Thomas Merton on Gandhi and Nonviolence for Today

In the spirit of the Egyptian nonviolent revolution movement and the awareness of increased national and international tensions of recent weeks and months, I thought it might be good to spend a little time reflecting on some inspirational writing on the subject of nonviolent action. Thomas Merton was a powerfully insightful voice in the middle of the Twentieth Century, particularly during the tumultuous decade of the 1960s. Easily grouped with nonviolent luminaries like Martin Luther King, Jr., Merton, a cloistered Trappist Monk, did his part through prayer and writing to influence the Church and world. He continues to do so today.

In 1965 a book edited by Merton was published containing selections of the writings of Gandhi. What follows below are a few excerpts of Merton’s own reflection on the significance of Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance and the powerful and peaceful example the Indian counter-colonial revolutionary leader offers us today. May we, especially those who bear the name of Christ, striving to live the example of the Word Made Flesh nonviolently in this world, follow in the footsteps of prophets like Merton, King and Gandhi. The world will be made better for it.

This first quote bespeaks the challenge and mission of authentic nonviolence. It is not a compartmentalized effort, but must be a whole lifestyle change and commitment to ongoing conversion. Nonviolence, particularly Christian nonviolence, requires sacrifice and endurance, a challenge that can be difficult to embrace in its entirety, but a challenge worth pursuing nonetheless.

“Gandhi does not envisage a tactical non-violence confined to one area of life or to an isolated moment. His non-violence is a creed which embraces all of life in a consistent and logical network of obligations. One cannot be violent, for example, in interpersonal or family relations, and non-violent with regard to conscription and war. Genuine non-violence means not only non-cooperation with glaring social evils, but also the renunciation of benefits and privileges that are implicitly guaranteed by forces which conscience cannot accept.”

This second excerpt displays an understanding on the part of both Merton and Gandhi of those who feel compelled to use force to defend human dignity and rights. However, it is never to be preferred and should remain a non-option. It is indeed nonviolence that is the most powerful tool for change and defense of rights. Not nonviolence as a ploy or cover for passive-aggression in covert force, but authentic nonviolence is a form of protest that is active and transparent, forcing, in a way, the conviction of its witnesses to change. It is no wonder that the most iconic revolutions in history have been nonviolent revolutions, including the recent Egyptian movement.

“The non-violence of the weak is rather a policy of passive protest, or even a cloak for impotent hatred which does not dare to use force. It is without love. It seeks to harm the adversary in ways that do not involve force, and it may resort to secret sabotage or even terrorism. Such conduct is not worthy of the name of non-violence. It is demoralizing and destructive.

To this false and cowardly non-violence Gandhi says he would prefer an honest resort to force. Hence those who cannot practice a really dedicated non-violence should defend their rights and justice by force, if no other means are available. Gandhi does not preach passive surrender of rights or of human dignity. On the contrary, he believes that nonviolence is the noblest as well as the most effective way of defending one’s rights.”

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