Merton on Peace - Moral & Spiritual Crisis

Thomas Merton entered the Monastery of Gesthemani in 1941.  Think of your history and I'm sure you'll remember what happened that December ... Pearl Harbor and the US entry into World War II. The entire world was basically at war.  This must have even made an impact in the Monastery.

Then in August 1945 the US dropped atomic bombs on the Japanese Cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Civilians were the target. In Hiroshima-a city of 350,000 people at the time of the bombing--166,000 people were killed either by the initial firestorm or radiation. In Nagasaki, 80,000 people were killed.

In the context of the cold war which followed the end of WWII, Merton contemplated this new nuclear reality from the monastery.  He observed that the world and society now faced both possible and probable destruction.  This gave his reflections on peace a sense of urgency through an apocalyptic lens.

“In a word, the end of the world is quite really and quite literally up to us and to our immediate descendents, if any.  And this, I might venture to suggest, is more ‘apocalyptic’ than anything our fathers discovered in the Revelations of Saint John.”  (Peace: Christian Duties and Perspectives)

His writings also reflect a growing sense of  personal and communal responsibility.

“We have war-markers, war-criminals indeed.  But we ourselves in our very best efforts for peace, find ourselves maneuvered unconsciously into positions where we too can act as criminals.  For there can be no doubt that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were, though not fully deliberate crimes, nevertheless crimes.  And who was responsible? No one.  Or ‘history.’ We cannot go on playing with nuclear fire and shrugging off the results of ‘history.’ We are the ones concerned. We are the ones responsible.” (Peace: Christian Duties and Perspectives)

Ultimately, he saw the world thrown into a spiritual and moral crisis the likes of which we had never seen before. 

"Our problem is a moral and spiritual problem." (Breakthrough to Peace)

“As Christians first of all, in a crisis where the very existence of [humanity] and the continuity of life itself are at stake, our duty to God the Creator becomes a duty to strive in every way to preserve and protect [God’s] creation . . .”  (Christianity and Defense in the Nuclear Age)

“The present world crisis is not merely a political and economic conflict.  It goes deeper than ideologies. It is a crisis of [the human] spirit.  It is a great religious and moral upheaval of the human race . . .” (Christian Action in World Crisis)
Given his sense of urgency, it is no surprise that he felt called to the careful study and attention on the problem in search of an appropriate response.

“Even if it should happen to be no longer possible to prevent the disaster, (which God forbid) there is still a greater evil that can and must be prevented. It must be possible for every free [person] to refuse [their] consent and deny [their] cooperation to this greatest of crimes. . . . How does one ‘resist’? . . . I do not know.  I am merely saying that this is an urgent problem that we have to consider and study with all our attention.” (Peace: Christian Duties and Perspectives)

[This is part two of a series.  Click here to see the introduction.]

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