Many pacifists believe that the way to get rid of war is to get rid of the social conditions that create suffering and discontent. One of these conditions is poverty. Dorothy Day, a committed American pacifist, gave up most of her adult life to helping the poor. ‘We believe in an economy based on human needs,’ she said. She was also a courageous protester against war.
Dorothy Day was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1897. Her father, John Day, was a journalist and took his family to live in San Francisco, but the catastrophic 1906 earthquake there lost him his home and his job. The Days moved to Chicago, and for a time lived in great poverty. Dorothy Day was so ashamed of being almost destitute that on the way home from school she would wave goodbye to her friends at the entrance to an impressive apartment block, pretending she lived there. It was her first lesson in understanding how the very poor can feel.
John Day eventually got a job as sports editor on a Chicago newspaper and the family was able to move to a more comfortable home. Dorothy Day did not get on at all well with her father, a man who could be intolerant and prejudiced. But he was a great reader, and his daughter inherited his love of books: she read her way through most of the books in his library. The novels she remembered (and re-read) were those that stirred her social conscience: for example, ‘Bleak House’ and ‘Little Dorrit’ by Charles Dickens, and Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Miserables’ (‘The Poor’).
In her teens Dorothy Day also read a more recent novel, ‘The Jungle’ by Upton Sinclair. This book, published in 1906, was set in the filth-ridden stockyards of Chicago, describing life and work there with vivid and brutal realism. The book’s hero, like Sinclair himself, committed himself to changing society and became an energetic socialist. (‘The Jungle’ created a sensation, became a bestseller, and, it’s thought, influenced the US president to bring about more stringent laws for food production.)
Deeply affected by what she had read, Dorothy Day began to explore the city she lived in, often pushing her little brother John in his pram. ‘I walked for miles, exploring interminable grey streets’, noticing the workers’ struggles to grow vegetables and flowers in tiny dark yards, and breathing in the smells of garlic, coffee, bread.... ’From that time on my life was to be linked to the lives of these people, their interests would be mine. I had received a vocation, a direction in life.’
Dorothy Day did so well at school that she was given a scholarship to the University of Illinois at Urbana, over 100 miles from Chicago. This meant she could leave home. As soon as she could, she got domestic work near the university so that she did not have to be dependent on her father. The change in her life was so great that she lost her bearings a little. ‘I really led a very shiftless life, doing for the first time exactly what I wanted to do’ – which was both liberating and confusing. After two years, Dorothy Day decided that university was not for her. It was time to begin living out her beliefs.
So she moved to New York City in 1916 and managed to get work as a reporter on the local socialist newspaper ‘The Call’. She also worked for a magazine (‘The Masses’) which was opposed to America joining in the war in Europe. Around this time she joined the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a Christian pacifist organisation founded in 1914; she remained a member all her life. The biblical account of the life and teaching of Jesus carried, she was certain, a clear call to pacifism.
In 1917, just 20 years old, Dorothy Day joined 40 women taking part in a protest in front of the White House. The cause was the suffragette’s call for ‘votes for women’. They were also objecting to the harsh treatment given to imprisoned suffragettes. Dorothy Day and her friends were all arrested and sent to a work-house in the country. They too were badly treated, and went on hunger strike. The US president ordered their release. When she had recovered, Dorothy Day applied to train as a nurse, so she could look after the war-wounded, but the first World War ended before she could put her training to use.
In her early twenties, working as a journalist in New York, Chicago and New Orleans, Dorothy Day became interested in Catholicism (which her father had detested). In Chicago she shared lodgings with three Catholic girls, and was impressed by their commitment to their faith. She began to feel that commitment to religion, and the expression of it in church, were ‘noble acts’, to which she aspired. The Catholic church also attracted her because it was ‘the church of the immigrants, the church of the poor’.
In 1924 she began living with an English scientist. He was an anarchist, and he did not believe in religion – or marriage, either. Not surprisingly, Dorothy Day’s increasing interest in Christianity caused quarrels between them. When their daughter was born in 1927 and Dorothy Day had her baptised a Catholic, the relationship ended. A few months later Dorothy Day herself became a Catholic.
In the late 1920s much of the West was affected by economic decline, known as the Great Depression. America’s poor now faced even greater hardship. In 1932 a communist group initiated a Hunger March through Washington, and Dorothy Day was there as a reporter. She watched the unemployed marchers carrying their banners, ‘with joy and pride in the courage of this band of men and women mounting in my heart’. She felt that in recent years she had become ‘self-centred’ and ‘lacking in a sense of community’. She longed, and prayed, that ‘some way would open up for me to use what talents I possessed for my fellow workers, for the poor’.
The answer came the very next day, in the shape of Peter Maurin. He had heard about her and was given her address. Peter Maurin was a Frenchman, then in his fifties, who had once been a monk and still lived like one. Years before, he had left France and worked as a labourer in Canada and the USA. He was also a teacher, working among the unemployed. Like Dorothy Day, he was a pacifist for both moral and religious reasons. Like Dorothy Day, he had a vision of social change, and he saw her as a person who could take practical steps towards achieving it. The first thing she should do, Peter Maurin told her, was start a newspaper promoting socialist and pacifist ideas.
