Dorothy Day: both/and and the power of money to corrupt

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When I began reading “All the Way To Heaven,” the letters of Dorothy Day, I was shocked by how flamboyant and… earthy… she was as a young woman. Of course, before her conversion she was very worldly—divorced in a time before that was common; living with another man; having had an abortion. But to see her sensuality, her sass, etc. in black and white was really quite something. The early letters were way more… INTERESTING… than I expected the writings of a saint-in-progress to be.

The turn was abrupt when she found God. But once I made the adjustment to the totally different writing style, it was more spiritually edifying. 🙂

One of the gems I highlighted actually came from Robert Ellsberg’s introduction. It synthesizes a great deal of what’s in the book, so I’ll share it here. It’s in the context of how her ministry was founded on Matthew 25 (“when I was hungry, you gave me food…”). He says: “For Day, that meant not just practicing the works of mercy—feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless in her house of hospitality—but also protesting and resisting the social structures and values that were responsible for so much suffering and need. The Catholic Worker movement was not intended to resolve the problems of poverty and violence in the world, but to provide a model of what it might look like if Christians truly lived out their faith in response to the challenges of history and the needs of their neighbors.” (Emphasis mine.)

To synthesize: her example demonstrates that true discipleship is not an “either/or” prospect, but a “both/and.” It is personal charity and work directly with those in need… AND a commitment to work to change systemic structures that underlie, facilitate, and even cause poverty, inequality, injustice, and (to extrapolate into today’s terms) natural disasters.

So many of our conflicts in the Church happen because we choose to ally with one side or another of worldly divisions, thus abandoning huge portions of the Gospel mandate. It’s EITHER abortion OR the death penalty. EITHER abortion OR taking on the structures that enable injustice and inequality.

And too many times, Church leaders who see the fracturing of the Gospel mandate are afraid to speak too pointedly, for fear of alienating The Money.

One of Dorothy Day’s letters was addressed to the bishops of California during a worker protest where she got arrested. The editor says they’re not sure whether it was ever sent or not. But in it, she was absolutely flaying the bishops for being afraid to stand with the workers, because of a fear of losing contributions from the wealthy who supported corporations over workers. She was saying, “How much better off would we be if the Church would get rid of all its properties and just depend on God to provide what is needed, when it’s needed?”

Not that this is ever going to happen, but it was shocking to read, because she’s right. When you’re worried about pissing people off and having them take their money and walk, you’re afraid to call them out when they need to be called out. This has been the case for years in the Church, as we have swung farther and farther toward “abortion is the only issue that matters” at the expense of the rest of the Church’s social teaching.

(Money really does corrupt, doesn’t it???? I am pointing all manner of fingers at myself here… just recognizing a reality!)

I have one last post to write on Dorothy Day, but to wrap this one up, here’s one last gem from her on money, in response to “a priest critic.”

“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. St. Jerome and many many Fathers of the Church, and our Leader Himself condemned the rich and no one would dare breathe the word of envy in connection with them.”

Being Prolife in a Post-Roe America

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For several weeks I’ve been wrestling with what to say about the expected court decision overturning Roe. It took me several days after the decision to get my thoughts to coalesce. Truthfully, as raw as this issue is right now in our country, I don’t really want to wade into the conversation at all.

But given that I grew up in the pro-life movement and have been fairly opinionated on what being pro-life ACTUALLY means (as opposed to what it has been made into), I feel I should.

I am glad this day has come. Life IS precious. The unborn ARE human beings whose dignity we, as Christians, are obligated to protect.

But beyond that foundational level, I worry. Why? Because the methods undertaken in the political sphere to achieve this good end demonstrate a belief that a worthy end justifies any means, no matter how far from Gospel values.

Lately I’ve thought a lot about something we used to say when we were teaching NFP for the Couple to Couple League: a morally upright goal does not justify immoral means. This was how we explained the difference between NFP and contraception. Wanting to provide for one’s family is praiseworthy. Robbing a bank to do it is wrong. Period. Planning a family is a holy thing, but it matters how.

The problem around abortion is that the “pro-life” party has been, for more than two years, enthusiastically and willfully embracing outright lies about stolen elections. It has been dismissing the violent attempt to overthrow the fundamental basis of our country—the peaceful transfer of power. It has been tossing out false equivalences and red herrings (like CRT) to avoid facing up to real injustices that have been baked into our system and left lasting ripple effects that cannot be dealt with without governmental intervention. It has been prioritizing wealth and money (i.e. low taxes, corporate interests, and deregulation) above caring for our neighbor. To say nothing of guns (how can any person claim to be pro-life while placing gun ownership above human life?)

