The Root Of War Is Fear – Merton

Thomas-Merton-Feat.At the root of all war is fear: not so much the fear men have of one another as the fear they have of everything.  It is not merely that they do not trust one another; they do not even trust themselves.  If they are not sure when someone else may turn around and kill them, they are still less sure when they turn around and kill themselves.  They cannot trust anything, because they have ceased to believe in God.

It is not only our hatred of others that is dangerous but also and above all our hatred of ourselves: particularly that hatred of ourselves which is too deep and too powerful to be consciously faced.  For it is this which makes us see our own evil in others and unable to see it in ourselves.

When we see crime in others, we try to correct it by destroying them or at least putting them out of sight.  It is easy to identify the sin with the sinner when he is someone other than our own self.  In ourselves, it is the other way round; we see the sin, but we have great difficulty in shouldering responsibility for it.  We find it very hard to identify our sin with our own will and our own malice.  On the contrary, we naturally tend to interpret our immoral act as an involuntary mistake, or as the malice of spirit in us that is other than ourself.  Yet at the same time we are fully aware that others do not make this convenient distinction for us.  The acts that have been don by us are, in their eyes, our acts and they hold us fully responsible.

What is more, we tend unconsciously to ease ourselves still more of the burden of guilt that is in us, by passing it on to somebody else.  When have I done wrong, and have excused myself by attributing the wrong to another who is unaccountably in me, my conscience is not yet satisfied.  There is still too much left to be explained.  The other in myself is too close to home.  The temptation is, then, to account for my fault by seeing an equivalent amount of evil in someone else.  Hence I minimize my own sins and compensate for doing so by exaggerating the faults of others.

As if this were not enough, we make the situation much worse by artificially intensifying our sense of evil, and by increasing our propensity to feel guilt even for things which are not in themselves wrong.  In all these ways we build up such an obsession with evil, both in ourselves and in others, that we waste all our mental energy trying to account for this evil, to punish it, to exorcise it, or to get rid of it in any way we can.  We drive ourselves mad with our preoccupation and in the end there is no outlet left but violence.  We have to destroy something or someone.  By that time we have created for ourselves a suitable enemy, a scapegoat in whom we have invested all the evil in the world.  He is the cause of every wrong.  He is the fomenter of all conflict.  If he can only be destroyed, conflict will cease, evil will be done with, there will be no more war.

This kind of fictional thinking is especially dangerous when it is supported by a whole elaborate pseudo-scientific structure of myths, like those which Marxists have adopted as their ersatz for religion.  But it is certainly no less dangerous when it operates in the vague, fluid, confused and unprincipled opportunities which substitutes in the West for religion, for philosophy and even for mature thought.

When the whole world is in moral confusion, when no one knows any longer what to think, and when in fact, everybody is running away from the responsibility of thinking, when man makes rational thought about moral issues absurd by exiling himself entirely from realities into the realm of fictions, and when he expends all his efforts in constructing more fictions with which to account for his ethical failures, then it becomes clear that the world cannot be saved from global war and global destruction by the mere efforts and good intentions of peacemakers.  In actual fact, everyone is becoming more and more aware of the widening gulf between good purposes and bad results, between efforts to make peace and the growing likelihood of war.  It seems that no matter how elaborate and careful the planning, all attempts at international dialogue end in more and more ludicrous failures.  In the end no one has any more faith in those who even attempt dialogue.  On the contrary, the negotiators, with all their pathetic good will, become the objects of contempt and of hatred.  It is the men of good will, the men who have made their poor efforts to do something about peace, who will in the end be the most mercilessly reviled, crushed, and destroyed as victims of the universal self-hatred of man which they have unfortunately only increased by the failure of their good intentions.

