When we first attempt to remove these negative aspects from within ourselves, there is a subtle but conscious effect. We can begin, if we have the sincerity, to see that we are not so far removed from our so-called opponents, that we share many of the defects in our own hearts and characters, and that we share the same humanity, the same spiritual essence.
This is a deep and learned realization, and which is very difficult to incorporate into our struggle for freedom when passions have been inflamed and when lives have been needlessly and ruthlessly lost. But Merton, like all committed practitioners faithful in the work of God, are able to bring this vision into their calling.
One may protest that this is a dangerous and unfair viewpoint in which to work out issues that cause very tangible and very tragic suffering, but the deeper courage needed to see the humanity of the oppressor can create an opportunity for a solution that is more enduring, and at the very least, can prevent us from falling into the trap of becoming the oppressor once the tables have been turned.
In Thomas Merton On Mysticism, an excellent and insightful examination of Merton's spiritual development and philosophy, author Raymond Bailey writes of the essence of Merton's vision of social justice:
“Merton's approach to social problems was a simple one; so is the Bible's. Merton's analysis is marked by a beautiful naivete that tends to ignore the complexity of social and political structures. It is this complexity behind which whole generations hide and explain away their apathy.
Did not the prophet declare the requirements of God in the simple words 'do justice...love kindness and walk humbly with your God?' Merton took these works and the example of Jesus seriously and implored the rest of the world to do the same.
Merton could speak a word of judgment because he was willing to stand under judgment. He identified with the oppressors and repented of his part in the system that seemed to him so indifferent to human needs. At the same time, he bore in himself the suffering of the victims and empathized with their frustration and bitterness. The real heart of the problem as he perceived it lay in the fact that the offenders were as much, or more, the victims of their greed, hate, and cruelty as the offended.
Repentance meant more than a confessional formula; it meant for him remorse and sacrifice in the hope of reconciliation.”1
To create a tangible reconciliation, we must learn how to separate the sin from the sinner. The Gita describes that our actual personal reality is as spirit soul, a manifestation of the spiritual energy of God. We become entangled in the lower material energies by a desire to lord over these energies, and we identify with these lower energies at the expense of our actual spiritual nature. The challenge we face in deepening our perspective and our approach to the issues of social justice is to see both the oppressor and the oppressed on their actual spiritual level.
The root of the pain that causes this oppression can only be addressed at the level of the soul. Judgment upon material considerations such as the color of one's skin or the content of one's politics only creates a vicious feedback loop.
The committed spiritualist lives his/her life trying to pick out the essence of God's presence in everything they see, do, or speak, and this extends in the most profound fashion to those who live farthest from the presence of God, to those most in need of God's love.
Merton is quick to point out that as a whole, our choice as a collective society has been to move away from the protection of the Lord's guidance, leaving us vulnerable and even willing to let the oppressor do his business. If we then want to strike back against the oppressor without the hand of God by our side, we find that we have to use his brute tactics of force to do so, and we use these tactics in a way that is not effective, and which by their influence, is terribly damaging to our physical, mental, and spiritual psyche. He writes:
“Gandhi pointed out very wisely that our feeling of helplessness in the presence of injustice and aggression arises from 'our deliberate dismissal of God from our common affairs'. Those who relinquish God as the center of our moral orbit lose all direction and by that very fact lose and betray their manhood.
They become blindly dependent on circumstances, and upon those who are astute enough or powerful enough to use every circumstance for their own end. Those who renounce God immediately become victims of the nearest brute that is a little more powerful than they. They have to live in submission to this gangster, and pay him dearly for his safety.
It doesn't matter much whether the 'power' thus exercised is physical or moral, whether it is a matter of force or money or cleverness. Those who renounce God have to fall back on force when they get sick of their state of dependence on men. Yet force alone can never deliver them completely.”2
We have to meet the oppressor face-to-face. We have no choice. He sits in the halls of power and he sits in the realm of our heart. How we communicate with him will define whether we become like him or whether we can help him, and ourselves, transcend to the higher plane of spiritual freedom. To do this, we must understand the real value and the real power of ahimsa, of the non-violent reaction.
In our material reality, the presence of violence swirls around us in a chaotic vortex. It is the very substance of the fabric of reality, a constant dance of regeneration and degeneration, of one living entity being food for another. A total ahimsa is impossible in our material reality. Just one breath that we alone take, or one glass of water that we alone drink, has the potential to harm millions and millions of tiny but nevertheless living entities.
The energy demands of our body in terms of nutrients and vitamins that come from our foodstuffs mean that other living and once-living bodily systems must be used to fulfill those demands. For the living spiritualist, the practice of ahimsa means a conscious and concerted effort (ala a vegan/vegetarian diet) to limit the harm that needs to be done to keep body and soul together.
Violence itself transcends the material sphere. If we allowing people to live their lives in a void of feeling and understanding which prevents them from activating their spiritual birthright of an eternal existence full of knowledge and bliss, we are committing the deepest act of violence. A.C Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the foremost contemporary scholar and acarya (teacher) of the Vedic culture of the Gita concurs in his own translation of the Gita. He writes:
Nonviolence is generally taken to mean not killing or destroying the body, but actually nonviolence means not to put others into distress. People in general are trapped by ignorance in the material concept of life, and they perpetually suffer material pains. So unless one elevates people to spiritual knowledge, one is practicing violence. One should try his best to distribute real knowledge to the people, so that they may become enlightened and leave this material entanglement. That is nonviolence.3
At the core of ahimsa is this substance of spiritual love, which seeks to rehabilitate rather than to reprimand, to redeem rather to condemn. It means caring for the oppressor's loss as well as the the loss of the oppressed. It means seeing a deeper and bigger picture that attempts to correct and restore the foundation of our collective spiritual humanity, rather than just poking at a specific leak in the roof. Merton writes:
“The tactic of nonviolence is a tactic of love that seeks the salvation and redemption of the opponent, not his castigation, humiliation, and defeat. A pretended nonviolence that seeks to defeat and humiliate the adversary by spiritual instead of physical attack is little more than a confession of weakness.
True nonviolence is totally different from this, and much more difficult. It strives to operate without hatred, without hostility, and without resentment. It works without aggression, taking the side of the good that it is able to find already present in the adversary.
This may be easy to talk about in theory. It is not easy to practice, especially when the adversary is aroused to a bitter and violent defense of an injustice which he believes to be just. We must therefore be careful how we talk about our opponents, and still more careful how we regulate our differences with our collaborators.”4
It is precisely this change in the nature of our dialogue and perception that is most revolutionary in our concept of revolutionary change. The aim to create a more just, more sustainable, and more equitable world must also include the uplifting of those who are against these very ideals. To leave them and to leave their own spiritual suffering by the wayside is returning their violence with an equally damning violence of our own.
The deeper spiritual perspective of social justice will allow us to create a truly transcendent atmosphere where a sense of forgiveness, alongside the deserved justice and punishment the oppressor deserves and needs, can actually reverse the tide of our potential disintegration and destruction.
1Bailey, Raymond, Thomas Merton On Mysticism, Image Books, 1987, p.232