Thomas Merton on America's Treacherous Moment

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On January 6, 2021, the promise of a new and better year was shattered when a mob of thousands of pro-Trump supporters besieged the U.S. Capitol, leaving in its wake death and destruction and searing the event into the indelible memory of a nation. Many questions were asked afterwards. After weeks of social media posts hinting at the violence to come, how is it that government officials didn’t see it coming? Why weren’t there more police? Are more violent insurrections planned for the near future? But the questions that kept coming to my mind was how do these rioters reconcile the fact that they say they are for “Law and Order” as they savagely beat police, even killing one, and chanted that wanted to murder the vice president by hanging him? How do they reconcile their position on abortion and packing the Supreme Court, yet they showed no mercy to those police officers? Should they have succeeded in dragging the vice president kicking and screaming out from the Capitol Building and hung him on the gallows they had erected on the grounds (see above), how would they have reconciled their faith and the commandment not to kill and Jesus’ admonishment, “He who lives by the sword, shall perish by the sword?” In answer to the last question especially, I wondered what Thomas Merton—the Catholic monk and priest and one of the most celebrated Christian and spiritual writers of the Twentieth Century—would think about the Trump presidency and about those seditious pro-Trump supporters’ failed insurrection if he were still alive (he died in 1968). Merton was one of the most vocal critics of the war in Vietnam. He was an advocate for the Civil Rights Movement and for peace. During his address to the U.S. Congress in September of 2015, Pope Francis called Merton one of the greatest Americans, alongside Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr.

In Seeds of Destruction (1964) Thomas Merton was already forming his conviction that, above all else, a Christian must be a peacemaker. From reading works like Contra Celsum by Origen (c. 185 - c. 254 C.E.), also known as Origin of Alexandria or Origin Adamantius, an important early Christian scholar, ascetic, and theologian who helped to lay the foundations of philosophical theology for the church, Merton learned that it is not only right but obligatory to disobey human laws when they are contrary to the law of God: “We no longer take the sword against any nations nor do we learn war any more since we have become the sons of peace through Jesus” (Seeds, 139). Other early Christian apologists like Clement of Alexandria (150 – 215 C.E.), a contemporary of Origen, reminded Followers of Jesus that Jesus was the “Prince of Peace,” and he condemned military service altogether. Justin Martyr (100 – 165 C.E.) declared that the Followers of Jesus “do not make war upon our enemies.” Merton often referred to the writings of Tertullian (155 – 240 C.E.), another contemporary, who declared that when “Jesus took away Peter’s sword in the Garden of Gethsemani he disarmed every soldier thereafter who would call themselves his followers” (Seeds, 134).

From Origen and Clement and other early Christian theologians, Merton was learning that “the Christian does not help the war effort of one particular nation, but he fights against war itself with spiritual weapons. Love . . . must underlie all Christian action (141).” Action was beginning to take on more meaning for Merton. You could tell by the tone in his late writing that Merton was disappointed that St. Augustine’s thoughts on war took such tenacious root in Christianity, giving permission for Christians to kill for the state, despite God’s commandment “Thou shall not kill.” Merton appreciated how St. Cyprian (c. 200 - c. 258 C.E.) observed that when one individual murders another it is abhorrent, but “when homicide is carried out publicly on a large scale by the state it turns into a virtue” (Ad Donatum, VI, 10).

More than any other Christian writer, St. Augustine opened the door for what Merton saw as the unholy marriage between Christianity and the State, and especially the military. He was repulsed by the way some Christians considered themselves to be “Soldiers for Christ.” Merton suspected that the peculiar bedfellow relationship between American government and religion was not coincidental. Like some Machiavellian scheming to maintain power at any price, the relationship was purposefully nurtured by the state to use religion for its own purposes, despite the fact that the framers of the U.S. Constitution knew that the powers of religion and state must be separated because of the inherent dangers evidenced by history. Journals and letters by the Founding Fathers clearly indicate that America was not founded on any notions of religion. It was founded on Roman and Greek principles of democracy. Some of the language of our Constitution comes directly from those ancient writers and philosophers.

