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Dorothy Day: Communion of Faith and Action in the Pursuit of Peace

Posted by Erin Bechtol

A CNV Week of Actions report by Rosemarie Pace

In honor of UN International Peace Day, Pax Christi Metro New York hosted Martha Hennessy, one of Dorothy Day’s grandchildren and a peace activist in her own right, and Robert Ellsberg, editor of Orbis Books, including three books on Dorothy Day, and former managing editor of Catholic Worker. Both Martha and Robert are also members of the Advisory Committee of the Dorothy Day Guild working toward her canonization. We commemorated this important day on Sunday, September 24th, in St. Joseph’s Church in Greenwich Village where Dorothy Day’s early Catholic faith developed.

Martha began the presentation by stating that we are living in a period marked by an “ecumenism of hatred.” She further referred to the “contentiousness of pacifism” in our violent culture. In most places, including in much of the Catholic Church, pacifism is not respected, supported, or even understood. Yet, she asked, what is violence? What is acceptable violence? For example, is the “antifa” practicing acceptable violence? Is it OK to punch a fascist? Do we really understand violence any better than we do pacifism?

Martha went on to speak about the spirit of the Catholic Worker, a predominantly pacifist movement, describing it in terms of Peter Maurin’s trio of cult, culture, and cultivation, the first referring to faith; the second to art, music and rejoicing (the duty of delight); and the last referring to agriculture and the sharing of bread. She pointed out that Pope Francis, when visiting the U.S., raised up four great Americans, three of whom, including Dorothy Day, were pacifists. Nevertheless, as just two examples, we have Catholic college campuses with ROTC and Fordham University hiring John Brennan, former CIA Director who was responsible for torture of our enemies. Dorothy Day might reiterate her assessment that “Christ is being crucified today.”

As Martha put it, ours is a permanent war economy. Our standard of living relies on it. The new budget includes $700 billion for the military. The U.S.A. and Russia share the largest nuclear weapons arsenal in the world by far. The U.S. has nuclear weapons in facilities across the globe, including Jeju Island, South Korea. It has also deployed two launchers of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea and wants to deploy four more against the will of the new South Korean government. The U.S. boycotted the nuclear weapons ban treaty conference at the UN earlier this year. We are aiding Saudi Arabia in its war in Yemen, blockading fuel and food, and leaving untold numbers of Yemenis to die of cholera and starvation.

Nevertheless, Martha also wanted to acknowledge some good things that are happening: There will be an International Peace Conference of Catholic Bishops of Northeast Asia later this year in South Korea. U.S. Bishop McElroy will also attend, along with some laypeople, including Martha, herself. The Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons was approved at the UN on July 7th, and over 50 nations signed it on the first day open for signatures, September 20th. Three nations, including the Vatican, also ratified it immediately. The weekly vigil for Yemen at the southern end of Union Square is going strong and getting stronger. All are welcome to join it from 11 AM to 1 PM every Saturday. The spirit of Dorothy Day lives on in the work of Catholic Workers at Union Square, in New York City, across the U.S. and beyond.

Robert Ellsberg began his presentation admitting that he wasn’t sure how he wanted to start until he listened to the news that morning about all the controversy surrounding football players “taking a knee.” He noted the contrast between condemnation of this nonviolent action and tolerance of white supremacists’ violent action. Using this theme throughout his talk, he advocated standing for something by kneeling for something. He noted that this is what Dorothy Day did repeatedly—through civil disobedience, sitting down, standing up, speaking out, and, yes, kneeling in prayer—for farmworkers, against civil defense drills, in opposition to church services for the military on August 6th, the Feast of the Transfiguration and the anniversary of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. She loved the Church and the country, but knew the difference and had her priorities. For her there was no confusion between cross and flag, faith and nation, despite the preponderance of that confusion for some. Dorothy Day was equally clear about the fallacy of Just War. Unfortunately, Ellsberg said, “Blessed are the peacemakers” has become a metaphorical peace, diminishing its meaning. His consistent message was our need to take action, to “take a knee.”

Q & A followed, touching on a variety of issues. Regarding tax resistance, the focus was on federal taxes; state and city taxes do provide some good and necessary services. Regarding racism, we see it in our militarism across the globe, in military recruitment at home, and in our economy. North Korea? We need more balanced media coverage, fewer provocative military exercises around its borders, and sincere effort to understand the other side. What to say to our Bishops? Martha responded: Promote Catholic Social Teaching. Robert referred to Archbishop Romero who united the Salvadoran Church by setting aside one day to hold only one Mass for peace and justice for the whole country. He said that should be followed by marching, kneeling, and standing, to which Martha added seeing even bishops in handcuffs for civil disobedience. About the Catholic Nonviolence Initiative, Robert recommended Just Peace as our default theory in place of Just War, and Martha cited her grandmother, stating that Just War is no longer possible with today’s weaponry. Finally, in response to the ultimate question, what to do, we were encouraged to consider the power of one, be it Dorothy Day, Franz Jaegerstaetter, or Jesus. Martha also recommended a new book by Arun Gandhi, Mahatma Gandhi’s grandson, The Gift of Anger.

Dorothy Day: Communion of Faith and Action in the Pursuit of Peace turned out to be a very rich afternoon as much about today and our call to faith and action as it was about Dorothy Day’s, and I suspect that’s just as she would have wanted it to be.

Part of the Campaign Nonviolence Week of Actions 2017

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