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The Wise Do Not Always Weigh In

Around 1966, Thomas Merton decided to stop responding to current events. You might think this normal for a monk, but Merton had made a name for himself up to that point as a Catholic voice for social issues. He had written dozens (hundreds?) of essays in response to specific cultural, political, and social issues. He opposed the Vietnam War and supported the civil-rights movement. He was a prolific and powerful writer. For a guy who claimed to have only watched television twice in his entire life, he seemed to have his finger on the pulse of society.

And then he stopped.

No one was really sure why until he came out with his book, Faith and Violence, in 1967. In a remarkable chapter, “Events and Pseudo-Events,” Merton provides insight on why he stopped commenting on current events:

“First of all, I mistrust an obsession with declarations and pronouncements. While silence can constitute guilt and complicity, once one has taken a stand he is not necessarily obliged to come out with a new answer and a new solution to insoluble problems every third day.”

And this was before cable TV and Twitter. Honestly, “every third day” sounds nice right now in the world of responses that seemingly come every third second. Maybe this is why I found myself consulting Thomas Merton one night. Even though I am a Protestant pastor, I certainly have plenty of disagreements with Merton, but I also have a lot to learn from him. I have never understood the unwritten adage in theological reading that a good book is one with which you wholly agree. Why only read books your head nods to?

Reading Merton got me thinking in a direction I hadn’t thought of before, and about a question many of my Christian brothers and sisters wrestle with: When do you weigh in? And when do you stay quiet? Do we have to have a tweet for everything that happens?

False Sense of Purity

Merton thought about this during his own tumultuous time. He was alive and writing during one of the most catastrophic wars in American history, and during some of the more horrific violations of human rights this country has ever seen. But the more the madness went on during the 1960s, the less he wrote in response.

“When one has too many answers,” Merton wrote, “and when one joins a chorus of others chanting the same slogans, there is, it seems to me, a danger that one is trying to evade the loneliness of a conscience that realizes itself to be in an inescapably evil situation. We are all under judgment. . . Our choice is not that of being pure and whole at the mere cost of formulating a just and honest opinion.”

Again, before Twitter. By decades.

In Merton’s view, lofting an opinion—however helpful or thoughtful—cannot equate with purity. The temptation (all the more in the Twitter era) is to believe that by crafting a perfect opinion in response to a particular event, we are pure and in right standing. Merton expands the vision: we might be right before our peers, before our political influences, and even before those we admire, but none of us is pure before God. The faster we respond and get all the likes and retweets, the faster we might feel—wrongly—that we’re not a part of the injustice.

The faster we respond and get all the likes and retweets, the faster we might feel—wrongly—that we’re not a part of the injustice.

By not responding to every single injustice, we allow ourselves time to consider we might not be so distant from the transgressions as we’d like. Instead of tweeting, we might ponder: How are we contributing? What part have we played? Are we wholly innocent of the injustice we rage against? These sorts of questions will plague you when you refrain from speaking.

Monk’s Wisdom

Merton also brings up his occupation as a monk, citing his commitment to the contemplative life. Part of why he won’t respond is because he can’t respond. He has committed himself to life of silence, solitude, prayer, and meditation. In order to say “yes” to contemplation he said “no” to speaking right away.

We need more voices who speak out of silence rather than rage. We rarely become compassionate and wise instantaneously. It takes time. But not just time. It takes prayer. It takes contemplation.

Some move through the process of formulating a wise and prayerful response quickly. Others take weeks, maybe months. But all must go through the crucible of wisdom formation.

Some move through the process of formulating a wise and prayerful response quickly. Others take weeks, maybe months. But all must go through the crucible of wisdom formation.

Merton says contemplation provides a lens that “others do not share, the viewpoint of one who is not directly engaged in the struggles and controversies of the world.” He saw certain people—monks, pastors, and priests—as the perfect candidates to provide perspective from the outside. They could “stand back from the parochial and partisan concerns. . . [they] can thereby hope to get a better view of the whole problem and mystery of man.”

By offering our opinions immediately, we can misdiagnose the issue. We are quick to believe we know why something is wrong. But the contemplative pastor sees a different view, a longer view.

There are many people in our churches who follow just a fraction of online action. Many of the theological quibbles I see online will never be seen by the people in my church. If members of my church see their pastor constantly weighing in on issues they’ve yet to even come across on their own timelines, they will not see me as conscientious or woke, but as quarrelsome. By simply waiting we can also avoid diving into what Paul would call “foolish, ignorant controversies” (2 Tim. 2:24).  

Prudence and Wisdom

We need more of what Proverbs calls “prudence.” The term, in the deepest biblical Hebrew sense, involves a great care for the future, an acknowledgment of how one’s actions might age, taking into consideration that while you may have something to say, it might not be best to say it now, or ever.

In the Proverbs we read, “I, wisdom, dwell with prudence, and I find knowledge and discretion” (Prov. 8:12). To be wise is to be discreet, to not share everything you know at the moment you know it. But it is also to speak when things need to be said. The next verse (8:13) reminds us, “To fear the LORD is to hate evil.” We are to hate evil and practice prudence and discretion at the same time.

This is a classic tactic of Hebrew wisdom literature: share two pieces of wisdom that seem to contradict each other (be discreet but also practice a deep hate of evil), which will lead the reader to prayerfully consider how both could simultaneously be true, and then, in the midst of that pondering, gain wisdom.

I’m not sure there is such a thing as “reactionary wisdom.” No, wisdom steeps, it marinates. Wisdom surprises you when it arrives and rarely hits you right in the face. It certainly can be distilled in 280 characters (most Proverbs are shorter), but they are characters that often take a lot longer to germinate. We must allow them the time to do so.

We should consider wisdom and prudence alongside the emotions we feel when we read about injustice. It’s about reading the news and then putting our phones down for a second, praying for wisdom, contemplating for a couple of minutes what we’ve just read.

Go for a walk. Listen to music. Talk with a friend. Stare out your window. Strangely, as the Proverbs seems to indicate, once we have done the hard work wisdom requires, we will know how to respond.

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