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Against Indifference

Four Christian Responses to Jewish Suffering during the Holocaust (C. S. Lewis, Thomas Merton, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, André and Magda Trocmé)

Carole J. Lambert

Against Indifference analyzes four responses to Jewish suffering during the Holocaust, moving on a spectrum from indifference to courageous action. C. S. Lewis did little to speak up for victimized Jews; Thomas Merton chose to enclose himself in a monastery to pray for and expiate the sins of a world gone awry; Dietrich Bonhoeffer acted to help his twin sister, her Jewish husband, and some other Jews escape from Germany; and the Trocmés established protective housing and an ongoing «underground railroad» that saved several thousand Jewish lives. Why such variation in the responses of those who had committed their lives to Jesus Christ and recognized that His prime commandment is to love God and others? This book provides answers to this question that help shed light on current Christians and their commitment to victims who suffer and need their help.
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Chapter 3. Thomas Merton


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“The experience of twentieth-century dictatorships has shown that it is possible for some Christians to live and work in a shockingly unjust society, closing their eyes to all kinds of evil and indeed perhaps participating in that evil at least by default, concerned only with their own compartmentalized life of piety, closed off from everything else on the face of the earth” (Thomas Merton, Life 20).

Contemplation is not the same as indifference, although contemplatives may appear to be indifferent to others’ suffering and truly indifferent persons may rationalize their inactivity by saying that they are contemplating. Both contemplation and indifference share the superficial characteristic of apparent passivity. Neither the contemplative nor the indifferent person appears to be acting to help others. Both seem to be walling themselves off from harsh realities, focused on other subjects: God, for the contemplative, and personal issues, for the indifferent person. This seclusion from external darkness decreases a sense of moral obligation to involve oneself in assisting others. C. S. Lewis believed in his Voltairian “cultivate your own garden” theory, as discussed in Chapter Two above; is Thomas Merton’s escape from the world to a monastery an extreme outcome of Lewis’s theory, one that, unlike Candide’s solution to the meaning of life, includes God as its central focus? Or, is there ← 51 | 52 → more action in contemplation, even in a Trappist monastery, than appears on the surface, action that negates indifference to others’ suffering?

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