As I wrote in my previous blog, in the summer of 2015, I discovered the worldly possessions of Thomas Merton, safeguarded for half a century by a former monk and a nun. Compelled by the spiritual connection, I began reading everything I could by and about Merton. One book I read was The Raft is Not the Shore, a conversation between Jesuit priest and social activist Daniel Berrigan and the exiled Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh in which Merton is frequently mentioned. I had met Berrigan a decade earlier in New York City, and I had published poetry by both men in Rosebud magazine, where I’ve been poetry editor since 1995. Thich Nhat Hanh met briefly with Merton in Cordova, Alaska during Merton’s fateful Asia trip in the fall and early winter of 1968. I contacted both old friends to tell them of the discovery. They were excited and thankful.
Although The Raft is Not the Shore was published in 1975 and focused on the turbulent sixties and early seventies, especially the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement, I couldn’t help but notice that much of what they discussed was relevant today, especially during the recent divisive presidential election. And so I set out to do a similar conversation between myself and Merton’s old friends. Fortunately, Berrigan was able to contribute his portion of the project before he passed away on April 30, 2016 at the age of 94. At 91 and suffering episodes of poor health, Thich Nhat Hanh was able to participate. (Photo of Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh in Cordova, Alaska fall 1968)
SMELCER: What struck me while reading The Raft is Not the Shore is how it could as easily have been written today, simply substituting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for Vietnam. As a cultural anthropologist, I would argue that racism and xenophobia are as prevalent as ever in 21st century America. The campaign rhetoric of one presidential candidate certainly bears this out.
BERRIGAN: For certain. Just as it did with Vietnam, America declared war on Iraq and Afghanistan, countries that had done no harm to us. Of course they called it a “Police Action” back then, a euphemism meant to suggest we were issuing them a citation for some wrongdoing. The individual responsible for organizing the attacks of 9-11 was hiding in Pakistan the entire time while we invaded and occupied two nations for more than a decade at great cost of human lives, suffering, and bankrolling, with the unseen side effect of destabilizing the entire region. This must be stated clearly: neither the populace nor the governments of either country had any role in the attacks on America. But America needed to punish someone. When Timothy McVeigh blew up the government building in Oklahoma City, we did not bomb his home state or his home town or his old high school. But when our enemies don’t look like us, or speak or language, or practice our religion, we think nothing of attacking entire nations out of our need for retribution. When a white Christian-raised American goes on a murderous rampage, we say he is “just crazy.” But when someone from another religion does the same thing we call him a “radicalized extremist” or a terrorist. Our labels dictate how we respond to the same event. They are meant to dehumanize. The years when we invaded Iraq and Afghanistan were terrible, testing our Christian-ness to the limit. I have never had such meager expectations of the system.
NHAT HANH: There is a notion that we must destroy nations and peoples in order to save them. That is an old idea. It is like saying we must kill people to save people, a contradiction. We utterly destroy their cities, their economy, only so that afterward we can rebuild their cities and their infrastructure at exorbitant costs, allowing a few corporations to make lots of post-war profit. “War is good for the economy,” they say. Washington made lots of promises to rebuild North Vietnam if only it accepted their terms of surrender. We say we do all this as a “noble cause,” but one presidential candidate said repeatedly that America should have taken all of Iraq’s oil as war-booty, reducing any notion of a “noble cause” to pilfering.
SMELCER: There is a saying that if we don’t study history we are doomed to repeat the past. But when I point out to people the similarities from the past—waging violence on nations that have not harmed us, the enduring ugliness of racism, the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s and the possibility of it resurfacing in America—they tell me it’s not the same, “That was then, this is now.” I am reminded of something Desmond Tutu once said: “What we learn from history is that we do not learn from history.” It is too easy to say, “That was then. This is different.” Humanity doesn’t change in decades or hundreds of years (or even thousands). It is all the same worn path toward destruction. (Photo of Berrigan in New York City, 1972)
BERRIGAN: Yes, yes. Regarding fascism or authoritarianism, democracy is imperiled when we give too much power to anyone who promises to fix everything if only they are given the power. That is precisely how Hitler rose to power: “I will get rid of those people who take your jobs, who are different; who are not Christian; I will single-handedly fix our economy; I will make Germany great again.” What he did was to round up and exterminate six million Jews and plunge the world into war.
SMELCER: I’m currently writing a novel set in Germany at the end of the war as the allies surrounded Berlin. It’s about how war corrupts and unhinges morality, often enabled and emboldened by religion. In my research, I saw a photograph of a hastily painted sign someone had made in Dresden during the aftermath of the firebombing. The sign, a direct quote by Hitler, reminded Germans why their nation was in ruins and why millions of Germans were refugees or dead: “Give me five years and you won’t recognize Germany again. —Adolf Hitler.”
BERRIGAN: What I worry about, what I lose sleep over, is the question of how far America is willing to go with these ideas? How does a nation uphold its professed Christian identity while violating every Christian principle?
NHAT HANH: By doing such terrible things, by killing or oppressing others, a nation may preserve something they call religion, but it may not be religious in substance, only in idea.
