Owen Ellerkamp: Growing Divide Between Peacemaking and Violence

In Thomas Merton’s book Passion for Peace: Reflections on War and Nonviolence he writes passionately on the cause for peace on earth successfully shying away from any idealistic vision of harmony, but instead recognizing the fraught nature of politics. In his first chapter “The Root of War is Fear” he speaks about the human construction that is war and it’s contradictory efforts to propagate peace across the globe.

“The present war crisis is something we have made entirely for and by ourselves. There is in reality not the slightest logical reason for war, and yet the whole world is plunging headlong into frightful destruction and doing so with the purpose of avoiding war and preserving peace!” (24)

The Yugoslav War is exemplary of this. As communism faded and the ancient hatreds between the varying ethnic groups manifested, the nation broke off into factions along ethnoreligious lines. Violence erupted between oppositional groups as no solution agreeable to all parties presented itself. As the federal government dissolved into a state of anarchy warring factions assembled. With the goal of settling territorial disputes the people of the former Yugoslavia, particularly the Serbian Nationalists, turned to violence as a method of mediation. War in this case was something made entirely for and by the people with no logical backing or extensive attempt at peaceful mediation before the onslaught of violence. This begs the question: has war become normalized as a method for political conflict resolution?  Merton posits that there is a widening gap between the efforts to make peace and the growing likelihood of war, in which war is more likely to prevail as a method of resolution than peacemaking (30). Merton finds political ideals to be merely illusions and as long as we hold on to them it inhibits the potential for peace. It inhibits us from any sort of constructive collaborative effort between opponents if we cannot sacrifice, or compromise political ideals for the greater good.

In the case of the Yugoslav War in which groups sought to form lands exclusive to particular identities through the process of territorialization political ideals were merely illusions. Nationalism, a patriotic feeling and feeling of superiority of one’s country, fueled the territorial disputes. As each nation, or unified group of landless people in this case, sought the creation of their own state they simultaneously expressed xenophobic attitudes to the others resulting in the creation of an us versus them dilemma. The Serbian Nationalist, the faction with the most political clout and largest population, spewed xenophobic rhetoric towards the Muslim minority to otherize them and assert their perceived ethnic and religious dominance over the group. The idea that nationalism implicates xenophobia is worth exploring. Nationalism often times posits an ideal type for their state. For example, under the Trump administration the ideal type is a white Christian man. This has been demonstrated through his travel ban against Muslims who “do not love America”, his selection of white-nationalist cabinet members and bigotry towards identities that fall outside of this category. Trump’s brand of nationalism has posited his political ideals which undermine the political ideals of unity, diversity, and pluralism that many other Americans hold close to their heart as important political ideals.

While politics are central to Merton’s analysis of the conflict between war and peacemaking, the role of religious adherents is something Merton touches upon briefly. Writing on the role of the Christian in times of strife, he says: “The duty of the Christian in this crisis is to strive with all his power and intelligence with his faith, hope in Christ…That task is to work for the total abolition of the world” (25). This claim by Merton is admirable in that it positions Christians as peacemakers, but simultaneously this seems idealistic. Harking back to my discussion on the formation of one’s identity and it’s ability to change contextually, I think that in times of violence it may be difficult to maintain a position of peace when you see relatives, neighbors, and others being subjected to violent raids. In times of strife one’s identity may dramatically shift from one of being a devote Christian who practices peace to a devote Christian who believes their faith is leading them to war for the greater of their faith group. In class the point was brought up– in war is it easier to pick a side, or stay neutral? A position of neutrality may imply pacifism, as choosing to remove oneself from the conflict assumes a nonviolent position. Neutrality in war seems unachievable, as emotional creatures with ties to other people who may be affected by the conflict. In war, neutrality seems synonymous with apathy. Taking sides in war is not inherently violent. Taking a side and acting as a mediator for that side as a peacemaker is a form in which taking sides can be inherently non-violent.

A religious identity may not be a chief identity in time of war when tensions are high and surviving means protecting oneself from violence. However, a religious identity can act in concert with a warring identity. “Prayers and sacrifice must be used as the most effective spiritual weapons in the war against war; they must be used with deliberate aim: not just with a vague aspiration for peace and security, but against violence and against war” (26). The act of prayer is a way in which spirituality can work against war. Through the mediation of God, a deliberate prayer can curb the violence of war. In war, a soldier who has wrecked havoc may turn to prayer as a form of repentance from God. According to Christian teaching a Christian soldier is likely to receive blessings from God through God’s grace. In this school of thought, the act of repentance is seen as an act of humility, reflection, and regret which warrants forgiveness. In Ibn’ Arabi’s thought, an influential interfaith and Sufi thinker in the 12th century, Muslims must be obedient to and obey his commands to receive forgiveness. The ways in which war relates to forgiveness is a topic I plan to explore in later response papers where I plan on carrying out a comparative perspective of Christian and Islamic doctrine on the ethics of war.




Merton, Thomas, and William H. Shannon. Passion for Peace: Reflections on War and Nonviolence. New York: Crossroad Pub., 2006. Print.


Moucarry, C. G. The Search for Forgiveness: Pardon and Punishment in Islam and Christianity. Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 2004. Print.