Merton – On Nonviolence

The most basic principle of the ethic of nonviolence is that all life is sacred.  Such an ethic holds that each person is a son or daughter of God and that all have been created by God to live in peace and love and in harmony with nature.  The ethic of nonviolence, which is an ethic of love, roots itself in such values as care, cooperation, compassion, equality, and forgiveness.

Jesus, the incarnation of the nonviolent God, spent His life teaching and practicing nonviolence.  Jesus called His followers to embrace God’s nonviolent reign of peace by taking on others’ violence in a non-retaliatory way and accepting suffering in order to right wrongs.  Jesus taught: “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to that person the other as well.  If a person takes you to law and would have your tunic, let that person have your cloak as well.” (Matthew 5:38 – 41)  In a final act of nonviolence immediately before He died, Jesus cried out: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23:34)

In the 1960s, by becoming a voice of protest against various forms of violence, Trappist monk and priest Thomas Merton continued Jesus’ mission of proclaiming the gospel of nonviolence.  Merton declared:

 [By] being in the monastery I take my true part in all the struggles and sufferings of the world.  To adopt a life that is essentially … nonviolent, a life of humility and peace is itself a statement of one’s position. … It is my intention to make my entire life a rejection of and protest against the crimes and injustices of war and political tyranny, which threaten to destroy the whole human race and the world with it.[1]

In writing about nonviolence, Merton adopted Gandhi’s philosophy of Satyagraha, soul or love force that always attempts to overcome evil by good, anger by love, and untruth by truth.  Merton agreed with Gandhi that to live nonviolently is to root one’s life in the conviction that love is the deepest human power.

For Merton, nonviolence and contemplation are inherently related. Contemplative awareness of one’s unity with all that exists leads to the realization that one is called to practice nonviolent love for all one’s fellow humans and the rest of creation.  Merton reflects:  “Our deep awareness that we are truly at one with everything and everyone in the Hidden Ground of Love we call God demands of us that we live a nonviolent love.” [2]

As a practitioner of nonviolence, the contemplative person actively resists social evils such as racism, addiction to war, and nuclearism. In his writings on racism, Merton notes that in various periods of American history White Americans conceived of African Americans as subservient and subhuman, i.e., as non-persons.[3] According to Merton, over time the deep-seated sin of racial prejudice ate away at American society like a cancer.[4]  Merton stresses that in Christ there is no racial division; all are equal. For Merton, only by truly becoming brothers and sisters will African and White Americans eliminate racism in America.

As a staunch proponent of the abolition of war,  Merton insisted: “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 probable at every moment everywhere.”[5] With this in mind, Merton advocated the development of a program of multi-national disarmament so that, instead of nations expending annual budgets of billions and billions of dollars to secure more and more armaments, it would become possible to enable the global population to have access to food, medicine, housing, and education needed to live decent human lives.

In the case of nuclear war, Merton maintained that conditions agreed upon for a just war do not apply.  Merton stated: “A war of total annihilation simply cannot be considered a ‘just war’, no matter how good the cause for which it is undertaken.“[6]  Merton believed that nuclear war would lead to the decimation of nations and the wholesale disappearance of culture.  It would be a moral evil second only to the crucifixion.[7]

For Thomas Merton, sowing seeds of nonviolence in our world is the moral imperative of our time. This entails treating each person with reverence and not allowing anger, hatred, or resentment to linger in one’s heart. Commitment to nonviolent living involves a person’s embracing love as the power that refuses to retaliate in the face of provocation and violence.  In doing so, as a follower of Jesus’ nonviolent way of being, one contributes to the development of a world freed of racism, war, and nuclearism so that sisters and brothers in the global community are enabled to join hands in abiding peace.

Sr. Marilyn Sunderman, RSM, Ph.D., is professor of theology and chair of the on-campus undergraduate theology program at Saint Joseph’s College.

[1]  Thomas Merton, “Preface” to the Japanese Edition of The Seven Storey Mountain, trans. Tadishi Kudo (Tokyo: Chou Shuppanasha, 1966.

[2] Quoted in William H. Shannon, Silence on Fire: Prayer of Awareness  (New York: the Crossroad Publishing Co., 2000) 67.

[3] See Thomas Merton, Faith and Violence  (South Bend, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968) 16.

[4] See Thomas Merton, Passion for Peace, Ed. William H. Shannon (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Co., 1997) 175.

[5] Thomas Merton, The Catholic Worker, October 1961, 1.

[6] Thomas Merton, Peace in a Post-Christian Era, Ed. Patricia A. Burton (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 2004) 66.

[7] See Merton, Passion for Peace, 46.

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