Merton’s Guide through Political Unrest

“The greatest need of our time,” Thomas Merton said, “is to clean out the enormous mass of mental and emotional rubbish that clutters our minds and makes of all the political and social life a mass illness. Without this housecleaning we cannot begin to see.”

Like many, I have bought into the political rhetoric of 21st Century America that creates divisions in our communities. Throughout the recent presidential campaign, I have been and continue to be a vocal critic of Donald Trump. While I do not see myself ceasing in opposition to the rhetoric and actions of this president, I have become increasingly convicted of my tendency to reduce those to whom I disagree to talking points, or worse, as a enemy. This has, no doubt, only furthered the cycle of political unrest and hostility.

For the last several months I have been reflecting on Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander. Both prophetic and wise, Merton provides explanation to the social and political tumultuousness of his own time that strikingly serves as a diagnosis for our own age. In it he declares that each of us have an uncanny ability to deceive ourselves in our own pursuit of love and justice that too often leads not to those virtuous desired ends, but rather to their contrary. He writes, “The basic falsehood is the lie that we are totally dedicated to truth, and that we can remain dedicated to the truth in a manner that is at the same time honest and exclusive: that we have the monopoly of all truth, just as our adversary of the moment has the monopoly of all error…What we seek is not the pure truth, but the partial truth that justifies our own prejudices, our limitations, our selfishness.”

As a Christian, I am deeply convinced that the vision of Donald Trump is antithetical to the vision of the Christ – a vision that seeks to liberate those ostracized and objectified by others. Christ’s vision is one rooted in love. I cannot help but think that Trump appeals to the worst in all of us. Yet while I remain steadfast in the view that Trump’s vision will devastate certain people groups, I cannot reduce those on the other end of the political-social spectrum to enemies or “less-thans” due to this disagreement. Recent history has shown that this method only further entrenches us in our disagreement to the point where the side I agree with is “certainly right” and the other is “wholly wrong.”

Christian social action is one that needs to be centered on viewing each person as “potentially Christ, because Christ is our brother (sister), and because we have no right to let our brother (sister) live in want, or in degradation, or in any form of squalor whether physical or spiritual…(Social justice) is an attempt to elevate man…”

Insofar as I strive to elevate those who have been placed on the outskirts by religious and political powers, I must be honest with myself that I have viewed those on the opposite side of the political-social line with a spirit that lacks love and empathy. Merton writes, “True nonviolence…strives to operate without hatred, without hostility, and without resentment.” In the supposed pursuit of peace, I see much hatred, hostility, and resentment. This is true of myself as much as anyone. Love and justice are easy to talk about, but impossible to bring about if hostility is the consistent motivator in our hearts. If we truly desire to bridge the divide, we must be mindful of how we engage those we perceive to be opponents. We need to re-humanize those we have dehumanized.

“We must therefore,” Merton continues, “be careful how we talk about our opponents…it is possible for the most bitter arguments, the most virulent hatred, to rise among those who are supposed to work together for the noblest of causes.”

I am convinced that Merton is a thinker we all desperately need in these hostile, divisive days. My own goal is to embody Merton’s advice to emphasize the personal aspect in each conversation regardless of the topic being discussed. Merton writes that the personal is to center and respect each person’s need for the thought process, learning, and the critical need for love and acceptance. This is the “realm of freedom and friendship, of creativity and love.”

The willingness to carry the polarization of the presidential campaign was a natural continuation, but agreement to disagree with such hostility is not directing us to a better tomorrow. Perhaps we need to carry a different tune to the song we sing. If love is our goal, it must also be the motivation in our heart. “Love, love only, love of our deluded fellow man as he actually is, in his delusion and in his sin: this alone can open the door to truth.”

 

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