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.

Systems of sin are a real thing

There are several reflections rumbling around in my brain right now—about Scripture and women, about abortion.

But I promised I’d try to get more specific about the thing I only addressed vaguely last week—about getting down in the weeds and wrestling with how to apply the faith to the current context of the world.

So I think the best thing I could share this week is a reflection by Christopher Dodson, of the diocese of Fargo, North Dakota. I found it because one of my email subscriptions last week referred to “systemic sin.”

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My faith journey in the past few years has really convicted me on the topic of systemic racism. There is so much pushback against the idea. The hullabaloo about critical race theory makes me absolutely CRAZY. The idea that we shouldn’t talk about the deep sins committed by U.S. institutions against Black and indigenous people, because it might make white people feel bad, must make God weep. One of the fundamentals of the Catholic faith, after all, is acknowledging our failures and confessing them.

I’ve spent a lot of time in recent months trying to figure out how I would ask fellow whites who resist racial reckoning to think about this. Here’s what I’ve come up with.

Things like redlining, lending discrimination, and the GI bill only applying to whites—to say nothing of the lack of reparations made to Blacks after abolition—have had long, long ripple effects. We, the whites, got the good side of this equation. Blacks got the bad side. The problems faced by Black communities now are direct, generational ripple effects of injustices perpetrated by systemic racism that endured for hundreds of years.

Now, none of that is my fault, or your fault, and it might not be your parents’ fault, or even your grandparents’ fault. It’s not our FAULT.

BUT.

Whose fault it is is not the issue. The point is, the consequences are here, and we, as Christians, have to deal with them.

This is not about trying to make whites feel bad. It’s just a clear-eyed, Jesus-centered, Gospel-driven, “love your neighbor as yourself” acknowledgment that I have benefited generationally from something that harmed another group of people generationally. And that still has impacts today.

And because of that, I have a responsibility to work toward fixing it.

That’s all. The hysteria surrounding critical race theory steals all the attention that needs to be on solutions, and directs it toward division and protectionism of SYSTEMS that have aided whites at the expense of Blacks. And it’s got to stop.

When I hear the words “systemic sin,” this is what I think about.

But when that term popped up in my email last week, and I knee-jerk reacted as above, I thought I’d better walk the walk and go look up the term to make sure I wasn’t imposing my own world view upon it. I wanted to see what people with more expertise had to say about it.

That’s how I found this article. Christopher Dodson is the executive director of the North Dakota Catholic Conference, and in other articles, he addresses abortion and other subjects of importance to Catholics. He’s no radical.

This piece takes a hard look at the topic of systemic sin, specifically referencing the Catechism and the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church.

And now I will shut up and let Dodson speak.

Many Christians, including Catholics, have difficulty understanding that “structures of sin” may exist separately from our own individual sins. I suspect that certain religious and political strains of thought in the United States that emphasize the individual as paramount contribute to this problem. The false idea that we are autonomous individuals acting in isolation prevents us from accepting and addressing the social consequences of our sins and the sins of others. (continue reading)

Christopher Dodson

Faith formed by politics, or politics informed by faith?

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I’ve developed a new morning ritual the last few months. I get up, warm my hot pack, and listen to two podcasts while doing the stretches and exercises required by a couple of chronic conditions. The two podcasts are the Bible in a Year and Evolving Faith. They’re quite different… one quite self-aware in its orthodoxy and the other quite aware of its not-orthodoxy. I think this is probably a good balance.

Sometime in my tween/teen years, I read the Bible straight through. But having it read to me as an adult is enlightening. I’m making connections I never did before. I’m understanding the relationship between different books in a new way. I appreciate Scripture on a whole new level. When you are steeped in the Lectionary, as most of us Catholics are, and liturgy people more than most, it’s really good to get a sense of the way the very familiar excerpts fit into the larger context.

The Evolving Faith podcast hits in a whole different way. More visceral, more immediate. These are people—almost entirely non-Catholics—who are wrestling with faith and the world in the same way that I am. Unlike me, many have abandoned institutional churches (though not Jesus). The podcast consists of talks from the Evolving Faith conference, which was founded by a group including Rachel Held Evans—whose work, in my mind, all Catholics should read, even though her perspective on the world came from a very different faith tradition. She has so much to offer us.

And so do the other speakers I’m hearing.

It’s a truism that faith formation is generally pretty bad… everywhere. Some blame it on Vatican 2, but I would submit that the older crowd might have known plenty ABOUT the faith, but they weren’t any better equipped to apply it to the real world. Plus, far too many quit faith formation at a certain point—graduation from Catholic school? Confirmation? etc.—so faith doesn’t always mature the way understanding does.

