What Dorothy Day’s views on Communism teach us about today’s conflicts

Photo by by Roman Harak, via Flickr

I want to talk about Dorothy Day and Communism. This was the original post I wanted to write about her, but I felt it needed to be prepared by the two I’ve already shared.

Dorothy Day’s stalwart both/and-ness—and the fact that she WAS a Communist before her conversion to Catholicism–gave her a unique perspective on communism, which of course was THE issue that shaped the world during much of her ministry.

And with all the talk of “socialism” today, it’s still relevant.

As I shared before, Dorothy Day believed in personal responsibility. She had no faith in changing things through the political process–she thought transformation could only come by changing hearts and minds. And she was worried about regulation because of the danger of fascism (she wrote strong words about it in the 1930s, in the era of Hitler, Mussolini, and FDR). Yet despite her antipathy, she DID speak up on political issues, and those words have deep resonance still today:

“I do not think, however, that we are guilty of envy or begrudging a rich man his wealth if we point out the abuses of the capitalist system which allows one man to accumulate the most of the world’s goods while other families suffer year after year, the aching pinch of poverty if not of actual destitution.” (All The Way To Heaven, Kindle edition, 86).

Stop and read that quote again. Let it sink in. Not a whole lot has changed since then, has it? In the past 40 years, since Reagan redefined for the entire country (left AND right) our fundamental approach to taxes and government, total wealth in the U.S. has grown by $77 trillion, but almost all of that went to the richest 10% and especially the richest 1%, while the poorest families among us are all but flat.

Source: Congressional Budget Office report: “Trends in the Distribution of Family Wealth, 1989-2019,” published Sept. 2022

How can anyone deny that capitalism serves the rich, not the poor?

Here’s another quote.

“The Bishops of the Catholic Church have stated that many of the social aims of the Communists are Christian aims and should be worked for by Christians. We feel that Communism is gaining in this country, because Christian people do not protest against injustice as they do.” (Ibid., 95).

Communism gained BECAUSE Christians didn’t stand up against injustice. There’s a lesson in that for us in 2022, too.

One of the major messaging points of today’s conservative movement is that America needs to “return to its traditional Judeo-Christian values.” Or, “the Judeo-Christian values on which this nation was founded.”

I see the connection between modern conservatism and traditional Christian values on sexuality. But outside of that I don’t see much connection at all. In preparation for my letter to the bishops on the Eucharist, I read the entire Pentateuch. One of the things that struck me most profoundly was how the early nation of Israel dealt with issues of social security.

Israel was, in fact, a religious nation… unlike the U.S., which was explicitly founded on freedom of religion—James Madison viewed it as THE fundamental liberty, without which the others meant nothing.

And unless I’ve profoundly misinterpreted, in proto-Israel, religion WAS government—until they rebelled against God and demanded a king. But in those early generations, there was a tithe whose express purpose was to support the livelihood of the priests and provide for the “widow and the orphan and the resident alien.” A nationwide tax, in other words, that everyone paid in order to take care of the most vulnerable among them.

Fast forward to early Christianity. In Acts of the Apostles, no one held any property in common; they all laid it at the feet of the Apostles and it was distributed according to need.

Was it really that easy? I have my doubts. People are people, after all. Still, that was the intended foundation of Christian society.

And, um… pretty sure we can all see that that’s the literal definition of communism.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. It is eminently clear that communism, and all its lingering forms of government (cough-cough-Putin-cough-cough), are unequivocally Bad News.

But anyone who legitimately wants to claim a desire to return to Judeo Christian principles is being intellectually and morally dishonest if they ignore the parts of Judeo-Christian history that don’t line up with their worldly values. Because values of low taxes and small government are not, in fact, Judeo Christian at all, but secular ones.

In her lifetime, Dorothy Day called out capitalism AND communism, because they’re both fundamentally in conflict with Christian world view.

Archbishop Tutu on Christian’s responsibility to address racism

Photo credit: John Mathew Smith & www.celebrity-photos.com via Flickr

This quote landed in my email inbox this morning within the Center for Contemplation and Action’s daily reflection*. Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s words here affirmed the convictions that have been growing in me for the past decade and a half or so: that the political issues of our time are part of our responsibility as Christians to address.

The blatant examples of racism in the U.S. are an easy target–the way in which nationalism has become inextricably (and bafflingly!) tied to racism.

