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Dorothy Day: Crying Out for Justice

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Modern Peace Makers

Dorothy Day: Crying Out for Justice
Wednesday, October 28, 2015

We must cry out against injustice or by our silence consent to it. If we keep silent, the very stones of the street will cry out. —Dorothy Day [1]

I was delighted to hear Pope Francis mention the American Catholics Thomas Merton (whom I introduced earlier this year) and Dorothy Day in his address to the United States Congress. The Catholic Church and our world in general have sadly and unfairly ignored women. With Sister Joan Chittister, I hope that Pope Francis, “someone so devoted to the cause of the poor also realizes that women are the poorest of the poor everywhere. And do something loud, bold and continuous to call attention to the diminished status, security and economic equality of women in order to change that.” [2]

A common criticism of female activists in particular is that they are too “aggressive” (even the nonviolent ones). Studies show that in performance reviews, words like “bossy” and “abrasive” are applied with regularity to women, but not to their male colleagues. Thankfully, the lack of support has not deterred women from speaking up loudly for all marginalized and suffering people. When the Vatican reprimanded nuns in the U.S. for their “radical feminist themes” and focus on social services, the “Nuns on the Bus” didn’t slow down but in fact increased their efforts.

We need prophetic voices to speak—and perhaps yell—truth to power. When criticized for “ranting and screaming,” Liberian activist Leymah Gbowee responds, “the reason why I rant is because I am a voice for many women that cannot speak out to heads of state, UN officials, and those that influence systems of oppression. And so I rant. And I will not stop ranting until my mission of equality of all girls is achieved.”

Dorothy Day (1897-1980) is one of these women who will not be silenced. She writes in her diary, “I too complain ceaselessly in my heart and in my words too. My very life is a protest. Against government, for instance.” [3] Read Day’s “harsh,” necessary words: “We need to change the system. We need to overthrow, not the government, as the authorities are always accusing the Communists ‘of conspiring to teach [us] to do,’ but this rotten, decadent, putrid industrial capitalist system which breeds such suffering in the whited sepulcher of New York.” [4] I know you are wincing, but should you be?

Day was hardly a poster-child for sainthood, although she’s now being considered for exactly that—and by the church of New York! Many recall Day saying, “Don’t call me a saint; I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” In her youth she was a Marxist and agnostic. She had an abortion. She was an anarchist and a zealous pacifist when it was especially unpopular. Perhaps her own pain and mistakes became the source of her deep compassion. Day writes, “I cannot worry much about your sins and miseries when I have so many of my own. I can only love you all, poor fellow travelers, fellow sufferers. . . . My prayer from day to day is that God will so enlarge my heart that I will see you all, and live with you all, in His love.” [5]

Day, who founded the Catholic Worker Movement, focused both on the needs of individual people and also reforming the entire social system. In that, I would find her a more complete role model than even Mother Teresa. She worked to meet short-term goals (such as the hungry person in front of her); and she worked for long-range structural change, too. Day’s humility and patience continue to inspire me:

We can do much to change the face of the earth, in that I have hope and faith. But these pains and sufferings are the price we have to pay. Can we change men in a night or a day? Can we give them as much as three months or even a year? A child is forming in the mother’s womb for nine long months, and it seems so long. But to make a man in the time of our present disorder with all the world convulsed with hatred and strife and selfishness, that is a lifetime’s work and then too often it is not accomplished.

Even the best of human love is filled with self-seeking. To work to increase our love for God and for our fellow man (and the two must go hand in hand), this is a lifetime job. We are never going to be finished.

Love and ever more love is the only solution to every problem that comes up. If we love each other enough, we will bear with each other’s faults and burdens. If we love enough, we are going to light that fire in the hearts of others. And it is love that will burn out the sins and hatreds that sadden us. It is love that will make us want to do great things for each other. No sacrifice and no suffering will then seem too much. [6]

When we work for the love of God and others, then it is not work at all. When we suffer for justice for God’s little ones, it is not suffering at all.

Gateway to Silence:
“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” —Gandhi

[1] Dorothy Day, edited by Robert Ellsberg, Dorothy Day, Selected Writings: By Little and by Little (Orbis Books: 1992), 273.
[2] Joan Chittister in an interview with Sean Salai, 10 September, 2014, America Magazine,
[3] Dorothy Day, edited by Robert Ellsberg, The Duty of Delight: The Diaries of Dorothy Day (Marquette University Press: 2008), 8 August 1974.
[4] Dorothy Day, “On Pilgrimage,” Catholic Worker, September 1956.
[5] Day, Dorothy Day, Selected Writings, 88.
[6] Ibid., 87-88.

Image credit: Abernathy children (Donzaleigh, Ralph David, and Juandalynn) march on the front line, followed by Dr. and Mrs. Martin Luther King, leading the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965, Abernathy Family Photos.
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