Thomas Merton and Pope Francis
In a speech to the U.S. Congress this week, Pope Francis praised four Americans he admires. One is Thomas Merton – an American Catholic writer, mystic, a Trappist monk, a poet, social activist, and student of comparative religion who led a “messy” life before becoming a monk. Merton wrote about non-violence and civil rights.
In The Promise of Paradox: A celebration of contradictions in the Christian life, Parker J. Palmer makes a connection between Merton’s ideas and those of Karl Marx.
Palmer notes, “Our individualized way of life makes us feel alone and unrelated; our competitive way of life makes us feel that our gains must come at the expense of others, just as their gains mean our loss (28). Palmer says, “The religion of the American middle class sometimes seems to mock the Gospels; it aims at enhancing the self-esteem of persons who have material comfort while ignoring conditions of poverty and pestilence which deprive a whole class of people of life itself, let alone feelings of self-worth.
Parker sees that Thomas Merton pointed “to a deep and vital convergence of Marxism and Christianity. Where Marx spoke of the alienation of labor, Merton speaks of the alienation of our hearts. We seem unable to feel, unable to have our hearts broken by the fact of children who are starving and parents who are unable to provide. Our individualized way of life makes us feel alone and unrelated; our competitive way of life makes us feel that our gains must come at the expense of others, just as their gains mean our loss. As Merton says, we don’t have possession of our hearts. They have been seized by concerns of self-preservation and self-enhancement, and by the maintenance of institutions which serve these ends. If we are to give our hearts we must get them back, and this is the first task in the spiritual life. . . .
But to be in possession of our hearts is not simply to be able to feel. Since heart is an image for our whole being, we must also be able to translate feelings into action, to work for the kingdom. And here is where Merton and the Christian tradition diverge again from Marx, who relied on the use of violence to overthrow the powers that be. In Marx’s mind, the contradictions of history led inevitably to violent confrontation, and only through the warfare of the oppressed against the oppressors could the classless society come to pass.
There is another theory of social action which also faces the contradictions of history and yet comes to a quite different conclusion. The theory of nonviolent change is committed to the notion that beyond every conflict there is a resolution, a synthesis, a common good, which will only be obscured by violence, but which will be revealed by patience, dialogue, careful and prayerful consideration” (28).
An example of such a non-violent possibility involves a recent situation. The Maui News reports in “NAACP seeks dialogue amid protests over Confederate flag” – “An NAACP leader in the Virginia town where students have been suspended over wearing Confederate flag emblems to school commended the teens Friday for standing up for their beliefs, but said he doesn’t believe that they understand the pain that the symbol brings to African-Americans.
Alvin Humes, president of the NAACP chapter in Christiansburg, VA., said he supports the local high school’s decision to ban the flag and believes that the debate could be resolved if the school would bring both sides together to have a discussion about the meaning of the flag.
‘I wish that there was some kind of way that we really could have a dialogue with these kids . . . and try to explain to them what they’re doing is not exactly right because it hurts people in this community,’ he said “ (9/19/15, A9).
Such interaction would help bring the community together.
Merton — and Pope Francis — would approve of such an attempt at understanding – of moving heart into action.