But I would argue that stopping there is the easy way out. If we make the Proud Boys et al the scapegoat, then it’s tempting to give ourselves a pass on the subtler manifestations of racism—the ones that make many of us squirm when we are forced to look at them honestly. Things like inequality of educational opportunity and funding, unevenness in the justice system from top to bottom, the generational ripple effect of redlining and discrimination in housing and the GI bill… and on and on.

The “Learning How To See” podcast episode I listened to most recently explored comfort bias—the idea that our brains reject information that makes us uncomfortable. Information that is inconvenient to us.

For sure, the idea that racism is baked into American society, and that I, as a white person, am benefiting from it, is uncomfortable! To accept that would mean that if I want to be a Christian, I am required, by my faith, to do something about it. And it might even mean working against my own worldly interests, i.e., my own comfort.

The static from certain quarters surrounding critical race theory strikes me as a perfect example of comfort bias.

Which brings us right back to Desmond Tutu, doesn’t it? What is a Christian’s response to evidence of baked-in racism? Will we lean into the discomfort and allow ourselves to be made holier by advocating for just and equitable systems in our nation? Or will we dig in to our biases and continue to “spit in the face of God”?

*The reflection carried this note about sourcing: Desmond M. Tutu, “My Credo,” in Living Philosophies: The Reflections of Some Eminent Men and Women of Our Time, ed. Clifton Fadiman (New York: Doubleday, 1990), 234, 235. Note: Minor changes made to incorporate inclusive language.

Complexity and Confidence

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Our brains prefer a simple lie to a complex truth.
Our brains prefer a confident lie to a hesitant truth.

These are two of the biases explored in the “Learning How To See” podcast. Everything I heard on the first season was like an earthquake in my heart, but these two line up so thoroughly with my own experience, it reaches a whole other plane.

There are so many times when my kids ask a faith question, and I can think of a glib answer that will take three seconds and wholly misrepresent the complexity and the gravity of the issue at hand. But to do so would be to ignore the reality of the situation. More to the point, it would ignore the dignity of the soul that’s seeking authentic truth. Truth that stands up to their lived reality, which is, let’s face it, complex. Because it’s a complex world.

So I reply with complexity and hesitancy. I pause–to choose my words, to pray and think.

Believe it or not, this is me on Intentional Catholic, too. I know I come across loud and opinionated, and I am. But a lot of thought and inner wrestling goes into these posts. A lot of care for how the things I say will feel when read by different people.

Complexity bias, confidence bias. These two have played out so many times in the years I’ve been involved in discussions (and arguments) online. Through blogging, too. One memorable time, I waded into current events with unshakable certainty and ended up with egg on my face. It taught me to value caution and deliberation. Research before reacting. Well. Reacting in words, at least. Reacting in my heart is a whole different matter. I spend a lot of time talking myself down from initial reactions. But the point is, I do it.

The absolute confidence with which some people of faith respond to complex situations, erasing all complexities and nuance, waters down the Gospel. If people feel that the Gospel can’t address complexity, of course they’re going to dismiss it. It doesn’t help them process their own experiences. That’s not a weakness in the Gospel. It’s a weakness in those of us trying to spread it.

It is in our nature to prefer the simple lie, told confidently (stolen elections, anyone?), but I pray that we can all learn to recognize how much damage it does to be satisfied to wallow in the blindness of those biases.

(And if it’s at all unclear, that prayer is for myself, too.)

Detachment and other wrestlings

Dead Man Walking (1995) - IMDb

I just finished reading “Dead Man Walking,” by Sister Helen Prejean, tracing how she became involved in the quest to abolish the death penalty. I began it intending to read as quickly as possible, but shortly realized I needed to slow down, to take time to process and sit with it. One of the most powerful things about the book is how well she weaves together her incredibly poignant personal story with the evidence that beat her over the head along the way, forming her in motion.

No doubt many realities she lays out–with exceptional precision and lots and lots of footnotes to primary source material, i.e. court cases (as well as analysis/opinion pieces)–have changed since the book was published in 1993. One that I know has changed is the public perception toward the death penalty. Less than half of Americans now support the death penalty.

And yet many of the realities she points to are still going strong. Public defenders are overworked and for that reason, the poor are those who go to death row. It costs far, far more to litigate, appeal, and re-appeal than it would simply to put a convicted killer in prison for life. And on and on.

I read this book in a time when I continue to struggle with the apparent unchangeability of all that is wrong in the world, and with those who refuse even to acknowledge the problem, let alone sacrifice to do something about it.

