Tuesday, July 19, 2005


Day and Douglass

Earlier this week I finished The Long Loneliness, the autobiography of Dorothy Day, a co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement. There's a good collection of her writings online, including her statement of conscientious objection to the entry of the United States into World War II. Although Day's position is and was extremely unpopular, it's hard not to admire this:
We are still pacifists. Our manifesto is the Sermon on the Mount, which means that we will try to be peacemakers. Speaking for many of our conscientious objectors, we will not participate in armed warfare or in making munitions, or by buying government bonds to prosecute the war, or in urging others to these efforts.

But neither will we be carping in our criticism. We love our country and we love our President. We have been the only country in the world where men of all nations have taken refuge from oppression. We recognize that while in the order of intention we have tried to stand for peace, for love of our brother, in the order of execution we have failed as Americans in living up to our principles.
There's a humility here even about her conviction ("we will try to be peacemakers"), a generosity toward those with whom she disagreed. I also like the way her last line deftly contrasts "the order of intention" with "the order of execution." One of Day's editorials opposing nuclear testing also includes this:
Some readers, and old friends too, ask us why we do not protest Russian tests as well as English and American. We can only say that we have -- over and over. In the two talks I gave on May Day before left wing groups, I stressed the numbers of unannounced nuclear tests made in Russia. Why don’[']t we picket the Russian embassy, another wants to know. For one thing, we have only one chronic picketer, Ammon Hennacy, and for another, we believe in taking the beam out of our own eye, we believe in loving our enemy, and not contributing to the sum total of hatred and fear of him already in the world.
Both of these quotes also reminded me, in a tangential way, of something I recently read in The Frederick Douglass Papers. While touring the British Isles in 1846, Douglass gave several speeches before evangelical peace societies outlining his opposition to war, one of which included this:
Some people contend that they can fight in love. I have heard individuals say they could go to war in love. Yes, this foul reproach has been brought upon Christianity, and ministers have been heard to say that they could go to war in love. This was answered very well by an advocate of peace in the United States, and I am happy to inform the good people here that advocates of peace are multiplying in the United States. (Cheers.) An advocate of peace was arguing the question with a brother who was a minister of the gospel. The minister was against it; in fact, they were both ministers. He was asked, 'If he believed Christianity was a religion of love? If the spirit of Christ breathed love?' He admitted it--he said, 'God is love.' 'Then,' said the other, 'all that dwell in him should dwell in love.' This he admitted at once. 'Then we should do nothing but what can be done in entire consistency with love?' Of course this must be granted. 'Well,' said he, 'can you go to war in love?' 'Oh! yes.' (Laughter and cheers.) 'Can you kill an enemy in love?' 'Oh! yes. I can conceive of circumstances when I should be bound by love to kill him.' 'What, throw bomb-shells, shoot cannon, use the sword in love?' 'Yes.' 'Well,' said my good friend, 'if you can do all these things in love, what can you do in hate?' (Laughter and cheers.) [1:263]
To wrap up this thread of free associations, last night we watched the second episode of the PBS series based on Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel, which covered Pizarro's conquest of the Incas. After capturing the Incan emperor Atahualpa, Pizarro's men told their frightened prisoner not to worry: Christians only killed in the heat of battle.

Atahualpa was later garrotted. Lovingly, no doubt.

Collective Improvisation:
One of the things that struck me most while reading The Long Lneliness  is how relevant Dorothy Day's ideas still are. In my part of the country, at least, the peace movement came from the Catholic Worker movement and many activists are very conscious of that connection. 

Posted by jo(e)

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 7/19/2005 09:27:00 PM : Permalink  

Thanks for reminding me of Dorothy Day and for the great links. I do believe that Christianity and the other patriarchal monotheisms are inherently violent, with actions such as those of Pizarro the normal expression of a world view that is predicated on unthinking devotion to a jealous war god. Still, nobody can take anything away from the record of the Catholic Worker movement. 

