A few days after the U.S. presidential election in November 2016, a record 77 percent of Americans told Gallup they felt the country was divided. Throughout 2016, as hate crimes rose 20 percent across the country, headlines from The Huffington Post, Forbes, Newsweek and The Federalist asked readers if they were reliving the infamous political and social strife of 1968. Comparisons to Nixon and Watergate were made on either side of the aisle, as were more apocalyptic terms like the warning we were facing “the end of the world.”
In his inauguration speech in January of this year, President Trump promised to end the “American carnage.” On the same day, ABC commentator Matthew Dowd described a nation more divided than it had been since the start of the Civil War in 1861. Nearly eight months of partisan infighting and insinuations followed, and tensions boiled over into bloodshed in Charlottesville, Va., this summer. A rally to “Unite the Right” turned divisive as the debate around a statue of Robert E. Lee, a Confederate general, turned into chaos on American television screens. Anti-Semites marched with torches and Nazi flags, and open fighting broke out in the streets. It culminated in an act of terrorism as a young man drove his car into a crowd of peaceful protestors.
In an aftermath characterized by increasingly heated press conferences, mixed messaging and anger, people on many sides have been left to openly wonder: “Is this really happening in America?”
As if anticipating this collective dark night of the soul, in his 2015 speech to the U.S. Congress, Pope Francis listed four American exemplars of Christian morality for us to learn from, two of whom died in 1968. The first was the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The second was the Trappist monk Thomas Merton.
Francis described Merton as “a man of prayer, a thinker who challenged the certitudes of his time and opened new horizons for souls and for the church...a man of dialogue, a promoter of peace between peoples and religions.” While all of these labels are fitting, Merton’s role as a Catholic voice of compassion and peace is even more remarkable considering the ways conflict touched his personal life.
Seeds of Peace and Justice
Born in France in 1915, Merton fled with his family to avoid World War I. By the time he was 16, he had been orphaned, with both parents perishing from cancer. In December 1941, Merton joined the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani (just three days after Pearl Harbor). In April 1942, his younger brother and only living family member, John Paul Merton, was killed in action over the English Channel. Just six months into his novitiate, the 27-year-old was alone and completely severed from secular life.
In his position, others might have begun to hate the world. Instead, Thomas Merton found he could not leave it alone.
In his position, others might have begun to hate the world. Instead, Merton found he could not leave it alone. Over the course of 27 years, he produced more than 60 works examining the world through the lens of Christian faith. Throughout his journey, he turned his attention to scripture, prayer, spirituality and, most strikingly in the last years of his life, social justice in books like The Seeds of Destruction and Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander.
Heaping praise on the writings of James Baldwin, Merton called for white Christians to try to understand and to ally themselves to the efforts of the civil rights movement. He built on the pacifist work of Pope John XXIII, spoke out against nuclear weapons and called for nonviolence amongst people and nations, publicly questioning the wisdom and morality of U.S. Cold War policy. Believing that the future of religion lay in interfaith dialogue, he participated in a conference that included Catholic, Buddhist and Hindu monks in Bangkok, Thailand, in December 1968. Tragically, it was during this conference that he was accidentally electrocuted, 27 years to the day after he first entered the Abbey. It seems strangely fitting that Merton’s body was flown back to the United States alongside the bodies of soldiers killed in Vietnam.
Merton, who would have been 102 this year, taught us that to be a Christian is to embrace the world without fear and to live in a spirit of selfless love and trust. He worried not about his own or even his order’s survival, but about the loss of that essential truth, which he saw as central to the faith.
Writing in 1966, Merton expressed his fear that “a loss of respect for being and man” and the essential divinity of both would lead to a cheapening of human life and the destruction of the environment. This “sin of modernity,” according to Merton, confuses mechanical progress for human betterment, pursuing personal comfort and societal approval over living the teachings of Christ. Fifty-one years ago, Merton warned that the failure to enact the Gospel’s social implications would result in an “earthly Hell.” Today, recent studies of rising temperatures, sea levels and the projected effects global climate change will have on populations around the world may prove him right.
This year, the earth’s carbon dioxide levels reached their highest in human history, yet this is not the only terrifying global record being broken. This July, an iceberg the size of Delaware split from the Antarctic ice shelf. In August and early September, Hurricane Harvey devastated Houston, Tex., flooding entire neighborhoods and displacing more than 30,000 people. At the same time, across India, Bangladesh and Nepal, monsoons have also brought the worst flooding in years, killing more than 1,200 people and affecting more than 24 million.
In his 2015 encyclical, “Laudato Si’,” Pope Francis described climate change as “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day,” resulting from the imbalance of “our immense technological development” and “development in human responsibility, values, and conscience.”
Even as he acknowledges the terrible threat climate change poses for humanity, Francis remains hopeful; but he cautions that hope alone will not be enough. It is our actions in the face of this challenge that will ultimately decide what happens. “Human beings, while capable of the worst,” he wrote, “are also capable of rising above themselves, choosing again what is good, and making a new start.”
In Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, Merton makes a similar observation about hope and optimism in the context of the Final Judgment. In some sense, we are always facing the end of the world. And yet, this is exactly the kind of crisis Christianity addresses, to which Christ on the cross is our comfort and our salvation.
This is the mystery of the crucifixion and the resurrection— the perfect sacrifice for the whole world. By falling, by failing, suffering and dying, Jesus reverses the Fall of Adam, saving humanity from itself. Christ’s victory saves not just the world but saves us all. Christian optimism, then, is not just the hope that things will turn out all right— it is the complete trust in the truth of God’s plan and the role humans have to play in it.
With this in mind, Merton writes, every moment, especially a crisis, is an opportunity to:
[r]espond now in perfect freedom to the redemptive love of God for man in Christ, that I can now rise above the forces of necessity and evil in order to say “yes” to the mysterious action of Spirit that is transforming the world even in the midst of the violence and confusion and destruction.
In other words, no matter the odds, the conditions or even the apparent logic, there is always an alternative. Just as the Salt Marchers of India in 1930 and American Freedom Riders in the 1960s defeated their enemies by taking their blows without resistance, the Gospel and history tell us it is possible to submit without submitting, and thus overcome any obstacle. Because the world is already saved and will be saved, it is always possible to say yes to the invitation to collaborate and participate in the world’s salvation and the building of the new Jerusalem.
If one really has faith in the salvation of the world and the truth of the Gospel, history must have such an arc, because its end has already been written.
The trumpet of the Book of Revelation has sounded, but in the original meaning of the word “revelation.” We are being revealed to each other, as we are, in how we choose to respond to the problems and whether we will rise to the challenges of our times. We can choose an “Earthly Hell,” as so many seem to wish, or the alternative, as in Rev 21:4: the wiping away of all tears, the end of pain and death. It is a question, then, whether we can make the change within ourselves and what we choose to value, the shift Dorothy Day called “the Revolution of the Heart,” which must begin within each of us.
Becoming Truly Human
It might seem strange to imagine this in a wider American context, but it has happened before. In 1862, as hundreds of thousands of young Americans fought and killed one another in the Civil War, many took comfort in the words of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,”that “our God” and “his truth” are marching on.It is in this same spirit that both Dr. King and President Barack Obama invoked the universe and history’s long arc toward justice. If one really has faith in the ultimate divinity of humanity, in the salvation of the world and the truth of the Gospel, history must have such an arc, because its end has already been written. No matter how dark things may seem, this sort of knowledge radically transfigures how one perceives and engages both with others and with external possibilities.
For instance, in 1966, Merton described a mystical experience in a Louisville, Ky., shopping district, famously writing:
I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a world of renunciation and supposed holiness.
This experience of transcendent love provided Merton with a new understanding of his vocation, his faith and his humanity. To Merton, the monastic imperative toward contemptus mundi, literally, “contempt for the world,” was not about abandoning others or the physical realities of life. Instead, it was turning one’s back upon inherited ideas, definitions and preconceptions. Most of all, it made him reassess how we relate to others as members of our faith and our species, and what we owe to one another.
As he wrote in his journal, after hearing other monks praise the destructive capacity of a new American missile, “Have we lost all sense of proportion along with our faith?” To Merton, it was no longer possible to be a true believer and hold up one segment of humanity above another along the lines of race, class, nation or ideology. Instead, in the same spirit of transcendent love, it is necessary to see disagreement and conflict as a chance to learn from each other about ourselves. It is a chance to be better.
In his Letters to a White Liberal, Merton describes the then-contemporary civil rights protests as the voice of Black America: “He seriously demands that we learn something from him, because he is convinced that we need this, and need it badly.” Through the eyes of a true believer, necessary criticism and demands for reform ultimately stem from the same universal source of all good, because God’s love is not a zero-sum game. His love for one group or individual does not diminish or take from his love for others, and in that same spirit, we should take others’ requests for equality and their concerns seriously. Instead, for Merton, God’s love is so totalizing that it wipes away all difference between people. When we give in to and return that embrace, as we give up our preconceptions of our fellow beings, we become truly human. As Merton explained in a letter to the writer James Baldwin, “I am...not completely human until I have found myself in my African and Asian and Indonesian brother because he has the part of humanity which I lack.”
Merton teaches us that in our dealings with our fellow citizens, both of the United States and of the planet Earth, we have the chance to hear the voice of God and collaborate as agents of the Holy Spirit. This means entering an active relationship with God by harnessing and contributing “the creative power that he has placed in us,” or, as St. Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians (2:19-21): “You are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God...the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord.”
