A few weeks ago, while walking through Julietta Market at Lexington’s Greyline Station, I stopped for a few minutes at a used bookstore at one of the stalls and walked away with a copy of Thomas Merton: Passion for Peace. I haven’t gotten far into it yet—later that week, a book by a French theologian that I’d ordered arrived in the mail, and that’s taken up most of my reading attention since. However, I did manage to explore the introduction to the book the same day that I purchased it, and I was impressed by this passage:
Merton felt that, however poorly equipped he might be for the role, he was called to be a prophet. He understood clearly the limitations of the prophet’s vocation. A prophet is not necessarily one who has all the right answers; he or she is the one who knows at a given moment in history what the real problems are that humanity must face, what the proper goals are that need to be achieved, what the right questions are that must be asked. In a passage from Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander Merton offers a perceptive explanation for the popularity of his writings. “It seems to me that one of the reasons why my writings appeal to many people is precisely that I am not so sure of myself and do not claim to have all the answers” (p. 49). In his writings on war and peace, it is passion for the goals he sees rather than certitude about the way to achieve them that dominates. There were times that he felt lonely, diffident, distrustful of himself, even shocked by some of the things he heard himself saying.
In recent days (and weeks, and months, and years), I’ve felt overwhelmed by how much is wrong with the world and by a feeling that I don’t know what the solutions are. I don’t read up enough on local issues, I’m not familiar with public policy, I don’t fully appreciate the complexities of international conflict, and I feel (perhaps not entirely wrongly) that I need to better know all of this before I can help bring about a better world. In that context, I appreciate Merton (and his posthumous editor’s) distinction between a prophetic clarity of what must be done and a prophetic uncertainty about how to do it.
This morning’s news about last night’s mass shooting at MSU has me thinking about this again. I don’t really know what combination of policy, political, social, and cultural changes need to happen to stop these mass shootings from being so tragically common in my country (after all, even relatively simple policy changes that I’m in favor of would require complex social and cultural shifts to get enough people in favor of). It’s tempting in that moment for me to be overwhelmed by that complexity and to back off on expressing any kind of prophetic clarity about what must be done. I find Merton’s example here to be helpful.
This is especially on my mind because over the past two decades, Community of Christ has asked itself what it means to be a “prophetic people” (and not just “a people with a prophet,” as many Smith-Rigdon Restoration groups think about themselves). More and more, I see the work that Merton did as essential to the kind of faith that I want to embody.
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