20050729

Global Struggle for Peaceful Extremism

In June 1940, Thomas Merton wrote:

I do know this much: that the knowledge of what is going on only makes it seem desperately important to be voluntarily poor, to get rid of all possessions this instant. I am scared, sometimes, to own anything, even a name, let alone a coin, or shares in the oil, the munitions, the airplane factories. I am scared to take a proprietary interest in anything, for fear that my love of what I own may be killing somebody somewhere.(231-32)

We are all so inextricably wrapped up in the killing--even the monks in their institutionally-endowed cells in the forests and in the hills. This is, for me, the most real and tangible meaning of original sin. From birth, in our innocence, we are fed upon death and suffering. The fruit-pickers who live as slaves, the cows that are reared and slaughtered in suffering, the corporations that trickle down to us our abundance from the hoards they have pillaged. We are all stained with cruelty and injustice. Even lifetimes devoted to atonement have not yet changed this enough.

But this does not mean that we can all throw up our hands in resignation--and go on buying the products of exploited laborers and the SUV's made for and by pigs of consumption and greed. No. We must exercise what free will we have and bend it toward atonement and change--even in the face of our confidence and fear that our efforts will be without effect. If prayer comes into this at all, it comes in only when we have bent and stretched our free will as far as we can in a daily effort simply to live without adding, even in the least of ways, to that total of death and suffering upon which we are fed. When we have done that, and see at the end of the day that it has not yet been enough, then some of us may pray for enough strength to go at it again the next day.

We are all weak-willed and mortal. The trick in acknowledging weakness of will is not to shrug it off and think, oh well, I'm just like everyone else, or I'm not so bad as some others. The trick is to feel all the awful weight of that weakness, and to live as best as we can in the clear knowledge of each of the ways in which our circumstances compel us to feed upon suffering and death, without forgiving or condemning ourselves or each other too quickly or too certainly. Whether a figure of the imagination or not, God is the name that we give to the creature that can forgive or condemn infallibly. No wonder that God is dead or dying in a world of humans who have taken it so enthusiastically to self-forgiveness and self-condemnation. If I am not so ready to forgive myself for weakness, then I will try to be stronger and less self-indulgent in my reaching for righteousness. And if I am not so quick to condemn myself to a hell in which the least deft athletic stretch of will is never what makes a difference, then I will make every move with enthusiasm.