Blessed are the Meek: On Christian Nonviolence

by Thomas Merton



It would be a serious mistake to regard Christian nonviolence simply as a novel tactic which is at once efficacious and even edifying, and which enables the sensitive person to participate in the struggles of the world without being dirtied with blood. Nonviolence is not simply a way of proving one’s point and getting what one wants without being involved in behavior that one considers ugly and evil. Nor is it, for that matter, a means which anyone legitimately can make use of according to his fancy for any purpose whatever. To practice nonviolence for a purely selfish or arbitrary end would in fact discredit and distort the truth of nonviolent resistance.

Nonviolence is perhaps the most exacting of all forms of struggle, not only because it demands first of all that one be ready to suffer evil and even face the threat of death without violent retaliation, but because it excludes mere transient self-interest from its considerations. In a very real sense, those who practice nonviolent resistance must commit themselves not to the defense of their own interests or even those of a particular group: they must commit themselves to the defense of objective truth and right and above all of human beings. Their aim is then not simply to “prevail” or to prove that they are right and the adversary wrong, or to make the adversary give in and yield what is demanded of him.

Nor should nonviolent resisters be content to prove to themselves that they are virtuous and right, that their hands and heart are pure even though the adversary’s may be evil and defiled. Still less should they seek for themselves the psychological gratification of upsetting the adversary’s conscience and perhaps driving him to an act of bad faith and refusal of the truth. We know that our unconscious motives may, at times, make our nonviolence a form of moral aggression and even a subtle provocation designed (without our awareness) to bring out the evil we hope to find in the adversary, and thus to justify ourselves in our own eyes and in the eyes of “decent people.”

Christian nonviolence is not built on a presupposed division, but on the basic unity of humankind. It is not out for the conversion of the wicked to the ideas of the good, but for healing and reconciliation.

For this very reason, as Gandhi saw, the fully consistent practice of nonviolence demands a solid metaphysical and religious basis both in being and in God. This comes before subjective good intentions and sincerity. For the Hindu this metaphysical basis was provided by the Vedantist doctrine of the Atman, the true transcendent Self which alone is absolutely real, and before which the empirical self of the individual must be effaced in the faithful practice of dharma.

Now all these principles are fine and they accord with our Christian faith. But once we view the principles in the light of current facts, a practical difficulty confronts us. If the “gospel is preached to the poor;” if the Christian message is essentially a message of hope and redemption for the poor, the oppressed, the underprivileged and those who have no power humanly speaking, how are we to reconcile ourselves to the fact that Christians belong for the most part to the rich and powerful nations of the earth? Seventeen percent of the world’s population control eighty percent of the world’s wealth, and most of these seventeen percent are supposedly Christian. Admittedly those Christians who are interested in nonviolence are not ordinarily the wealthy ones. Nevertheless, like it or not, they share in the power and privilege of the most wealthy and mighty society the world has ever known. Even with the best subjective intentions in the world, how can they avoid a certain ambiguity in preaching nonviolence? Is this not a mystification?

We must remember Marx’s accusation that, “The social principles of Christianity encourage dullness, lack of self-respect, submissiveness, self-abasement, in short all the characteristics of the proletariat.” We must frankly face the possibility that the nonviolence of the European or American preaching Christian meekness may conceivably be adulterated by bourgeois feelings and by an unconscious desire to preserve the status quo against violent upheaval.

On the other hand, Marx’s view of Christianity is obviously tendentious and distorted. A real understanding of Christian nonviolence (backed up by the evidence of history in the Apostolic Age) shows not only that it is a power, but that it remains perhaps the only really effective way of transforming human beings and human society. After nearly fifty years of communist revolution, we find little evidence that the world is improved by violence. Let us however seriously consider at least the conditions for relative honesty in the practice of Christian nonviolence.

1) Nonviolence must be aimed above all at the transformation of the present state of the world, and it must therefore be free from all occult, unconscious connivance with an unjust use of power. This poses enormous problems–for if nonviolence is too political it becomes drawn into the power struggle and identified with one side or another in that struggle, while if it is totally a-political it runs the risk of being ineffective or at best merely symbolic.

2) The non-violent resistance of the Christians who belong to one of the powerful nations and who are themselves in some sense privileged members of world society will have to be clearly not for themselves but for others, that is for the poor and underprivileged. (Obviously in the case of Negroes in the United States though they may be citizens of a privileged nation, their case is different. They are clearly entitled to wage a nonviolent struggle for their rights, but even for them this struggle should be primarily for truth itself–this being the source of their power.)

3) In the case of nonviolent struggle for peace–the threat of nuclear war abolishes all privileges. Under the bomb there is not much distinction between rich and poor. In fact the richest nations are usually the most threatened. Nonviolence must simply avoid the ambiguity of an unclear and confusing protest that hardens the warmakers in their self-righteous blindness. This means in fact that in this case above all nonviolence must avoid a facile and fanatical self-righteousness, and refrain from being satisfied with dramatic self-justifying gestures.

4) Perhaps the most insidious temptation to be avoided is one that is characteristic of the power structure itself: this fetishism of immediate visible results. Modern society understands “possibilities” and “results” in terms of a superficial and quantitative idea of efficacy. One of the missions of Christian nonviolence is to restore a different standard of practical judgment in social conflicts. This means that the Christian humility of nonviolent action must establish itself in the minds and memories of modern people not only as conceivable and possible, but as a desirable alternative to what they now consider the only realistic possibility: namely political technique backed by force. Here the human dignity of nonviolence must manifest itself clearly in terms of a freedom and a nobility which are able to resist political manipulation and brute force and show them up as arbitrary, barbarous and irrational. This will not be easy. The temptation to get publicity and quick results by spectacular tricks or by forms of protest that are merely odd and provocative but whose human meaning is not clear, may defeat this purpose.

