THOMAS MERTON (on faith and violence) – Part Three

The earth, crucified - bruce witzel photo


The greatest temptations are not those that solicit our consent to obvious sin,

but those that offer us great evils masking as the greatest goods.           

Thomas Merton



A spiritual reflection


~ Part 3 ~


by bruce thomas witzel


In my previous reflection about the monk Thomas Merton (click here) I left off with the United States in the midst of Vietnam War and the emerging consciousness about ecological destruction.

By 1968 Merton’s book Faith and Violence had been published.


Faith and Violence - a book by Thomas Merton


In it he writes:

“The population of the affluent world is nourished by a steady diet of brutal mythology and hallucination, kept at a constant pitch of high tension by a life that is intrinsically violent in that it forces a large part of the population to submit to an existence which is humanly intolerable… Crime that breaks out of the ghetto is only the fruit of a greater and more pervasive violence: the injustice which forces people to live in the ghetto in the first place.”


Bruce Witzel photo - original location, unknown

Merton continues:

“Violence today, is white-collar violence, the systemically organized bureaucratic and technological destruction… 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.”


Photo of a photo - original photographer unknown



Church in Montreal - bruce witzel photo


During the 60’s, protest and change had also come to the Catholic Church, partly as a result of the the 2nd Vatican Council. The churches slowly began to crack open their windows and doors for a breath of fresh air.

By 1968 Thomas Merton was permitted to leave the Abbey of Gethesemani in Kentucky for extended periods of time.


Thomas Merton and the Dalai Lama


His final journey was to South East Asia where he met with other contemplatives, including Buddhists and Hindus.

The Dalai Lama later said about his meetings with Merton in Dharamsala, India, “I could see that he was a truly humble and deeply spiritual man. This was the first time I had been struck by such a feeling of spirituality by anyone who professed Christianity.”


Thomas Merton on Unity

Not long before Thomas Merton had departed to Asia he had also written an article about the emerging awareness of ecological destruction. It was published by the Catholic Worker, a group that helps disadvantaged people in numerous American inner city neighbourhoods.

In part it reads:

“The ecological conscience is essentially a peace making conscience. A country (America) that seems more and more to hot and cold war making does not give much promise to developing one. But perhaps the very character of the war in Vietnam – with crop poisoning, the defoliation of forest trees, the incineration of villages and inhabitants with napalm – presents enough of a stark and critical example to remind us this most urgent moral need. Catholic theology ought to take note of the ecological conscience and do it fast.”


Thomas Merton Centenary Icon painted by John Giuliani Thomas Merton Centenary Icon painted by John Giuliana


Merton was concluding his tour with a monastic conference in Bangkok. He had intended to write a book about his insights and experiences and on the day of his death, Dec 10th, 1968 and he told fellow priest Basil Loftus “The Holy Office has already condemned me before I have written it.”


Downtown Montreal - bruce witzel photo


After speaking at the conference Merton went back to his room to cool off. As he stepped out of the shower he was electrocuted by a faulty fan. His body was taken back to the United States in a B-52 bomber en route from Vietnam, sadly loaded with his fellow dead Americans, the soldiers.


Living Memorial Sculpture Garden - created by Vietnam veteran and sculptural artist Denis Smith - photo by Bruce Witzel2b


“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.”

Thomas Merton  (1915 –1968)

16 thoughts on “THOMAS MERTON (on faith and violence) – Part Three

  1. Such an important post, Bruce, and an eloquent testament to Merton’s profound insights about “white collar crime” – the violence that causes needless suffering, millions of deaths, and ongoing environmental destruction worldwide.

    • Thanks Carol. It’s encouraging that there has been (and still are) people, who speak the truth against injustice and common misconceptions. Those that rise-up in good action against such lies. People like your mother who you spoke about in your last post, who helped establish the Ojibwe health clinic at Lac du Flambeau.

      (For other readers, see Carols blog Voices from the Margin – …)

      People as such strengthen resolve for us all, and the next generation, to continue the struggle towards a world of love and peace. Thanks for your own voice, work and inspiration…. over the years, now, and moving on to a new dawn.

