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New fan of Dorothy Day neglects her values


Now that George W. Bush is quoting pacifist-anarchist-jailbird-agitator-nonvoter-Karl Marx sympathizer Dorothy Day -- “Any effective war on poverty must deploy what Dorothy Day called ‘the weapons of spirit,’ ” the president said at Notre Dame’s May 20 commencement -- he might want to invite to the White House some followers of the Catholic Worker co-founder.

These troublemakers shouldn’t be hard to find. No other religious group has a service ministry closer to the Oval Office.

Members of Washington’s Dorothy Day Catholic Worker house of hospitality regularly pull up a van at Lafayette Park facing the White House to distribute sandwiches to the hungry. Instead of a war on poverty, they think there’s a war on poor people.

That’s on their calm days. When they turn ornery, as Dorothy Day often did, the group, led by Arthur Laffin, shows up every Friday at noon on the north sidewalk facing the White House to demonstrate against the U.S.-led economic sanctions imposed on Iraq.

Every Monday at 7 a.m., picketing Catholic Worker members are at the Pentagon to protest military spending. Security guards occasionally shoo them away, but the next Friday the demonstrators are back. They believe that the current military budget of $309 billion -- about $850 million a day or $9,000 a second -- is an immoral extravagance that undercuts social programs serving the poor. The April 4, 1967, sermon of Martin Luther King Jr., is remembered: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

Whether it was brazen guile or hackwork political pandering for what he thinks are Catholic votes, Bush’s reference to Dorothy Day came amid a pitch for his faltering Office of Faith-based Action. But the Catholic Worker is as much resistance-based as faith-based. No group is less likely to ask Caesar for his coin. Day took non-cooperation with the government so far as never to seek tax-exempt status for her houses of hospitality, knowing well that many potential donors would hold back: They couldn’t deduct their gifts.

To seek a tax-exemption, Day argued, would mean asking Holy Mother the State’s approval for providing services -- “our works of mercy” -- that people of faith should be committed to as a religious fundamental.

“We do not believe in the profit system,” Day wrote in a 1960 letter to the city treasurer of New York who had sent a check for $3,579 that represented interest over 18 months on the $68,700 the city paid for a Catholic Worker house torn down to extend a subway line. Day returned the check. “We cannot take profit or interest on our money. People who take a materialistic view of human service wish to make a profit, but we are trying to do our duty by our service without wages to our brother as Jesus commanded in the gospel. … Please be assured that we are not judging individuals, but we are trying to make a judgment on the [economic] system under which we live.”

It appears that the Bush speechwriters misquoted Dorothy Day. The phrase “weapons of spirit” comes from a letter Albert Einstein wrote in the 1930s: “The masses are never militaristic until their minds are poisoned by propaganda. … [Humans] should continue to fight, but they should fight for things worthwhile, not for imaginary geographical lines, racial prejudices and private greed draped in the colors of patriotism. Their arms should be weapons of the spirit, not shrapnel and tanks.”

While George Bush enjoys the standing ovations he receives at fawning religious schools -- Notre Dame’s matched the one at Bob Jones University -- the Catholic Worker and likeminded groups will continue their double ministry: standing with the poor and standing against the values of the state. One of Dorothy Day’s intellectual heroes was Tolstoy, with whose thought she agreed: “We must repudiate one of the two, either Christianity with its love of God and neighbor, or the state with its armies and wars.”

Colman McCarthy, a former Washington Post columnist, directs the Center for Teaching Peace in Washington. His e-mail address is colman@clark.net

National Catholic Reporter, June 15, 2001