Thomas Merton can still teach us a lot about nuclear war
I regularly teach a course on Thomas Merton’s life and writings at Bellarmine University, which houses the Merton Center, the official repository of his literary estate. We study Merton’s autobiographical works and his writings on prayer and contemplation in the first half of the course and then engage his writings on ecumenism, interreligious dialogue and racism.
But out of all his works, my students find Merton’s writings on war the most dated. These writings emerged out of a Cold War context when Catholic moral theology was grappling with the dilemma of the existence of nuclear weapons capable of destroying life on earth many times over. Merton therefore focused much of his attention on the topic of nuclear war, but most of us have not given much thought to nuclear weapons in recent years. My students were born after the Cold War, so when I tell them about Dorothy Day getting arrested for refusing to participate in nuclear air-raid drills or about how my mother would participate in school-wide drills by crouching under desks in preparation for potential nuclear attacks, my students cannot relate. Nuclear weapons just have not been on their radar.
Thomas Merton: “There can be no question that unless war is abolished the world will remain constantly in a state of madness and desperation....”
As I write, tensions in the world as a whole are higher than they have been for decades as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In response to widespread sanctions imposed on Russia for its attack on Ukraine, Russian president Vladimir Putin put nuclear forces on high alert, raising concerns worldwide about the threat of nuclear war. Ukrainian authorities have asked that the United States enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine to prevent aerial bombardment, and the American government has refused, knowing that enforcing a no-fly zone would put the American military in direct conflict with Russian military forces. The prospect of two nuclear forces at war is not one that brings comfort. While we have spent far less time since the end of the Cold War thinking about the danger of nuclear weapons, the present conflict illustrates that our complacency was naive and premature.
Faced with anxieties we have not experienced since the Cold War, perhaps it is time to return to Merton’s writings on nuclear weapons and the Christian responsibility to advocate for peace in a nuclear age.
While Merton initially entered the Abbey of Gethsemani to escape a world that he understood to be evil, he found himself in the late 1950s and into the 1960s turning his attention back toward the world, particularly in response to the threat of nuclear war. Compelled by a strong sense of the dignity of all human life, Merton reacted with incredulity not only to the possibility that humanity could doom itself to annihilation through nuclear war, but that American Catholics—including some priests and bishops—supported American use of its nuclear arsenal in a first strike against Russia.
Given this situation, he saw no alternative but to devote himself fully to the task of peace, a task he saw as being essential for all Christians. Merton summarized the dangerousness of the situation in his first anti-war essay, “The Root of War is Fear”:
The duty of the Christian in this crisis is to strive with all power and intelligence, with his faith, hope in Christ, and love for God and man, to do the one task which God has imposed upon us in the world today. That task is to work for the total abolition of war. There can be no question that unless war is abolished the world will remain constantly in a state of madness and desperation in which, because of the immense destructive power of modern weapons, the danger of catastrophe will be imminent and probably at every moment everywhere.
In this context, he continued, “peace is to be preached, nonviolence is to be explained as a practical method, and not left to be mocked as an outlet for crackpots.”
Merton’s focus on nonviolence led some to assume that he was a pacifist. He was not. He accepted the church’s teaching on just war, acknowledging that the just war theory had deep roots in the church’s tradition. However, he came to the conclusion that the just war tradition no longer had relevance given the destructive capabilities of contemporary weaponry, especially nuclear weaponry. “I am not a pure pacifist in theory,” he wrote to the peace activist James Forest, “though today in practice I don’t see how one can be anything else since limited wars (however ‘just’) present an almost certain danger of nuclear war on an all-out scale.”
Thomas Merton: “War was neither blessed nor forbidden by Christ. He simply stated that...war belonged to a realm that no longer had a decisive meaning.”
The intended audience for Merton’s argument for nonviolence and against the use of nuclear weapons was his fellow American Catholics, many of whom supported the use of nuclear weapons. Knowing how seriously Catholics take tradition, or at least should take tradition, Merton realized that he needed to appeal to the sources of the faith to show that his arguments against nuclear war and for nonviolence had deep roots in tradition. So from the very beginning of his anti-war writings, Merton wrote from a theological perspective, drawing on explicitly Catholic sources and ideas.
Merton pointed first to Jesus Christ, focusing particularly on his teachings on the kingdom of God. Merton argued that Christ inaugurated the kingdom of God here on earth, and in so doing, emphasized a new way of being for his followers. Merton put it this way:
War was neither blessed nor forbidden by Christ. He simply stated that war belonged to the world outside the kingdom, the world outside the mystery and the Spirit of Christ and that therefore for one who was seriously living in Christ, war belonged to a realm that no longer had a decisive meaning.
Christ came to create a new political community, a kingdom of God in this world, a kingdom that operates differently from all other political entities. While power, force and violence characterize the kingdoms of this world, the kingdom of God is to be governed by the law of love, exemplified for us by the selfless generosity of the Word made flesh who chose to suffer rather than to fight. Those in the kingdom of God, Merton argued, “will take no direct part in the struggles of earthly kingdoms.”
Merton was arguing that nonviolence is not something novel, and in fact, it has roots to the very foundation of Christianity, in Christ himself.
He continued: “They depend on no power other than the power of God, and it is God they obey rather than the state, which tends to usurp the powers of God and to blaspheme him, setting itself up in his stead as an idol and drawing to itself the adoration and worship that are due to him alone.” This he takes to be the message not simply of the Gospels, but also of the book of Revelation, which shows that early Christians understood that, whatever may be the battles fought by the worldly empire, the battle of the Christian was to be “nonviolent and spiritual.”