SMELCER: I’m forty years younger than either of you. I grew up during the 60s and early 70s, while you both were protesting the war with Merton. I was five when he died. One thing that has struck me all my life is how religious zealotry and ultra-patriotism go hand-in-hand, the misguided belief that God loves America more than any other country. The same goes for English. I remember watching on the news some California state legislator holding up a Bible at a rally against Spanish and shouting, “If English is good enough for the Bible, then it’s good enough for America!” Such ignorance! Where in the gospels does Jesus endorse one form of government or one language over another? Where does he say that the economy is more important than taking care of the vulnerable and hungry? (Photo of John Smelcer, 2016)
BERRIGAN: I think the perception is born from the myth of America that is ingrained in every schoolchild that America was founded on religion, which flies in the face of the fact that the framers of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution purposefully created a separation of Church (religion) and State, insisting that no religious test of any kind could ever be mandated by the government for any purpose. Most Americans don’t know that the Pilgrims outlawed Christmas for decades, making it illegal to celebrate the birth of Christ. Because their ancestors left Europe to escape the persecutions of the Protestant Reformation, the Founding Fathers understood the tyranny when one religious dogma is imposed on its populace by government. They did not want a repeat of that in the emerging nation. People tend to ignore the fact that the founding of America is a history of violence against Others—Blacks and Native Americans in particular, but the list of victims is long. America’s history is one of Christians killing with enthusiasm.
SMELCER: Recent studies suggest that as many as 50-80 million American Indians (North and South America) died from violence and pandemics transmitted by European colonizers between 1500 and 1800. In their earliest days in America, the Pilgrims massacred an entire village of Natives in their sleep—women and children included—simply because a ‘friendly” tribe asked them too. They slaughtered those innocent people to gain favor and strengthen a tenuous political alliance. Jesus is called the Prince of Peace. How does one reconcile genocide with the notion of the founding of America as a Christian Nation?
BERRIGAN: What’s worse is how many clergy embrace this wrong-thinking, becoming hawkish about war and killing instead of encouraging peace and nonviolence. Their conception of patriotism is un-Christian, to say the least. Jesus said do not kill; those who live by the sword die by the sword; forgive your enemies; blessed are the peacemakers for they are the sons and daughters of God; and most importantly, Jesus said the greatest commandment was to love one another. Nowhere did Jesus tell his followers to kill, wage war, or to make money. His message was a Gospel of Life. It has always concerned me that Christians call themselves “Soldiers for Christ,” contrary to Jesus’s example to refuse picking up the sword. Jesus would have detested that. Too many religious and clergy are so fixated on the esoteric meaning of scripture—of this or that word—that they forget the message to help one another, to love one another. The meaning of religious life is Life.
NHAT HANH: The notion that God loves one country and one language above all others is uniquely American. People in other countries don’t think like that, even though they love their country and are proud of it. America even stamps “In God We Trust” on its money, as if greed and capitalism were among the Ten Commandments. Yet, Jesus specifically cautioned against the accumulation of wealth. He understood the pitfalls. He knew that one can only be rich by being indifferent to the suffering of others, opposite of his message to love one another and to diminish suffering. If a rich person were truly Christ-like, he or she would give away their wealth to help others. I am astounded by America’s resistance to raising the minimum wage, which has been stagnant for decades while the price of everything has risen due to inflation. Take, for instance, the cost of a movie theatre ticket and a bag of popcorn. How can a nation that identifies itself with the gospels be so determined to keep so many people economically enslaved, unable to earn a living-wage to provide for their family, even though they may labor 50 or 60 hours a week, all so that a few people at the top can be rich? Where is the compassion in that? It reminds me of the many Buddhist stories of people ignoring the suffering of others as they traveled to see the Buddha. Yet when they arrived they were unable to see him. How many people pass the homeless and the hungry and the destitute on their way to church without stopping to help them? How many people lock their car doors when driving through a “poor” neighborhood on the way to church? Jesus said to serve others. He said “What you do to the least of us, you do to me.” Jesus didn’t ignore suffering in his mission. He didn’t exclude anyone. Regarding religion and war, Buddhism says not to kill and not to allow or encourage others to kill either. You must do all you can to prevent killing, and therefore to prevent war. I think Jesus would have agreed with this rule.
BERRIGAN: For too long Christianity has justified its violence citing the “Just War” ideology. But there is no such thing as a Just War. Cicero, and much later, Luther (among others) gave Christianity the notion that it is alright to kill other people, and to do so in the name of God’s love. During The Crusades, Popes—Jesus’s representation on earth—pardoned rapists and murderers and sent them to Jerusalem to slaughter its inhabitants in the name of Jesus. They were ruthless. But God and Jesus both commanded not to kill. It’s insane. Unfortunately, the Church has entirely meshed its destiny with that of capitalism and the military. I remember seeing photos of WWII and the Vietnam War in which chaplains were leading prayers for bombers about to carpet bomb unsuspecting human beings, most of them civilians. Did those chaplains ever pray for the people who were blown to smithereens, their arms and legs dismembered? Did they pray for the children?
