By Micah Kiel
SAU Theological Perspective
Our God is a God of life. So, we mourn and grieve when war and violence dominate the headlines. What are we to do? How can we build a world of peace where all life can flourish? For help, I’d
like to turn to an essay written by Thomas Merton in 1967 titled, “Blessed are the Meek: The Christian Roots of Nonviolence.” In simple language, he spells out a path for all Christians to follow and authentically seek a world of peace.
The roots of this essay come from Jesus’ beatitudes in Matthew (chapter 5). Merton combines several images from the Gospel to help us understand what true meekness looks like. We need to think of meekness as like a mustard seed: something that is small and insignificant, but in it lies the power of God to transform the world. To be meek means that we have to get rid of the protection of violence.
Instead, Merton says, we must be vulnerable. Vulnerability is necessary “because [we] believe that the hidden power of the Gospel is demanding to be manifested in and through [our] own poor person.” Jesus exemplifies vulnerability. He set aside his own power and rights, humbled himself and succumbed to violence. From this disposition flows Jesus’ teachings: love your enemies; pray for those who persecute you; turn the other cheek. Very few places in our world — if any — will admit these values and practices. Our world operates instead on retaliation, grudge and arrogance. Vulnerability is devalued. But, as Jesus reminds us, God’s kingdom is not of this world.
Merton offers two further challenges worth pondering. First, if we are to seek peace, every Christian must live a life that is not for him or herself but “for others, that is for the poor and the underprivileged.” The Christian life entails a call to set aside one’s own rights and good and seek the good of the other. The language of Paul comes to mind, when he says, “do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others” (Phil 2:3-4).
Our world is a world of selfishness and greed. Any attempt to look to the interests of others will clash with what we are supposed to do as good citizens and consumers. But the seeds of war are always planted in and watered with injustice. As Pope Paul VI famously said in 1972, “If you want peace, work for justice.”
Second, Merton asks us this question: “Are we willing to learn something from our adversary?” If a new truth is made known to us from them, “will we accept it?” Are we “willing to admit that he [or she] is not totally inhumane, wrong, unreasonable, cruel, etc.?” Here Merton has identified a deep truth. We prefer to deal in innuendo and stereotypes about our enemies. It is easier if we dehumanize them; turn them into cretins and savages. Loving our enemies requires that we embrace them in all their humanity with the humility to learn from them and accept the truth they might present to us.
Ultimately, Merton says we need to have hope in three things — God; the future (which God controls); and in other humans (in whom God dwells). This is the only way to transform ourselves and therefore, the world. “The meekness and humility which Christ extolled in the Sermon on the Mount and which are the basis of true Christian nonviolence are inseparable from an eschatological Christian hope,” Merton writes. This hope “is completely open to the presence of God in the world and therefore in the presence of our brother who is always seen, no matter who he may be, in the perspective of the Kingdom.”
These challenges from Merton allow us to glimpse a path of personal transformation, which is where our transformation of the world needs to start. They also require of us a certain positivity — a hope — that God controls history. Those who are committed to nonviolence and attempt to live out the beatitudes, “refuse to despair of the world and abandon it to a supposedly evil fate which it has brought upon itself. Instead, like Christ himself, the Christian takes upon his own shoulders the yoke of the Savior, meek and humble of heart.”
(Micah Kiel is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)