Of course, as Americans, hearing and respecting our fellow citizens takes on an additional importance—particularly in today’s fractured media and social landscapes. “Democracy cannot exist when men prefer ideas and opinions that are fabricated for them,” Merton wrote, arguing that the country runs on its own kind of faith. Once democracy ceases to exist for a large enough segment of the population, it no longer exists at all. More than 50 years ago, Merton asked himself a lingering question: “What is the situation in the United States today?”
An Ending or a Beginning?
Today, the American situation can seem quite bleak: The struggle of the shrinking working class. The unending bloodshed in Middle Eastern cities as well as ongoing struggle in our Midwestern cities. The crumbling infrastructure across the country and the political stagnation that has turned Washington, D.C., into a “swamp.” While this should perhaps be enough to motivate us to action, in an era of seemingly insurmountable partisanship and endless distraction, it can be easy to give up hope and give in to the comforts and distractions of our technology.
In an era of seemingly insurmountable partisanship and endless distraction, it can be easy to give up hope and give in to the comforts and distractions of our technology.
As Merton once remarked, though, in a world before cell phones, emails and social media, “desperation makes the world go round.” The more we have become cocooned within our preferred bubbles of Facebook friends and news outlets, the further we have fallen into the “sin of modernity” Merton warned about—not unlike the Buddhist concept of samsara, a life cycle that involves both ignorance and suffering.
Drowning in a stream of reflected data of likes, dislikes, fears and anxieties, it is easy to lose sight of the truth. Still, no matter what the headlines or one’s Facebook newsfeed says, the good news of the Gospel should be the driving force in all Catholic and Christian lives. As the church teaches, and as Pope Francis reminds us, there is always time to start again.
In his book Contemplative Prayer, Merton makes clear that God is always speaking to us. The hard part is learning how to listen. In the United States today, this means providing others with the chance to speak and to assemble, especially when we do not agree. This means protecting the First Amendment in all its forms, for alt-right ideologues, anti-fascist flag burners, whistleblowers, muckrakers and more. This means learning the difference between an article, “fake news,” clickbait and paid advertising, looking at multiple news sources and encouraging others to do the same. This means having hard conversations and not deleting Facebook “friends” because of who they voted for.
Merton’s example calls on us to sacrifice the world we have constructed for ourselves: our comfort zone, our complacency, our self-righteousness and our preferred facts. It might not be easy, but it is our small cross to bear if we would ask ourselves new questions and hear the voice of God in others here and now.
How does talking to a protester change your outlook and the questions that you ask? Does watching Fox News or listening to NPR for a few moments affect your perspective of the “other side”? Instead of debating who should and how to pay for health care, should we instead ask whether it is moral, as self-proclaimed Christians, to take health coverage away from 22 million of our fellow Americans. In the face of immigration questions and a refugee crisis, can we forget that Christ himself was an infant refugee in Egypt by the end of the Nativity story?
Are we strong enough to stop bickering about who voted for whom, aggrandizing ourselves as we test others for purity and loyalty? Instead of determining who is the real progressive, the real conservative, the real liberal or the real small-government proponent, is it not time to try a new metric? How do we stack up against the two commandments Christ set out in Matthew: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “Love your neighbor as yourself”?
Just as Christianity was born into a classical world in crisis, it is in moments of crisis that the Christian message holds the greatest promise and the greatest strength. When being and man are imbued with their proper respect, each of our lives becomes an opportunity to share and glorify the divinity that dwells within us. As Merton wrote, “To be a saint is to be myself.” That is, to be a saint is to be the best version of yourself, to choose to use your God-given talents to do the things that only you can do.
It is in moments of crisis that the Christian message holds the greatest promise and the greatest strength.
In Houston, as the flood waters rose, an elderly man was trapped inside his truck as the deluge threatened to sweep it away. A group of bystanders saw him, only minutes from drowning, but found they had no rope with which to free him. Instead of despairing, they did what they could with what they had—linking arms to form a human chain, risking their lives and using their collective strength to pull a stranger to safety. Hurricane Harvey was a national tragedy, but in its wake, in these moments of heroism, it offers us modern parables.
Although the actions asked of us will not always be so dramatic, every day presents a chance to open ourselves up, a collective opportunity to bring our unique abilities into the world. They are our gifts, but they do not belong to us. We carry them with us and present them to each other, and in the process, we build the kingdom we have been promised, as we pledged to do, one piece at a time. To be a Christian, then, is to embrace and become the kairos—the opening for action guided always by love.
“In times of drastic change,” Merton warns, it is easy to lose touch with where one is. We can be thrown off balance and forget whether today is an ending or a beginning, which way things are moving and how it will all end up. In these times, Merton says, “courage is the authentic form taken by love.” Courage, however, becomes certainty in the knowledge of Christ’s victory. We may not always know God’s will. We may stumble and fall along the way, but the path forward is there, and we will find it. We cannot fail to find it if we have faith, in each other, in ourselves and in the truth as Merton saw it. The battle is over. History is already written. It is for us to choose which side we are on, find our role and play it.