So then, as we interact with the world, we have head-on collisions with realities that don’t fit what our faith taught us about How Things Are Supposed To Work. At that point, a few different things can happen.

One is to deny the validity of the thing that is challenging our faith, so as to protect the faith as it stands. (I believe the focus on “Marxism” at the expense of honest examination of the ripple effects of racism is one example of this.)

Another is to admit that the faith in its current, comfortable form is woefully insufficient for said realities, and to throw the baby out with the bathwater. (Which is why so many people leave organized religion, or even God.)

The third is to get down in the weeds and ask the really hard, uncomfortable questions, and deal with the doubt and turmoil and lack of clarity that come with them. To accept as your faith gets bruised and bumped. To accept the muddiness of faith in the real world, and the reality that sometimes there AREN’T pat answers. To quest, to seek, to wrestle with the hard stuff.

It’s not an easy thing to do, because basically it means you’re uncomfortable all the time. (All those fingers pointing at myself.)

But isn’t that exactly what it means to be “in the world, yet not of it?” There’s a now and not yet, a tension that human nature doesn’t like. According to one narrative I’ve been bludgeoned with a lot in recent memory, the Kingdom is Jesus, it’s not something we build. It was never meant to be on earth–only in Heaven.

But then why did Jesus tell us to pray “Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done ON EARTH AS IT IS IN HEAVEN”?

This weekend, two of my kids were confirmed, and the bishop said, in essence, your words about faith are not enough. People need to SEE the kingdom of God embodied in YOU.

Which means we HAVE to get our hands dirty, working the earth around those messy subjects like abortion and immigration and racism and health care and the balance of personal and social responsibility and the common good. We have to accept that neither of our political extremes has it entirely right and be willing to take a deep breath and enter into dialogue. The world is always going to try to box us into an either/or, and we’re all susceptible to picking a side and planting our flag and failing to recognize when we’ve made that flag—or money (so much of our political discourse is about our own financial self-interest!)—the center of our world view, rather than God.

All of this to introduce a quote from speaker Nish Weiseth, because when she said these words, they rang a deafening bell in my soul:

“What we see from those previously mentioned leaders is a faith that is formed by politics, and not a politics that is informed by faith.”

If I have the energy, I’ll do more specific writing on this in a day or two. We shall see.

Signposts from Augustine and Dorothy Day

It’s been a minute since I posted here, but not for lack of spiritual journeying… just struggling with how to write it publicly. God continues to place signposts in my journey to balance Godly anger and detachment. Sometimes I don’t quite know how to balance the two.

I spent Lent reading the letters of Dorothy Day, because I thought, “If anyone has figured out this balance, she’s that one.” “All The Way To Heaven” was the recommendation of a priest friend of a friend.

In the first 40% of the book she was not at all what I expected from Dorothy Day. It’s really interesting to watch her own spiritual journey unfold. Then there comes a sharp turn. I’m still only at the 46% mark (she wrote a lot of letters!) but I am thoroughly engrossed by it all. But I wasn’t finding the nugget I was looking for–the thing that showed me how to be an activist and advocate for social justice without being angry all the time.

Then, without warning: this.

Whoa.

But, because God doesn’t deal in the obvious and the clear-cut and the black-and-white–he just doesn’t–within 24 hours, I stumbled across this quote in the front of a novel I pulled from the library to read:

Okay, then.

So… I suppose the divine message here is to hold things in tension? That this struggle is real, and inevitable, and a part of the journey?

“Outside Agitators” and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Background image by EasyGiftWizard, via Pixabay

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.

The Now And The Not Yet

At this time of year, Catholic sites are generally be gentle and meditative, wreathed in evergreen and violet candles. (Did you see what I did there? 🙂 )

I’m not feeling that this year. Advent is normally a big thing in my household, but this year I’m giving myself a pass on some of our traditions. It’s just not where we are right now. I told my spiritual group yesterday that this year, I’m writing a book and learning how to live with a celiac diagnosis for my child, and that’s quite enough mental/spiritual wrestling for me this Advent.

But what I AM doing this Advent is pondering the tension that is intrinsic to life in the faith.

The kingdom of God is now, here, in the person of Jesus, but also unfolding in real time, and never to be fully realized in this world.

We are to accept authority—but at the same time, questioning and wrestling is the only way we grow in faith. Without it, we stagnate. Even fester, growing ever more rigid in our binary, simplistic view of the world. Kind of like all those pirates on Davy Jones’ ship in Pirates of the Caribbean—ever more inflexible, until eventually we freeze solid and lose our humanity altogether. In other words, we are called to submit, but also to be prophetic.

