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A Call to Change America: How would Dorothy Day Respond to an Attack such as September 11?

The tragedy of September 11 has given us the opportunity to re-evaluate how we live and how we relate to other countries. We don’t want this to be a lost opportunity. Those who take the spiritual life seriously have to ask the question, not only why did this happen, but what is God asking of us in response?

What happens when the symbols of autonomy, power, affluence, self-interest and domination are destroyed? Despite the temptation to forget and carry on as usual, it would be a tragedy as bad as the first to simply react in vengeance and not capitalize on this time of crisis to reflect on how we might help to carry out God’s plan for the world, a plan which is filled with mercy and the preferential option for the poor and the suffering.

September 11 changed the perspective of Americans on idea of our invincibility and should, at least, have modified our notion of manifest destiny. While we must be uncom-fortable with Islamic fundamentalism and its strong component of violence, we must also be careful not to adopt “neoliberal” fundamentalism, the religion of global economics which wreaks havoc among poor nations, which allows people to live in a sub-human existence, submitting them to slow torture in order to benefit our economy, at the same time as it makes available all kinds of weapons to poor countries through arms sales. (Since September 11, Italian and Brazilian newspapers have been carrying stories comparing Islamic fundamentalism with neoliberal fundamentalism.) While the economic globalization of the last twenty-five years has not kept any of its promises that the wealth gained by the few through international regulations of all kinds in favor of multinational corporations will “trickle down” to the poor around the world, there is a fundamentalism at work that does not allow alternative economic methods. The only thing that has trickled down is the blood of the poor.

We must not allow the response to be only military might. It is surprising to hear a Protestant president using a Catholic word like “doctrine” to describe other countries’ having to be absolutely for us or against us, especially when the values we are defending are not Christianity, but the seculari-zation, commercialization, and globalization of McWorld and MTV. Bishop George Niederauer of Salt Lake City calls this kind of either/or thinking nonsense; it appears even to be near to blasphemy–“for us or against us” refers to Christ, not to the United States. As Bishop Niederauer recently said, “Let’s not claim that God is on our side. Instead let’s make sure we are on God’s side. In the near term our country must bring criminals to justice and work to end terrorism, but God has made all his children with love, and we should treat them accordingly. If that’s true, then in the long term the only cluster bomb worth dropping is the one which will simultaneously attack violence, poverty, hunger, disease and discrimination.”

The events of September 11 were a tremendous challenge to those who believe in nonviolence, just as the bombing of Pearl Harbor was for Dorothy Day. Those who speak against bombing and retaliation are criticized just as fiercely today as Dorothy was during World War II.

Dorothy was almost alone in her struggle to maintain and develop pacifist principles during World War II. The circulation of The Catholic Worker dropped, and many houses closed. Dorothy had insisted that CW houses at least distribute the paper, even if they could not adopt her strict pacifist stand. She received much criticism. Her struggle years before, when she had to choose Christ and the Church over her husband who did not believe in religion or marriage, was paralleled by her being very much alone in choosing pacifism during this time, while she was raising an adolescent daughter.

While she was convinced that the Christian tradition against violence, from the early Church through St. Francis of Assisi and up to the Reformation, was sufficiently strong to underwrite her pacifist stance, Pearl Harbor and World War II caused Dorothy to frame and articulate the moral and intellectual tradition against violence within Catholicism in more depth. The ressourcement accomplished by Dorothy and Peter Maurin, along with priest-theologians and other Catholic Workers who assisted them, made available teachings from the Fathers of the Church, stories of saints who practiced nonviolence, and biblical reflection and exegesis supporting the position that following the Sermon on the Mount (which Dorothy called the Christian Manifesto) is not a romantic impossibility, but a real option for Catholics in today’s world.

Articles in The Catholic Worker quoted the Popes on the rights of conscience in the modern nation-state, as well as the words of various priests, bishops and cardinals who raised issues about conscription and war. During the whole of 1942 the paper carried theological articles, critiques on the specifics of World War II, and what the response of the Gospel and even the just war theory might be.