The problem we have is that all this has been winked at–and in many cases, vehemently and rabidly defended–by good people. The most acknowledgment we’ve gotten is, “Yes, but without life, none of that matters!”

But it does.

It all matters. If the measuring stick is Jesus–and of course it is–it ALL matters. Uncomfortable truths are still true.

On the other hand, I’ve been equally baffled and appalled by the rhetoric from pro-choice people—especially those who claim to be Christians. I understand and affirm the desire to advocate for women in impossible situations. But to do so while blindly—is it willful blindness?—ignoring the uncomfortable truth of the life of the human being sacrificed in abortion? I can’t understand that, either. We live in an age where we can see inside the womb. How can we doubt that those children are human beings with dignity equal to that of the marginalized, discriminated against, or suffering?

And yet.

Some of my pro-choice friends have shared things in the past few days that I think carry truths that we, pro-life Christians, need to have the courage to face up to honestly. Here is one (click here to see the whole post, as this is only a partial screen shot):

I have maintained for years that we were going about this fight in the wrong order. There are valid concerns put forward by abortion rights advocates. Abortion is the wrong answer, but the problems are real: poverty, inequality of education and opportunity, health care that is not, no matter what anyone says, the best in the world (at least in our way of accessing it–and I have more right to have an opinion on that matter than most, given our family’s medical history–the insurance system serves Mammon, not people). If we had been willing to address those problems, I don’t think we’d have reached this point of poisonous, toxic division over this issue. Now that we’ve done it in the wrong order—at the very least, it should have been done concurrently—the pro choice advocates are right. We ARE responsible to step in on these issues.

The trouble is, abortion was easy to oppose, because criminalizing abortion costs US nothing. We don’t have to bear the burden. And yes, I use the word “burden” without apology. Pregnancy and parenthood IS a burden. No one who complains about parenting, ever, has any right to suggest otherwise. Which means none of us get to deny the word, because all of us complain. All of us feel the burden. It’s a joyful burden, a burden that sanctifies and gives as much as it asks of us—but it IS a burden, nonetheless.

So the quote below, which has been shared a lot, also resonates uncomfortably. It’s not perfect, but there is truth in it, and we have an obligation to examine our consciences.

Finally, this (pro-life) article, from Christianity Today, came closest to expressing what I have felt. A quick excerpt:

“(Pro-life Christians) inhabit the ambivalence of this moment, embracing a multitude of responses. … We must also admit that we are part of something larger than ourselves. Because just as was true for the women of Jerusalem, the destruction of children is too often the result of larger, collective sins.”

Reflecting on Dorothy Day (part 1)

This weekend, I finally finished reading Dorothy Day’s letters. My overarching takeaway is: This woman is not who you think she was. She defies categorization.

I highlighted so many passages in my e-book. So many things to reflect upon. There’s one particular facet I want to reflect upon in depth, but I think I need to address the big picture first, and give that one particular aspect its own post.

My whole life, I have assumed that Dorothy Day would take a certain approach to everything. I believed this in the years when I was a staunch political conservative and thought she represented everything that was wrong with the world. And I still believed this when I began reading this book as a person who has embraced as Godly many things I once thought misguided.

But she is way, way more complex than the general narrative about her allows her to be.

In many ways, she was shockingly conservative. In her younger years it wasn’t so obvious, because the world was still conservative surrounding matters of sexuality. In those years, her conservatism manifested as repeated acknowledgment of the Church’s (and specifically Church leadership’s) authority over her, and a repeated commitment to cease her work if she was ever told to do so. Of course, that never happened. There were many, many priests and bishops supporting her work… because it was CATHOLIC.

But as soon as the sexual revolution started, she started railing against it all. She was not a happy camper in the last couple decades of her life. She was kind of a grumpy old lady, in fact, often unhappy about the depravity of the young and the sorry state of the future. (And she didn’t like the post-V2 Mass. Although in her defense, she was complaining about it in the time just after the change, when everyone was still figuring it out and a lot of things were done badly.) She talks about how the government is not the ideal provider of services to the poor—that it’s necessary at times, but that ideally this work would be done by the Church. (Not individual Christians. The CHURCH.)

On the other hand, she had a moral code that demanded social justice, and she was absolutely, 100% rigid in following it. She participated in protests for peace, spent time in jail, stood with workers against corporations, and lived in abject poverty her whole life—never kept any of her earnings.

A big part of her code was pacifism. She opposed Vietnam, of course (rightly so). But she also opposed World War 2. I found that shocking—downright disturbing, actually. If ever there were a just war, that was it.

