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pic of Thomas Merton

Thomas Merton adds a PS on “Loving Enemies”

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When I was preparing the second week of my workshop on “Loving Enemies in a Time of Polarization,” I was struck by a sense that I should pick up my copy of Thomas Merton’s Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1968), my favourite among many favourites of Merton’s. It’s probably not overstating to say that this is one of the handful of books that has transformed my life, confirming a contemplative direction integrated with peacemaking.

I browsed through the countless dogeared pages that marked passages I never wanted to lose. Before long, pic of Thomas MertonI knew why I had needed to pick up this book. Of course, in a few pages, he was saying things more profound than my notes. When I summarized my workshops in earlier posts, I took this section out because I decided that I would just let Merton stand alone. So, without further ado, here are some of Merton’s thoughts on why we need our adversaries (all of the many emphases are mine and I’ve chosen not to update all the unfortunate male pronouns):

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…

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….

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….”

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

To Merton and to readers, I apologize for ending this lengthy passage on a pessimistic note, fitting as it may be for our day.

So, perhaps I’ll just repeat some of the hope from the middle:

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.

If you missed the posts in this series, you can begin the first one here.

Ottawa monument to the unity of the human family

Loving Enemies – Pt.3 (Truth and Common Ground)

By Articles

One of my passions in recent years has been re-centering the concept of truth around “honesty” rather than “factuality.” This has partly been to distract from the pointless defence of theoretical “absolute truth” that is perceived, interpreted and communicated by flawed humans.  The crucial notion of truth is that we bear honest witness to our experience.

A huge benefit of this shift in understanding truth is that dialogue can respect that two parties are aiming at truth even when there is wide disagreement, varied interpretations of reality, and different memories and experiences. We expect these differences and can be enriched by them. Honesty, open-mindedness, and inclusion of marginalized voices can all add up to hopes that a larger “shared truth” can result.

In this third part on “loving enemies,” I am suggesting that a dedication to truth as bearing honest witness can make a significant contribution. We invite others to a similar honesty when we create a safe enough space in dialogue for others to share their full experience. Hopefully, the compassionate curiosity and invitation of personal stories emphasized in the previous part are a part of creating that safe space.

We can then increase the motivation in this direction by intentionally seeking “common ground.” You may recall the suggested questions:

  1. What’s your biggest/deepest concern in all of this? What are you mostly concerned about?
  2. What kinds of things do you find matter the most to you in all of this?

These are the kinds of questions that can begin the search for common ground. While our imagined solutions and positions may seem like they’re poles apart, very often the deeper concerns at the root come closer to values that we all share. After all most of us are seeking a world in which our loved ones can thrive in peace and safety. We may define the concepts differently, but most of us are hoping for a world in which beauty, justice, courage, faithfulness and compassion can increase.

Ottawa monument to the unity of the human familySo we ask compassionate questions about deeper concerns in order to dig down to the place where we find common ground. If the first layer of concerns that emerge still divide us, we may need to dig a little deeper. “OK, I hear those concerns that you have, but how have those concerns come to matter so much to you?” If we trust in our fundamental connectedness as human beings and that goodness (even the Presence of God!) is found within all, then we are determined to persist at this until that common ground is found.

Before exploring a few other tools for finding common ground, let’s be clear about what common ground does NOT mean:

  • Not uniformity – the blessing of common ground in conflict is that you get diverse points of view on a common concern. Common ground celebrates diverse thinking and multiple perspectives.
  • Not “meet in the middle” – it’s more about seeking a third way. If we start to find some common ground, we avoid the limited perspective that has locked us into the opposition of two rigid alternatives. Creativity sees more possibilities.
  • Not sacrificing passion for justice or truth – it’s (usually) about channeling emotions and motivations away from opposition toward seeking the best path to fulfilling the hopes that we care some much about.

With some hope then that finding common ground is both possible and valuable, here are some other ideas that can help us to find it:

  • Communicate vulnerability and movement – Aggression, rigidity and defensiveness tend to be mirrored in combatants. When we model vulnerability and movement, we invite the other to follow our lead and risk vulnerability and movement as well. By “movement” I mean demonstrating that one is not locked into a position; we concede a point or show openness to a new perspective. It’s much easier to find common ground when there is vulnerability and movement.
  • Leverage passions on both sides – Once a few common concerns are glimpsed, this opening can be expanded by reframing and leveraging the emotions that are present – We recognize the other’s passion as a shared desire for family, for peace, for autonomy, etc. Emotions can draw together instead of push apart.
  • Seek and name common (non-human) enemies – We’ve all heard of the unifying potential of finding a common enemy, and there is truth behind this. We just need to be careful that this does not create a new human enemy. Instead, we look for common “enemies” like: violence, family or societal breakdown, fear, etc.
  • Creatively seek common heart space – This takes more effort and skill, but there is huge potential in finding common symbols, music, art, and ritual – and having those become transforming shared moments – especially when these enable a celebration of small gains made toward mutual understanding and imagined future pathways.

A dedication to seeking and building on common ground does not naively expect that this will make entrenched conflicts disappear, but it can transform the long, patient work of building peace.

dry cracked earth and sky

Blessing The Truth

By Talks

Jess offered some personal reflections on accepting and blessing the truth of our lives. She connected this with Hagar’s experience of oppression and abuse in the home of Abraham and Sarah, and of encountering God in the desert. Then she considered how God is with us — even and especially when things are not okay

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