Monday, May 27, 2013

Dorothy Day, John Leary, and theology from below

As marvelously explained by my good friend Bob LaSalle, Jon Sobrino is a Salvadoran Jesuit and theologian. Sobrino suggests that there are two ways to do Christology—from above, and from below. I have always experienced this in a related way: that there are two approaches in Christianity.
            One type is based on the resurrection, and on triumph. It emphasizes victory over this world, and emphasizes Christ, in power, ruling over creation, at God’s right hand. Because we are in Christ, we are victorious. There is much emphasis on Pauline teaching. This way is often related to evangelical Christianity today. The other way emphasizes the cross, Jesus the Galilian and his life, and solidarity with the poor and lowly. I have been on both ways.

Indeed, when I was a teenager and a young adult, I was attracted to the Charismatic and Evangelical ways, and this way of victory. As a high school student, in the early 1970’s, I was deeply involved with a Catholic Charismatic group. I attended prayer meetings, read the Bible daily, spoke in tongues, and participated in laying on of hands for healing of myself and others. I made good friends there, and felt great joy and belonging. In college, I participated in an Inter-Varsity fellowship group, an evangelical Protestant group. I again met wonderful people there, and found much consolation. I still have much affection for the evangelical Christian communities: their warmth, their convictions, their commitment to living in charity and morality, their good cheer, their love of Scripture, their commitment to prayer, and their soaring music.
            In the end, however, I left this approach to Christianity. I think this was provoked in part by my experience of a major depressive episode when I was in college. I remained pretty depressed for a couple of years. In that context, I found no comfort in the faith that I knew; the high Christology left me alone and feeling somewhat abandoned. It too easily, for my comfort, became Puritanism (or a reflection of the old “Protestant work ethic”) at least for me. The Puritans or the Protestants developed the idea that one could judge whether someone was elected for salvation by their way of life; frugal, hard working, and then, by a slippery slope of thought, by whether they were prosperous[1].
This view, in the hands of some evangelical members, slipped into a simple sense that our earthly fate reflects whether we are “right with God.” Putting it bluntly, if we are right with God, things go well. If we are not right with God, things do not go well. This type of thinking, while not necessarily the original intent (or maybe it was, I don’t know), is too easily taken up. It is plain wrong, for its aim is to discern the spirit of God in others, but Christ already told us how to do that: the fruits of the spirit are joy, love, healing…not worldly success or failure.
Anyway, for me, this implication became exclusionary, alienating. I prayed all the time, I tried to do everything for God, yet I was afflicted, alone, depressed, and suffering. Like Paul, I could not evade my affliction. Thus I could not relate to or feel helped by the triumphant Christ, and instead of feeling consoled by this Christ, I only felt more alone and forgotten.
            Meantime, I was spending my time with the homeless men of Somerville, working overnight shifts in a homeless shelter near Central Square. Walking down Massachusetts Avenue late at night, for the overnight shift. The Christ of Triumph did not seem to speak to this group of people, or to be something I could offer them, either. The guys in college with me at  Harvard who shared that passion for the homeless with me had names like John Leary and Brian Fallon; Irish Catholics who seemed to me to live what they believed. Brian went on to become a psychiatrist and I lost touch with him, to my sorrow; he married Jenny, whose last name I omit, who was delightful. John Leary was a classmate and he and I became friends and brothers. John started the Amnesty International chapter at Harvard. Together, we’d visit Haley House, the Boston Catholic Worker. John eventually helped that community rebuild and lived there for awhile during his five years at Harvard (one year out doing Catholic worker stuff and going to jail for actions of civil disobedience). There weren’t many young men like John Leary. He could argue logic with anyone on any topic of religion or politics (many late nights at Harvard were taken up with such things). I never saw anyone surprise him in an argument; like a master chess player knows the chess game to come, he understood the full extent of the logic all the time—even at the age of 21. That is an unusual gift! And he understood the implications. Non-violence? What about Hitler? People would throw out these kinds of comments as though they were trump cards, only to watch John take them apart with a gentle logic. He had already thought of that. As he saw it, life had to do with courage and the willingness to suffer mightily for the truth. If we cannot use violence, then sometimes we must be prepared to die. Survival is not the ultimate priority. This usually silenced his interlocuters, the way I imagined Christ silencing the Pharisees and left them pondering their own life. Challenged by his own logic, he sometimes did brave and risky things. Things some would call foolish. Once, thinking that antinuclear protests were all too easy in large groups among sympathetic audiences in liberal suburbs, he went down alone to south Boston (a blue collar, conservative, pro-military part of Boston at that time), and held his antiwar signs there. The local toughs beat him up good. He was not surprised by that either, but he had to do it. At that time (late 1970’s), there was no right-to-life movement like there is now. There were only bitter debates between feminists defending a woman’s right to choose, and angry pro-lifers who wanted to make abortion illegal. John, and his friend Lucy O’Keefe (another Irish Catholic), disliked the pro-life movement for its condemnation of women and its violent, coercive stance. Yet they believed abortion was wrong. How to oppose it with conviction and without violence? They walked alone to an abortion clinic, sat in front of the door, and offered the women who came there a word of peace and a place to stay either to think it over or if they wanted to keep the baby. They were arrested for trespass. Nobody gentler was ever arrested for trespass than those two. Later, when big intimidating “nonviolent” blockades of clinics became the norm, Lucy wanted nothing to do with it. Neither would John if he had lived to see it. Both would certainly have condemned those who kill abortion doctors and call it good.
            John was, to me, a witness to Jesus of Galilee. Had he lived, he would eventually have been imprisoned or killed for opposing injustice. Or maybe he would have become a Malkite priest in Syria, like his friend Charlie McCarthy. As it was, John died of an arythmia at the age of 23, jogging along the streets of Boston. These days, they spot these things and they fix them before athletes die. Back then, they didn’t. I saw him a couple of months before he died. He was visiting me in Detroit, thinking about what comes next, thinking about Jean Vanier and the community of L”Arche. John died in 1982. A loss to this world that can never be described.
 Multiply that by ten thousand for any war of your choosing.

