Merton on Non-Violence

In Conjectures from a Guilty Bystander, Thomas Merton writes:

“Christianity overcame pagan Rome by nonviolence.

“But when Christianity became the religion of the Empire, then the stoic and political values of the Empire began to supplant the original theological virtues of the first Christians. The heroism of the soldier supplanted the heroism of the martyr – though there was still a consecrated minority, the monks, who kept the ideal of charity and martyrdom in first place.

“The ideal of self-sacrifice was never altogether set aside — on the contrary! But it was transferred to a new sphere. Now the supreme sacrifice was to die fighting under the Christian emperor. The supreme self-immolation was to fall in battle under the standard of the Cross. In the twelfth century even monks took up the sword, and consummated their sacrifice of obedience by dying in battle against infidels, against heretics….

“Unfortunately, they also fought other monks, and this was not necessarily regarded as virtue. But it does show what comes of living by the sword!

“Christian chivalry was the fruit of a union between Christian faith and Roman, Fankish, or Germanic valor. In other words, Christians did here what they also did elsewhere: they adopted certain non-Christian values and ‘baptized’ them, consecrating them to God. Christianity might just as well have turned to the East and ‘baptized’ the nonmilitant, contemplative, detached, and hieratic institutions of the Orient. But by the time Christianity was ready to meet Asia and the New World, the Cross and the sword were so identified with one another that the sword itself was a cross. It was the only kind of cross some conquistadores understood.

“There was no further thought of Christianizing the ideals and institutions of these ancient civilizations: only of destroying them, and bringing their people into subjecton to the militant Christianity of Europe. Hence the strange paradox that certain spiritual and largely nonviolent ideologies which were in fact quite close to the Gospel were attacked and coerced in the name of Christ by the Chistian soldier who was often no longer a Christian except in name: for he was violent, greedy, self-complacent, and supremely contemptuous of anything that was not a perfect reflection of himself.”

I’ve read enough Asian history to know that Merton has a dangerously idyllic view of Eastern ‘nonmilitarism.’ Yes, there are many schools of spiritual thought in Asia that are passionately non-violent. BUT, there have been so many wars between Asian monastics, between Chinese Buddhism and Indian Buddhism, between different sects of Hinduism, etc., that I believe it to be simplistic to paint all Oriental spiritual thought as nonviolent.

That being said, brothers and sisters, Merton has a word for our church wars. How much of Enlightenment thought has been ‘baptized’ into our assemblies? How much post-modern thought is being ‘baptized’ into our theologies? How much of just good old-fashioned rugged American individualism has been baptized into the House Church movement? Has the ‘health and wealth’ movement ‘baptized’ the American Dream?

The more I think about these questions, the more I realize how badly I need to make even more room in my reading schedule for the Scriptures themselves, and for the patristic writings as well. Your thoughts?

in HIS love,


About Nick Gill

orphan-poet-adoptee-soldier-prodigal-servant-husband- counselor-desperate seeker after my Father's face "I feel my body weakened by the years as people turn to gods of cruel design. Is it that they fear the pain of death, or is it that they fear the joy of life?" - Toad the Wet Sprocket

Posted on 5 October, 2006, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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