Perhaps we still have a basically superstitious tendency to associate failure with dishonesty and guilt – failure being interpreted as punishment.  Even if a man starts out with good intentions, if he fails we tend to think he was somehow at fault.  if he was not guilty, he was at least wrong.  And being wrong is something we have not yet learned to face with equanimity and understanding.  We either condemn it with god-like distain or forgive it with god-like condescension.  We do not manage to accept it with human compassion, humility and identification.  Thus we never see the one truth that would help us begin to solve our ethical and political problems: that we are all more or less wrong, that we are all at fault, all limited and obstructed by our mixed motives, our self-deception, our greed, our self-righteousness and our tendency to aggressively and hypocrisy.

In our refusal to accept the partially good intentions of other and work with them (of course prudently and with resignation  to the inevitable imperfection of the result) we are unconsciously proclaiming our own malice, our own intolerance, our own lack of realism, our own ethical and political quackery.

Perhaps in the end the first real step toward peace would be a realistic acceptance of the fact that out political ideals are perhaps to a great extent illusions and fictions to which we cling out of motives that are not always perfectly honest: that because of this we prevent ourselves from seeing any good or any practicability in the political ideals of our enemies – which may, of course, be in many ways even more illusory and dishonest than our own.  We will never get anywhere unless we can accept the fact that politics is an inextricable angel of good and evil motives in which, perhaps, the evil predominate but where one must continue to hope doggedly in what little good can still be found.

But someone will say: If we once recognize that we are all equally wrong, all political action will instantly be paralyzed.  We can only act when we assume that we are in the right.  On the contrary, i believe the basis for valid political action can only be the recognition the the true solution to our problems is not accessible to any one isolated party or nation but that all must arrive at it by working together.

I do no mean to encourage the guilt-ridden thinking that is always too glad to be wrong in everything.  This too is an evasion of responsibility, because every form of oversimplification tends to make decisions ultimately meaningless.  We must try to accept ourselves, whether individually or collectively, not only as perfectly good or perfectly bad, but in our mysterious, unaccountable mixture of good and evil.  We have to stand by the modicum of good that is in us without exaggerating it.  We have to defend our real rights, because unless we respect our own rights we will certainly not respect the rights of others.  But at the same time we have to recognize that we have willfully or otherwise trespassed on the rights of others.  We must be able to admit this not only as the result of self-examination, but when it is pointed our unexpectedly, and perhaps not too gently, by somebody else.

These principles which govern personal moral conduct, which make harmony possible in small social units like the family, also apply in the wider area or the state and in the whole community of nations.  it is, however, quite absurd, in our present situation or in any other, to expect these principles to be universally accepted as thereat of moral exhortation.  There is very little hope that the world will be run according to them, all of a sudden, as a result of some hypothetical change of heart on the part of politicians.  it is useless and even laughable to base political thought o the faint hope of a purely contingent and subjective moral illumination in the hearts of the world’s leaders.  But outside of political thought and action, in the religious sphere, it is not only permissible to hope for such mysterious consummation, but it is necessary to pray for it.  We can and must believe not so much that the mysterious light of God can convert the ones who are mostly responsible for the world’s peace, but at least that they may, in spite of their obstinacy and their prejudices, be guarded against fatal error.

It would be sentimental folly to expect men to trust one another when they obviously cannot be trusted.  But at least they can learn to trust God.  They can bring themselves to see that the mysterious power of God can, quite independently of human malice and error, protect men unaccountably against themselves, and that God can always turn evil to good, though perhaps not always in a sense that would be understood by the preachers of sunshine and uplift.  If they can trust and love God, who is infinitely wise and who rules the lives of men, permitting them to use their freedom even to the point of almost incredible abuse, they can love men who are evil.  They can learn to love them even in their sin, as God has loved them.  If we can love the men we cannot trust (without trusting them foolishly) and if we can to some extent share the burden of their sin by identifying ourselves with them, then perhaps there is some hope of a kind of peace on earth, based not on the wisdom and the manipulations of men but on the inscrutable mercy of God.

For only love – which means humility – can exorcise the fear which is at the root of all war.

