Sunday, February 10, 2013


This is the intro preface to Thomas Merton’s Faith and Violence, published shortly before his death in 1968. Merton has been accused by the fundies of being a heretic, godfather to the modern New Age movement. And so on. Merton was in many ways an uncompromising social critic. However, his criticism was steadfastly anti war as the Viet Nam war heated up. Anti nuclear weapons in the era of mutually assured destruction. And finally a supporter of the right of every human being to be fully human. He had little use for mass movements in the fifties and sixties. I can’t even imagine what his take would be on Reality TV, the obsessive cult of the celebrity and our country’s love affair with anything that goes “boom.” I’m damn sure he wouldn't describe the sound of a jet blasting overhead and the “sound of freedom.”

This is a fairly long entry, but I think it's worth the time. The church, not just the Catholic Church but many Protestant groups have either stood by silently or actively supported the violence and then looked at their critics with a "what, who me?" Mitt Romney and his use of money from Salvadorans who also financed death squads is only a more recent example. One that barely registered on the radar. 


Theology today needs to focus carefully upon the crucial problem of violence. The commandment “Thou shat not kill” is more than a mere matter of academic or sentimental interest in an age when man not only is more frustrated, more crowded, more subject to psychotic and hostile delusion than ever, but also has at his disposition an arsenal of weapons that make global suicide an easy an easy possibility. But the so called nuclear umbrella has not simplified matters in the least” it may (at least temporarily) have caused the nuclear powers to reconsider their impulses to reduce one another to radioactive dust. But meanwhile “conventional” wars go on with unabated cruelty, and already more bombs have been exploded on Vietnam than were dropped in the whole of World War II. The population of the affluent world is nourished on a stead diet of brutal mythology and hallucination, kept at a constant pitch of high tension by a life that is intrinsically violent in that it forces a large part of the population to submit to an existence that which is humanly intolerable. Hence murder, mugging, rape, crime, corruption. But it must be remembered that the crime that breaks out of the ghetto is only the fruit of a greater and more pervasive violence: the injustice which forces people to live in the ghetto in the first place. The problem of violence, then, is not the problem of a few rioters and rebels, but the problem of a whole social structure which is outwardly ordered and respectable, and inwardly ridden by psychopathic obsessions and delusions.

It is perfectly true that violence must at time be restrained by force: but a convenient mythology which simply legalizes the use of force by big criminals against little criminals-whose small-scale criminality is largely caused by the large scale injustice under which they live-only perpetuates the disorder.

Pope John XXIII in Pacem in Terris  quoted, with approval, a famous saying of St. Augustine: :What are kingdoms without justice but large bands of robbers?” The problem of violence today must be traced to its root: not the small time murderers but the massively organized bands of murderers whose operations are global.

This book is concerned with the defense of the dignity and rights of man against the encroachments and brutality of massive power structures which threaten to either enslave or destroy him, while exploiting him in their conflicts with on another.

The Catholic moral theology of war has, especially since the Renaissance, chiefly concerned itself chiefly with casuistical discussion of how far the sovereign state or the monarch can justly make use of force. The historic context of this discussion was the struggle for a European balance of power, waged for absolute monarchs by small professional armies. In a new historical context we find not only a new struggle on a global scale between mammoth nuclear powers provided with arsenals capable of wiping out the human race, but the emergence of scores of small nations in an undeveloped part of the world that was until recently colonial. In this Third World we find not huge armed establishments but petty dictatorships (representing a rich minority) armed by the great powers, opposed by small, volunteer guerilla forces fighting for the poor. The Great Powers tend to intervene in these struggles, not so much by the threat and use of nuclear weapons (with which they continue to threaten each other) but with armies of draftees with new experimental weapons which are sometimes incredibly savage and cruel and which are used mostly against helpless non combatants. Although many Churchmen moved apparently by force of habit, continue to issue mechanical blessing upon those draftees and upon the versatile applications of science to the art of killing, it is evident that this use of force does not become moral just because the government and the mass media have declared the cause of the patriotic. The clichĂ© “My country right or wrong” does not provide a satisfactory theological answer to the moral problems raised by the intervention of American power in all parts of the Third World. And in fact the Second Vatican Council, following the encyclical of John XXIII Pacem in Terris, has had some pertinent things to say about war in the nuclear era.

