Merton at the Intersection of Before and After Liberation Theology

bible-640Although he died in December 1968, at around the same time that Liberation Theology was coming into existence in an explicit way but before it would be widely known inside and outside of the North American academy, Thomas Merton anticipated similar strands of the Truth of Revelation, which forms the core of Liberation Theology. In his little book, Opening The Bible, Merton highlights the scriptural foundations for theology and action in the world. It is striking how prescient his thought is, how compatible it is with the work of the Latin American theologians at that time and afterward.

We must never overlook the fact that the message of the Bible is above all a message preached to the poor, the burdened, the oppressed, the underprivileged. There is no need to remind the reader ho Marx capitalized on the fact. But Marx assumed that the Bible was essentially a deliberate fraud on the part of a ruling class to deceive the poor and make them accept their lot by means of a mystification. This is not the place to spell out apologetic arguments against the Marxian contention that religion is the “opium of the people,” when in fact we are also aware that even the revolutionary eschatology of Marx himself can be shown to be largely based on a biblical pattern. For precisely one of the central messages of the Bible is that the ultimate meaning of [humanity's] existence on earth is to be found in history, and that the human race is moving toward a final accounting in which history itself will see that the injustice of oppressors will be punished and those they oppressed will receive their just reward.

The Bible also points out that [humanity] is to act as God’s collaborator in setting up a definitive kingdom of justice and peace.

Here Merton anticipates the development of various forms of political theology — particularly that of the apocalyptic — and echoes some of his contemporaries in terms of the historicity of Christian theology, especially a theology of Revelation. It really makes me wonder where his thought would have gone if he lived another ten, twenty, thirty years or more.

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4 Responses to “Merton at the Intersection of Before and After Liberation Theology”

  1. I think Merton was already thinking from a liberating perspective in 1949. In a letter to a class of students he wrote:
    “I believe sometimes that God is sick of the rich people and the powerful and wise men of the world and that He is going to look elsewhere and find the underprivileged, those who are poor and have things very hard; even those who find it most difficult to avoid sin; and God is going to come down and walk among the poor people of the earth, among those who are unhappy and sinful and distressed and raise them up and make them the greatest saints and send them walking all over the universe with the steps of angels and the voices of prophets to bring his light back into the world again.”
    It’s found in ROAD TO JOY, p. 317

  2. Merton was always saying that he “was no theologian”, but he does seem to always get at the root of what theologians seek to express. He had a way of cutting through the “tangled knots of lies” to say what was really going on.

    My sense is that Merton would have been able to guide the Liberation Movement much as he was able to guide Daniel Berrigan through his anti-war actions, keeping him grounded in what exactly he wanted to say and how he needed to say it in his public protests. For sure I think that Merton was moving toward a spiritual activism that was grounded in contemplative prayer. But he knew how tricky this was, especially with our egos and political agendas.

    Merton was on the cutting edge of what was happening in the world. In so many ways, he laid the groundwork for what was to come.

  3. Great insight into Merton. Thank you, Fr. Dan.
    So true, I believe, that we don’t hear (or heed) our prophets’ message until after they die — or are murdered by those who want to still their voices?

  4. Excellent thoughts about Merton, Fr. Dan. Thank you.

    So, so true, I believe, that we neither hear nor heed our prophets’ message until after they die — or or murdered by those who want to still the prophets’ voices forever?

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