Her commitment to pacifism was so unshakable, she wouldn’t take honorary degrees from Catholic universities because they had ROTC programs and took government grants that largely benefited the military industrial complex.

She also raised holy hell when she found out her publisher was going to take funds from Rockefeller and Ford foundations to help archive her stuff. She flatly refused permission as long as they were involved. In part that was b/c she believed in personal responsibility (a tick in the conservative chart), but in part it was also that the Rockefellers, in her words, had a lot to answer for (a jab at corporate abuse of workers, a tick in the progressive chart).

What I hope I’m laying out here clearly is that she was CATHOLIC. Not progressive Catholic, not conservative Catholic, just CATHOLIC. Because sometimes Catholic IS progressive. And sometimes it’s conservative. And virtually all of us try to separate those two, and in so doing, do violence to the Gospel.

I begin to suspect that I have more than one more post to write about Dorothy Day… but I’ll stop there for right now.

“Outside Agitators” and Martin Luther King, Jr.

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On Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, I read the Letter from a Birmingham Jail.

One of the first things that struck me was that he was writing because he had been chastised by a fellow clergyman for being an “outside agitator.” Why did this strike me so forcefully? Because I live not terribly far from Ferguson, Mo., and I heard people invoke the “outside agitator” argument myself. And at that time, I didn’t know what to make of it.

That argument goes something like this: “Those protests weren’t organized by people from ___. They were organized by national organizations who shipped people in to stir up trouble.”

I don’t think I had fully realized, until reading MLK’s letter, that “outside agitators” is how the civil rights movement works.

Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote a lengthy paragraph in the letter from the Birmingham jail, explaining this. But then he gave the quote above. Here it is, in context.

Beyond this, I am in Birmingham because injustice is here. Just as the eighth-century prophets left their little villages and carried their “thus saith the Lord” far beyond the boundaries of their hometowns; and just as the Apostle Paul left his little village of Tarsus and carried the gospel of Jesus Christ to practically every hamlet and city of the Greco-Roman world, I too am compelled to carry the gospel of freedom beyond my particular hometown.

Moreover, I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider.
-Martin Luther King, Jr. – Letter from a Birmingham Jail

I have to admit, it was really disheartening to realize that after all this time, despite how much honor is accorded MLK across political divides, we are still using the same arguments that were used to try to shame and discredit him and his work.

The Letter from a Birmingham Jail is a breathtakingly beautiful piece which remains every bit as relevant today as it was in 1963. Well worth reading.

Archbishop Tutu on Christian’s responsibility to address racism

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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.)

Thoughts on nonviolence and how it’s organized

A few years ago, when Ferguson, Missouri was all in the news, I remember various people saying to me, “Those people are bringing in outside agitators from other places.” It was a criticism, suggesting that if “outsiders” weren’t riling up the populace, we wouldn’t be having these racial protests at all.

I wasn’t prepared to answer that argument at that time, and I haven’t heard it again since the Black Lives Matter protests swept the country. But as time goes on, I realize that the entire Civil Rights movement was structured the same way: national organizers identifying places where their presence could make a difference, and going there to support the local population.

(What we learn about history really does get distorted—whether it’s a concerted effort, or whether it’s because there’s so much of it and it gets oversimplified in an attempt to boil it down to its most important message, is another question. I’d hazard a guess the answer is “both.”)

In “Dead Man Walking,” Sister Helen Prejean quoted from another book, “Wild Justice,” by Susan Jacoby, which appears now to be out of print. This passage really struck me.

Nonviolence, as employed by Gandhi in India and by King in the American South, might reasonably viewed as a highly disciplined form of aggression. If one defines aggression in the primary dictionary sense of “attack,” nonviolent resistance proved to be the most powerful attack imaginable on the powers King and Gandhi were trying to overturn. … King was even more explicit on this point: the purpose of civil disobedience, he explained many times, was to force the defenders of segregation to commit brutal acts in public and thus arouse the conscience of the world on behalf of those wronged by racism. King and Gandhi did not succeed because they changed the hearts and minds of southern sheriffs and British colonial administrators (although they did, in fact, change some minds) but because they made the price of maintaining control too high for their opponents.”

Susan Jacoby, Wild Justice, pp. 336-337

Every once in a while, someone points out that Jesus’ instruction to turn the other cheek was the polar opposite of passive acceptance of injustice. (Read this for that mind-blowing take on a very familiar passage.)

