Why I Turn to Thomas Merton

By J.S. Porter

And so I ask myself: what is the meaning of a concept of sanity that excludes love, considers it irrelevant, and destroys our capacity to love other human beings, to respond to their needs and their sufferings, to recognize them as persons, to apprehend their pain as one’s own? — Thomas Merton

I turn to his prayers and poems, his journals, letters and literary criticism. Increasingly I turn to his social and political essays to give me an understanding of what is going on in the world. I turn to others as well, to Noam Chomsky and the late Edward Said, for news of the world, but my main political weatherman remains a monk who died in 1968.

When I turn to Thomas Merton on politics, the book I rely on is Passion For Peace: The Social Essays, edited and with an introduction by William H. Shannon. This book offers Merton’s clearest insights into the world’s only superpower. I recommend three essays from the book in particular: Merton’s Swiftian satire, ‘A Devout Meditation in Memory of Adolf Eichmann,’ ‘The Root of War is Fear’ originally published in The Catholic Worker in 196l and ‘War and the Crisis of Language’ published posthumously in 1969.

Here are sample passages from Merton’s Passion for Peace intercut with my own political embroideries.

We have to destroy something or someone. By that time, we have created for ourselves a suitable enemy scapegoat in whom we have invested all the evil in the world. He is the cause of every wrong. He is the fomenter of all conflict. If he can only be destroyed, conflict will cease, evil will be done with, there will be no more war. (15)

The American historian Howard Zinn recently said on Jon Stewart’s late-night talk show that America is addicted to war. To keep the addiction going, you need an enemy, someone who embodies all the scary aspects of your shadow that you’re afraid to face up to. Merton, decades before his fellow-Catholic Michael Moore, diagnoses that the root of war is fear: fear of one’s self, fear of the other. As Moore’s documentary, Bowling for Columbine, makes clear, particularly in his brilliant animation, his movie-within-the-movie, America has a history of fear. Fear of the Indian. Fear of the black man. Fear of the communist. And now fear of the Muslim.

Fear fuels consumption for corporate profit and justifies governmental violations of privacy. Fear also creates a bogeyman to justify a large information-military complex to keep him in check and more prisons at home and abroad. The bogeyman changes his face from decade to decade, or even year to year, but he is a constant in the American political imagination.

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. (55)

No one in the current American administration seems to have read Samuel Johnson’s aphorism that “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” Commentators wear American flags on their lapels, politicians end their speeches with “God bless America“‘what about the rest of the world?’and the so-called “free” press like a trained parrot repeats what it hears from its political and corporate masters without investigation or analysis. Meanwhile, the “patriotic” corporate elites outsource jobs with impunity.

We cannot pretend to have a full understanding of what is going on in ourselves and in our society. That is why our desperate hunger for clear and definite solutions sometimes leads us into temptation. We oversimplify. We seek the cause of evil and find it here or there in a particular nation, class, race, ideology, system. And we discharge upon this scapegoat all the virulent force of our hatred, compounded with fear and anguish, striving to rid ourselves of our fear by destroying the object we have arbitrarily singled out as the embodiment of all evil. Far from curing us, this is only another paroxysm which aggravates our sickness. (83)

Bush’s “axis of evil” is constantly expanding. It used to be Iraq, Iran and North Korea. Now it includes Cuba, Venezuela, Syria and other nations. Sleep comfortably. There will always be a bad guy to chase and liquidate. The system demands it and depends on it.

An American President can speak of warfare in outer space and nobody bursts out laughing’he is perfectly serious. Science fiction and the comic strip have all suddenly become true. When a missile armed with an H-bomb warhead is fired by the pressing of a button and its target is a whole city, the number of its victims is estimated in ‘megacorpses”millions of dead human beings. A thousand or ten thousand more here and there are not even matter for comment. (114)

The Canadian government, which is seriously considering joining the American Star Wars system as long as it doesn’t include outer space, pretends not to realize that the Americans have already militarized space and the purpose of a Star Wars defence system is to control space.

One of the grave problems of religion in our time is posed by the almost total lack of protest on the part of religious people and clergy, in the face of enormous social evils. (127)

With the exception of a Rev. Jesse Jackson here and there, there doesn’t seem to be a robust class of critics among the clergy. They’re either not speaking or their speeches are not reported.

The clergy we tend to hear from are the millionaires and billionaires, the TV evangelists who are interviewed as expert commentators and act as cheerleaders for the American war machine. Unlike the paid-propagandists (a growing body of rightwing journalists) of the Bush administration, the Bush clergy don’t seem to need the cash; they have enough of their own.

And it begins to dawn on us that is precisely the sane ones who are the most dangerous’It is the sane ones, the well-adapted ones, who can without qualm and without nausea aim the missiles and press the buttons that will initiate the great festival of destruction that they, the sane ones, have prepared’No one suspects the sane, and the sane one will have perfectly good reasons, logical, well-adapted reasons, for firing the shot. They will be obeying sane orders that have come sanely down the chain of command’ The generals and fighters on both sides in World War II, the ones who carried out the total destruction of entire cities, these were the sane ones. The ones who have invented and developed atomic bombs, thermonuclear bombs, missiles, who have planned the strategy of the next war; who have evaluated the various possibilities of using bacterial and chemical agents: these are not the crazy people, they are the sane people… I am beginning to realize that “sanity” is no longer a value or an end in itself. The ‘sanity’ of modern man is about as useful to him as the huge bulk and muscles of the dinosaur. If he were a little less sane, a little more doubtful, a little more aware of his absurdities and contradictions, perhaps there might be a possibility of his survival’we must say that in a society like ours the worst insanity is to be totally without anxiety, totally ‘sane’. (200-201)

Think of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld. Sane, rational men. Men without doubt, anxiety or guilt. Think of President Bush. A sane, rational man. A puppet made of platitudes, clich’s and euphemisms.

Let us now attend to the much more pompous and sinister jargon of the war mandarins in government offices and military think-tanks. Here we have a whole community of intellectuals, scholars who spend their time playing out ‘scenarios’ and considering ‘acceptable levels’ in megadeaths. Their language and their thought are as esoteric, as self-enclosed, as tautologous as the advertisement we have just discussed. But instead of being ‘coiffed’ in a sweet smell, they are scientifically antiseptic, business-like, uncontaminated with sentimental concern for life’other than their own. It is the same basic narcissism, but in a masculine, that is managerial, mode. (307)

The political language of the United States’has now been fatally denatured. It has probably lost all its value as intellectual currency. The crisis of the dollar is intimately connected with the crisis of human communication that has resulted from the sinister double-talk of the American Establishment about itself, about the war, about the race situation, about the urgent domestic problems that are being ignored or set aside while the government puts more and more money and manpower into the war. (313)

The war Merton speaks of in this passage is the Vietnam War. You can substitute the Iraqi War. Not much has changed. In the U.S., war still trumps all the other cards. Money goes to war before it goes to housing or health, education or social security. The U.S. war machine has killed over a 100,000 Iraqi civilians and over 1,500 of its own children. The dead bodies, which the American networks do not show coming home in bags or being put into the ground, haven’t yet reached a critical mass that awakens a sleeping public to a) pressure its government to end the occupation, b) return the oil fields to Iraqi ownership and control, and c) abandon plans for permanent military bases.

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