Wendell Berry and Thomas Merton on Racism and Colonialism

In stark contrast to the narcissism and arrogance of the Discovery Doctrine ideology that so conveniently paved the way for European empires to invade indigenous lands from Africa to the Americas, from the Pacific Islands to Australia and New Zealand, whether promulgated in law by papal bulls or by supreme court decisions, we DO HAVE a creation spirituality tradition in the West, one that puts CREATION FIRST and not human doings and projects, empires and religious projections. 

“Manifest Destiny” Painting by John Gast, 1872. White settlers push subjugated Native Americans ahead of them as they take possession of an empty land, led by Columbia, the feminine embodiment of the spirit of America. From Wikimedia Commons.

Two spokespersons for that lineage are farmer/poet/essayist Wendell Berry and Catholic monk Thomas Merton.

In a powerful essay called “The Hidden Wound,” Wendell Berry says this. 

The root of our racial problem in America is not racism.  The root is in our inordinate desire to be superior—not to some inferior or subject people, though this desire leads to the subject of people—but to our condition.  We wish to rise above the sweat and bother of taking care of anything. 

So we enslaved others to do so on our behalf:

Their labor promised to free us from the obligations to stewardship, and because they were unable to prevent us from enslaving them.  They were economically valuable and militarily weak. 

“Palenque, Mayan Ruins Panorama” Photo by Eduardo Manchon on Wikimedia Commons

Berry recognizes how economics is behind slavery. 

Thomas Merton frequently takes up the cause of indigenous peoples in the Americas.  He admired particularly the Mayan culture, which he regarded as one of the noblest and most peaceful in history, and cites from sources which gave the Mayan version of the Spanish conquest of America. 

He criticizes the missionaries “who had failed to see the beauty of the Mayan rituals” and expressed deep admiration for ritual dancing of the tribe in prayer. 

Mayan dance ritual. Photo by Tony Hisgett from Birmingham, UK on Wikimedia Commons.

It is said that “pre-colonial Mayan culture was for Merton a symbol of the paradise that is possible for all.” 

But this paradise of living interdependently with nature was ripped apart first by raids from the warlike Toltecs and then most grievously by the arrival of the Spaniards. 

Merton mocks the ideology behind colonialism when he writes:

They seemed to be owners of the whole continent, until we arrived and informed them of the true situation.  They were squatters on land which God had assigned to us…..We could see at a glance, we understood without the slightest hesitation, that they were only aboriginal owners.  They never had any legal title to the real estate.

Sweat lodges dotted Oceti Sakowin campground on Standing Rock Reservation, ND, where more than 100 Native American nations and thousands of international supporters gathered in 2016 to protect the water of the Oglala Aquifer and Missouri River from the Dakota Access Pipeline. On 7/6/2020 a federal judge ordered the pipeline shut down pending review. Photo by Phila Hoopes.

Thus we placed them– “with the help of the military”– on reservations.  The Doctrine of Discovery did its work.

Merton compares the Vietnam War to the Indian wars of a hundred years ago. 

Viet Nam seems to have become an extension of our old western frontier, complete with enemies of another ‘inferior’ race….What a pity that so many innocent people have to pay with their lives for our obsessive fantasies….Every bomb we drop on a defenseless Asian village, every Asian child we disfigure or destroy with fire, only adds to the moral strength of those we wish to destroy for our own profit.

Adapted from Matthew Fox, Sins of the Spirit, Blessings of the Flesh: Transforming Evil in Soul and Society, p. 203.

Adapted from Matthew Fox, A Way To God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey, pp. 196-198.

Banner Image: “Black Lives Matter – Melbourne Australia Rally, 6 June 2020.” Photo by Matt Hrkac on Flickr.

Do you agree with Wendell Berry that a superiority complex drives both our need to enslave others and our treatment of the Earth?  If so, what can we do about it?

A Way to God: Thomas Merton’s Creation Spirituality Journey

In A Way to God, Fox explores Merton’s pioneering work in interfaith, his essential teachings on mixing contemplation and action, and how the vision of Meister Eckhart profoundly influenced Merton in what Fox calls his Creation Spirituality journey.
“This wise and marvelous book will profoundly inspire all those who love Merton and want to know him more deeply.” — Andrew Harvey, author of The Hope: A Guide to Sacred Activism

Registration is open until July 15! Sign up today and view Lessons One and Two in recording. Put your faith into action, joining spiritual seekers throughout history who’ve followed Aquinas’ trailblazing wisdom — and cultivate compassion, courage, and resilience to meet life’s greatest challenges. Seven-week live video training started Thursday, July 2.
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7 thoughts on “Wendell Berry and Thomas Merton on Racism and Colonialism”

  1. Avatar
    Margaret Rose Hess

    Thank you, Matthew Fox, for today’s lesson and meditation on our relation to the earth, which is the touchable equivalent of the cosmos, right under our feet and fingernails.

    1. Avatar

      Margaret are you an Author? Your prose was excellent describing the plight of the indigenous & the black people – some whose land was removed from them & others who were removed from their land – and now I can’t find the exact wording – I wonder if you’d give permission for us to share it with our Non-Profit Networking Via EarthSeeds.org – We use Earth Images to Connect All People as the “Crew of Spaceship Earth” for Positive & Fun Future Forward days & ways messaging

      1. Avatar
        Margaret Rose Hess

        Mark, you are too kind. Most certainly you have permission to share, but I don’t see my ideas in the comments anymore. I am not an author, so if you remember any of my thoughts, just rewrite them as your own. No worries about “copyright”; anyway we’re all pulling the same way, toward more compassion and caring in these trying times. I’ll check out the EarthSeeds site. Blessings.

  2. Avatar

    I had never before considered that a superiority complex was a cause of racism, but it certainly makes sense. In ecology humans consider themselves to be superior to nature which leads to the devastation of our environment. We decry the loss of Amazon rain forest while forgetting how we destroyed our own forests to construct homes , farms and ranches.

  3. Avatar

    Thank you to both Margaret Rose Hess & Ron Krumpos for their thoughtful insights & comments.
    I sense already the “Subtle Energy” of the Awakening Activists Alliances is now becoming stronger & mightier by the day. The Headlines on todays sports section confirmed finally the Changing of the NFL Team Name from Washington REDSKINS to something “as-yet- to- be- named” but surely way more appropriate. We are paddling finally into changing mainstream synergy energy & I can only say it’s High Time for us to Step up, Stand up, Speak up, Wake up & UPLIFT each other & all!

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