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Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander by Thomas Merton
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“There is a pervasive form of contemporary violence to which the idealist most easily succumbs: activism and overwork. The rush and pressure of modern life are a form, perhaps the most common form, of its innate violence. To allow oneself to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns, to surrender to too many demands, to commit oneself to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything, is to succumb to violence. The frenzy of our activism neutralizes our work for peace. It destroys our own inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our own work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”
Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all these people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking from a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world. . . .

This sense of liberation from an illusory difference was such a relief and such a joy to me that I almost laughed out loud. . . . I have the immense joy of being man, a member of a race in which God Himself became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now that I realize what we all are. And if only everybody could realize this! But it cannot be explained. There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun.

Then it was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed. . . . But this cannot be seen, only believed and ‘understood’ by a peculiar gift.”
Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
“At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own will. This little point of nothingness and of absolute poverty is the pure glory of God in us. It is so to speak His name written in us, as our poverty, as our indigence, as our dependence, as our sonship. It is like a pure diamond, blazing with the invisible light of heaven. It is in everybody, and if we could see it we would see these billions of points of light coming together in the face and blaze of a sun that would make all the darkness and cruelty of life vanish completely ... I have no program for this seeing. It is only given. But the gate of heaven is every- where.”
Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
“Technology has its own ethic of expediency and efficiency. What can be done efficiently must be done in the most efficient way—even if what is done happens, for example, to be genocide or the devastation of a country by total war. Even the long-term interests of society, or the basic needs of man himself, are not considered when they get in the way of technology. We waste natural resources, as well as those of undeveloped countries, iron, oil, etc., in order to fill our cities and roads with a congestion of traffic that is in fact largely useless, and is a symptom of the meaningless and futile agitation of our own minds.”
Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
“We are all convinced that we desire the truth above all. Nothing strange about this. It is natural to man, an intelligent being, to desire the truth. (I still dare to speak of man as “an intelligent being”!) But actually, what we desire is not “the truth” so much as “to be in the right.” To seek the pure truth for its own sake may be natural to us, but we are not able to act always in this respect according to our nature. What we seek is not the pure truth, but the partial truth that justifies our prejudices, our limitations, our selfishness. This is not “the truth.” It is only an argument strong enough to prove us “right.” And usually our desire to be right is correlative to our conviction that somebody else (perhaps everybody else) is wrong.

Why do we want to prove them wrong? Because we need them to be wrong. For if they are wrong, and we are right, then our untruth becomes truth: our selfishness becomes justice and virtue: our cruelty and lust cannot be fairly condemned. We can rest secure in the fiction we have determined to embrace as “truth.” What we desire is not the truth, but rather that our lie should be proved “right,” and our iniquity be vindicated as “just.” This is what we have done to pervert our natural, instinctive appetite for truth.

No wonder we hate. No wonder we are violent. No wonder we exhaust ourselves in preparing for war! And in doing so, of course, we offer the enemy another reason to believe that he is right, that he must arm, that he must get ready to destroy us. Our own lie provides the foundation of truth on which he erects his own lie, and the two lies together react to produce hatred, murder, disaster.”
Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
“The real violence exerted by propaganda is this: by means of apparent truth and apparent reason, it induces us to surrender our freedom and self-possession. It predetermines us to certain conclusions, and does so in such a way that we imagine that we are fully free in reaching them by our own judgment and our own thought. Propaganda makes up our mind for us, but in such a way that it leaves us the sense of pride and satisfaction of men who have made up their own minds. And, in the last analysis, propaganda achieves this effect because we want it to. This is one of the few real pleasures left to modern man: this illusion that he is thinking for himself when, in fact, someone else is doing his thinking for him. And this someone else is not a personal authority, the great mind of a genial thinker, it is the mass mind, the general “they,” the anonymous whole. One is left, therefore, not only with the sense that one has thought things out for himself, but that he has also reached the correct answer without difficulty - the answer which is shown to be correct because it is the answer of everybody. Since it is at once my answer and the answer of everybody, how should I resist it?”
Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
“We are living under a tyranny of untruth which confirms itself in power and establishes a more and more total control over men in proportion as they convince themselves they are resisting error.

Our submission to plausible and useful lies involves us in greater and more obvious contradictions, and to hide these from ourselves we need greater and ever less plausible lies. The basic falsehood is the lie that we are totally dedicated to truth, and that we can remain dedicated to truth in a manner that is at the same time honest and exclusive: that we have the monopoly of all truth, just as our adversary of the moment has the monopoly of all error.

