You may recall that the 100th anniversary of Thomas Merton’s birth was commemorated at Holy Cross Abbey on Sunday, 15 November of this year. It had only been on 13th November that the terrorist action in Paris had occurred. One of the participant’s shared the experience of her grandson asking how something like that could happen, how could anyone perpetrate a slaughter like that? We’re all lucky that a child is asking those questions rather than rattling sabers. This is surely a pregnant question in the context of Merton’s own reflections on non-violence, about our involvement in the Viet Nam War, or about the results of violent, military responses to political problems.
One of Thomas Merton’s insights was that war objectifies the “enemy”, the “other” by refusing to see the human being on the opposite side of the battle line. The person is overlooked and becomes an object, an obstacle to be disposed. This is not fulfilling God’s will, God’s design for creation.
Since that gathering in November, I’ve stumbled across what is for me a significant remark of Thomas Merton. He wrote it to Jim Forest in his youth, a conscientious objector in the 1960’s and, today, a spiritual writer today.
One of the most important things to do is to keep cutting deliberately through the political lines and barriers and emphasizing that these are largely fabrications and that there is a genuine reality, totally opposed to the fictions of politics: the human dimension.
The important thing is to see the human being, not the political opinions; the important thing is not to reduce the “opponent” to his or her belief system. We are all much more than that. Political opinions may be sincere, expedient, changing, evolving, oscillating; each of us is more than that.
I found that Merton quote in the 2014 book by Jim Forest, Loving our Enemies: Reflections on the Hardest Commandment. In that book, Forest challenges himself and his readers with the example of persecuted Russians who, when Gorbachev halted religious persecution in 1987, did not hesitate to forgive, even love, their persecutors. Who were not surprised that the persecution had ended, simply because they had ardently prayed for the end of religious persecution. (They were, however, surprised that it had actually occurred in their own lifetime). These were not people who know of the interrogations, imprisonment, torture second hand. It was their personal experience. As one Orthodox priest asked, “How will they find the way to belief unless we love them? And if I refuse to love them, I too am an unbeliever.” That is no light-weight response.
In our violent and unsettled era, I find a book like Jim Forest’s on loving our enemies not only challenging but essential to raise my awareness to the necessary level to challenge my will to desire what the Gospel commands.
to be continued