            It was then I learned a lot about the theology of the Gospel of non-violence. Charlie McCarthy was a friend of John's. He subsequently was known as Father Emmanual Charles McCarthy[2], as he was ordained in 1981 to the Eastern Byzantine Melkie Rite of Catholicism; an eastern church in communion with Rome. He influenced John much and continued for decades afterward to preach the Gospel of the non-violent Jesus. Charlie had several children but kept his income below the taxable income level, so that he would not contribute taxes to the organized and legitimated violence of the state. Charlie was influenced in turn by John L McKenzie[3]. The books he recommended, by Father McKenzie, were cogent and lucid. Jesus as a man of non-violence, who explicitly rejected the option of violence, and instead sought creative transformation—conversion—of his enemies and of conflict. In this perspective, love your enemies is not submission, it is power.
            Here is an ethic, a system of beliefs (!) that stands in direct contradiction to secular humanism, to liberal thought, to human logic. Here is a direct contradiction between “the spirit of this world” and “the spirit of God.”

Ghandi, the modern master of nonviolence, could say in the 1920’s: when faced with oppression and violence, you have three options. The weakest is to do nothing, to be passive. The next is to be violent in return. This has the considerable disadvantage of perpetuating violence forever and failing to solve the root problem, but at least you aren’t  passive or merely a victim.
The strongest is therefore, nonviolence. Transform the situation and convert the enemy. This changes the entire dynamic and is therefore the most powerful. This is what Christ was all about.

They said it couldn’t work. They still say that. And the answer is simply that the goal is not to win or to survive but holiness, and so sometimes we must be prepared to die rather than kill. But sometimes it works too. The British left India, even as Ghandi could not stop the terrible bloodshed of India’s partitioning—but maybe he would have, for he was hard into a fast to that end, had he not been assassinated by his own side for speaking generously about the Muslims. The Danes and Norwegians, I have heard it told, held out against Hitler longer than did the French, by their nonviolent non-cooperation. Solidarity brought down the communist tyranny in Poland. In each case, they suffered casualties as though they were at war, but they did no killing, and they left the world respected by all and achieving their aims.  The Egyptian revolutionaries of 2011, who so galvanized the world, brought down one of the most repressive regimes in the world by keeping control of their behavior and avoiding violence; in part because of that stance, the army soldiers would not attack them, and Mubarak fell. If the Palestinians were to adopt this stance today, world opinion would be unanimous on their side. The power of the idea would be irresistible.
            In 1933, Dorothy Day started a small project in New York City and called it The Catholic Worker. Inspired by the worker priests of France in the 1890’s, influenced by communist ideology to value the welfare of the workers and the poor, she started a house in New York, to provide food and shelter to the homeless. It was very simple. Do the works of mercy. When I was hungry, you fed me. When I was thirsty, you gave me to drink. Skid row in Manhatten was a tough place. She believed in anarchism. Not anarchy. Anarchism, of the strand that opposed violence and affirms the primacy of conscience in individual behavior over obedience to the state.