An example of the retrieval of tradition of pacifism of the early Church was Dorothy’s quote of St. John Chrysostom regarding Christians who act like wolves: “St. John Chrysostom says in regard to our Lord’s sending us out as sheep among wolves, that if we become wolves ourselves, He is no longer with us.”

The U. S. Catholic Bishops affirmed pacifism and conscientious objection as a legitimate expression of Catholic faith in their 1983 peace pastoral, The Challenge of Peace, crediting Dorothy Day.

What if Someone Attacks your Mother?

In The Long Loneliness Dorothy also responded to critics who believe that pacifists will stand by while their relatives are attacked. She used the example of responding to violence in the houses to answer the questions and accusations, making it clear that she was not opposed to police action when necessary:

“What would you do if an armed maniac were to attack you, your child, your mother? How many times have we heard this. Restrain him, of course, but not kill him. Confine him if necessary. But perfect love casts our fear and love over-comes hatred. All this sounds trite but experience is not trite.

“On one occasion an armed maniac did try to kill Arthur Sheehan, one of our editors during the war. A victim of World War I, who had already assaulted several other men in the house and almost broken my wrist one day when I tried to turn off the radio in the kitchen, took a large breadknife and a crucifix and announced that he was going to kill Arthur. Another woman and I seized him, forcing him to drop the knife. We could not hold him, however, and after he had hurled a gallon can of vegetables at Arthur and smashed a hole in the wall, we restrained him long enough to allow Arthur to escape. We called the police and asked that Harry be con-fined to Bellevue for obser-vation, but since we would not bring charges against him the hospital released him the next day. Later we persuaded them to keep him for a month in the psychiatric ward. He was returned to the hospital, but at the end of thirty days he was out again, and continued to eat on our breadline during the war.”

Living the Paschal Mystery

One of the theologians who wrote extensively for The Catholic Worker on conscientious objection and peace was Fr. John J. Hugo. A number of his articles specifically showed how conscription should be abolished.

It was not just that Fr. Hugo wrote for the paper and encouraged Dorothy during a time when she had little support. The retreat that he and Fr. Roy had given at the Catholic Worker and that Dorothy attended so often gave a deepening theological and spiritual basis for her pacifism. Sandra Yocum Mize shows that the retreat gave Dorothy a special lens through which she could see the difficulties and trials of life in Catholic Worker Houses of Hospitality and problems of economic destitution and preparations for war in so many parts of the world. (“We are Still Pacifists: Dorothy Day’s Pacifism during World War II” inDorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement: Centenary Essays, William Thorn, et al, eds. Milwaukee: Marquette Univ., 2001). This lens was “a life defined through the Paschal Mystery, the possibility of living a life that truly reflected the love relationship between God and each human person within a community of believers.” Dorothy described the retreat explicitly in the theology of the Paschal Mystery:

“When Father spoke of mortifying, he spoke of putting to death, using the literal meaning of the word. We have been baptized in Christ’s death, he reminded us. We are buried with Christ and we will rise with Christ; we must seek the things which are above, not the things which are below.” (253)

The retreat emphasized that for the Christian, the choice was not just between good and evil, but between good and better. In this context, absolute pacifism seemed better than any compromise in cooperating with the military. Dorothy wrote:

“There was not much talk of sin in this retreat. Rather there was talk of the good and the better. The talk was of the choice we had to make and not that between good and evil. We have been given a share in the divine life; we have been raised to a supernatural level; we have been given power to become sons of God.” (256)

William Miller said that the retreat provided Dorothy with “a new sensitivity to what she took as the piercing truth of the Gospels”: “It was hearing the Gospel anew that gave a new force to her character. It was a reinforced spirituality. And if there had ever been any questions about her course [regarding war], they were gone now. She was on the track. Nothing could change her.”

