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Merton’s Call for Racial Justice

Thomas Merton: Contemplation and Action

Merton’s Call for Racial Justice
Friday, November 27, 2020

In the midst of the intense struggle for civil rights, Thomas Merton insisted that Christians had a moral duty to address racism—on a personal and systemic level. His words were prophetic at the time and continue to be relevant to this day. In Seeds of Destruction, he writes:

The race question cannot be settled without a profound change of heart, a real shake-up and deep reaching metanoia [Greek for repentance or change of mind] on the part of White America. It is not just [a] question of a little more good will and generosity: it is a question of waking up to crying injustices and deep-seated problems which are ingrained in the present setup and which, instead of getting better, are going to get worse. [1]

The purpose of non-violent protest, in its deepest and most spiritual dimensions is then to awaken the conscience of the white people to the awful reality of their injustice and of their sin, so that they will be able to see that the Negro problem is really a White problem: that the cancer of injustice and hate which is eating white society and is only partly manifested in racial segregation with all its consequences, is rooted in the heart of the white people themselves. [2] 

In later writings, Merton elaborates on the pernicious evil of systems of oppression and how we must combat them through the use of faith, hope, and love.

When a system can, without resort to overt force, compel people to live in conditions of abjection, helplessness, wretchedness . . . it is plainly violent. To make people live on a subhuman level against their will, to constrain them in such a way that they have no hope of escaping their condition, is an unjust exercise 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. [3]

Growth, survival and even salvation may depend on the ability to sacrifice what is fictitious and unauthentic in the construction of one’s moral, religious or national identity. One must then enter upon a different creative task of reconstruction and renewal. This task can be carried out only in the climate of faith, of hope and of love: these three must be present in some form, even if they amount only to a natural belief in the validity and significance of human choice, a decision to invest human life with some shadow of meaning, a willingness to treat other people as other selves. [4]

References:
[1] Thomas Merton, “To a White Priest,” Seeds of Destruction (Farrar, Straus and Giroux: 1964), 310.

[2] “Letters to a White Liberal,” Seeds of Destruction, 45–46. Note: Minor edits made to incorporate gender-inclusive language.

[3] Thomas Merton, Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice (University of Notre Dame Press: 1968), 7–8.

[4] Faith and Violence, 138. Note: Minor edits made to incorporate gender-inclusive language.

Image credit: Solitude in the Woods. Moon Night (detail), Ladislav Mednyánszky, 1870, Slovak National Gallery, Slovakia.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: It is necessary for me to live here alone without a woman, for the silence of the forest is my bride and the sweet dark warmth of the whole world is my love, and out of the heart of that dark warmth comes the secret that is heard only in silence, but it is the root of all the secrets that are whispered by all the lovers in their beds all over the world. I have an obligation to preserve the stillness, the silence, the poverty, the virginal point of pure nothingness which is at the center of all other loves. I cultivate this plant silently in the middle of the night and water it with psalms and prophecies in silence. It becomes the most beautiful of all the trees in the garden, at once the primordial paradise tree, the axis mundi, the cosmic axle, and the Cross. —Thomas Merton
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