We are given, by virtue of our baptism, the power to heal—this is a conversation we had yesterday in my small faith group—and yet I would argue that the chronic conditions of my life are the things that have allowed me to grow.

I think there’s a lesson in all this for me as I begin this discernment surrounding detachment. Because that is the essential question I can’t wrap my brain around—the one I shared here a couple of weeks ago. Godly anger is what fuels us to pursue Godly justice. Yet this seems to stand at odds with the idea of detachment, which would suggest that we remain a step back emotionally, setting aside such passions altogether.

That’s why this graphic caught my attention when it crossed my feed last week. It’s not about religion, but my faith is integral to my view of the world, and that gets expressed through real-world events, i.e. the news. So it resonated on the level of faith for me.

In my last appointment, my counselor and I were grappling with balance, and she said, “I just want to make sure you know that balance means it’s always changing. It’s not the same from day to day.”

She was right, of course; I’ve known this for a long time in my family life—that one or another of my responsibilities takes precedence at any given time, and it’s constantly shifting. We tend to think of balance as a static thing: a beam BALANCED on a point. But that only works if all the factors acting on it are static. As the forces of my life act upon me, I have to adjust constantly. I do it automatically on a bicycle. Or walking. Or when a small child runs and tackles me while I’m sitting in the middle of the floor.

But somehow when it comes to the bigger things, the spiritual life, I have this fantasy that there’s some magical island within me that if I can just find it, I’ll never have to adjust again.

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But the reality of the “now-and-not-yet” dynamic is that those two things DO stand at odds. That tension will never be resolved in this life. On one side is the passion to see God’s justice made real in the world: “Thy will be done, they kingdom come on earth as it is in Heaven.” We pray for that daily. God’s will for the earth can’t happen if we shrug our shoulders and say, “Oh well, in Heaven all will be well, so I just won’t worry about everything that’s wrong.”

At the same time, the righteous anger that fuels the passion can easily become unhealthy. Crippling. Damaging to the connection to God and neighbor. Detachment is necessary too.

There’s a tension there that can’t be avoided. Neither of the extremes contains the whole truth. The truth comes in the balance between them.

But finding it… that’s the thing I’m beginning to grapple with now.

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.

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.

A house divided…

I have not been posting much the last few months. I keep chewing over the same baffling questions again and again, and feeling that I am shouting into a void. So I’ve focused my energy instead on my fiction. There’s precious little time in my life for splitting my focus these days, anyway.

But the US bishops’ daily reflection Friday morning was on the topic of division and unity. A house divided cannot stand, Jesus cautioned. If good work is being done, it can’t be of the devil. And if there’s division, it is not of Christ.

The Church is a hot mess of division right now, just as our nation is. Every time I come up against an entrenched position that baffles me, because it is so clearly contrary to my faith, and it’s being held by people who are using their faith as justification for their beliefs, I think of this question of division. I think, “How can this be, when we all claim to believe the same things?”

Spoiler alert: if you’re reading this post in hope of there being an answer at the end, prepare to be disappointed.

Every time I come up against one of these, I think, “There’s no way God could be calling both of these sides to these beliefs. Is there?” Then I pause to search my own conscience and try to see how I could be the one who is wrong. I frequently find that I am wrong in my anger toward, judgment of, and assumptions about people who think differently than me. But I have rarely found the Spirit nudging me that I am, in fact, wrong in my beliefs. Not given the information I have.

So then I go and do research to see if my information could be wrong. I look at the sources, I think, “Nope, not going to read that, it’s too far left and I can’t trust it to be objective. Nope, not going to read that either, because that’s clearly a group with a dog in this fight. There, that’s a moderately-right-leaning source, that should give me a good counterbalance to my own biases.” Occasionally I moderate a position; I think, “this thing people are freaking out about on the left is probably not as big a deal as they’re making it out to be.”

But not often.

It is deeply disturbing to me that so much of our discourse these days is arguing over things that are so easy to disprove. It really isn’t hard to discern between credible sources and conspiracy-theories.

A good friend of mine recently left Facebook, because it was an exercise in scrolling through things that made her angry. “I feel like we’re conditioned to look for the next thing to get angry about,” she said. “I just needed to get away from that.”

How do we seek unity—Christ—instead of division—the devil—when it seems that so many of our conflicts are based, not on reason, but on appeals to all that is sinful within us—our selfishness, our lack of empathy for others?