Jim FOREST. The Root of War Is Fear: Thomas Merton’s Advice to Peacemakers. Maryknoll: Orbis, 2016. pp. xiv + 223. $25.00 pb. ISBN: 978-1-62698-197-3. Reviewed by Moni MCINTYRE, Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, PA 15282.
Jim Forest has put together a truly splendid book. His long years of friendship with the poet and existentialist Thomas Merton have given Forest an amazing storehouse of material on which to draw. The profound insights of Merton are as compelling today as they were in the 1950s and 1960s—and as likely to be ignored now as they were then. Older readers—those who followed the peace movement of that era either as armchair observers or as serious activists—will revel in the mere mention of such people as Corita Kent, the Berrigan brothers, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Thich Nhat Hanh, and, of course, Dorothy Day. But this book is no walk down memory lane. The author skillfully, honestly, and humbly draws the reader into her or his own struggle to deal with fear and God’s call to live as an authentic Christian in this era of rampant hopelessness and barbarity. While Merton and his comrades in peace were focused on the serious consequences of a possible nuclear war in their day, many of today’s younger readers are just beginning to discover the horror of that prospect in our current political climate. Forest’s book has appeared at a perfect moment as partisan rhetoric has recently turned to the imaginable use of nuclear weapons to “solve” current global difficulties. This immanently readable volume will provide much food for thought for all readers who are interested in profound lessons on peace as a way of life and as an imperative for the survival of our planet.
Summarizing his work, Forest writes, “In these pages I have concentrated especially on Merton’s writings on war and peace and his often difficult struggle to communicate his reflections on these topics to the reading public” (201). Forest does this while providing biographical information on Merton that includes his young life and conversion to Christianity, his development as a writer on matters of international concern, his influential impact on Gaudiam et spes that wasthe final document of Vatican II, and his journey to various places in Asia, including Bangkok, where he died at the of 53.
Lest one think that the life of a Trappist monk, such as Merton was, is a retreat from the world, Forest goes to some length to explain the relevance of the contemplative life. Indeed, he notes that “the monastery provides an excellent vantage point from which to see the world as it is and to read the signs of the times” (204). Merton’s writings reveal one who was clearly aware of the turbulence in world affairs. He called Christians and thoughtful religious people of all stripes to be informed people of hope in a world ravaged by fear. Rather than being a person removed from the planetary fray, the monk who was Merton was more aware of the intricacies of the geopolitical realities of his day than most persons outside the cloister.
The title of the book is an invitation to reflect upon 1John 4:18: “Perfect love casts out fear” on every level, including personal, professional, social, and political. Merton’s call to love is rooted in incarnational theology. Jim Forest shapes that message with grace, class, and humility. The Root of War Is Fear is a treasure to keep, share among friends and leaders, and, if possible, use in classrooms and book groups everywhere. The book is that good and that important in our world today.