NHAT HANH: And yet the notion has persisted. Politicians use anger and dissatisfaction to fuel fear and hatred in order to distract from the real issues for which they offer no real solutions. They abuse religion as a tool in the machinery of their propaganda, use it to achieve political unity by creating a We versus They mentality. They feed anger to the populace via the media so that the people will be willing to kill and die at their command. That is no way to live—consumed by anger, hate, and fear. Only compassion, love, and concern for others can change the inevitable outcome. We need to build bridges to reach each other, not walls to divide us.
SMELCER: Thomas Merton once wrote that “the theology of love must seek to deal realistically with the evil and injustice in the world and not merely to compromise with them.” According to Merton, to be Christian means to act, not merely to pray. In my book, The Gospel of Simon, Jesus similarly says, “Faith alone is insufficient. Faith demands action.”
BERRIGAN: Jesus said as much. Your book is amazing. In it, you really speak with the voice of Jesus. More than that, I think you portrayed him truly, as he really was. As soon as I finished reading it, I started reading it again. I still can’t stop thinking about the ending. I have lived my life fulfilling Merton’s words. So has my Vietnamese brother. Of course prayer is a kind of action, the urgent requesting of God to reduce the suffering of others, to right injustice, to bring about peace. Merton understood the need for this, but he also understood that nonviolent protest was also necessary to bring about change, regardless of the near certainty that it might make no difference.
NHAT HANH: It always surprises me how the public denigrates individuals who protest the wrongdoings of their government, especially when it comes to war. Such protests are deemed “unpatriotic” or even “un-American.” It’s ironic that America has the right to the freedom of expression and the right to redress the government, yet both freedoms would be denied to anyone who actually stands up for their rights to protest under the law. I saw this in the 1960s regarding the Vietnam War, and I saw it during the recent invasions. Nothing has changed in almost fifty years.
SMELCER: We saw this especially during the recent presidential election cycle. Anyone who didn’t endorse a certain candidate was call unpatriotic. Some were beaten, kicked, and punched in the head. During the war in Iraq, I remember how anyone who publically protested the invasion was lambasted. The Dixie Chicks come to mind. I remember watching “Shock and Awe” on television with a university professor of health care administration and a Marine Corps major. When I said that we were wrong to be invading Iraq, that it had not injured America, the two chased me around the house threatening to throttle me. They weren’t kidding around. And these were my buddies!
BERRIGAN: It always amazes me how many Christians label anyone who advocates for peace and nonviolence, as Jesus did, as anarchists, unpatriotic, liberals, or hippies. That courageous person becomes an outcast, an exile, something we know very well. Jesus commanded us to be nonviolent and peaceful. He commanded us to right injustice. He told us to forgive our enemies and turn the other cheek, not to bomb them into oblivion.
Daniel Berrigan passed away in New York City on April 30, 2016. The last part of this discussion was completed after Dan’s death.
SMELCER: “I haven’t prayed since the election. Barack Obama ran on the message of Hope. Hillary Clinton ran on the message of Unity. Trump’s message was hate, intolerance, racism, divisiveness, greed, and a total disregard for science, especially regarding climate change and environmental protections for Americans…all in the name of allowing industry to make money unfettered by any restrictions whatsoever. Trump would let the world become uninhabitable for humanity so long as a few people made gobs of money along the way. I’m concerned, too, about his total lack of compassion and humanity. For instance, his campaign promise to reinstate torture and to kill the families of anyone he deems a terrorist: their wife and children. Does that extend to their parents or siblings? Where does Jesus advocate for the torture and murder of innocents? I’m horrified by Trump’s declaration that we must build more nuclear weapons and his questioning of “Why can’t we use nuclear weapons?” He clearly has no problem with deploying weapons of mass destruction on human beings. The problem is they kill indiscriminately: the innocent and the guilty. Trump courted and received the votes of middle class Christians hell-bent on saving the unborn, yet they would condone his ideology of killing millions of living people with the push of a button, including pregnant women and children. Trump fails to realize how nuclear proliferation is the only result, creating a less safe world, not a safer one. How many times over must we be able to destroy all life on earth? Jesus admonished us, “Who lives by the sword, dies by the sword.” What are nuclear missiles if not giant swords? For the first time in my life, I fear the future. I fear my neighbors. I fear for my children. I haven’t watched the news or set foot in a church since the election. I feel God has abandoned the world.
NHAT HANH: In times when hatred and anger prevail—when confusion, fear, and suspicion conquer empathy and kindheartedness, that is when you must find ways to bring about change through nonviolence and do your best to restore peacefulness for yourself and for those around you. Thomas Merton would say that in the presence of such malevolence and mercilessness, that is all the more reason for you to pray. Pray for the world. Pray for compassion.
SMELCER: You are right, of course. The world needs new Tom Mertons and new Dan Berrigans—courageous and nonviolent men and women, young and old alike, whispering in the darkness: This way to peace and compassion. Perhaps you, reader. Perhaps me.