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

At the same time, I am encountering the word “detachment” again and again, wrestling with what that means, and how it reconciles with the call to discipleship, which presupposes trying to make the world that better reflection of God’s will that we rattle off in prayer six times in every rosary and once during every Mass and countless other times in ritual and personal piety.

And at the same time, I encountered a podcast interview of Bro. Guy Consolmagno, S.J., who called out the prolife movement for talking about protecting “innocent life” when in fact, as Christians we are called to protect ALL life. It seemed to apply to multiple threads of my spiritual life right now.

I wish I had more answers and fewer questions. Maybe then this Intentional Catholic ministry would have a bit more impact. But then again, intentional has to be authentic above all, and if nothing else, these posts are authentic.

Gullibility, Misinformation, and the Ninth Commandment

Long ago, I learned that Albert Broccoli, the producer of the original James Bond movies, was a gardener who invented the vegetable broccoli by crossing cauliflower and something else I’ve forgotten.

My reaction was: “Hey, that’s really cool!” I never even questioned it.

Sometime in the last five years, as political misinformation has become so blatant and unscrupulous, I’ve become unshakably committed to fact checking. But for whatever reason, it did not occur to me that my little interesting trivia about broccoli ought to be fact checked. Until one day a couple years ago when I stopped with my mouth open, prepared to share this interesting tidbit, and thought, “Wait a minute… could broccoli possibly really be that new? Hasn’t broccoli been around for hundreds of years? Come to think of it, this sounds an awful lot like a myth/urban legend. Maybe I should check this before I share it again.”

Shocker: broccoli has been around since the SIXTH CENTURY BCE.

I felt pretty stupid.

Then, a few months ago, my third-born came home from a scout campout. “Mom, did you know that daddy longlegs are THE MOST POISONOUS SPIDER OUT THERE? Except they can’t hurt you—“

“—because their mouths are too small to bite humans,” I said. “Yes, I know that.” Then I stopped. “You know what? I’ve heard that my whole life, but now that I think about it, it sounds like bunch of nonsense. Why don’t we look that up?”

Again, shocker: FALSE.

I’m sharing this kind of embarrassing story because it took me years—YEARS—before I recognized the sound of a falsehood masquerading as legit information.

It made me understand—a bit, anyway—how it is that so many good people, intending to follow Jesus, have fallen into the trap of embracing conspiracy theories. Of sharing memes and arguments so distorted, they’re actually lies. Of writing off fact checkers because if they challenge pre-existing certainties, they must, by definition, be biased and thus can be safely dismissed.

I understand… a bit… which is good, because it also still makes me very, very angry. And I need to cultivate compassion, not anger.

So I am sharing this again today, as a reminder to myself as well as anyone who reads this, that truth telling and integrity are fundamental to our faith. Implicit in the use of misinformation is the idea that the end justifies the means. But that’s not Christianity. Integrity matters. Truth matters. Facts matter. Context matters.

The chicken and the egg (or: double standards in Christianity)

“Hey,” my husband whispered to me before Holy Thursday Mass. “I forgot to tell you. Pew research did a new survey and the number of people who go to church is below 50% for the first time ever.”

My first reaction was: And Christianity will blame the secular culture instead of looking in the mirror and examining whether our own failures are the problem.

Actually, it’s probably a chicken-and-egg situation. The culture is definitely getting more hostile to religion. But then again, religion keeps giving more reasons for the hostility.

I know. Them’s fightin’ words, but painful though they might be, I think they’re fair.

The trouble is that the Gospel tells us we’re SUPPOSED to expect hostility from the world. But somehow, we’ve translated that into a persecution complex. We never stop to examine our own attitudes, words, and behaviors for how well they reflect the Gospel. We just assume that any pushback we encounter must, by definition, be the culture’s problem rather than ours. It couldn’t possibly be that we are misrepresenting our faith.

Meanwhile, Christianity fails to recognize how incredibly uneven we are in HOW we choose to stand at odds with the world. There are these huge double standards.

Like: Christian culture is pro-life, EXCEPT when it requires taxpayer money to support people most at risk of feeling the “need” for abortion (because of generational poverty and inequality of opportunity, etc., etc).

Like: Christian culture is pro-life, except when it infringes on “personal freedoms” (cough-cough-masking).

Like: Government should stay out of my business, except when it’s about homosexual relationships or abortion, and then of course it’s the government’s business, absolutely.

