Peace in the Post-Christian Era

What does a book written by a monk addressing the concerns of the cold
war have to teach us today? Plenty.

Thomas Merton is an insightful teacher in this book. He explores the
issues of war and peace in the context of the cold war. While many of
the concerns Merton addresses have lost their relevance, the
principles Merton presents force the reader to consider when force is
necessary and how it should be used if it is. As I see it, the
fundamental thesis of these essays is found in the essay “Can We
Choose Peace.” Here Merton writes,

“There are very strict limits set upon his [the Christians] exercise
of the right to defend himself and his nation by force, and there are
also strict limits upon his willing submission to evil and to
violence.” (10)

In this book, Merton applies the classic just war criteria very
strictly, to the point that I wondered if he would ever consider the
use of force justified. I discussed this book with a group of men
and we had to keep reminding each other that the choice that Merton is
advocating is NOT simple passivity in the face of evil. However,
Merton is clear that the use of force must always be as a last resort
and in proportion to the good being defended (a particularly important
issue in an age of “mutually assured destruction”). Merton challenges
readers to think creatively and find alternatives to violence.

“As Cardinal Newman so rightly said, the greatest victories of the
church were all won before Constantine, in the days when there were no
Christian armies and when the true Christian soldier was the martyr,
whose witness to Christ was nonviolent. It was the martyrs who
conquered Rome for Christ with a conquest that has been stable for
twenty centuries. How long were the crusaders able to hold Jerusalem?

I believe that the theory and practice of nonviolence has made some
progress in the time since Merton. The work of Gandhi and Martin
Luther King, Jr. have demonstrated the power of alternatives to
violence. It is sad that it has not come further. Merton’s book is a
powerful reminder that the principles and practice of nonviolence are
intimately connected with the principles and practice of Christianity.
I enjoyed the book a great deal. However, it is not the first Merton
book I would recommend. The tone of the book is often shrill. Given
the fact that the book was written in shortly before the Bay of Pigs
this tone makes sense. On this topic, I would recommend the essay
“The Root of War is Fear” for a less “panicked” approach to the
question of war and peace by Merton.

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