers are truly raging. We do find examples of people who managed to see the image of God in both adversaries and the indifferent. Compassion opens a door, as Merton stresses, but compassion is something that doesn't come easily. It's so easy to slide into sarcasm, contempt, etc. No one ever moved an inch forward by being glared at.

  10. Thanks for chiming in here, Nancy and Jim.
    You're right, there's a lot of glaring going on these days. And it's pretty easy to feel unnoticed and disregarded when you attempt to follow the direction of nonviolence.

    I tend to think that the *change* can only happen from the bottom up. The small groups affecting government at the local level. But it so slow in coming ... and still so rare.

    It seems to me that in the last 30 years, the entire atmosphere of this country has become so much more fearful and hostile.

    Wish Merton were still around ...


The Stuff of Contemplation (Joan Chittister)

Thomas Merton, Trappist, died December 10, 1968 Thomas Merton entered the Abbey of Gethsemane in Bardstown, Kentucky, at the age of twenty-s...