This passage from Wild Justice also turns on its head the idea of nonviolence as passive. It made me rethink the whole movement. This describes a whole new level of courage: to go in, intending to provoke violence against oneself, which you will consciously not react to, in order to show the violence inherent in the system? Wow. Just… wow.

It was what Jesus did, too. Of course, Jesus’ crucifixion was about salvation beyond the things of the world. But God could have accomplished that any way he liked. The fact that the chosen way to get there was through nonviolent resistance to earthly injustice has to mean something for us.

Face To Face With Homelessness in New Orleans

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I have been in New Orleans for the past nine days—first on vacation with my family, and now staying on solo for the NPM (National Association of Pastoral Musicians) conference, where I’m presenting this week.

We have so enjoyed our time here—from swamp tours to beignets to fabulous jazz, it was a great trip with the kids. But I was not prepared for the sheer scope of the face of Jesus in the homeless population that I would encounter here.

The presence of people suffering homelessness has been a cattle prod to my conscience for twenty years. I remember going to work at the church and feeling the hypocrisy of driving past the people holding signs as if they weren’t even there—when I was headed to work at a CHURCH. Eventually I started keeping a stash of protein and Nutri Grain bars in the vehicles to pass out. It feels insufficient. But it’s better than refusing to make eye contact at all.

I always think about Lazarus lying at the rich man’s gate, begging for scraps and being ignored. That rich guy probably wasn’t evil. Probably, he just was uncomfortable, didn’t know how to help, and so he didn’t make eye contact.

I also think about Peter and John at the Beautiful Gate, and the beggar there who couldn’t walk. That story stands out to me because it says he asked for alms, and then Peter responded by saying, “Look at me.” Then the Bible says: He paid attention to them, expecting to receive something from them.

The eye contact raises expectations in the person on the receiving end of this equation—and that’s why we don’t do it. That’s why we ignore them. Eye contact compels us to step in in some way. But if we can’t even look in the eyes of Jesus in the person suffering homelessness, then… Well, it says something about our commitment to the faith. Something we probably don’t want to know about ourselves.

So I have made a real effort to make eye contact —to SEE the people who stand at highway intersections back home. After twenty years, I know many faces and some things about them, both positive and negative.

But I was completely and totally unprepared for the magnitude of the homeless population in New Orleans.

Camps, apparently long-term, beneath the interstates (in the shade—very important). Right out in the open. A man sprawled on the sidewalk sleeping on Canal Street, a handful of steps from restaurants that would cost my family $150 to eat there. Another man using an umbrella to block the sun as he sleeps against a lovely old wrought-iron fence. A woman, her face a study in shame and hopelessness, sitting on a three-hundred-year-old stoop with a sign that says, “First time homeless.” I have seen literally hundreds of homeless people in the week I have been here.

Hundreds of the face of Jesus, looking at me.

The first day, the first HOUR of the first day, I should say, I pulled singles out of my wallet, just to do SOMETHING, knowing perfectly well that if we emptied our wallets, it would only take care of a dozen of these people for a day, maybe two. And yet–and yet! We are on vacation, spending money on ourselves!

Eventually, I had to resort to the very thing I despise: walking by without acknowledging. Food is expensive here, even for me. Do I go buy six orders of beignets and hand them out? Relatively cheap, but totally useless calories. Do I spend a hundred dollars buying $15 burgers and onion rings from the place next to my hotel, and hand those out?

I wish I could offer what Peter and John did in that moment by the Beautiful Gate. They were able to heal that man, give him back the ability to walk—the thing that kept him in poverty, unable to help himself.

What this experience makes so clear to me is that the problem of homelessness is one of the many that are a systemic problem, and so the solution also must be. That does not excuse me from my responsibility to see and to be made uncomfortable and to help in whatever small way I can. (Trail mix bars from the CVS two blocks down?) But it also reminds me that I have to work for justice in the larger world, because the problem isn’t mine to solve alone—it is OUR problem.

The more things change…

If you notice the copyright on this, it comes from 1986. In the grand scheme of things, I suppose 35 years is not a huge length of time. Nonetheless, it’s been more than a generation, and we’re still bickering about the same things. That feels a little disheartening to me.

The rest of this quote says, “These wounds will be healed only by greater solidarity with the poor and among the poor themselves.” Solidarity is a scary word. A lot of us live in a pretty significant bubble, which allows us to view the problems of others in an abstract way, rather than as something concrete and heartbreaking and intensely personal. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no paragon of virtue in this respect. I’m no better at solidarity than anyone else, despite my best intentions. But it twinges my conscience and forms my approach to the political and social issues that so preoccupy modern discourse.