Since the election of Donald Trump, many people, who never thought of themselves as “protesters”, have registered their discontent, anger, and objection to the immoral decisions and policies made by the current administration through very deliberate actions of protest. For some, it seems out of character, but in the face of such abhorrent wrongdoing, something out of the ordinary is called for.
Over the years, the Merton Center has clung to non-violent protest as a legitimate and much needed methodology for raising consciousness and effecting needed social change. This may be a good time to read the 2014 book by Gordon Oyer, Pursuing The Spiritual Roots of Protest. In it Oyer reports on the November 1964 Peacemakers Retreat at the Gethsemani Abbey where Thomas Merton lived.
For Jim Forest, one of the retreatants, this is a part of being human. There he learned that protest is not an end in itself, but an effort to bring about a transformation of heart of one’s adversaries and even one’s self. At the retreat, Merton put great stress on protest that had contemplative roots, motivated not only by outrage, but by compassion for those who, driven by fear or a warped patriotism, experience themselves as objects of protest.
In his book Oyer draws on the notes of the retreatants, letters and other writings of those who took part, and interviews with them to reconstruct their conversations. The group varied in religious commitments – Catholics, mainline Protestants, historic peace church members, and Unitarians and in ages from twenty-three to seventy-nine.
The retreatants were Dan and Philip Berrigan, Jim Forest, Tom Cornell, John Howard Yoder, A.J. Muste, W.H. Ferry, Elbert Jean, John Oliver Nelson, Tony Walsh, Bob Cunnane, John Peter Grady, Charlie Ring and Thomas Merton.
Dan and Philip Berrigan, Tom Cornell, Jim Forest and Thomas Merton were co-founders of the then new Catholic Peace Fellowship.
A.J. Muste was a Quaker who had been a minister of the Dutch Reformed Church and had become perhaps the most distinguished leader of the U.S. peace movement, a former executive secretary of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and then chairman of the Committee for Nonviolent Action. He was the most senior of those gathered.
John Howard Yoder was a noted Mennonite scholar. Later he was to publish The Politics of Jesus, a book still widely read.
W.H. “Ping” Ferry was vice president of the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions. He was a Unitarian who later in life identified himself as a Christian.
Elbert Jean was a Methodist minister from Arkansas. He was deeply immersed in the civil rights movement.
John Oliver Nelson was Presbyterian, a Yale professor and a leader of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. He also founded Kirkridge, a conference and retreat center in eastern Pennsylvania.
The book does not so much focus on historic acts of protest, but mostly addresses ideas about and motives for protest. It has two main objectives: one, simply to establish a clear picture of where the idea for a retreat came from, how it came to be realized and what happened when it occurred; and two, to capture the array of ideas and motives that emerged from the interaction of fourteen peacemakers, gathered to probe the foundations of their practice.
Three major themes emerged: conscientious objection to war, the challenge of technology, and the question, “By what right do we protest?” The questions they raised can and should be discussed again today. Very importantly, Oyer notes in the Preface, they “… helped model the mutual support required for people of faith to embark on and sustain active, resistant, nonviolent protest against the cultures of domination that human civilization seems destined to evoke.”
In the Afterword of the book , John Dear affirms, “Merton’s leadership for peace helped change the church and strengthen the peace movement. By linking his contemplative prayer, monastic life and peace activism, he uncovered the spiritual roots of protest. By bringing together other like-minded visionaries, he strengthened the emerging peace movement. In doing so, he called us all to root our protest in prayer before the God of Peace, and thus to see it as God’s work…Such peacemaking retreats are needed now more than ever. We need to connect with one another, with all those who struggle for disarmament, justice and peace. We need to share our concerns, our despair, our hopes and our lives, and discover together the spiritual roots underlying our work.”
Gordon Oyer works in administration in the University of Illinois system and obtained an MA in history on their campus at Urbana-Champaign. He is the past editor of Illinois Mennonite Heritage Quarterly, has served on various regional Mennonite historical committees, and has authored a variety of articles on Mennonite history.
Gordon Oyer will be in Pittsburgh to speak about the topic of his book on Thursday, April 25 from 6 – 9 PM at the Mennonite Church, 2018 S. Braddock Avenue, in Swissvale (off the parkway at the Swissvale exit and just beyond Edgewood Towne Centre, parking beside the church and around the corner). The evening will begin with a potluck supper in the community room from 6 – 7 PM, with Gordon’s talk to follow in the sanctuary. There will be a discussion after the talk concerning the need and nature of protest today and the implications from Gordon’s talk. Co-sponsors are the Thomas Merton Center, Anti-War Committee, Pittsburgh Area Pax Christi, the Friends Meeting, the Pittsburgh Mennonite Church and the Church of the Redeemer. For more information, contact me at 412-780-5118.
By Joyce Rothermel, member of the Editorial Collective and long-time follower of Thomas Merton.