Or: Sexual assault and harassment are sinful, but how dare we ruin the life of the accused? (Never mind the life of the victim. Whatever. We’ve been sacrificing them for millennia.)

Or: Honesty and integrity are fundamental to Christian belief—they’re in the Ten Commandments—but how many people have wholeheartedly, even rabidly, embraced a lie about stolen elections that has zero basis in fact?

I’ve been trying not to write these kinds of posts lately. Nobody needs me haranguing them; it’s not particularly effective at anything except making people mad. So I’ve been trying to focus my posts here on working out my own spiritual journey instead of lambasting everything that’s wrong with the world. I have spent this Lent praying for “enemies,” and more importantly, for the heart to do so authentically while remaining in union with God’s will. So much is happening in my heart this year—I am journaling it, bit by bit, but I’m deep in the weeds and I can’t synthesize it yet.

But there are times when my frustration comes out. And this is one of them. And maybe, after all, Good Friday is not a bad time to have our collective conscience stung.

What happened this week was inevitable.

Background photo taken from the Jefferson Memorial, October 2018

It’s been a week, hasn’t it?

I saw this quote this morning in America magazine (linked below, if you’re reading on social media). I can’t find the source, which makes me think it might be not 100% word for word, but the message is one we really need.

Since day one at Intentional Catholic, I have been begging my fellow Catholics to share and read with integrity. We have a Christian responsibility to make sure we fact check the things we share, the things we take in, the opinions and philosophies we embrace.

We have a Christian responsibility to think critically and compare what we take in and say and share to the teachings of our faith. To embrace the niggling discomfort when our consciences are tweaked. To acknowledge that that discomfort is meant to point out the ways in which our worldly view is out of whack with our faith.

We have a Christian responsibility to use that discomfort to reshape our world view more authentically with our faith, even if it means setting aside long-standing idols in the form of political ideologies. (I say this as someone who’s had to do that myself. I know it’s hard. To this day, I routinely have to keep questing in order to keep myself from swinging too far the opposite direction.)

To choose instead to chase down, embrace, and share conspiracy theories, distortions, and outright lies is a violation of the ninth commandment. It is a violation of every exhortation in the Bible about living with integrity.

When large numbers of Christians fail to fact check and instead enthusiastically embrace things devoid of integrity, the events of this week become inevitable. For months, God-fearing people have been expressing terror about socialism, about dictatorships, about the shredding of the Constitution. And then, on Wednesday, people with those same beliefs shredded the Constitution themselves, far worse than anything they fear from their political opponent. I even saw one Facebook commenter say that Trump should declare martial law so he doesn’t have to leave office. Apparently, dictatorship is fine as long as it’s “my” dictator.

What we saw this week was the inevitable end of the path we embark on each time we choose to share distortions and outright lies because we haven’t undertaken the time—or embraced the humility—to examine them and recognize them as such.

We are meant for more.

Honesty, Integrity, and Politics

Reflecting the other day on Pope Francis’ blistering critique of American politics got me pretty riled up. I keep thinking about the lack of honesty and integrity in the political process. We seem to have different standards for politics than we do in real life, and that’s just bizarre. Especially for Christians.

Judging by the way we conduct our politics, truth and integrity no longer matter. We can stretch the truth of any narrative so much, it’s no longer recognizable as truth–and as long as we think it will help us achieve our end goal, that’s A-OK.

I avoid the air waves as much as possible in the pre-election weeks, but you can’t escape it all. A political ad comes up, and I think, “What the actual heck? You have a family. You put your tiny kids on all your direct mail pieces to show what a great, upstanding, moral Christian you are. And then you say things like THAT? You take your opponent’s words out of context so you can change what they mean. You exaggerate their beliefs so profoundly that there’s more falsehood than truth in your statement! How in the world do you do this and then expect your kids to grow up valuing honesty and integrity and respect for others? What example are you giving them?”

How did we reach the point where we think it’s OK to pick and choose what facts to share so that we can pretend the more inconvenient truths don’t exist at all? (”La la la, I can’t hear you!” How childish. How unworthy of Christ.)

I think the problem is, we’ve allowed politics to get so extreme that people actually think the hyperbole is reality. They have stopped seeing the difference. Stopped recognizing that context matters. Stopped recognizing nuance. Why paint with a detail brush when we can use a fire hose?

Once we do that, it’s inevitable that we’ll start swallowing extreme narratives whole, without even bothering to think critically, without bothering to do a 30-second bias check on a place like mediabiasfactcheck.com. (I mean, it’s such a low bar. It takes no time at all.)