On May 1, 1933, the first issue of ‘The Catholic Worker’ – 8 tabloid pages, its contents put together by Dorothy Day in her kitchen – was published. Each copy cost only a penny, so that almost anyone could afford it. By December 100,000 copies were being published each month. Though it was essentially a religious paper, in its pages writers discussed radical social change, support for workers, problems of industrialisation and the growth of cities. They suggested positive ways to tackle these things.
Soon apartments and houses especially for the homeless were being rented by ‘The Catholic Worker’, some for women but most for men – ‘grey men’, Dorothy Day wrote, ‘who had in them as yet none of the green of hope’. By 1936 there were 33 Catholic Worker ‘houses of hospitality’ in America, run by staff given only food, lodging and a little pocket money. No homeless person was turned away. ‘Difficult’ people were cheerfully tolerated, and were freely given what help they would accept.
The aim was simple, said Dorothy Day. ‘What we would like to do is change the world. We want to make it simpler for people to feed, clothe and shelter themselves, by fighting for better conditions, by crying out unceasingly for the rights of the poor, of the workers and of the destitute.’
‘The Catholic Worker’ first published its commitment to pacifism in 1935. Dorothy Day wanted to show that pacifism was part of Christian teaching, and quoted chapter and verse to support what she said. She explained that she and her colleagues were ‘followers of Gandhi in our struggle to build a spirit of nonviolence’ in society.
During the Spanish Civil War, which began in 1936, the ‘Catholic Worker’ consistently refused to take sides. It lost over half its readers, but the editors stood firm. They stood firm, too, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s declaration of war. They explained that a pacifist position did not mean sympathy with America’s opponents. ‘We love our country – the only one where men and women of all nations have taken refuge from oppression’.
This, sadly, did not mean that no-one in America was oppressed. There were many Americans who, like Dorothy Day’s father, were hostile to Catholics (many of them immigrants). As a result, many Catholics were anxious to show that they were committed patriots. One way to do this was to say that the Second World War was a ‘just war’ according to the traditional Christian definitions. Even Pope Pius XI’s clear statements that nationalism was a cause of war failed to influence many of the American Catholics, anxious as they were to be accepted as pro-American and employable.
In the pages of ‘The Catholic Worker’ Dorothy Day called on its readers to oppose, on grounds of conscience, the state and its pro-war policies. She spoke out against conscription. She asked workers not to take jobs in the armaments industry. But a lot of her readers found her attitude impossible to understand in wartime. More than that, they found it hard to forgive her for it. As for the state – the FBI head gave instructions that in any case of national emergency Dorothy Day was to be clapped into jail immediately.
Not all members of the ‘Catholic Worker’ movement abandoned commitment to pacifism. During the war with Vietnam many took part in protests against it (long before the wider public’s opinion turned against the war). Some were jailed for refusing to be conscripted to fight. Some did ‘alternative service’, mostly work on the land. Indeed, many ‘Catholic Workers’ concentrated entirely on anti-war activities.
Dorothy Day, though, sustained her broader vision of a world not only without war but also without poverty and injustice. As she said, she understood only too well that ‘men will go on fighting, often from the highest motives, believing that they are fighting defensive wars for justice and in self defence against present and future aggression’, until and unless people adopted and held fast to spiritual values that rejected militarism. Those were her words in 1965. What would she have said today?
In the 1950s. during the Cold War, New York State began holding annual civil defence drills to train citizens in what to do if there was a nuclear attack. Dorothy Day and a group of fellow protesters boycotted the drills, objecting to the USA’s dependence on nuclear weapons. For Dorothy Day the existence of those weapons meant that no war could ever be a ‘just war’. After the 1956 drill protest she was imprisoned for 5 days, and for 30 days in 1957. In 1958 she was let off, but in 1959 she served another 5-day sentence. In 1960 the crowd of protesters was even bigger, and in 1961 even more demonstrators came. At this point the authorities abandoned the drills altogether.
Dorothy Day also supported the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King. She visited rural communities where white and black people lived together co-operatively, and which were frequently attacked by white activists. A Ku Klux Klan gunman fired at her and she only just managed to duck the bullet in time.
Many people believed it was at least in part because of Dorothy Day that in 1965 the world’s Catholic Church leadership began to take pacifist attitudes on board, acknowledging that indiscriminate destruction of cities, land and people was a ’crime against humanity’ and calling on states to allow conscientious objectors the right to refuse to fight.
Dorothy Day continued her own ‘acts of conscience’ and protests for peace for the rest of her life. Her last prison sentence was in 1973 (she was 75) for picketing in support of marginalised farm-workers. She died in 1980. Many people looked on her as a saint (and still do), but she famously responded, ‘Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed so easily’.