Reflection on Race by Thomas Merton

By Joyce Rothermel

(Photo credit:

Thomas Merton believed that racism and militarism were the two most urgent issues of his time. While we may update the “urgent list” for our own time, it would certainly continue to include issues of racial discrimination and oppression. With the elections of President Obama, the overt racist rhetoric of the Trump administration, the growing awareness of police brutality towards people of color, the massive growth of minority incarceration finding expression in the expanding Black Lives Matter movement, the issues of race and white supremacy have gained greater currency in the public sphere, commanding a more insistent moral consciousness.

In the summer of 1963, Merton wrote what came to be known as “Letters to a White Liberal” in reaction to the civil rights struggles of the era and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” written on April 16 of that year. It later formed the basis for his book, Seeds of Destruction published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in 1964, still a relevant read for all of us.

Alex Mikulich in his essay, “Merton’s Letters a Call for White Atonement” wrote, “By ‘white liberal’ Merton does not mean partisan progressives. Rather, he means any white person, especially a Christian, who claims good intentions toward all people, including African Americans.”

Merton took a prophetic and contemplative position against racism and white supremacy, a position not shared  by many people of faith.  He called on fellow Christians to confront their ongoing complicity in white privilege and the many ways it oppresses people of color.  He cautioned those who fought for civil rights that “the success of the legislation [was] not the end of the battle but only the beginning of a new and more critical phase in the conflict.” Changes in law can’t change hearts, minds or the roots of violence in our country. Merton could see, as Martin Luther King did, that white racism was intimately intertwined with militarism and the valuing of profits before people.

Merton said, “As long as white society persists in clinging to its present condition and to its own image of itself as the only acceptable reality, then there is no room for real change and inevitably there will be violence.”

Again, in his essay, Mikulich writes, “Merton believed that the nation stood at an impasse that demanded the transformation of society. The seeds of destruction are stuck in the ground of the desires of white people to maintain power and privilege over and against the fundamental dignity and human rights of the Negro (to use the language of the 1960s).”

In other words, if society is going to fully respect African-Americans as human beings, not as a projection of the fears or ideals of white Americans, “then that society is going to be radically changed.” Merton saw that racial justice demanded major sacrifices, including loss of white privilege in terms of status and economic advantage. Speaking to white liberals again and to many NewPeople readers, Merton believed that goodwill and charity were insufficient. He did not question liberal sincerity and generosity, but encouraged the creation and support of social, political and economic structures that are socially and economically just. He believed that social justice activism was an expression of God’s love for the world.  What he found so important was  what Mikulich identifies as a “profound turning to African-Americans in their experience, wisdom and truth.” Mikulich continues from Merton, “In other words, the condition of the possibility of white people being transformed into the love of God and neighbor is the freedom of African-Americans to thrive as human beings.”

Through his writings Merton invited white Americans to look at themselves through the eyes of people of color, as they have seen and experienced ‘white’ society from the 1860s and beyond.  If we were to do so, we would more clearly see where Jesus positions himself. Merton asks us to listen to the freedom and gospel songs and to read Dr. King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” He counsels us to learn of the experience and wisdom of our Muslim brothers and sisters, including Malcolm X.

(References to the writings of Alex Mikulich, a research fellow on race at the Jesuit Social Research Institute, come from an article that appeared in the Jan. 1-31, 2013 issue of the JustSouth Quarterly, a publication of the Jesuit Social Research Institute, College of Social Science, Loyola University, New Orleans under the headline: “Merton’s Letters a Call for White Atonement.”)

(The following quote is from Merton’s “Letters to a White Liberal.”)

“In simple terms, I would say that the message is this: white society has sinned in many ways. It has betrayed Christ by its injustices to races it considered “inferior” and to countries which it colonized. In particular it has sinned against Christ in its lamentable injustices and cruelties to the Negro. The time has come when both White and Negro have been granted, by God, a unique and momentous opportunity to repair this injustice and to reestablish the violated moral and social order in a new plane.” [66-67]

Joyce Rothermel is a TMC board member serving on the Editorial Collective for The NewPeople.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s