For instance, here are a couple sites that conservative Catholics like to share.

And lest you think I only bias-check the right, here’s a site that gets shared a lot by social justice Catholics:

The unintended consequence of all this is that no one trusts anyone to tell the truth anymore. Leaders (unless they’re MY political color), media (unless it’s MY media). People are picking and choosing their own facts, their own realities. Which gives them blanket permission to ignore and dismiss anything that would cause them to question said facts and realities. If you don’t like it, call it fake news.

(All those years we spent bemoaning relativism, and now the entire culture, including the right, has not only embraced it but is rabidly, passionately devoted to it!)

What’s become excruciatingly clear, in all this, is that religious teachings—like, oh, let’s say honesty & integrity–are not given just to slap us with strictures to chafe and annoy us. They are necessary for the functioning of society. If no one can trust anyone else to tell the truth, well, you’ve got a problem, folks. Your society is going to be a mess.

If we would just take a deep breath and turn back to honesty and integrity, and condemn hyperbole, America would be a much better place. We all know it. We all believe it. Why don’t we demand it? Why won’t we do what’s necessary to make it happen?

Taxes (as one example)

What this reminds me of, though it’s a separate issue, is tax shelters, offshore corporations, and tax loopholes. I’ve often heard, in relation to taxes, “As long as it’s legal I’m going to take advantage of it.” But we recognize that just because something is legal doesn’t mean it’s morally right (cough-cough-abortion). So using this argument as justification for doing whatever possible to hoard as much money as possible has never sat well with me.

About a taxicab

Photo by Tasha Kamrowski on Pexels.com

I spend most of my time here reflecting on things I’ve already discerned, words of wisdom shared by popes and bishops and saints. Sometimes I worry that I look like I think I have it all figured out (read that: holier than thou).

I don’t.

I’ve been in a bad frame of mind lately. Aware of it, pondering it, praying about it, but not seeing any improvement. Yesterday morning, I was driving across town when I saw a minivan owned by a taxi company. It had a Scripture reference plastered on the side. I didn’t even see what the Scripture was. I just had an immediate negative reaction.

I was sort of shocked by how strong it was. It should be a good thing for a person to witness to his/her faith publicly. This should spark warmth, joy, affirmation. Not negativity. What does it say about me, as a person of faith, that my first reaction to expressions of faith in business owners is such a negative one?

How terribly jaded I have become.

Not without reason.

There are an awful lot of people walking around wearing Christianity on their sleeve and saying terrible things, shredding the human dignity of others through memes and tweets and nasty social media comments, sharing clickbait headlines that don’t even reflect the article content accurately, let alone reality, from websites that demonstrate by their publication choices that they consider taking things out of context, twisting the truth, or deleting inconvenient facts as justifiable in pursuit of their agenda. (Agenda outranks Ten Commandments.) Christians who say “thoughts and prayers” after every natural disaster and mass shooting while turning a blind eye to the scientific consensus on climate change and insisting that “it’s mental health, not guns,” while simultaneously advocating cuts to mental health funding because cutting taxes is more important than taking care of the earth God gave us or being our brothers’ keeper.

That’s the sin I see in too many people who share my faith.

Now here’s mine.

It’s a sinful judgment to assume that one who puts Scripture verses on the side of his or her business car is also sharing inflammatory memes and tweets and making nasty social media comments and sharing clickbait and substituting “thoughts and prayers” for action.

But God forgive me, that’s where my mind goes.

I don’t like this about myself. I want my faith to be a source of joy, for me and for others. I want to assume the best of others, as I so often admonish others to do. (Doing religious writing really is a round-the-clock examination of conscience.)

I don’t want to feel reluctant to talk about praying for others–but I do, because too many people have been on the receiving end of “prayers” that are really judgments. “Prayers” that are holier-than-thou rather than expressions of solidarity.

I don’t want to be judgy of others (“Stop judging, that you may not be judged,” Mt. 7:1). I know the upheaval it took to pry my mind open and force me to recognize the things I see now. I should offer grace, not judgment.

I want Christianity to be all it was meant to be by Jesus, and I want to be able to talk about it without sounding holier-than-thou (read that: off-putting).

I have no idea how to fix any of this. In myself or in the larger world, either one.

I came face to face with my own brokenness yesterday, and it wasn’t pretty. I don’t have it figured out, and I won’t pretend I do. The one thing I know is that without such honest self-reflection, there is no moving forward.