Dorothy Day, the Activist

Having reflected on the the false tension between Catholicism and social justice from the perspective of Day as a Catholic, it is time now to turn to that more familiar persona of Day as an advocate for social justice. That Day should be an powerful voice for the poor, the oppressed, and the marginalized should by no means surprise anyone. But as I read The Long Loneliness, I was struck by the emotional depth and theological richness of her conviction as she narrated the very painful and very personal journey from a child who understood only the impossible gap between what was real and what was right to a woman who could blur those lines so that even what was possible would come in to doubt. Whatever the success or the validity of her methods as they began to express themselves practically, the acute connection that Day shared to society’s outcasts crafted in her a moving ethos in which the active pursuit of social justice was central. Writing of time she spent imprisoned with other activists, Day said:

I lost all feeling of my own identity. I reflected on the desolation of poverty, of destitution, of sickness and sin. That I would be free after thirty days meant nothing to me. I would never be free again, never free when I knew that behind bars all over the world there were women and men, young girls and boys, suffering constraint, punishment, isolation and hardship for crimes of which all of us were guilty. The mother who had murdered her child, the drug addict—who were the mad and who the sane? Why were prostitutes prosecuted in some cases and in others respected and fawned on? People sold themselves for jobs, for the pay check, and if they only received a high enough price, they were honored. If their cheating, their theft, their lie, were of colossal proportions, if it were successful, they met with praise, not blame. Why were some caught, not others? Why were some termed criminals and others good businessmen? What was right and wrong? What was good and evil? I lay there in utter confusion and misery.

What is striking here is just how profoundly Day the activist differs from both traditional evangelical activists and from contemporary left-wing activists. Unlike the conventional evangelical rendering of social ills, Day could not see poverty, prostitution, murder, greed, and the host of other evils merely as problems of sin in individuals. She recognized the truth which is attested in the most antique Christian tradition’s reflection on sin: it is everywhere. Beyond the individual, sin perverts institutions, cultures, and even the physical world itself. Preaching repentance to sinners and charity to saints would never be enough to combat an all-pervading sin like this.

I had an ugly sense of the futility of human effort, man’s helpless misery, the triumph of might. Man’s dignity was but a word and a lie. Evil triumphed. I was a petty creature, filled with self-deception, self-importance, unreal, false, and so, rightly scorned and punished.

The solution advocated by so many activists now, activists who have laid hold to Dorothy Day as a patron saint, is institutional reform. That can never be the essence of Day’s activism though because, like all Christian anarchists, she realizes that sinful people cannot employ sinful means to redeem sinful institutions. Instead, she recommends a different path, one that can all too easily be misconstrued–in the decontextualized form I offer it–to be just another admonition to charitable works. To interpret it this way is to admit a complete ignorance of the Catholic Worker movement and of Day’s life, an ignorance I was supremely guilty of before starting this project. What Day advocates here is not charity (in the sense of material benevolence) but empathy. It is an actual, existential participation in the life of the oppressed. It is Christ eating with prostitutes and publicans. It is a living out of the radical equality which has been reduced to rhetoric in our sanitized relationship to the “least of these” Christians exist to serve.

Going to the people is the purest and best act in Christian tradition and revolutionary tradition and is the beginning of world brotherhood.

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