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(Thomas Merton, c. 1967)

On reading the writings of those early Church fathers who lived at a time much closer to when a living Jesus walked the earth, Merton understood that “the state 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 God alone” (Apocalypse 13:3-9, from Seeds, 130) and in which the leader of the state is grossly revered as a messiah who has come as a savior like Jesus (only without any of the redeeming, moral qualities of Jesus such as humility, compassion, mercy, honesty, forgiveness, inclusion, and nonviolence). Certainly, history bears this out. One has only to consider Hitler and how he cunningly distorted and transformed the Nazi Party into a quasi-religious institution, an idol demanding allegiance and even adoration by its subjects complete with its own prescribed set of religious genuflections like the infamous Nazi salute and unifying slogans of religious allegiance like “Heil Hitler!” Akin to falsehearted politicians today, Hitler gave a speech to the Reichstag on March 23, 1933 in which he described Christianity as the foundation for the National Socialist “Nazi” Party. For the despot, who understands that power is an end of itself, usurping the power of religion is a tool to control the masses. “Make Germany Great Again!” was a ubiquitous Nazi slogan. By the late 1930s, any member of German society who did not embrace the Nazi Party or revere Hitler as a God-figure was labelled as “unpatriotic” and a “traitor.” Newspapers that published negative stories about him were called “enemies of the people.”

Sound familiar?

In addition to the writings of those early church fathers, Merton also studied the works of Meister Eckhart (c. 1260 - 1328 C.E.), the German theologian, philosopher, and mystic from whom he learned the central tenet of compassion: “What happens to another, be it be a joy or a sorrow, happens to me.” At the same time, Merton was reading the work of more contemporary writers like Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906 -1945), the German Lutheran pastor, theologian, and anti-Nazi dissident who was arrested by the Gestapo in April of 1943, two years after Merton’s arrival at the doorstep of the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani where the abbot asked him the question that is asked of every man who comes with the desire to be a monk and to live among the austere brethren: Quid petis? What do you ask (i.e. Why do you come here?). Bonhoeffer was a staunch critic of Hitler’s euthanasia program and his genocidal persecution of the Jews. He was accused of taking part in a plot to assassinate Hitler and executed by hanging at Flossenbürg Concentration Camp on April 9, 1945 as the war that Germany had started was coming to an end and as Germany was being bombed mercilessly into oblivion, day and night, its women and girls raped by Russian soldiers eager for revenge for what the German soldiers had done to their wives and mothers and daughters on the Russian Front and elsewhere in Europe during their reign of terror.

So much for any notion that Hitler’s new Germany—The Third Reich—was founded on Christian principles as he once declared to the frantic mob gathered outside the steps of the Reichstag.

By the mid-to-late 1960s, Merton was beginning to understand that America, too, was “usurping the powers of God and . . . setting itself up in His stead as an idol and drawing to itself the adoration and worship that are due to God alone.” Franz Jägerstätter understood this about Germany when he wrote from a Nazi prison before he was executed by guillotine: “Is it right and just to kill for Hitler just because he says it is right and just to do so?” Uneducated as he was (though he had studied the Lives of the Saints), Franz Jägerstätter had come to understand that the Followers of Jesus do not kill. They abhor violence and war. He understood in his heart of hearts that the Follower of Jesus must, first and foremost, be a peacemaker.

Like Jägerstätter, Merton came to realize that the State had hijacked St. Augustine’s writings on the Christian and the just war, abusing Augustine to its own benefit by persuading Christians that it is right to kill and die for the State if the State says so, in direct contrast to God’s first commandment: “Thou shall not kill” and Jesus’s command that “He who lives by the sword shall perish by the sword.” Merton wept for Christian Americans hoodwinked into believing that our government and Jesus or God were one and the same or on equal footing. He was learning that America was not the “Christian Nation” it claimed to be.

In one of his many correspondences that have come to be known as the “Cold War Letters,” Thomas Merton wrote to Rabbi Everett Gendler in October of 1962, saying that while he supported wholeheartedly the efforts of the peace movement to communicate new ideas against a tidal wave of propaganda, “at the same time I am impressed with the fact that all these things are little more than symbols. Thank God they are at least symbols, and valid ones. But where are we going to turn for some really effective political action? As soon as one gets involved in the machinery of politics one gets involved in its demonic futilities and in the great current that sweeps everything toward no one knows what” (Thomas Merton, Cold War Letter 111, to Rabbi Everett Gendler, Princeton, October 1962; in Thomas Merton, Witness to Freedom: Letters in Times of Crisis, edited by William H. Shannon).

