Violence, Merton, and Day

We have had several significant events in recent days: the Pope’s visit to the U.S., the Oregon shooting, and the bombing of the hospital in Afghanistan. There is an interesting and important connection. When the Pope gave his talk to the U.S. Congress, he mentioned 4 people he considered exemplary Americans. Two of them were good but standard fare for the most part: Abe Lincoln and Martin Luther King (both victims of violence by the way). But the other two came like a jolt from far left field: Thomas Merton and Dorothy Day. Not exactly two icons of the conservative Catholic scene in the U.S. But they are also largely unknown to the larger population. Minutes after his talk Google was hit by thousands of searches by people who were wondering who these two were.

In the mass media a kind of sanitized version of these two figures was presented: the pious monk and the little old lady who helped the poor. The real Merton and the real Day hardly made any appearance except that sometimes they were deemed “radical Catholics.” To get a sense of what is at stake, consider this profound quote from Merton:

The real focus of American violence is not in esoteric groups but in the very culture itself, its mass media, its extreme individualism and competitiveness, its inflated myths of virility and toughness, and its overwhelming preoccupation with the power of nuclear, chemical, bacteriological, and psychological overkill. If we live in what is essentially a culture of overkill, how can we be surprised at finding violence in it? Can we get to the root of the trouble? In my opinion, the best way to do it would have been the classic way of religious humanism and non-violence exemplified by Gandhi. That way seems now to have been closed. I do not find the future reassuring.”


That was written about 50 years ago and I think we are the future that is not reassuring! One of the Black leaders of the 1960s Black Power movement had said in a more metaphorical way: Violence is as American as apple pie. One of the great things (and certainly not the only thing) about these two figures was their uncompromising stand against the deeply ingrained violence in our society. We actually create our enemies, like ISIS and the Taliban, and then we have someone else to destroy. The “War on Terror” makes a lot of money for a lot of people.

Both Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton WERE radical Catholics and radical Christians. The Pope’s citing them and commending them should be a sign that simply putting on our good clothes and going to Church on Sundays is not enough. The Church as a whole, bishops, religious, lay people, should all stand up against this deeply ingrained violence and challenge all our institutions if need be.   Gun laws are needed but they hardly touch the surface; we need a whole new way of looking at ourselves, at others, and a whole new spirit. Two articles for anyone to read on this topic can be found here:


There is that old plaintive Willie Nelson ballad, “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys.” Well, me and the Pope have different heroes: Merton, Day, and a host of so many others like them all over the world. May both the Pope and I live up to their call and their example.