We then convince ourselves that we cannot preserve our purity of vision and our inner sincerity if we enter into dialogue with the enemy, for he will corrupt us with his error. We believe, finally, that truth cannot be preserved except by the destruction of the enemy - for, since we have identified him with error, to destroy him is to destroy error. The adversary, of course, has exactly the same thoughts about us and exactly the same basic policy by which he defends the “truth.” He has identified us with dishonesty, insincerity, and untruth. He believes that, if we are destroyed, nothing will be left but truth.”
Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
“A Christian society? Such a society is not one that is run by priests, not even necessarily one in which everybody has to go to Church: it is one in which work is for production and not for profit, and production is not for its own sake, not merely for the sake of those who own the means of production, but for all who contribute in a constructive way to the process of production. A Christian society is one in which men give their share of labor and intelligence and receive their share of the fruits of the labor of all, and in which all this is seen in relation to a transcendental purpose, the “history of salvation,” the Kingdom of God, a society centered upon the divine truth and the divine mercy.”
Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
“A letter arrives stamped with the slogan “The U. S. Army, key to peace.” No army is the key to peace, neither the U. S. Army nor the Soviet Army nor any other. No “great” nation has the key to anything but war. Power has nothing to do with peace. The more men build up military power, the more they violate peace and destroy it.”
Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
“The sin of bad theology has been precisely this - to set Christ up against man, and to regard all flesh and blood men as “not-Christ.” Indeed to assume that many men, whole classes of men, nations, races, are in fact “anti-Christ.” To divide men arbitrarily according to their conformity to our own limited disincarnate mental Christ, and to decide on this basis that most men are “anti-Christ” - this shows up our theology. At such a moment, we have to question not mankind, but our theology. A theology that ends in lovelessness cannot be Christian.”
Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
“We believe, not because we want to know, but because we want to be.”
Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
“One has either got to be a Jew or stop reading the Bible. The Bible cannot make sense to anyone who is not “spiritually a Semite.” The spiritual sense of the Old Testament is not and cannot be a simple emptying out of its Israelite content. Quite the contrary! The New Testament is the fulfillment of that spiritual content, the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham, the promise that Abraham believed in. It is never therefore a denial of Judaism, but its affirmation. Those who consider it a denial have not understood it.”
Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
“The first step in identifying “heresy” is to refuse all identifications with the subjective intuitions and experience of the “heretic,” and to see his words only in an impersonal realm in which there is no dialogue - in which dialogue is denied a priori.”
Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
“If we really sought truth we would begin slowly and laboriously to divest ourselves one by one of all our coverings of fiction and delusion: or at least we would desire to do so, for mere willing cannot enable us to effect it. On the contrary, the one who can best point out our error, and help us to see it, is the adversary whom we wish to destroy. This is perhaps why we wish to destroy him. So, too, we can help him to see his error, and that is why he wants to destroy us.

