It's not too late to listen to what Thomas Merton says about violence

by Bill Tammeus

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My first encounter with the work of the late monk and author Thomas Merton came in 1968, soon after his book Faith and Violence was published.

Just 23 at the time, I was in my first full-time job after college, working as a reporter for the now-defunct Rochester, N.Y., Times-Union, and had been asked to create and edit an in-paper weekly tabloid aimed at 15- to 25-year-old readers.

So I reviewed Merton's book for the publication we called listen...

All of that came back to me recently when my pastor began a sermon series on violence and what we Presbyterians are supposed to do about it. To my surprise, I found a copy of that old Merton book still on my shelf -- marked up with notes and highlighted sections from my 1968 reading of it.

Oh, my. I wish I could report to you that Merton's piercing insights have become outdated and even irrelevant because we have rid the world of violence. It's true that the rate at which most violent crimes in the U.S. are committed has been dropping in recent years. For instance, the murder rate per 100,000 people in 1980 was 10.2. By 2013, it had dropped to 4.5. Similarly, a category called "forcible rape" peaked at 42.8 per 100,000 in 1992 but then dropped to 25.2 in 2013.

And yet much of what Merton wrote about violence in the turbulent 1960s remains true today and in some ways -- at least globally -- seems not just worse but also more heinous. (I'm looking at you, Islamic State.) Beyond that, some of it has gone under the radar so we may no longer even recognize it as violence.

Merton, however, was not fooled about this almost half a century ago.

"Violence today," he wrote, "is [his italics follow] white-collar violence, the systemically organized bureaucratic and technological destruction of man. The theology of violence must not lose sight of the real problem, which is not the individual with a revolver but death and even genocide as big business."

It can be easy to stretch the definition of violence so thin that the word becomes almost meaningless. But I think if you asked people who, because of the 2008 economic crash, lost jobs, homes and even families, they might make a good argument for calling what happened to them violence done at the hands of reckless and un- or underregulated financial institutions in the U.S.

Decades before this economic slaughter on Main Street that benefited Wall Street, Merton nailed it:

"Modern technological mass murder is not directly visible, like individual murder. It is abstract, corporate, businesslike, cool, free of guilt-feelings and therefore a thousand times more deadly and effective than the eruption of violence out of individual hate. It is this polite, massively organized white-collar murder machine that threatens the world with destruction, not the violence of a few desperate teen-agers in a slum. But our antiquated theology myopically focused on individual violence alone fails to see this."

And yet even individual violence can have a corporate or organizational tint to it. Think of all the Catholic bishops who failed to intervene to stop individual priests from sexually abusing individual children -- and not only failed to intercede but consciously moved offenders around so they were free to attack again.

Somehow, those enablers of violence seem less reprehensible than the terrorists of the Islamic State, al-Qaida, Boko Haram and similar theological thugs, perhaps because we don't have to watch videos of what abusive priests did to children. But in most cases, the victims of abuse end up living with their brutal history while the victims of terrorists miss that trauma because they die.

Much of human history is a bloody, savage affair. But not all of it. And each of us has the opportunity not just to stand against violence but to model its opposite, love. Let's take up that challenge anew.

[Bill Tammeus, a Presbyterian elder and award-winning former faith columnist for The Kansas City Star, writes the daily "Faith Matters" blog for the Star's website and a monthly column for The Presbyterian Outlook. His latest book is Woodstock: A Story of Middle Americans. Email him at]

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