Throughout the 1960s, Merton was wrestling with America’s collective lack of compassion for other human beings and the way in which we cast aside sanity when it comes to how we regard others. He was frustrated with our reckless and blind obedience to religion as well as to politics. He was concerned that our moral compass was broken—north was south and east was west. What is sanity in the modern world? he wondered. He was thinking about the way Black Americans were treated in America a hundred years after Emancipation. He was thinking about the systemic inequalities between rich and poor—the Haves and Have Nots. He was thinking about our unjust wars in East Asia, the wholesale destruction of people who had done nothing to America, but who simply embraced a different form of government. In Raids on the Unspeakable (1966), Merton writes:

“The Whole concept of sanity in a society where spiritual values have lost their meaning is itself meaningless. . . . 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 also as persons, to apprehend their pain as one’s own? Evidently this is not necessary for sanity at all.” (46-47)

In Seeds of Destruction, Merton frequently cited Pope John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth). Thinking especially about American politics, Merton writes that the politician “should not be a ruthless and clever operator with unlimited power at his disposal, justified in taking any decision that serves him and his party or nation in the power-struggle. He must be—as Pope John says—a ‘man of great equilibrium and integrity,” who is competent and courageous . . . And he must not evade his basic moral obligations for “reasons of state.” On the contrary, statesmen and governments, which put their own interests before everything else, including justice . . . are no better than bandits” (165).

Even in the mid-1960s, Merton understood America’s increasing, yet mistaken, desire for isolationism and nationalism. He would have been appalled at Trump’s rallying cry of “America First!” half a century later. Hadn’t we learned anything? In Seeds of Destruction, Merton wrote:

“We must condemn all isolationism and nationalistic individualism which might prompt a government to seek its own interests, ignoring and holding in contempt the rest of the world. At the present time all of the countries in the world are so closely inter-related that no one nation can simply turn upon itself and seek its own advantage without affecting other nations. No country should unjustly oppress other countries or meddle in their affairs.” (166-167)

Albert Einstein, who escaped Hitler’s gas chambers during the same period, also knew this to be true when he wrote in In Our Time:  “The greatest obstacle to world peace is that monstrously exaggerated spirit of nationalism, which also goes by the fair-sounding name of patriotism. It seriously threatens the survival of civilization and our very existence. Only by overcoming our national egotism will we be able to contribute towards improving the lot of humanity.”

No doubt, were he alive today, Thomas Merton would take umbrage by many of the corrupt actions and policies of the Trump Administration, especially by the overtly racist and violence-inciting language from the Oval Office. He would be appalled at the way the president uses religion as a political tool, to the extent of violently removing peaceful protesters from the street so he could pose with a Bible, heedless of its abundant messages of love, compassion, kindness, mercy, and non-violence. He would be disheartened by the knowledge that many Americans who watched the brutal act thought the president had acted Christ-like. Merton would be the first to say that President Trump was “a ruthless and clever operator” who put his own power above all else, that he was certainly not “a man of great equilibrium and integrity,” and that the whole gang surrounding the president were little more than bandits. Trump’s ex-wife of many years once said that the only book she ever recalled him having by his bedside was Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

Merton would be horrified by the spectacle of the violent pro-Trump mob who—blinded by misplaced allegiance to a narcissistic president who constantly lied to them about the 2020 election and about the threat of a dangerous pandemic because it might affect his re-election—incited them to besiege the U.S. Capitol during a legislative session on January 6, 2021 in an act of domestic terrorism and insurrection against democracy that left five people dead, including a Capitol police officer, injured some sixty officers, and endangered the lives of every American Representative and Senator, including the Vice President of the United States—all because an egotistical president refused to admit that he lost an election, and because such a failure wounded his fragile selfhood. He would plunge America into a civil war all because of his excessive pride. In fact, Trump told us who he was during the 2016 election, when he told reporters, “I always win no matter the cost,” and after being asked which biblical trait he most admired, Trump answered: “revenge.” It was reported by White House staff that during the televised insurrection, Trump was visibly delighted by the attack and couldn’t understand why other people thought it was horrendous. In the aftermath of the chaos and violence, President Trump called the domestic terrorists “Great Patriots” and said they were “special.” Despite their own eyes, Trump supporters across the nation decried, “That wasn’t us! That was people pretending to be us!” They were unable or unwilling to admit that those violent rioters represented the true character of Trump’s base that believes mob rule should rule the nation. God forbid that those rioters or likeminded followers are ever given control of the levers of power.

