Comments on Merton’s Cold War Letters

Those who think there can be a just cause for measures that gravely risk leading to the destruction of the entire human race are in the most dangerous illusion, and if they are Christians they are purely and simply arming themselves with hammer and nails, without realizing it, to crucify and deny Christ. . . . We are reaching a moment of great crisis, though the blindness and stupidity of our leaders and all who believe in them and in the society we have set up for ourselves, and which is falling apart.
I do not think that Catholics realize this situation at all. They seem to be totally unaware of the gravity of the hour spiritually speaking, quite apart from the physical danger. . . . I feel that the supreme obligation of every Christian, taking precedence over absolutely everything else, is to devote himself by the best means at this disposal to a struggle to preserve the human race from annihilation and to abolish war as the essential means to accomplish this end.
The question of peace is important, it seems to me, and so important that I do not believe that anyone who takes his Christian faith seriously can afford to neglect it.
Thomas Merton, Cold War Letters (Orbis Books, 2006)

These are excerpts from three of the Cold War Letters written by Thomas Merton in 1961 and yet they ring so true today. You may remember that Merton was all but silenced because of his opposition to the war. All his writings had to be submitted for approval. When he was “silenced” by higher authorities his abbot allowed him to distribute mimeographed copies of his writings.
Make no doubt about it—Merton was a true contemplative. He found God in the deep silence of solitude within himself and in other people as evidenced by the life-changing epiphany at the corner of Fourth and Walnut in Louisville. He realized that he was one with God and one with all these people! We would do well to heed his cautions and concerns today.
Merton cannot be more explicit. Christians who pursue war are crucifying Christ. This echoes Dorothy Day’s statement, “The Church is the cross on which Jesus is crucified.” The church, the people of God, need to step up to the plate and proclaim and live nonviolence and put an end to war.
Today in 2007 we have reached a moment of great crisis. The “blindness, stupidity,” and, I might add, cupidity (It’s really a war for oil, water and hegemony in the Middle East.) of our leaders have led us to the brink. We are immersed in a quagmire in Iraq because we were led there with lies about WMDs. When that “little” lie played out, we were deceived with the lie of “get them over there before they get us over here.” Many of us have bought the lies hook line and sinker. To challenge the lies renders one unpatriotic. The one who challenges the lie does not “support the troops.” The new lie is emerging—we have to take out Iran. Have we not learned from the quagmires in Vietnam and Iraq? What are the Iranians going to do while we take them out. They are going to fight like hell and, while they will eventually succumb to yet another military surge, many Iranian people and American soldiers will suffer and die needlessly.
Our society is falling apart. Check out the current fiscal crisis in the home market. We have spent billions in Afghanistan and Iraq while the infrastructure here crumbles under us. I recently saw a great editorial cartoon where Osama bin Laden, squatting in a cave, tells his comrade with a sense of great urgency, “We have got to get them before their infrastructure crumbles.” Our society is falling apart. Rome, driven by inordinate greed, fell apart. If America keeps on the same path of violence, greed, exploitation and consumerism, we too shall fall apart. We cannot create a comfortable society for some few of us on the backs of the poor and downtrodden in America and around the world. It will not work! Such a future is not sustainable.
As Christians we find our security in God who let the rain fall on the just and unjust alike. God wears no uniform and favors no flag over another. We are all God’s children. As Christians, Merton reminds us that it is our duty to be fully aware of the gravity of the hour. We must devote ourselves by every means at our disposal to abolish war. Paul warns us that greed is a major sin. Francis of Assisi warned us that, if we have possessions, then we must have arms to defend our possessions. The truth we must realize as Christians is that we possess nothing that has not been given to us. All is pure gift and is to be shared for the good of all. This has long been affirmed in Church teaching under the principles of the common good and solidarity. We can hoard in newly built barns and silos but they will burn down or fall down eventually.
Yes, Thomas, you are so right. The question of peace is something that we cannot ignore as Christians. We must take seriously our commission to be peacemakers. Blessed are the peacemakers. Merton uses the word “struggle” advisedly. Peacemakers are not doormats! As Christians, we must actively resist evil with good. Our model is the Lamb of God who was slain for us. Jesus is the nonviolent Lamb of God. He is our mentor. We are called to nonviolence—to actively resist evil with good as Pope Benedict XVI has been wont to say so many times lately. Gandhi understood Jesus better than some Christians understand him. He read from the Sermon on the Mount daily while lamenting the fact that Christians did not understand Jesus’ message. He repeatedly warned his followers that they were not to hate the British even though they had oppressed and exploited them. India won it independence in a nonviolent revolution. Just contrast this with Ireland, another British colony, where force has been met with force for nine centuries. With a tentative peace agreement for shared governance in place, it may be possible to cast off centuries of oppression, hate and violence.
Some of our fellow Christians exhort us to pray for the military because they work for peace and justice around the world. I will pray for the troops and for their safety. After all, it is not their fault, in most cases, that they are in harm’s way. I will not subscribe to the statement that troops work for peace and justice. You cannot use violent means to attain peace. The means contain the seeds of the end. If you sow violence, you will reap violence! An acorn does not blossom into a pear tree! You cannot have peace at the tip of the sword.
We must proclaim loudly and clearly to our fellow Christians and fellow countrymen, “No more war!” As Christians, we must acknowledge our responsibility to proclaim the peace of Christ when convenient and inconvenient, in season and out of season.

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