By Alex Mikulich, Ph.D.
While many of Thomas Merton’s books have helped a broad lay audience understand and engage in practices of Western mysticism and Buddhism, his prophetic and contemplative stance against white racism has yet to be understood— much less practiced—by a critical mass of white people of faith. Perhaps this is partially because he directly (yet compassionately) calls whites to confront our ongoing complicity in over-privilege and the oppression of people of color.
When Merton wrote “Letters to a White Liberal” in the early summer of 1963, in response to the signs of the times and Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” of April 16, 1963, he articulated the enduring spirituality of a contemplative in action. “Letters to a White Liberal” forms the basis for Seeds of Destruction, Merton’s book published in 1964.
By “white liberal,” Merton does not mean partisan progressives. Rather, he means any white person, especially Christians, who claim good intentions toward all people, including African Americans.
Seeds begins by noting that the contemplative life is not an abstraction or a flight from the world. Monastic communities are fully implicated in the sinfulness of the world, Merton explains, and must bear witness to baptismal conversion into God’s love in the midst of worldly egoism and injustice. When monastic communities remained silent in Europe in the first half of the twentieth century, Merton notices that, too often, they were “publicly giv[ing] support to totalitarian movements.”