I am reading Faith and Violence by Thomas Merton. Rarely does a book knock me on my ass like this one. I usually read books intellectually and file the info away somewhere. Mostly, I read like the armchair activist, armchair christian, armchair everything that I am. It is in my brain but rarely in my actions. We all do it. We read books like Rich Christians In An Age of Hunger and ask the person next to us at Starbucks to pass the sugar. How many of us read The Irresistible Revolution and while inspired, found it all to easy to resist (though we would be hard pressed to admit it). I read all sorts of revolutionary texts, liberation theology, and diatribes against the status quo but at the end of the day I slide onto the couch with my Netflix and watch through Doctor Who again.
But this book is making me think. And by think I don’t mean just in the intellectual way, but in the way we should be thinking, with our whole bodies. Merton makes me uncomfortable. I can feel his breath on my neck, the stare and finger pointed at me. I can hear his, “Ahemmmm” as he clears his throat, all eyes on me. He puts the reader in the hot seat. He gives you the one-two punch and tells you to get off your ass.
Just listen to this and tell me you don’t start to writhe a little under the steady stare.
“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 [Merton wrote this in 1968 and recent stats show 1% controlling 39% and this link from 2010 shows the top 20% control 80%]. Admittedly those Christians who are interested in non-violence 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 non-violence? 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 non-violence 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 upheaval (Faith and Violence, 20-21).”
As an American Christian, he makes me wonder, is the Gospel for me? Yes, I know I am invited in and its more of a thought exercise. But when I read the gospel I tend to agree with Merton. It is for “the poor, the oppressed, the underprivileged and those who have no power humanly speaking,” and that is not me. Is the Gospel just another thing that us Rich Bastard Americans are taking, like so many resources, from the rest of the world? Is the Gospel just another resource we are snatching out of the hands of the poor, turning it into a McDonald’s Meal, blood diamond, or oil reserve, to fool our fat asses? Probably.