Posted by rent strike

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 7/20/2005 09:21:00 AM : Permalink  

Speaking of Day's love for her country, the idiosyncratic libertarian writer Bill Kauffman penned an article several years back called "The Way of Love: Dorothy Day and the American Right." He connects Day to the decentralist, agrarian, anti-war tradition on the right (a tradition I'm pretty sympathetic to).

Anyway, you can read it here: http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0GER/is_2000_Summer/ai_63500751/print 

Posted by Lee

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 7/20/2005 10:13:00 AM : Permalink  

I watched the PBS show also - it was fascinating.
(This is Natalie [Phelps] Holladay from. Just stumbled across your blog - say hello to Brandy for me!) 

Posted by Natalie

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 7/20/2005 10:58:00 AM : Permalink  

Jo(e) and Lee,

Thanks for the comments and the link! I also felt moments of resonance with the present while reading The Long Loneliness . Much about the Catholic Worker movement (or is it just the Sermon on the Mount?) certainly does still seem to speak to our most contemporary dilemmas.

My instincts are not to go all the way with Day to the distributist ideal described in Kaufmann's article; I guess right now I'm still either more optimistic about the possibility of meaningful community sustained on a large scale, or more pessimistic about the idea that the state's power can be counterbalanced by small communities. Hard not to feel the pull of many of Day's arguments, though, or to see the inconsistencies in my own beliefs pointed out by the fearless (and sometimes fearsome) coherence of hers.

For me, reading about Day raises a question that pervades the history of alternative and radical movements in America (or anywhere, I guess, but as Kaufmann's article shows, American radicals often frame it as a peculiarly American question, dating back to the days of Jefferson or before). The question, simple to define but seldom easy to answer, is: Can change occur from within existing structures, or must it proceed from a position totally outside them? It's ironic (or telling) that I lean strongly towards the first pole in many of my present beliefs, but that I have always been drawn like a moth to the flame by historical figures who stand at the other extreme. I always pull back when I get close enough to the fire, but it gets more difficult every time.


Thanks for your comment. I disagree that violence is somehow inherent to monotheism. Given that both Day and Pizarro were monotheists, and yet had radically different understandings of violence, I don't see how one could conclude that Christianity necessarily expresses itself violently, that "nonviolent monotheist" is literally a contradiction in terms. Violence isn't inherent to monotheism unless you want to maintain that Dorothy Day's monotheism was so incoherent that it doesn't even deserve the name. And surely you don't want to maintain that. You write that "no one can take anything away from the record of the Catholic Worker movement," but unless you take away that record's animating religious beliefs, then it should at least be seen as a counterexample to your generalization.

Suppose that I made the argument (purely hypothetically, since I wouldn't make this argument) that eugenics were somehow inherent to Darwinism--the logical and historical outgrowth of a belief that some organisms are better fitted for living than others. It would be easy to knock down my claim by showing that the eugenicist actually gets Darwin all wrong, and that there are other Darwinists who get him right. I would make the same claim about Pizarro: he is an aberrant Christian in the same way that the eugenicist or social Darwinist is an aberrant Darwinist.

Now, being wrong is not the same as being historically rare. But the fact that many--far, far, far too many--monotheists have used their religion in the service of genocide and murder does not mean that such violence is inherent to monotheism itself. There's two meanings of "normal" here that are getting confused--normalcy as conformity to a norm, and normalcy as redundancy. Pizzaro's Christianity has been "normal" in the world's history in the sense that it has been repeated among many professing Christians, bringing a "foul reproach," to borrow Douglass's phrase, on the religion itself. But Douglass's point (and mine) is that Pizarro's Christianity is "abnormal" because it fails to follow Christianity's foundational norms, which include, among other things, the idea that believers should love their enemies instead of strangling them.


Great to hear from you! Drop me an email sometime to catch up, and give my best to Aaron! We haven't read the Diamond book so we've been very interested in seeing the show. But I've heard from people who have read the book that it's better. (Isn't that always the way it is?) 

Posted by Caleb

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 7/20/2005 06:34:00 PM : Permalink  

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