Merton was arguing that nonviolence is not something novel, and in fact, it has roots to the very foundation of Christianity, in Christ himself. And lest his interlocutors think that Christ’s teaching and example were appropriate only for him and that, for example, the Sermon on the Mount was not intended to be taken literally, Merton pointed to the example of the early Christians who preferred to suffer rather than do that which was opposed to the law of love.
As opposed to some arguments made by Christian pacifists, Merton argued that post-apostolic Christians were not absolute pacifists. While the military life was not considered ideal for Christians in no small part because service in the military was tied to the idolatry of required sacrifices, there were Christians in the army. Nevertheless, prominent Christian writers like Justin Martyr, Origen, Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian and Cyprian of Carthage all argued that killing in war was opposed to following Christ.
The marriage of Christianity with political power in the fourth century, beginning with Constantine, meant that there was also an attempt to develop theological justifications for the use of force by Christians for the sake of order and peace in the empire. “The question was,” Merton wrote, “to find out some way to fight that did not violate the law of love.” It was out of this framework that the just war tradition developed.
In the context of “ages less destructive than our own,” the just war tradition had value. But the just war theory presupposes a defensive war in which the use of force is limited and non-combatants are protected. While these principles were frequently disregarded in the medieval period, they made sense given the limited scale of warfare. But nuclear weapons are, according to Merton, “purely offensive” weapons, particularly given that so many people, including Catholics, were calling for an offensive first strike against Russia. Moreover, these are weapons that, given their destructive capabilities, cannot but kill non-combatants, and the scale of the force used is on a level that limitations are themselves meaningless. “Hence,” Merton concluded, “the theologian is faced with a problem of fabulous complexity if he wants to justify nuclear war by traditional Christian standards.”
Merton lamented the fact that Catholics were no different in their attitudes toward nuclear war than anyone else.
That had not prevented theologians from attempting to justify just that, and Merton lamented the fact that Catholics were no different in their attitudes toward nuclear war than anyone else. Not only did Merton therefore argue against this attitude through theological argument, but he also argued on the basis of magisterial authority, pointing to statements made by Pope Pius XII and Pope John XXIII on the issue of nuclear war.
While he acknowledged that no pope has ever made an ex cathedra condemnation of nuclear war, Merton questioned why such a condemnation would even be necessary given what the teaching authority of the church has already said about war. He pointed out in an essay called “Religion and the Bomb” that there exist many statements by both Pius XII and John XXIII unambiguously condemning recourse to war in international disputes. Even before the advent of the nuclear weapon, Pope Pius XII warned that war, even war that used conventional weapons, could be criminal. And in 1939, in response to the blitzkrieg in Poland, Pius XII said that the use of conventional weapons against civilians “cried out to heaven for vengeance.”
In his 1944 Christmas message, before the bombing of Hiroshima, Pius XII stated that “the theory of war as an apt and proportionate means of solving international conflicts is now out of date.” He went on to say that the duty of banning wars was a duty that was “binding on all,” and “brooks no delay, no procrastination, no hesitation, no subterfuge.” And in 1954, in an address to the World Medical Association, he unequivocally denounced nuclear annihilation bombing as immoral. While Pius XII affirmed the right of the state to self-defense, this did not mean that he approved of nuclear weapons as a legitimate response to an aggressor, as he made clear in an address to army doctors in 1953: “If the damage caused by the war is disproportionate to the injustice suffered, it may well be a matter of obligation to suffer the injustice.”
Thomas Merton would, I think, be unsurprised that we find ourselves in this situation again. Those of us who didn’t give the continued existence of nuclear arms much thought in recent years were naive to think that the threat of nuclear war was a thing of the past. It is worth noting that Pope Francis did not suffer such naivete, as displayed in his numerous remarks about the dangers of nuclear weapons years before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. On the 75th anniversary of the nuclear attacks on Japan, Francis urged nations to work towards the elimination of nuclear weapons, arguing that possession of them is “immoral” and that their continued existence heightens “a climate of fear, mistrust and hostility.” And in his recent encyclical, “Fratelli Tutti,” Francis wrote that the elimination of nuclear weapons is “moral and humanitarian imperative.”
Merton would tell us today that we as citizens have to make it clear to our leaders that there is no situation in which nuclear weapons of any size could be justified.
What might Merton say to us in our current circumstances? He would be heartened by the ways in which the magisteriums of our last three popes have been unambiguous in their condemnations of the use of nuclear weapons, and encouraged by the ways in which the church has moved away from just war teachings given the destructive capabilities of nuclear weapons. He would remind us as Catholics that we cannot, under any circumstances, support their use. He would tell us that we must speak out forcefully against the continued possession of nuclear weapons, that we as citizens have to make it clear to our leaders that there is no situation in which nuclear weapons of any size could be justified and that we cannot escalate any circumstance to such a degree that nuclear weapons might be considered.
Indeed, he would argue that, in a nuclear age, any use of military force has the potential to escalate to nuclear conflict, so we must work towards the abolition of war completely. He would, moreover, go so far as to tell Catholics in the military that they are morally obligated to refuse orders that could potentially lead to the use of nuclear weapons, and should the situation every come that we are engaged in nuclear conflict, it would be, Merton writes, “legitimate and even obligatory for all sane and conscientious [people] everywhere in the world to lay down their weapons and their tools and starve and be shot rather than cooperate.”
Some may find such advice extreme. But when we are talking about the the death of hundreds of thousands—perhaps millions—of people, indeed when we are talking about the possibility of global suicide, how could we do anything less?