In the long run, no one can show another the error that is within him, unless the other is convinced that his critic first sees and loves the good that is within him. So while we are perfectly willing to tell our adversary he is wrong, we will never be able to do so effectively until we can ourselves appreciate where he is right. And we can never accept his judgment on our errors until he gives evidence that he really appreciates our own peculiar truth. Love, love only, love of our deluded fellow man as he actually is, in his delusion and in his sin: this alone can open the door to truth. As long as we do not have this love, as long as this love is not active and effective in our lives (for words and good wishes will never suffice) we have no real access to the truth. At least not to moral truth.”
Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
“Echar la culpa al negro: no es solo cuestión de racionalizar y verbalizar. Se ha convertido en una fuerte necesidad emocional del hombre blanco. Echar la culpa al negro (y por extensión al comunista, al agitador exterior) le da al blanco una sensación más fuerte de identidad o, mejor dicho, le protege una identidad seriamente amenazada de disolución patológica. Echando la culpa al negro es como el blanco trata de mantenerse sin dispersión. El negro está en la triste situación de ser usado para todo, hasta para la propia inseguridad psicológica del blanco. Por desgracia, una simple irrupción de violencia no hará más que dar al blanco la justificación que desea. Le convencerá de que es de verdad,
porque tiene razón. El negro, en realidad, podría causar un caos en la sociedad blanca con la guerra psicológica si supiera usarla. Ya el arma psicológica de la no violencia se ha mostrado efectiva como ataque a la falsificada imagen que tiene el blanco de sí mismo como ser justo y cristiano.”
Thomas Merton, Conjeturas de un espectador culpable
“El núcleo del problema racial, tal como yo lo veo, es este: el negro (y también otros grupos raciales, pero el negro sobre
todo) resulta víctima de los conflictos psicológicos y sociales que ahora forman parte de una civilización blanca que teme una disgregación inminente y no tiene una comprensión madura de la realidad de la crisis. La sociedad blanca es pura y simplemente incapaz de aceptar realmente al negro y asimilarle, porque los blancos no pueden hacer frente a sus propios impulsos, no pueden defenderse contra sus propias emociones, que son extremadamente inestables en una sociedad sobreestimulada y rápidamente cambiante.
Para minimizar la sensación de riesgo y desastre siempre latente en sí mismos, los blancos tienen que proyectar sus miedos en algún objeto exterior a ellos mismos. Claro que la Guerra Fría ofrece amplias oportunidades, y cuanto más inseguros están los hombres, en un bando o en otro, más recurren a paranoicas acusaciones de «comunismo» o «imperialismo», según sea el caso. Las acusaciones no carecen de base, pero siguen siendo patológicas.
Aprisionado en este ineludible síndrome queda el negro, que tiene la desgracia de hacerse visible, con su presencia, su desgracia, sus propios conflictos y su propia división, precisamente en el momento en que la sociedad blanca está menos preparada para arreglárselas con un peso extra de riesgo.
¿Cuál es el resultado? Por un lado, la ternura de los «liberales» se precipita, de modo patético pero comprensible, a dar la bienvenida y a conciliar esa pena trágica. Por otro lado, los inseguros se endurecen de modo enconadamente patológico, se tensan las resistencias, y se confirman en el temor y el odio aquellos que (conservadores o no) están decididos a echar la culpa a otro de sus propias deformidades interiores.
La increíble inhumanidad de esta negativa a escuchar por un momento al negro, de algún modo, y de esta decisión de mantenerle oprimido a toda costa, me parece que proporcionará casi con seguridad una situación revolucionaria desesperanzadamente caótica y violenta. Cada vez más, la animosidad,
la suspicacia y el miedo que sienten esos blancos (y que en su raíz sigue siendo un miedo a su propia miseria interior, que probablemente no pueden sentir tal como es) llegan a hacerse una profecía que se cumple a sí misma. El odio del racista blanco al negro (lo repito, odio, porque aún es una palabra muy suave para indicar lo que hay en los corazones de esa agitada gente) se le hace aceptable cuando lo presenta como un odio del negro a los blancos, fomentado y estimulado por el comunismo. ¡La Guerra Fría y los miedos racistas se ensamblan en una sola unidad! ¡Qué sencillo es todo!
Al negro, claramente, se le invita a una sola reacción. Ha tenido innumerables razones para odiar al hombre blanco. Ahora se reúnen y se confirman sólidamente. Aunque no tenga nada que ganar por la violencia, tampoco tiene nada que perder. ¡Y por lo menos la violencia será un modo decisivo de decir lo que piensa de la sociedad blanca!
El resultado, sin duda, será muy desagradable, y la culpa caerá de lleno en las espaldas de la América blanca, con su inmadurez emocional, cultural y política, y su lamentable negativa a comprender.”
Thomas Merton, Conjeturas de un espectador culpable
“corazón”
Thomas Merton, Conjeturas de un espectador culpable
“Businesses are, in reality, quasi-religious sects. When you go to work in one you embrace a new faith. And if they are really big businesses, you progress from faith to a kind of mystique. Belief in the product, preaching the product, in the end the product becomes the focus of a transcendental experience. Through “the product” one communes with the vast forces of life, nature, and history that are expressed in business. Why not face it? Advertising treats all products with the reverence and the seriousness due to sacraments.”
Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
“But now, supposing that, instead of confessing the sins of the world which she has taken upon herself, the Church - or a group of Christians who arrogate to themselves the name of “Church” - becomes a social mechanism for self-justification? Supposing this “Church,” which is in reality no church at all, takes to herself the function of declaring that everyone else is guilty and rationalizing the sins of her members as acts of virtue? Suppose that she becomes a perfect and faultless machine for declaring herself not guilty? Suppose that she provides men with a convenient method of deciding when they do or do not need to accuse themselves of anything before God? Supposing that, instead of conscience, she provides men with the support of unanimous group approval or disapproval?

This is what explains the fact that some men can commit murder in the name of Christ and believe themselves guiltless, indeed congratulate themselves on having served Him well. For them, the function of “the Church” is to provide a milieu in which one can decide what is and is not guilty, what is or is not sinful. The “Church” becomes simply a place where men gather to decree that others are guilty and they themselves are innocent. The fact that others then accuse them of hypocrisy and of flagrant infidelity to truth only confirms them in their own self-assured righteousness. The “Church” in such an event becomes a machine for setting the unquiet conscience at rest. It is a perfectly efficient machine for the manufacture of self-complacency and inner peace!”
Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
“Is Christian ethics merely a specific set of Christian answers to the question of good and evil, right and wrong? To make it no more than this is to forget that man’s fall was a fall into the knowledge of good and evil, reinforced by the inexorable knowledge of a condemning law, and that man’s restoration in Christ is a restoration to freedom and grace, to a love that needs no law since it knows and does only what is in accord with love and with God. To imprison ethics in the realm of division, of good and evil, right and wrong, is to condemn it to sterility, and rob it of its real reason for existing, which is love. Love cannot be reduced to one virtue among many others prescribed by ethical imperatives. When love is only “a virtue” among many, man forgets that “God is love” and becomes incapable of that all-embracing love by which we secretly begin to know God as our Creator and Redeemer - who has saved us from the limitations of a purely restrictive and aimless existence “under a law.”

So Bonhoeffer says very rightly: “In the knowledge of good and evil man does not understand himself in the reality of the destiny appointed in his origin, but rather in his own possibilities, his possibility of being good or evil. He knows himself now as something apart from God, outside God, and this means that he now knows only himself and no longer knows God at all…. The knowledge of good and evil is therefore separation from God. Only against God can man know good and evil.”
Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander
“patológica. Echando la culpa al negro es como el blanco trata de mantenerse sin dispersión. El negro está en la triste situación de ser usado para todo, hasta para la propia inseguridad psicológica del blanco. Por desgracia, una simple irrupción de violencia no hará más que dar al blanco la justificación que desea. Le convencerá de que es de verdad,”
Thomas Merton, Conjeturas de un espectador culpable