Thomas Merton on Racism

Watching the events of the last few days unfold in the US has led me back to what Merton wrote about similar events in the 1960s. It’s not that Merton had the last or the best word to say on these matters but, as with so much else, his perspective as a contemplative monk and as a writer always offers an angle that doesn’t usually emerge from the less nuanced rhetoric of politicians and partisan commentators.

Thomas Merton, the problem of war and the character of Christian ...

His major contribution on the issues around racial justice in the US comes in his book, Seeds of Destruction with its ‘Letters to a White Liberal’. He begins the book with a persuasive rationale for a contemplative monk like him to be offering thoughts on a matter like race. His argument is that monks may ‘flee the world’ but what they shun is not the flow of history itself but ‘the accumulated inheritance of past untruth and past sin.’ It is not freedom from time but freedom in time that they seek. Monasteries are a kind of laboratory for the examination of human motivation, of delusion and of untruth, a place for clear sight firstly of oneself, but always of oneself as located in history, not in abstract. Furthermore, for a monk not to comment on the affairs of the world is to risk a complicity in its unexamined structures of sin. The monk or, indeed, any religious person, does not claim a privileged place from which to comment on the affairs of the world but the place from which they speak does, nonetheless, offer peculiar insights.

Merton was clear that the issue at hand was not merely one of insufficient tolerance in society but of structural injustice. This is why simply to say ‘I am not a racist’ is never enough. It’s not a question of individual attitudes alone but of deep-rooted economic and material injustices. And it is clear that these injustices benefit many and that is why they persist. Therefore, to overcome them requires not merely ‘acceptance’ but a significant revolution – a fundamental change in circumstances that will bring what may seem like material losses to those who currently benefit from the status quo. It was clear to Merton that racial injustice has a very particular character and a very specific history which has a name: colonialism. The systematic subjugation and exploitation of peoples regarded as inferior to feed the economic prosperity of the coloniser is the structural sin at the heart of racial injustice that continues to plague not only the USA but European nations – not least our own – whose wealth was equally built on such violent foundations. Merton suggested that, in many ways, the response of the political right wing to street protests mirrors this ‘original sin’: protection of property trumps protection of black lives and all in the name of ‘order’.

Merton saw the street demonstrations of his own time as a kairos, a time of opportunity to confront the sin at the heart of injustice, the sin of colonialism driven by greed and materialism, and to listen to the voices that are alone able to offer new ways of being together that overcome injustice, that is the voices of those who have suffered long. As a contemplative, he still has much to teach us about these most vital arts of self-examination and listening.

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