  2. On the one hand, so glad to see posts that share and bring notice to the great thinkers/spiritualists/peacemakers of the past –
    On the other hand, still dismayed to find how long their perspectives are ignored, ridiculed, actively suppressed, etc.
    Came across the works of Thomas Merton some years ago – and so happy to see so many others here in my little ‘blogging community’ sharing his insights – 🙂 Thank you –

    • Your welcome Tamrahjo. So true what you’re saying. I am glad to be able to share with others the depth, insight and wisdom of these people of peace like Merton. Thanks for your comment. You have uplifted my heart – Bruce

      • Good! Because wish to do for you what you’ve done for me! May not be the best or most noble reason in the universe, but still, can’t deny the desire to do so! 🙂

  3. One wonders if it is more than “coincidence” that both Thomas Merton and Martin Luther King died in 1968. They held nearly identical, profoundly oppositional views about the Vietnam War and the (let’s face it) evil, powerful interests behind that violent madness. MLK was 39 when he was murdered – not by James Earl Ray (see:, but by forces inside the US government. If only a very small, nearly non-existent percentage of Americans are aware that their history books are wrong about who murdered MLK after 47 years, is it a stretch to think that Thomas Merton’s death at age 53 was no accident? If both MLK and Thomas Merton had lived and expressed their powerful testimonies, combined with the subsequent millions, perhaps billions, who would have acted decisively in opposition to wars of aggression and spending on the military, history from 1968 to 2015 would have been entirely different with regard to planetary war and peace.

    • No it is not a stretch and I have wondered that myself – as I have with the death of Pope John Paul the first who lasted only 29 days or so. That happened around the time of the Vatican banking scandal. (?)

      Many people have been murdered in the interests of the powerful. I recall reading your blog about the truth behind MLK’s assassination.

      On the other side of things, accidents do happen…. a friend and fellow monk of Merton once commented that he could see this happening to Merton as he said he was a bit of a technological klutz.

      As you do Jerry, I often have thought how it could be today if world events (my own included) had made different choices in life. Hopefully each one of us can make the choices of peace, love and life, right now.

  4. Merton was aware of the writings of Aldo Leopold and quotes him: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the beauty, integrity and stability of the biotic community otherwise it is wrong” Aldo Leopold begin to think like a mountain. If we were thinking like a mountain we would never have had the copper pollution on MT. Washington. Wendell Berry once visited Merton.

    • Hi Father Charles – thank you for bringing this kind of deep ecological thinking into the fore…. “to think like a mountain.” We often forget to think of pollution and the abuse of earth and sky as violence. Wendell Berry must have been a young man when he visited Merton… both lived in Kentucky didn’t they.

  5. Thanks, Bruce. So much to reflect upon this Easter weekend. Through his contemplative life, Thomas Merton was able to see the world as it really was. He was not blinded by ‘bling’ or our current ubiquitous smartphone loaded with apps.

    • Your welcome Rosaliene. Your comment made me smile, even though. I had to ask my wife what ‘bling’ was. I’m glad Merton was able to share such insights via his writing and his contemplative life.

  6. Meditating on the precept “do no harm” begins to unravel exploitation in all of it’s complex threading. Examining the concept of Unity and the concept of The Chosen People and the histories of those holding to these ideologies is also revealing.

    • I love the “do no harm” precept. And I find Merton’s view that ‘we are already one but we cant imagine it”, so similar to Trudell’s view of people (and indeed the indigenous view), as us human beings all the same. We’re all made of the same elements – water, carbon and such. The “chosen people” concept reminds me of Nazism, which is so tragically ironic. With the fundamentalist ideologies so prevalent especially within any faith, country or political system is dangerous. It echoes this superiority complex. I have even seen it within factions of the environmental movement. Today the discussion around terrorism and connecting it in the western world viewpoint purely and solely to Islam, is ‘the same old, same old’ bias. Merton nails it on the head in my viewpoint, even to the point of challenging his own Christian theology and Catholic indoctrination.

    • I definitely can’t speak for Merton about what he might think a bout Isis. But what comes to my mind is President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s departure address that cautioned about us the military-industrial complex. In my viewpoint, the violence of Isis is only a symptom. I pray that peoples and institutions may start to think to deal with the sources of the dis-ease, instead of using military opiates only to cover-up this world-wide sickness of violence and destruction. I am reminded of words said so long ago…. “If we live by the sword we will die by the sword.”

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