What is the use of postmarking our mail with exhortations to pray for peace and then spending billions of dollars on atomic submarines, thermonuclear weapons, and ballistic missiles?  This, I would think, would certainly be what the New Testament calls mocking God – and mocking God far more effectively than the atheists do.  The culminating horror of the joke is that we are piling up these weapons to protect ourselves against atheists who, quite frankly, believe there is no God and are convinced that one has to rely on bombs and missiles since nothing else offers any real security.  Is it then because we have so much trust in the power of God that we are intent upon utterly destroying these people before they can destroy us?  Even at the risk of destroying ourselves at the same time?

I do not mean to imply that prayer excludes simultaneous use of ordinary human means to accomplish a naturally good and justifiable end.  One can very well pray for a restoration of physical health and at the same time medicine prescribed by a doctor.  In fact, a believer should normally do both.  And there would seem to be a reasonable and right proportion between the use of these two means in the end.

But consider the utterly fabulous amount of money, planning, energy, anxiety and care which go into the production of weapons which almost immediately become obsolete and have to be scrapped.  Contrast all this with the pitiful little gesture – pray for peace – piously canceling our four-cent stamps!  Think, too, of the disproportion between our piety and enormous act of murderous destruction which we at the same time countenance without compunction and without shame!  It does not even seem to enter our minds that there might be some incongruity in praying to the God of peace, the God who told us to love one another as God had loved us, who warned us that they who took the sword would perish by it, and at the same time planning to annihilate not thousands but million of civilians and soldiers, men, women, and children without discrimination, even with the almost infallible certainty of inviting the same annihilation for ourselves!

It may make sense for a sick man to pray for health and then take medicine, but I fail to see any sense at all in his praying for health and then drinking poison.  

When I pray for peace I pray God to pacify not only the Russians and the Chinese but above all my own nation nation and myself.  When I pray for peace i pray to be protected not only from the Reds but also from the folly and blindness of my own country.  When I pray for peace, I pray not only that the enemies of my country may cease to want war, but above all that my own country will cease to do the things that make was inevitable.  In other words, when I pray for peace I am not just praying that the Russians will give up with a struggle and let us have our way, I am praying that both we and the Russian may somehow be restored to sanity and learn how to work out our problems, as best we can, together, instead of preparing for global suicide.

I am fully aware that this sounds utterly sentimental, archaic and out of tune with an age of science.  But I would like to submit that pseudo-scientific thinking in politics and sociology have so far had much less than this to offer.  One thing I would like to add in all fairness is the the atomic scientists themselves are quite often the ones most concerned about the ethics of the situation, and the they are among the few who dare to open their mouths from time to time and say something about it.

But who on earth listens?

If men really wanted peace they would sincerely ask God for it and God would give it to them.  But why should God give the world a peace which it does not really desire? The peace the world pretends to desire is really no peace at all.

To some men peace merely means the liberty to exploit other people without fear of retaliation or interference.  To others peace means the freedom to rob others without interruption.  To still others it means the leisure to devour the goods of earth without being compelled to interrupt their pleasures to feed those whom their greed is starving.  And to practically everybody peace simply means the absence of any physical violence that might cast a shadow over lives devoted to the satisfaction of their animal appetites for comfort and pleasure.

Many men like these have asked God for what they thought was peace and wondered why their prayer was not answered.  They could not understand that it actually was answered.  God left them with what they desired, for their idea of peace was only another form of war.  The cold war is simply a normal consequence of our corrupt idea of a peace based on a policy of every man for himself in ethics, economics and political life.  it is absurd to hope for a solid peace based on fictions and illusions!

So instead of loving what you think is peace, love other men and love God above all.  And instead of hating the people you think are warmakers, hate the appetites and disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war.  If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed – but hate these things in yourself, not in another.

New Seeds Of Contemplation, Thomas Merton, ‘The Root Of All War Is Fear’