The influence of the retreat is especially evident in “Day’s identifying pacifism with penance and mortification or, as she often liked to say, ‘the folly of the cross.'” Dorothy knew the world would not understand:

“‘To do so would bring a dismissive response from the world, which Day describes with her inimitable sarcastic flair: ‘After all, they are not doing anything. Just a bunch of smug fools praying. We will not be as tormented by its scorn as we are by the praise of the world for Works of Mercy, Houses of Hospitality and farming communities.'” (Miller)

The Catholic Workers actively and nonviolently resisted evil and war. Their methods of protesting war included prayer and penance, fasting, receiving the sacraments, prayer vigils, voluntary poverty, suffering, marches and demonstrations preceded by prayer, picketing, and noncooperation with preparations for war.

In the January 1941 CW, Dorothy wrote an article entitled “Pacifism is Dangerous, So is Christianity,” in which she went so far as to say, “If we are not going to use our spiritual weapons, let us by all means arm and prepare.” She later emphasized this theme again, noting that prayer should be the first, and not the last, resort:

“Just as daily or frequent communion had become rare since the days of the early Christians, until the days of St. Pius X, so also the use of spiritual weapons ceased to be put first. For many centuries the tradition has been to fight first and when all other weapons have been used, then to trust in prayer. We need to reverse this practice, and with faith and love, overcome the enemy….”

Peter Maurin

It was Peter Maurin who introduced Dorothy to Rite Expiatis, Pius XI’s encyclical on St. Francis, which featured the role of the Third Order Franciscans’ commitment not to bear arms in the transformation of feudal Europe. Beginning in the 1930s The Catholic Worker carried articles about St. Francis and his opposition to his followers’ participation in war, helping readers to discover the way of nonviolence from the tradition of the Gospel.

Especially during the early years of the movement Dorothy had Peter’s support in her stand against violence. He had par-ticipated in the army reserves in France and had been very uncomfortable doing so. Arthur Sheehan’s book about Peter Maurin tells us that Peter had left France to go to Canada because of the constant interruption of his life by required participation in the reserves after military service, even while he was a Christian Brother:

“Then came a shock, an interruption in his religious life by the call to military service…. The rough, coarse banter, the never-ending raw humor of the barracks room hardly appealed to him. He had dedicated his life to elevating the hearts and minds of the children of God. Now he found himself in an atmosphere that seemed completely alien to his aims. He hated the whole thing, the discipline for killing, the loss of individual dignity, the general lowering of standards…. The men went slugging through the night rain, through villages where young girls and old women gaped at them. Peter observed closely the gradual loss of manners, the bitterness in men’s eyes, the slow development of the impersonal human machine demanded by the high command. To obey quickly and efficiently-that was all that counted.

“Discipline and hard work were not new to Peter. He was used to both. It was the misdirection of all this activity that dismayed him. Over and over he asked himself the question: Why am I, a religious dedicated to winning souls for Christ, caught up in this militaristic system?

“Brother Norbert, one of Peter’s brothers who is also a member of the De La Salle congregation explained Peter’s state of mind in emphatic words: ‘Above all, after his year of military service, Aristide Peter Maurin reflected deeply… From this time, he became interested in politics and held very advanced ideas on social organization and on pacifism, ideas common today but at that time seemingly subversive of the established order.’

“His period of service over, he received an honorable discharge and was placed in the reserve. This meant he would be called up from time to time for training periods of several weeks. This kept the issue of militarism before him, but he was not certain yet how to face the problem.”

It was several years after he left the Christian Brothers (never having made final vows), that Peter went to Canada with a large wave of French immigrants. By going to Canada to escape forced military service, Peter was part of the tradition later continued during the Vietnam War.

Dorothy would later write about the destructive things that Peter had described from his experience in the military, the discipline for killing, the loss of individual dignity, contending that those who wrote about just war were perhaps unaware of the horrendous psychological damage done to those who participated in military training: “A defense of Jesus Christ by bombs, a blood-soaked earth, quick death, hate. A hate that always exists in war despite the unreal and pedantic distinctions of theologians whose love of refinements is equaled only by their ignorance of psychology, of what happens to a man to get him prepared to murder.”

