It’s often said you need to get above and away from issues to truly understand them. There’s a certain objectivity that comes with distance, a fact noted by a favorite author of mine, Thomas Merton. Merton was a Trappist monk, cloistered away in the hills of Kentucky during the activism and social change of the 1960s. In an odd way, it was this isolation from the world that lent Merton such a clear perspective on the political situation of the time (and of our time as well). Merton wrote convincingly of the need for nonviolent solutions to the world’s most pressing problems. Far from being just another voice, Merton’s writing had real impact, even given what appeared to be an insurmountable division in the world.
He wrote letters to civil rights leaders, helped influence the Church’s position on the issues, and helped begin and develop a real Christian definition of nonviolence. Given Merton’s example, it’s less than surprising that up on a mountain in the middle of nowheresville Oregon, I became more politically involved than ever before. As part of the Oregon Extension, a program dedicated to stepping out of the mainstream, I spent the fall election season cloistered in the mountains without cell service, chopping wood and (unsuccessfully) milking goats. But, far from the kid who left half his ballot unfilled during freshman year, in those lovely isolated woods I became politically conscious and began to take action.
Through the encouragement of friends and the many conversations we were all able to have thanks to our slower, simpler lifestyle, I wrote to Congress and voted thoughtfully for the first time. I emailed my Congressmen about pressing issues and debated their reasoning. What’s even crazier is that I wasn’t alone. Almost all 26 of us students sent for our absentee ballots and blocked out an hour to sit down and think about our options. One would think that of all kids our age, we’d be the least likely to vote. We were disconnected from the world in so many ways—we were almost an hour from the nearest town—and yet our voting rate, even with its tiny sample size, was out the wazoo.
Through the magic of intentional community, time and great professors, we talked through pressing issues and took decisive action. When the whole Kavanaugh bonanza was going down, we spent a week discussing what it meant for feminism, how it made the women with us feel and what the political implications of it all were. Later, through a professor’s connection with the Quaker community, we learned about the danger of a nuclear world and wrote letters to our Congressmen expressing our concern. My trip helped me realize that if I could do political involvement there, I could certainly do it here at Hope, where internet and cell service make things much easier.
Upon my return, I don’t want to be active in a desperate way. I realized in my time away that we do too much in general and too little fully or well. We don’t have enough dialogue about the deluge of news. We hear so many views, but we act on so few of them. We see so much wrong, yet we do so little. So I’m taking a measured approach in my time back. There’s a truthful irony in the words that too much is not enough.
February 20, 2019 @ 11:20 am Nancy Forest
Well, I never thought I’d see the day that the name of Thomas Merton would be featured in a Hope College publication. Thank you, James! Were you aware that one of Hope’s greatest alumni was A.J. Muste, one of the nation’s leading figures in the nonviolent resistance movement on behalf of justice and peace? There’s an A.J. Muste Alcove in the college library. Muste was a friend of Merton’s, and attended an important retreat Merton organized at Gethsemani Monastery back in the sixties on questions of religion and protest. My husband, Jim Forest, was also present at that retreat. He worked closely with Muste throughout the sixties in various peace organizations. Jim corresponded with Merton for many years and wrote a biography of him, Living with Wisdom, which you may enjoy. Thank you for this thoughtful article. It gives us hope in the upcoming generation. Nancy Forest (Flier, ’71)
February 21, 2019 @ 7:29 pm Hugh Turley
When you were discussing Brett Kavanaugh I’ll bet you did not mention his ongoing role in the cover-up of a murder and his participation in the grand jury witness intimidation of Patrick Knowlton.