Lessons for Modern Political Activists Via Dorothy Day

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2018 seems to be one mass exercise in political activism. From the left to the right – there is a sea change in people desiring to express a political viewpoint or join a cause. Marches are trendy. Your Instagram account better have one socially-responsible photo. Otherwise, can you say you’re #woke? And – well – if you’re not sharing politically-inspired memes – what are you doing? This is not to debase modern activism – engagement is important. But, there is growing evidence; this activism is more driven by social capital than conviction. Effective engagement, studies show, comes from steady, consistent pressure. Clear conviction and understanding of the issue drives the day. Large-scale protests and social media campaigns are ineffective without engaged participants. If one wants an example of that theory in action, they need to look no further than Catholic social activist Dorothy Day.

For the uninitiated, Dorothy Day (1897-1980) is a tale of restlessness and redemption. It is a story that reflects the experience of many young people in the modern era. A brave and brilliant woman searching for meaning and purpose. Among her early exploits were ventures in journalism, activism and bohemian hedonism. But, that search was not grounded in something deeper. And, thus, her activism and lifestyle could not stand the inevitable stress tests of life. It was only through the eternal means that we find happiness – family and God – that Dorothy found her peace. A discovery that produced 50+ years of social change and serves as a model for charity.

Dorothy’s organization, the Catholic Worker Movement, lays out her life and vision so aptly:

Dorothy Day’s life and legacy is a radical movement, faithful to the Gospel and the church, immersed in the social issues of the day, with the aim of transforming both individuals and society. In an age marked by widespread violence, impersonal government, shallow interpersonal commitments, and a quest for self-fulfillment, Dorothy Day’s spirit fosters nonviolence, personal responsibility of all people to the poorest ones among us, and fidelity to community and to God.

Dorothy Day’s vision continues in the Catholic Worker Movement that she cofounded with Peter Maurin. Approximately 120 Catholic Worker communities serve in the United States, with new houses of hospitality opening every year. Dorothy left no rule or directions for the Catholic Worker communities. The rule she lived by and promoted is contained in the Gospels, most particularly in the Sermon on the Mount and in Matthew, chapter 25.

The vision of Dorothy Day lives on in The Catholic Worker newspaper that has been continually published since 1933. Dorothy was a journalist all her adult life, and she lived through and commented on the central events of the twentieth century: wars, economic depression, class struggle, the nuclear threat, and the civil rights movement. The Catholic Worker and her prodigious writings always focus the light of the Gospel on our conscience as we struggle with these issues. She wrote to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.

These world issues and the suffering of humanity still challenge people of conscience to create a better world. Dorothy Day’s response is essential Gospel: an old vision, so old it looks new. Her vision is anchored in the apostolic era and is essential for the atomic age. It challenges us to build community, grow in faith, and serve poor people. Her vision is a model of liberation for the United States.

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Day’s story offers us a modern model for us all to follow in every aspect of life.  Hobbies and pursuits are nice – but they are baubles for our short-term amusement if not directed at something higher. Sanctification of our work makes us more effective and at peace with our decisions. Offering that work as a prayer to God is the ultimate way to make one effective in their pursuits. I’ll acknowledge it is possible to have a similar code or direction via secular means. I am, however, suspicious of how often this is effective. One only needs to point to how the self-help movement in the United States recycles fads and “life hacks”. Effective solutions should withstand a higher stress test. Anchoring your pursuit to a deeper purpose enhances your ability to withstand pressure.

Which brings us to the beauty of Day’s example: Dorothy’s early activism left her unsatisfied. Yet, when her social work became grounded in faith, it reached a wider audience and forced change. By humbling herself, she made herself and others greater. This is a microcosm of human existence: seeking glory, we often find nothing but sadness. Yet, modesty can bring unexpected bounty to our lives.

I like to believe that in essence this is a small example of the beauty of God. One which can be either black or white, yet, also has many shades of grey. A contradiction through a human frame of understanding. Yet, one which the individual that walks in faith can understand. We are not meant to understand the intricacies of God. We must only humble ourselves, love one another and do our best to follow the precepts laid before us.

Day’s later success came not through a coordinated plan that had a mindset of glory at the forefront. Rather, it came from disavowing the earlier ego and pursuing a plan in line with that of Christ and the Gospels. She was an avowed progressive social activist. But, she humbled herself before an institution seen as conservative to fellow progressives. She preached love, care for the poor and a consistent anti-war message – yet is an icon to many modern conservatives. A life well lived need not be absent of contradiction when gazing at a higher pursuit.

Great change can occur when someone humbles themselves to principles larger than themselves. While not the only way, Christ and the Gospels stand out. Yet, in this modern environment, it seems so many seek to be dogmatic in their beliefs and actions. I’d suggest a more effective approach is a subscription to the beliefs laid out in the Sermon on the Mount.  A love of one another, respecting of self and humility. It’s amazing where that can take you and offer sustenance in times of darkness – and it doesn’t have a straight line path.

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