"War is the greatest threat to public health." - Gino Strada, Italian war surgeon and founder of the UN-recognized Italian NGO Emergency

Sunday, February 8, 2009

"At The Root of All War Is Fear"


I receive a Weekly Reflection from The Merton Institute for Contemplative Living. In these reflections one finds wisdom from many of Thomas Merton's writings. The passage quoted in the past week's reflection was from a book in my collection, New Seeds of Contemplation. So I dusted it off and re-read it.
Merton had (in his time) found that still, quiet place in which he could see himself and the world with a remarkable clarity, and he articulated the human condition with profound (and raw) sincerity. Here is last week's reflection from the chapter titled, The Root of War Is Fear:

At the root of all war is fear: not so much the fear men have of one another as the fear they have of everything. It is not merely that they do not trust one another; they do not even trust themselves. If they are not sure when someone else may turn around and kill them, they are still less sure when they may turn around and kill themselves. They cannot trust anything, because they have ceased to believe in God.

It is not only our hatred of others that is dangerous but also and above all our hatred of ourselves: particularly that hatred of ourselves which is too deep and too powerful to be consciously faced. For it is this which makes us see our own evil in others and unable to see it in ourselves.

Merton understood those things that we are unable to face; fear, guilt, and every other possible human shortcoming. He further understood that it is very much a part of the human condition to ease those burdens on ourselves by passing them on to others. He saw this being raised to a form of high art during the height of the Cold War in the 1960's when, as a society, the United States turned Communism into the greatest enemy anyone could possibly imagine, and built up the most fantastic machinery of war with which to fight it (and annihilate ourselves in the process).

It is ironic that many of those who claim Christianity as their own are the very ones who helped build up the very weapons (during the Cold War) that could cause the ultimate genocide, the very destruction of life on Earth. And, during much of the past eight years the United States has, by the creation of a vast state of fear and distrust, prosecuted an endless war on terror that has led to endless human suffering, economic distress and (ironically) an increased risk of terrorism both towards the U.S. and its allies.

And then there is Thomas Merton, the gentle monk who left behind a depth of contemplative wisdom that, if we are honest enough to look within, could help us (particularly those who claim Christianity in one form or another) out of the mess we have created and down the road to peace. As Merton reminds us,

What is the use of postmarking our mail with exhortations to "pray for peace" and then spending billions of dollars on atomic submarines, thermonuclear weapons, and ballistic missiles? This, I would think, would certainly be what the New Testament calls "mocking God" -- and mocking Him far more effectively than the atheists do.

Later in this chapter, Merton elaborates on praying for peace:

When I pray for peace, I pray not only that the enemies of my country may cease to want war, but above all that my own country will cease to do the things that make war inevitable. In other words, when I pray for peace I am not just praying that the Russians will give up without a struggle and let us have our own way. I am praying that both we and the Russians may somehow be restored to sanity and learn how to work out our problems, as best we can, together, instead of preparing for global suicide.

Merton wrote these words during the Cold War, but they seem to apply just as well to the post Cold War world as the United States keeps doing the things that make war inevitable. What will it take for us to change course and turn away from war, seeking real peace? Perhaps Merton's final thoughts in this chapter provide some clarity:

So instead of loving what you think is peace, love other men and love God above all. And instead of hating the people you think are warmakers, hate the appetites and the disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice,hate tyranny, hate greed -- but hate these things in yourself, not in the other.

May each of us find that still place in contemplation where we can see both within and without, and may peace begin within each of us,


Quotes in this post are from New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton, (New York: New Directions Press, 1961): Chapter 16, The Root of War Is Fear, Pages 114-125.

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