To assert that conflict resolution is one of the crucial areas of theological investigation in our time is not to issue an a priori demand for a theology of pure pacifism. To declare that all use of force in any way whatever is by the very fact immoral is to plunge into confusion and unreality from the very start because, as John XXIII admitted, “unfortunately the law of fear still reigns among peoples” and there are situations in which the only way to protect human life and rights effectively is by forcible resistance against unjust encroachment. Murder is not to be passively permitted, but resisted and prevented-and all the more so when it becomes mass murder. The problem arises not when theology admits that force can be necessary, but when it does so in a way that implicitely favirs the claims of the powerful and self seeking establishment against the common good mankind or against the rights of the oppressed.

The real moral issue of violence in the twentieth century is obscured by archaic and mythical presuppositions. We tend to judge violence in terms of the individual, the messy, the physically disturbing, the personally frightening. The violence we want to see restrained is the violence of the hood waiting for us in the subway or the elevator. That is reasonable, but it tends to influence us too much. It makes us think that the problem of violence is limited to this very small scale, and it makes us unable to appreciate the far greater problem of the more abstract, more global, more organized presence of violence on a massive and corporate pattern. Violence today is white collar violence, systematically organized bureaucratic and technological destruction of man.

The theology of violence must not lose sight of the real problem which is not the individual with a revolver but death and genocide as big business. But this big business of death is all the more innocent and effective because it involves a long chain of individuals, each of whom can feel himself absolved from responsibility, and each of whom can perhaps salve his conscience by contributing with a more meticulous efficiency to his part of the massive operation.

We know, for instance, that Adolf Eichmann and others like him felt no guilt for their part in the extermination of the Jews. This feeling of justification was partly due to their absolute obedience to higher authority and partly to the care and efficiency that went into the details of their work. This was done almost entirely on paper. Since they dealt with numbers, not with people, and since their job was one of abstract bureaucratic organization, apparently they could easily forget the reality of what they were doing. The same is true to an even greater extent in modern warfare in which the real problems are not located in rare instances of hand to hand combat, but in the remote planning and organization of technological destruction. The real crimes of modern war are not committed at the front (if any) but in war offices and ministries of defense in which no one ever has to see any blood unless his secretary gets a nosebleed. Modern technological mass murder is not directly visible, like individual murder. It is abstract, corporate, businesslike, cool, free of guilt feelings and therefore a thousand times more deadly and effective than the eruption of violence out of individual hate. It is this polite, massively organized white collar murder machine that threatens the world with destruction, not the violence of a few desperate teenagers in a slum. But our antiquated theology myopically focused on individual violence alone fails to see this. It shudders at the phantasm of muggings and killings where a mess is made on our own doorstep, but blesses and canonizes the antiseptic violence of corporately organized murder because it is respectable, efficient, clean, and above all profitable.

In another place I have contrasted, in some detail the mentality of John XXIII on this point with the mentality of Macchiavelli (Seeds of Destruction, Part III). Macchiavelli said: “There are two methods of fighting, one by law and the other by force. The first is the method of men, the second of beasts; but as the first method is often insufficient, one must have recourse to the second.” I submit that a theology which merely seeks to justify the “method of beasts” and to help is disguise itself as law-since it is after all a kind of “prolongation of law”- is not adequate for the problems in a time of valence.

On the other hand we also have to recognize that when oppressive power is thoroughly well established, it does not always need to resort openly to the “method of beasts” because its laws are already powerful-perhaps also bestial-enough. In other words, when a system can, without resort to overt force, compel people to live in conditions of abjection, helplessness, wretchedness that keeps them on the level of beasts rather than men, it is plainly violent. To make men live on a subhuman level against their will, to constrain them in such a way that they have no hope of escaping their conditions, is an unjust use of force. Those who in some way or other concur in the oppression-and perhaps profit by it-are exercising violence even though they may be preaching pacifism. And their supposedly peaceful laws, which maintain this spurious kind of order, are in fact instruments of violence and oppression, if the oppressed try to resist by force-which is their right-theology has no business preaching no violence to them. Mere blind destruction is, of course, futile and immoral: but who are we to condemn a desperation we have helped to cause!

However, as John XXIII pointed out, the “law of fear” is not the only law under which men can live, nor is it really the normal mark of the human condition., To live under the law of fear and to deal with one another by the methods of beasts will hardly help world events “to follow a course in keeping with man’s destiny and dignity.” In order for us to realize this we must remember that “one of the profound requirements of (our) nature is this…it is not fear that should reign but  love- a love that tends to express itself in mutual collaboration,”

“Love” is unfortunately a much misused word. It trips easily off the Christian tongue-so easily that one get the impression that others ought to love us for standing on their necks.