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(Capitol defenders with handguns drawn protecting the members of the House of Representatives during the violent insurrection)

During America’s treacherous moment, rioters—many wearing para-military attire—attempted to replace the American flag flying over the Capitol building with a Trump flag, thereby elevating his person above the symbol of our nation. Many of the rioters carried flags depicting assault rifles. Some carried the Confederate flag through the hallowed hallways of America’s seat of government. Others carried flags with Trump’s image emblazoned on them, while some even draped themselves in Trump flags. One insurgent beat a fallen police officer with the American flag. Many of the pro-Trump insurrectionists wore tee-shirts that said things like, “Six million Jews exterminated by Hitler was not enough” (6MNE), while another wore a tee-shirt that said “Camp Auschwitz,” avowing their White Supremacism and anti-Semitism. These were the same people who marched in Charlottesville brandishing torches (tiki oil lamps) and chanting, “Jews will never replace us!” The same people who chanted “Lock her up!” during boisterous Trump rallies now chanted “Hang Mike Pence!” the vice president who was hidden away in the Capitol Building. In fact, a gallows with a hangman’s noose was erected on the grounds of the Capitol. There were online posts by the rioters describing their plan to also execute the Speaker of the House and numerous other Representatives.

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The people who assaulted the American government on that tragic day represent the true character of much of Trump’s base, though most will deny it, especially those who consider themselves to be conservative Christians. Yet, the sad truth is that some of those Trump supporters carried signs that likened Trump to Jesus—all of which show how Trump intentionally created a cult following designed to “set himself up as an idol.” He once even called himself “The Chosen One” as he gazed slyly heavenward, as if he were Jesus returned to life.

The Evangelicals gobbled it up.

If Merton was alive today he would adamantly caution America that it is always dangerous to conflate another flawed human being with Christ, especially one who seeks power over others, be it political or economic. He understood that any individual who would do anything to gain power or to hold on to power is the last person who should be given it.

Thomas Merton realized, finally, that in a world of insanity where so many suffer, often because of injustice and lack of caring, mercy, compassion, and tolerance that prayer was not enough. Like Meister Eckhart and Jesus before him, Thomas Merton came to understand that action is necessary. Faith demands actions of love. Love means compassion. And compassion means justice. There is a reason that actions to alleviate the suffering of others are called good works. I think Merton would be horrified by the response of so many political leaders today who proclaim how Christian they are, but whose canned response to mass shootings in public schools and elsewhere is simply, “We will keep them in our prayers” or “We will pray for them.” But no real, meaningful legislation ever comes of it—only hollow prayers from hollow leaders. From what he observed from the Civil Rights Movement, Merton would say that change requires more than prayer. He would say that real change requires action. Like the late Congressman John Lewis, who carried Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain in his backpack as he crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965 into the waiting hands of baton and Billy club-yielding police (see photo below), Thomas Merton appreciated that accomplishing good works meant that feet must meet pavement.

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Having studied the simple, yet enduring writings of the early desert fathers—those hardy men in the second through fourth centuries who created some of the earliest ascetic Christian communities in the deserts of Egypt and Palestine—Merton was reminded that above all else, the single most important virtue of a Follower of Jesus is charity, intentional action to relieve the sufferings of others. As he wrote in the introduction of his little pocketbook, The Wisdom of the Desert (1960), “The Coptic hermits who left the world as though escaping from a wreck, did not merely intend to save themselves . . . They had the obligation to pull the whole world to safety after them” (36). Throughout the writings in the Verba Seniorum (“Words of the Elders”) is the insistence of the power of love over everything else, including ritual and prayer. For those men, as for Merton, love is the Spiritual Life. Without love, everything else, including religion itself, is empty and illusion. If Thomas Merton were alive today, he would wonder how it is that so many Americans failed to see the obvious parallels between Trumpism and Nazism. He would weep for America. He would ask us, Where is our love, compassion, mercy, and tolerance? And he would pray for us all.


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 Dr. John Smelcer is the Inaugural Writer-in-Residence for the Charter for Compassion where he teaches a global online course called “Poetry for Inspiration and Well-Being.” He is the author of over 60 books, including A New Day, (2020) his pocketbook of meditations to inspire love, compassion, hope, mercy, tolerance, contemplation, and peace. He is currently working on a book about Thomas Merton. (Photo: author at Merton’s graveside, 2015)

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