During World War II, though, Peter said to Dorothy, “Perhaps silence would be better for a time than to continue our opposition to war. Men are not ready to listen.” Dorothy, however, not only continued her stand, but emphasized that the Sermon on the Mount applied to all Christians, that its teachings were precepts, not suggestions: “It has become expedient that we murder, it has become expedient that we ignore the precepts of Jesus Christ laid down in the Sermon on the Mount and applicable to ALL MEN, not just to a chosen few who are to be perfect…. Christianity has been reduced by the theologians to a rule of expediency, Christianity has been made to identify itself with Americanism…”

The Catholic Worker challenged the belief of most Americans that the United States has a special providential role in history which allows it to dominate other countries and that the use of violence was/is justified in pursuing this “manifest destiny.”

Stephen Krupa, S.J., points out that “the Catholic Worker was the only group in the history of the American Catholic Church that refused to view the nation’s wars as the moral crusade of Christianity against the evil forces of tyranny,” or to identify with the “entrenched myths that have structured life and social consciousness for most Americans”-cultural myths which give the U.S. the right to fight wars to expand our borders and to imperialistically and often violently impose our policies and way of life on others. (“American Myth and the Gospel: Manifest Destiny and Dorothy Day’s Non-violence,” in Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement: Centenary Essays, William Thorn, et al, eds. Milwaukee: Marquette University, 2001).

He points out that the idea that the United States and its citizens are anointed by God to bring “freedom” and “civilization” to the whole world is rooted in Calvinism, in the founding of the country by the Puritans. The Puritans believed that divine Providence had directed the “creation of a new and uncorrupted humanity in a new land.” This sense of destiny and the right to expansion, a “providential theory of empire,” a “divine mandate to spread American institutions throughout the world,” was related to economics as well. Krupa cites examples of companies in the English colonies who hired preachers whose theme was that the colonists were the new Israel, and the Native American population the Canaanites. He quotes Ashbel Smith of Texas during the push into Mexican territory in (1846-1848), defending the idea of America as the new chosen people with a God-given mission in terms of “the destiny allotted to the Anglo-Saxon race to Americanize this continent.” Smith went so far as to say that, “The sword is the great civilizer, it clears the way for commerce, education, religion and all the harmonizing influences of morality and humanity.”

As Krupa points out, “Neither the violence of the European settlers against the native Indian population, nor the southern and western push into Florida, Texas, Mexico, California and Oregon in the seventeenth centuries, nor the racial domination by whites of the African slaves, nor the American imperialism of the Spanish-American War of 1898 in any way threatened the pretension of American innocence because the sons and daughters of Europe had come to American shores as the divinely appointed bearers of civilization and salvation.”

Dorothy spoke and wrote against what she called “Americanism,” in which the culture of the United States influences the Church, and American manifest destiny/capitalism/democracy is presented even as the best way of expressing Catholicism, instead of the Church and the Gospel being brought to influence American culture.

Discipleship More Important than Americanism

Those contemporary commen-ators who say that religion not only may support violence, but in fact causes it, have not discovered the way to practice religion as presented by Dorothy Day in the April 1948 CW:

“Why is The Catholic Worker opposed to [Universal Military Training] and to war? Because we are Communists? No! For we were opposed to World War II when the Communists were for it. Because we are indifferent to the fate of the Church? No! For she is our Mother, the Bridegroom of Jesus Christ. But she is more than real estate, she is more than temporal power, her spirit is not the spirit of the world and she has no need to be defended by the arms of the world. No more than her Divine Master who refused such defense.

“We are against war because it is contrary to the Spirit of Jesus Christ, and the only important thing is that we abide in His Spirit. It is more important than being American, more important than being respectable, more important than obedience to the State. It is the only thing that matters. We are against Universal Military Training because it is preparation for sin, for the sin that is war. That it is better that the United States be liquidated than that she survive by war.”

Houston Catholic Worker, Vol. XXII, No. 1, January-February 2002.