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Thinking Out Loud

Merton and the Power of Love

by Michael Jinkins | Jan 20, 2017

Editor's note: Periodically throughout the 2016-2017 academic year, "Thinking Out Loud" readers will receive blog posts that explore concepts of spirituality as they relate to the writings and teachings of Thomas Merton. We hope you enjoy this special series of "Thinking Out Loud." E-mail us!

Merton and King"We just don't know what peace and love mean," wrote Thomas Merton in reply to a letter from Jim Forest in 1966. Merton continues: "The only ones who have done anything are Martin Luther King and those who worked so hard at it in the South.... Of course Dorothy [Day] is there to remind us with her unfailing wisdom what it is all about too." Jim Forest, a peace advocate and biographer of Merton, shares this letter from Thomas Merton, as well as several exchanges of correspondence between him and Merton, in his new book, The Root of War is Fear: Thomas Merton's Advice to Peacemakers. (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2016, p. 180.)

What Forest said in his letter, which evoked Merton's response, had to do with the anger then plaguing much of the anti-Vietnam War movement in which Forest was investing his life. After relating the caricaturing and lampooning of their opponents, especially President Lyndon Johnson, which he and others were engaged in, Forest told Merton about a dream he recently had about sitting next to LBJ and talking with him on a public bus and then going for a silent walk with him. "It was a real if troubled human exchange," wrote Forest. When Forest woke up from his dream, he went into his kitchen. There he saw a photo of the president which he had put up on a dartboard. "The photo of Johnson looked like it had been sprayed with bullets. I just made it back to the bed, collapsed and wept. I felt like a murderer. So you see I'm not talking about problems others have but my own problems, my own sin." (Forest, The Root of War, p. 179.)

Forest was, if not exactly "preaching to the choir," at least confessing to it. This is apparent in Merton's response, "WE just don't know what peace and love mean." It is as though Merton sits down beside Jim Forest, not just to hear his confession, but to weep over a shared, a common sin.

To understand the meaning of peace and love, Merton plumbs not only the depths of biblical wisdom and Christian theology, he also explores the insight of Mohandas K. Gandhi, a key source for the theology of Martin Luther King, Jr., the one whom Merton lifts up as an exemplar of really understanding peace and justice. In one of Merton's most extraordinary and profound essays, published as the introduction to a collection of Gandhi's writings, Gandhi On Non-Violence [New York: New Directions Publishing, 2007, originally published 1964/65), he uncovers the key to the power of non-violence, the power of love to change human hearts and human society.

According to Merton, although many protest movements against the views and actions of others originate in a posture of self-righteousness and lead to aggression, even violence, of their own, non-violent action for justice and peace begins in confession, in a recognition of the sinfulness we share, and a longing for God's mercy toward all.

Forest, weeping on his bed at his own anger and "violence" toward the president, is in the right place to begin to act for peace and justice. The worst place from which to launch a war on war, by contrast, is the high ground of moral certitude and righteous indignation.

Merton, drawing on Gandhi's wisdom and revealing the genius of Dr. King's vision, calls into question some of the most common human ideas that lead to violence. In particular he critiques the "irreversibility of evil," the idea that sin only moves from evil to evil, that it is unforgivable, and that those who commit evil acts are beyond hope and sympathy. Such ideas are simply unChristian. The moral world is flat. There is no moral high ground. Even in the midst of doing good, we fail. And often believing we have failed to act righteously, we unconsciously have accomplished good. Only God is in a position to judge. And while God allows us to participate in God's work of justice and peacemaking, God never relinquishes the Judge's bench, and we never achieve the role of chief prosecutor. Inevitably, we stand in the dock beside the accused. At any moment, the accused and we may exchange places; we are all guilty, all in need of grace. Fortunately, God is more eager to forgive than to punish.

Once we realize this, we are prepared to love others into justice, even if they mean to batter us or put us behind bars. Merton writes:

"The 'fabric' of society is not finished. It is always 'in becoming.' It is on the loom, and it is made up of constantly changing relationships. Non-violence takes into account precisely this dynamic and non-final state of all relationships among [humanity], for non-violence seeks to change relationships that are evil into others that are good, or at least less bad." (Merton, Gandhi, p. 21.)


The logic of non-violence assumes, then, that we all fall short, and are generally blind to the evil of our actions. The goal of non-violence is not the defeat of those we oppose, but their and our liberation from the vicious circle of hatred and violence. As Merton writes, "To punish and destroy the oppressor is merely to initiate a new cycle of violence and oppression. The only real liberation is that which liberates both the oppressor and the oppressed at the same time." (Merton, Gandhi, p. 22.) Thus, the non-violent advocate for peace and justice sees herself as one who stands in need of forgiveness just as much as her opponents, as much even as those who engage in oppression and violence. The non-violent advocate seeks to understand and to make clear the truth about immoral and oppressive social systems; she non-violently refuses to cooperate with these systems (as much as is possible), in the hope that her opponents, and even the oppressors, will see and understand and disown the injustice which is unveiled often brutally in and through her act of non-violent non-cooperation.

Such an advocate embodies the prayer of hope that the sinner will not be destroyed, but that he will turn and live. But, of course, such advocacy is not oriented primarily toward achieving a particular short-term goal, but in expressing a mode of being in the world that is true and faithful, whatever the immediate practical results may be.

Gandhi's concept of non-violence and the truth-seeking for which Gandhi coined the term satyagraha, according to Merton, "is incomprehensible if it is thought to be a means of achieving unity rather than as the fruit of inner unity already achieved." Merton adds, "When satyagraha was seen only as a useful technique for attaining a pragmatic end, political independence, it remained almost meaningless. As soon as the short-term end was achieved, satyagraha was discarded. No inner peace achieved, no inner unity, only the same divisions, the conflicts and the scandals that were ripping the rest of the world to pieces." (Merton, Gandhi, pp. 10-11.)

In his new preface to Merton's book, Gandhi On Non-Violence, Mark Kurlansky quotes Gandhi at length:

"Whether mankind will consciously follow the law of love, I do not know. But that need not perturb us. The law will work, just as the law of gravitation will work whether we accept it or not. And just as a scientist will work wonders out of various applications of the laws of nature, even so a man who applies the law of love with scientific precision can work great wonders." (Kurlansky in Merton, Gandhi, xiii.)


"Greater love has no one," said Christ, "than to lay down his life for his friends." If that is the "greatest love," however, how inconceivably great must be the love to lay down one's life so that one's enemies might be transformed into friends?

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