“Prudence is not passivity, and caution is not cowardice”

“The future of Christianity belongs to the Thomas Merton kind of Christian, not the heirs of Jerry Falwell.”
-Brian Zahnd

If you’re familiar with the two individuals named above you’re likely aware of the opposite poles captured in this dichotomous quote.  On one hand Falwell represents the fore bearers of modern American ‘Christian” discourse, filled with nationalism and knee jerk righteousness that’s centered on perceived American family values.  On the other side of the spectrum is Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk who emphasized contemplation and thoughtful civic engagement.  As much as I’d love for Zahnd’s prediction to be right, I think we’re currently seeing something quite the opposite.  Consider this quote from Merton, penned in 1962, in the height of an imminent nuclear war.

“Here we have an issue of supreme importance in which the most vital facts are secret and in which crucial developments are rarely presented to the public in a clear, unbiased form. 

This brings us to one more grave problem.  The Christian who is misinformed; who is subject to the demagoguery of extremists in the press, on the radio or on TV, and who is perhaps to some extent temperamentally inclined to associate himself with fanatical groups in politics, can do an enormous amount of harm to society, to the Church and to himself.  With sincere intentions of serving the cause of Christ he may cooperate in follies and injustices of disastrous magnitude.

It is therefore vitally important for the Christian to control his zeal and moderate his enthusiasm for particular causes, until he can accurately estimate where these tendencies may ultimately lead.  Prudence is not passivity, and caution is not cowardice.  Impetuous and violent action must not be regarded as ipso facto heroic.  We must learn to cultivate a sound judgment in affairs that affect the very destiny of the human race. (Thomas Merton, Life and Holiness, 143,144, emphasis added)

Essentially, Merton is arguing for people, especially people of faith, to develop an ability to think through the many dimensions of their current predicaments rather than be fueled by a momentary and self righteous zeal.  Unfortunately, this is not what we see today.  Instead of calculated and thoughtful engagement, we have hashtags and twitter rants.  We’ve exchanged our nuanced mental and spiritual filters for surface layer, endorphin-laden call-outs that feel good in the moment but are found lacking when it comes to bringing about actually substantive change.   I’ve seen this in myself, I’ve seen this in my community, and I’ve seen this in our government.  To make things worse, when we see others not engaging in our collective flow of finger pointing, we projectively assume that they are complicit in a perceived offense.

But what if the most rebellious thing we can do in this moment is nothing?  Nothing in the sense that we first think and calculate before we respond?  What if we had the discipline, self control, and inner peace required to not be baited by the offense-traps circulated by social and news media?

As much as Zahnd’s prediction has yet to come to pass, I’m still hopeful that some day it will, at least in my own heart.

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One thought on ““Prudence is not passivity, and caution is not cowardice”

  1. Thanks for this framework. Have recently been thinking of this type of exercise as a form of “suspicion.” As in, I have to be suspicious of news, hashtags, etc., before I respond. Contemplating on things with prudence and caution seem like a better approach.

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