A Pagan Reflects on Thomas Merton, Politics, and Christian Grace

In other words, Christian charity is no longer real unless it is accompanied by a concern with social justice.

Like many self-identified religious black sheep, time at home with Christian family during the Yuletide season can often be a mixed blessing. Heightened political tensions from this year’s election, combined with a growing social divide over the most basic of issues–such as the merits of picking the fox to guard the hen house–can quickly sweep any glad tidings right out the door.

Yet time at home with family is still, at least for me, a good chance to reconnect with my rural Midwestern roots, wear ugly Christmas sweaters, take walks in the woods with nieces, cousins, and friends, and generally try to remember all the things and people I am grateful for in these chaotic times.

For example, this year my bibliophile father gave me a copy of Thomas Merton‘s book Life and Holiness (1963). Merton was born in 1915 in France and eventually became a well know writer, mystic and social advocate associated with the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky, considered the oldest running monastery in the US and the home of the Trappist monks. While I ran across Merton during various religious studies research over the years, I had never sat down and read any of his works.

I’m glad I finally did.

A holiday celebrating the birth of a humble radical carpenter who turned the world upside down (aka Jesus) seemed like a good time to reflect on the theme of grace and goodwill, especially given the profane and disgraceful role that Alt-right Christian politics have played in recent months. With Merton I was, perhaps unconsciously, searching for some religious insights into the social travails of my own times. What I found was a strong rebuke of the same racism and class politics that haunted our nation in his time, combined with a clarion call to action in the struggle for social and economic justice.

Merton discusses various issues related to what it means to live an ethical and responsible spiritual life, themes which I suspect many of us, regardless of religious background or political affiliation, have been reflecting on this holiday season.

Dangerous News

But of all his arguments, one in particular stood out, and that has to do with the danger of misinformation–a theme which plagued the 2016 election and now seems to be spreading like a cancer in the body politick. Here is how he framed the problem:

The Christian who is misinformed; who is subject to the demagoguery of extremists in the press, on the radio or on TV, and who is perhaps to some extent temperamentally inclined to associate himself with fanatical groups in politics, can do an enormous amount of harm to society, to the Church, and to himself. With sincere intentions of serving the cause of Christ he may cooperate in follies and injustice of disastrous magnitude.

Although Merton wrote these lines in the early 1960s, he could just as easily have written them today. From white supremacist Dylann Roof executing 9 black churchgoers at Emanuel AME Church to the recent Clinton pizza sex tape incident, not only is neo-fascist and white supremacist ideological propaganda becoming a dangerous precursor to random right-wing violence, it is actually beginning to replace factual news for a growing portion of the US electorate.

As NPR noted in a recent story on the rise of fake news in 2016, a September Gallup poll revealed that less than 15% of Republicans now trusted the mainstream media. The Pew Research Center has further shown that these same Republicans also tended to rely exclusively on Fox News for their information. Fabricated propaganda posing as real news, combined with a media illiterate public who can’t tell basic fact from political fiction, has set the stage for a political climate in 2017 that is guaranteed to yield “follies and injustice of disastrous magnitude” just as Merton warned.

Brotherly Love?

But misinformation is not the only issue that Merton raised which struck a chord when I was reading–the other issue has to do with “brotherly love,” or what I prefer to call basic compassion for our fellow kin. As Merton reminds us, Jesus was a big fan of loving our brothers, sisters, friends, and even our enemies!

Reflecting on this point, and how often Christians (and others) fail to live up to this ideal, Merton had this to say:

The basic principle is then that each should recognize both his need of all the others and his obligation to serve all the others…unless we recognize that we are members of one body and that we have vital obligations and responsibilities towards other members who live by the same life-principle, we will never understand the love of God.

These days it seems hard to find much compassion for others, much less a real feeling of obligation and responsibility to the community, however one defines it. Yet despite this bleak prognosis, I remain an eternal optimist.

So while the past few months have been extremely challenging and unsettling for a variety of reasons, my hope is that going into the new year, religious and secular communities alike will pause and reflect on exactly what grace and “brotherly love” (Christian, Pagan or otherwise) might look like in 2017 and how we can use these values to build solidarity across the aisle and fight for justice for the 99%.

In closing, I want to echo Merton’s exhortation to remember that the “task of each Christian today is to help defend and restore the basic human values without which grace and spirituality will have little practical meaning in the life of man.”


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2 thoughts on “A Pagan Reflects on Thomas Merton, Politics, and Christian Grace

  1. I really enjoyed this post. It’s interesting how Merton made this awareness of ones relation to others a basis for coming to understanding the love of God. In the times where we are increasingly polarizing and distancing ourselves from those who are different, it’s this kind of awareness that is needed for peace.

    1. Thanks Micah, and agreed. Merton offers some really important ideas to reflect on today in these times of endless conflict. I’d like to think that, even with growing political disagreements around the world leading to bigger and more destructive conflicts, there is a growing desire among people to resist these tendencies and come together more in solidarity. I guess only time will tell which forces will prevail.

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