The realism of nonviolence must be made evident by humility and self-restraint which clearly show frankness and open-mindedness and invite the adversary to serious and reasonable discussion.

Instead of trying to use the adversary as leverage for one’s own effort to realize an ideal, nonviolence seeks only to enter into a dialogue with them in order to attain, together with them, the common good of everyone. Nonviolence must be realistic and concrete. Like ordinary political action, it is no more than the “art of the possible.” But precisely the advantage of nonviolence is that it has a more Christian and more humane notion of what is possible. Where the powerful believe that only power is efficacious, the nonviolent resister is persuaded of the superior efficacy of love, openness, peaceful negotiation, and above all of truth. For power can guarantee the interests of some but it can never foster the good of all. Power always protects the good of some at the expense of all the others. Only love can attain and preserve the good of all. Any claim to build the security of all on force is a manifest imposture.

It is here that genuine humility is of the greatest importance. Such humility, united with true Christian courage (because it is based on trust in God and not in ones own ingenuity and tenacity), is itself a way of communicating the message that one is interested only in truth and in the genuine rights of others. Conversely, our authentic interest in the common good above all will help us to be humble, and to distrust our own hidden drive to self-assertion.

5) Christian nonviolence, therefore, is convinced that the manner in which the conflict for truth is waged will itself manifest or obscure the truth. To fight for truth by dishonest, violent, inhuman, or unreasonable means would simply betray the truth one is trying to vindicate. The absolute refusal of evil or suspect means is a necessary element in the witness of nonviolence.

6) A test of our sincerity in the practice of nonviolence is this: are we willing to learn something from the adversary? If a new truth is made known to us by them or through them, will we accept it? Are we willing to admit that they are not totally inhumane, wrong, unreasonable, cruel, etc.? This is important. If they see that we are completely incapable of listening to them with an open mind, our nonviolence will have nothing to say to them except that we distrust them and seek to outwit them. Our readiness to see some good in them and to agree with some of their ideas (though tactically this might look like a weakness on our part), actually gives us power: the power of sincerity and of truth. On the other hand, if we are obviously unwilling to accept any truth that we have not first discovered and declared ourselves, we show by that very fact that we are interested not in the truth so much as in “being right.” Since the adversary is presumably interested in being right also, and in proving themselves right by what they consider the superior argument of force, we end up where we started. Nonviolence has great power, provided that it really witnesses to truth and not just to self-righteousness.

The dread of being open to the ideas of others generally comes from our hidden insecurity about our own convictions. We fear that we may be “converted”–or perverted–by a pernicious doctrine. On the other hand, if we are mature and objective in our open-mindedness, we may find that viewing things from a basically different perspective–that of our adversary–we discover our own truth in a new light and are able to understand our own ideal more realistically.

Our willingness to take an alternative approach to a problem will perhaps relax the obsessive fixation of the adversary on their view, which they believe is the only reasonable possibility and which they are determined to impose on everyone else by coercion.

It is the refusal of alternatives–a compulsive state of mind which one might call the ‘ultimatum complex’–which makes wars in order to force the unconditional acceptance of one over-simplified interpretation of reality. The mission of Christian humility in social life is not merely to edify, but to keep minds open to many alternatives. The rigidity of a certain type of Christian thought has seriously impaired this capacity, which nonviolence must recover.

Needless to say, Christian humility must not be confused with a mere desire to win approval and to find reassurance by conciliating others superficially.

7) Christian hope and Christian humility are inseparable. The quality of nonviolence is decided largely by the purity of the Christian hope behind it. The Christian knows that there are radically sound possibilities in everyone, and believes that love and grace always have the power to bring out those possibilities at the most unexpected moments. Therefore if one has hopes that God will grant peace to the world it is because one also trusts that humanity, God’s creature, is not basically evil: that there is in us a potentiality for peace and order which can be realized provided the right conditions are there. Christians will do their part in creating these conditions by preferring love and trust to hate and suspiciousness. Obviously, once again, this ‘hope in humankind” must not be naive. But experience itself has shown, in the last few years, how much an attitude of simplicity and openness can do to break down barriers of suspicion that had divided people for centuries.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The Trappist monk, Thomas Merton, brought a special gift to American social struggles: contemplation. Faced with the burnout of so many young people, veterans of the civil rights and then the anti-Vietnam war efforts, people began looking for ways to replenish the supplies of love, passion, and energy. Merton, while not himself an activist, brought an uncanny appreciation of the spiritual hemorrhaging that endless interventions caused. His answer: prayer. From the invidious split between people who pray and people who act, was born a new, integral person, who prays and acts, with a harmonious balance between them. Along with the Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, Merton left a lasting legacy of spirituality in situations of conflict. This groundbreaking article, written at the request of FOR’s Hildegard Goss-Mayr and dedicated by Merton to Joan Baez, was first published as an FOR pamphlet. (Fellowship 33 [May 1967], 18-22) ©2001 Fellowship of Reconciliation.

A note also on our peace dove illustration: The image is found on countless websites, including that of the Carmelite Order, but nowhere have we found it credited to any artist. We would much appreciate any information concerning its origins.

“When planted in the garden, the mustard seed, smallest of all the seeds, became a large tree, and birds came and made their home there.” Luke 13:19

“For me whatever is in the atoms and molecules is in the universe. I believe in the saying that what is in the microcosm of one’s self is reflected in the macrocosm.” M. Gandhi