Thomas Merton has been a source of great comfort and inspiration throughout the past few angry and blood-soaked months, angry and blood-soaked months for the world and for our nation. Here in America we're living through a dark period when—as I heard someone say recently—the flags seem to be permanently at half staff. Overseas the atrocities mount up faster than we can keep up. News of bombings, uprisings, and mass murders by ever more horrifying means crawl across our TV screens. Spend any time at all watching the news or social media, and it's hard to resist the grip of fear. In this fearful political season we would do well to listen to this quiet man of peace Thomas Merton. His writings are full of penetrating spiritual and psychological insight.
I've been slowly reading and re-reading the collection of essays published as New Seeds of Contemplation. The morning after the murder of the police officers in Dallas I opened up to "The Root of War Is Fear." By war Merton means more than armies meeting on a battlefield. He could just as easily titled this one: the root of violence is fear. Merton begins with a thesis:
At the root of all war is fear: not so much the fear men have of one another as the fear they have of everything.
This fear leads to distrust (of one another and ourselves) and ultimately hatred (of one another and ourselves) and violence. We see the very real evil all around us. But rather than acknowledging that we are complicit, and looking with repentant eyes into our own hearts, we look for something or someone to punish. We pass our burden of guilt onto someone else. This lets us off the hook and allows us to lazily ignore the complexity of issues surrounding race and justice and politics.
When we see crime in others, we try to correct it by destroying them or at least putting them out of sight. It is easy to identify the sin with the sinner when he is someone other than our own self. In ourselves, it is the other way round; we see the sin, but we have great difficulty in shouldering responsibility for it. We find it very hard to identify our sin with our own will and our own malice. On the contrary, we naturally tend to interpret our immoral act as an involuntary mistake, or as the malice of a spirit in us that is other than ourself. Yet at the same we are fully aware that others do not make this convenient distinction for us. The acts that have been done by us are, in their eyes, "our" acts and they hold us fully responsible.
[...] In all these ways we build up such an obsession with evil, both in ourselves and in others, that we waste all our mental energy trying to account for this evil, to punish it, to exorcise it, or to get rid of it in any way we can. We drive ourselves mad with our preoccupation and in the end there is no outlet left but violence. We have to destroy something or someone. By that time we have created for ourselves a suitable enemy, a scapegoat in whom we have invested all the evil in the world. He is the cause of every wrong. He is the fomentor of all conflict. If he can only be destroyed, conflict will cease, evil will be done with, there will be no more war.
This simplistic binary thinking is a dangerous delusion, but it forms the foundation of our contemporary national life and political discourse.
[...] Thus we never see the one truth that would help us begin to solve our ethical and political problems: that we are all more or less wrong, that we are all at fault, all limited and obstructed by our mixed motives, our self-deception, our greed, our self-righteousness and our tendency to aggressivity and hypocrisy.
So if we're all wrong, does that mean we're wrong in everything? If we're all acting out of mixed motives should we even try to act on the basis of believing ourselves to be in the right? If as Merton writes: "politics is an inextricable tangle of good and evil motives" what hope is there for creating a more just and peaceful society? He answers these questions by directing us to the mercy of God, who condescends to work with, and through, contingent and flawed men and women.
It would be sentimental folly to expect men to trust one another when they obviously cannot be trusted. But at least they can learn to trust God. They can bring themselves to see that the mysterious power of God can, quite independently of human malice and error, protect men unaccountably against themselves, and that He can always turn evil into good, though perhaps not always in a sense that would be understood by the preachers of sunshine and uplift. [I absolutely love that line!] If they can trust and love God, Who is infinitely wise and Who rules the lives of men permitting them to use their freedom even to the point of almost incredible abuse, they can love men who are evil. They can learn to love them even in their sin, as God has loved them. If we can love the men we cannot trust (without trusting them foolishly) and if we can to some extent share the burden of their sin by identifying ourselves with them, then perhaps there is some hope of a kind of peace on earth, based not on the wisdom and the manipulations of men but on the inscrutable mercy of God.
For only love—which means humility—can exorcise the fear which is at the root of all war...
God, grant us a love that's stronger than our fear. Give us the grace to hate the disorder in our own hearts more than we hate it in others. Thank-you for your servant Thomas Merton, whose life and writings teach us how to be people of peace. Amen.