Cistercian monk, contemplative, and social critic Thomas Merton protested attempts to domesticate his prophetic witness. As something of a legend began to spring up about him in the wake of the success of Seven Storey Mountain (first published in 1948), Merton proclaimed,“I maintain my basic human right not to be turned into a Catholic myth for children in parochial schools.” Some of Merton’s critics wished that the monk would restrict himself to “spiritual writing” without reference to the social problems of the time. Yet Merton saw a profound connection between the contemplative life and concern for social justice.
Merton’s Faith and Violence: Christian Teaching and Christian Practice (1968) was published twenty years after Seven Storey Mountain. By this point, Merton’s social critique had become incisive. On the very first page of Faith and Violence, Merton described contemporary life as “intrinsically violent” because “it forces a large part of the population to submit to an existence which is humanly intolerable.” He was referring to people who live in stifling poverty.
Merton contended that “a greater and more pervasive violence” is at root of the crime that emanates from these poverty-stricken areas. He was very direct in his criticism of contemporary society:
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 obsession and delusions.
How is one to respond to such structured madness? Merton offered a “theology of love” to counter the culture of death that individuals face every day. This theology of love is realistic. It is a “theology of resistance” (emphasis in the original). It is, Merton explained, “a refusal of the evil that reduces a brother to homicidal desperation.”
This resistance is not only against the violence of contemporary society. It is for the Kingdom of God. According to Merton,
The saving grace of God in the Lord Jesus is proclaimed to man existentially in the love, the openness, the simplicity, the humility and active application of the Christian faith to the human problems of their own time, Christians manifest the love of Christ for men (Jn 13:35, 17:21), and by that fact make him visibly present in the world.
Constantly seeking the application of Catholic social teaching in response to social injustice is an ongoing task. Paradoxically, this task is made even more difficult during the high-intensity consumerism of the Christmas season. Reflection on the principles of Catholic social teaching may help fulfill Merton’s reminder so pertinent at this time of year. Christians make Christ “visibly present in the world” as they “manifest the love of Christ” for one another. Christians are called to make this love manifest not only on the personal level but through active transformation of sinful social structures, as well.
See: Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain (Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1948) and Faith and Violence (University of Notre Dame Press, 1968).
Submitted by: N. Rademacher, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Religious Studies