. A theology of love cannot afford to be sentimental. It cannot afford to preach edifying generalities about charity while identifying “peace” with mere established power and legalized violence against the oppressed. A theology of love cannot be allowed merely to serve the interests rich and powerful, justifying their wars, their violence and their bombs, while exhorting the poor and underprivileged to practice patience, meekness,, longsuffering and to solve their problems, if at all, non violently.

The theology of love must seek to deal realistically with the evil and injustice in the world, and not merely to compromise with them. Such a theology will have to take note of the ambiguous realities of politics, without embracing the specious myth of a “realism” that merely justifies force in the service of established power. Theology does not exist merely to appease the already too untroubled conscience of the powerful and the established. A theology of love may also conceivably turn out to be a theology of revolution. In any case, it is a theology of resistance, a refusal of the evil that reduces a brother to homicidal desperation.

On the other hand, Christian faith and purity of intention-the simplicity of the dove-are no guarantee of political acumen, and theological insight is a substitute for the wisdom of the serpent which is seldom acquired in Sunday school. Should the theologian or the priest be too anxious to acquire that particular kind of wisdom? Should he be too ambitious for the achievements of a successful authentic Christian witness from effectiveness in political maneuvering? Or is the real place of the priest the place which Fr. Camilo Torres took, with the Colombian guerillas?

This book cannot hope to answer such questions. But it can at least provide a few materials for a theology, not of pacifism. And non violence in the sense of non resistance, but for a theology of resistance which is at the same time Christian resistance and which therefore emphasizes reason and humane communication rather than force, but which also admits the possibility of force in a limit situation when everything else fails.

Such a theology could not claim to be Christian if it did not retain at least some faith in the meaning of the Cross and of the redemptive death of Jesus who, instead of using force against his accusers, took all the evil upon himself and overcame that evil by his suffering. This is the basic Christian pattern, but a realistic theology will, I believe, give a new practical emphasis to it. Instead of preaching the cross for others and advising them to suffer patiently the violence we sweetly impose upon them, with the aid of armies and police, we might conceivably recognize the right of the less fortunate to use force, and study more seriously the practice of nonviolence and humane methods on our own part when, as it happens, we possess the most stupendous arsenal of power the world has ever known.

General MacArthur was no doubt sincerely edified when the conquered Japanese wrote into their constitution clause saying they would never again arm and go to war. He warmly congratulated them for their wisdom. But he never gave the slightest hint of thinking the United States ought to follow their example. On the contrary, he maintained to the end that for us there was no other axiom than that “there was no substitute for victory.” Others have come after him with more forceful convictions. They would probably be glad to see all Asian nations disarm on the spot: but failing that we can always bomb them back into the Stone Age. And there is no reason to believe that the United States might not eventually try to do so.

The title of this book is Faith and Violence. That might imply several interesting possibilities. The book might for example study the violence of believers-and this as history shows, has sometimes been considerable. The disciples of the Prince of Peace have sometimes managed to prove themselves extremely bloodthirsty, especially among themselves. The have consistently held, that in practice, the way to prove sincerity of faith was not so much non violence as the generous use of lethal weapons. It is a curious fact that in this current century there have been two world wars of unparalleled savagery in which Christians on both sides, were exhorted to go out and kill each other if not in the name of Christ and faith at least in the name of “Christian duty.” One of the strange facts about this was, that in the Second World War German Christians were exhorted by their pastors to die for a government that was not only non-Christian but anti-Christian and had evident intentions of getting rid of the church.  An official theology which urged Christians as a matter of Christian duty, to fight for such a government, surely calls for examination. And we shall see that few questioned it. One man did. And we shall devote a few pages to his unusual case. Possibly he was what the Catholic Church would call a saint. If so, it was because he dared to refuse military service under the Fuehrer whom his bishop told him he was obliged to obey.

…At no point in these pages will the reader find the author trying to prove that evil should not be resisted. The reason for emphasizing non violent resistance is this: he who resists force with force in order to seize power may find himself contaminated by the evil he is resisting and, when he gains power, may be just as ruthless a tyrant as the one he has dethroned. A non violent victory, while far more difficult to achieve, stands a better chance of curing the illness rather than contracting it….

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