At the height of the mid-19th century debates over slavery in the United States, some of the most vocal partisans on both sides (and just to be very clear, I’m not trying by any means to equate the two sides in a “fair and balanced” sort of way, simply to highlight a shared rhetorical device) appealed directly to Christianity, and even more directly to particular passages in the Bible, in order to make their case. William Lloyd Garrison, Henry Ward Beecher, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, three of the most prominent and central voices in the abolitionist movement, all credited Presbyterian minister John Rankin and his Scriptural opposition to slavery with greatly influencing their views on and work for that cause. On the other side, Richard Furman, the President of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, argued that “the right of holding slaves is clearly established in the Holy Scriptures, both by precept and example”; future President of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis went even further, thundering that slavery “was established by decree of Almighty God,” and “is sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation.” There’s plenty that can be said about the issue of religion and slavery in America, but my point here is a more simple one: the Bible can be, and most definitely has been, used to justify any social or political position, even the most diametrically opposed ones.
On virtually every relevant issue, then, the question of What Would Jesus Do? is generally short-hand for What Would I Like Some Irrefutable Backing For In Order to Feel Better About Doing Myself (not an acronym that would work as well on bumper stickers, of course)? But if there’s one social issue for which the use of Jesus’s and Christian philosophies would seem, to my mind, most appropriate and as close to genuinely irrefutable as we’re likely to get, it’s poverty. As cited in the Gospels of both Matthew and Luke, Jesus answered a question from his disciples about how to achieve perfection by replying, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor [“give alms” is the King James translation, but same difference], and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Leaving aside whether such actions are truly possible—or the even more complex question of what would then happen to those who have sold all they have, given to the poor, and thus become impoverished themselves—the larger message of this advice, as of a great many of Christ’s pronouncements, is that an individual’s and a community’s spirituality and perfection are directly connected to, even dependent on, their willingness to take care of the least fortunate among them. And by that measure, no American life and legacy are more truly Christian than those of Dorothy Day (1897-1980).
Day was by her teens in the 1910s and remained for most of her life thereafter a self-proclaimed and proud socialist and Christian anarchist, and so by her final decades, with the Cold War having pushed socialism and Christianity into explicitly opposed boxes, she was a hugely controversial and divisive figure. Her own (Christ-like, one might say) willingness to admit her weaknesses and shortcomings and mistakes, as when she wrote of her common-law marriage and abortion in the autobiographical novel The Eleventh Virgin (1924) or her spiritual struggles and doubts in the more overtly autobiographical The Long Loneliness (1952), no doubt contributed as well to those mixed responses. But Day’s most significant work and legacy, her 1933 founding (along with fellow activist Peter Maurin) of and lifelong commitment to the Catholic Worker movement, represents one of our nation’s most impressive and influential (in her own life and down to the our present moment) efforts on behalf of the most impoverished and marginalized Americans, and as such we cannot allow it to be overshadowed by those mixed responses. “Our rule,” Day wrote of the movement, “is the works of mercy,” and no figure or movement have better emblematized Shakespeare’s evocative idea (from The Merchant of Venice) that “the quality of mercy is not strained.” It is no coincidence that the movement was founded at the height of the Depression and began its efforts with a no-questions-asked soup kitchen in New York City—like Day herself, the movement has always taken the fight on poverty and hunger and injustice of all kinds into the heart of our most embattled communities, leaving the debates over theology or politics to be hashed out by those less busy helping their fellow Americans.
Religious faith is a profoundly personal matter, making it one of the American Studies topics into which I tread most hesitantly. But as with any of the central elements of individual and communal identity, it has also been a hugely influential social factor throughout our history, making it impossible to analyze American lives and texts and culture without including it in our purview. And whatever we say about Day’s personal faith (and she had plenty to say herself about it, which would be the place to start), I feel very confident in saying that her social contributions to American life embody the best of what Christianity can be and mean here. More tomorrow, a much less weighty holiday post on the troubling messages in some of our most popular Christmas tunes.
PS. Two links to start with:
1) The Catholic Worker movement’s website: http://www.catholicworker.org/
2) A great article on Day’s life and beliefs and legacy, from one of her biographers and friends: http://www.americamagazine.org/content/article.cfm?article_id=4487
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