Nonviolence. She was a radical pacifist, and she and her type refused to go to war, even in world war two, the so called good war. They went to prison instead or, like Franz Jaegerstatter the German conscientious objector, they went to their death. This did not make them popular, but I have seen in my own life that when enthusiasm for war runs high, those who question it take a lot of heat. The picture can look a lot different later.

I visited that house in New York once, when Dorothy was still alive, in 1975, but I did not meet her. All I remember is that it was dark at night when I arrived, and the cockroaches covered the walls when you hit the kitchen lights at midnight, and the streets were devoid of green; no grass, no trees. Not like New York today, where the trees have been replanted.

            Eventually the houses spread, by imitation, around the U.S. Catholic worker houses sprang up in Chicago, Des Moines, Detroit, Los Angeles. They arose, they died off, they arose again. They never had a central organization. Anarchism, of the sort that eschews a major central organization. Not anarchy. Follow your conscience, follow it well, but avoid violence. 

This was the way that appealed to me when I worked with the homeless men of Somerville, when I felt my own life desolate. The way of Jesus of Nazareth. Walk among the poor. I began visiting the Boston Catholic worker with John Leary in college. When I got done at Harvard, I moved to Detroit, joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, and began hanging out at Day House, the Detroit Catholic worker house. Here I met inspiring men and women: Tom Lumpkin (who to this day lives at this house, providing hospitality to homeless men and women, and staffing a soup kitchen to feed the long lines of the homeless in Detroit). When you do this kind of hospitality, you meet a lot of angry people. But you also meet a lot of brave people. Tom became a kind of Christian monk in the inner city.  A witness. Too bold to be tolerated in a suburban parish. How rarely the Gospel is really preached, I thought, hearing Tom talk. Bill Kellerman. Mary West. Peter Weber. Many others. Inspiring people. They gave me new ideas of what it means to follow Christ, to live a holy life.
            For awhile, I lived in inner city Detroit, and I tried to be among “the poor”, those angry, friendly, tough, violent, generous people of that harsh city. A helping hand or a fist were equally handy all the time. Faith in Christ made sense, impeccable sense, in that place. Crucifixion made sense. The cross made sense. I could see it around me every day.

In 1977, Oscar Romero, a Jesuit martyred in El Salvador, told the hundred thousand people of El Salvador gathered at a special Mass, that they were the crucified body of Christ. He said that on the occasion of the martyrdom of Rutilio Grande[4], another Jesuit in El Salvador killed for helping encourage the poor to live in dignity. Rutilio did not advocate violence, and neither did Romero. But they were killed, because there is power in nonviolence, power in teaching people that they have dignity. The power of the Gospel becomes very real indeed, and draws bullets in response. That teaching, that they were the crucified body of Christ, was extraordinary. It still seems to me a unique kind of teaching, one that is heard nowhere else, that is unique on the planet it its power.
            I find that sort of thing very challenging. I wish I could say I was some kind of witness to it, but I am not. I can only tell about it, because I marvel at it. It makes me think Christianity is powerful, and hard to do. There really is nothing like it, nothing that I know of, that draws people to such extraordinary solidarity, courage, generosity, and freedom. I want to be even a faint shadow of that (though I do not want to be a martyr!).
            People forget that there are martyrs not only in the ancient Roman times, but also today, many of them: not only the martyrs of Nazi Germany like Franz Jaegerstatter, but the martyrs of Latin America. Many American Christians do not even know this. This is the Gospel from below, the Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth. Indeed. Indeed. How much this truth compelled and challenged me and still does.
            And how little I ever really lived any of it, as I grew successful, and comfortable, and older, and less willing to sacrifice for others; as I came to have more to lose, and thus less enthused about change in the structures that keep some of us lucky, and “the others” unlucky.
            But I remember it, and I carry it, all the same. I am like a sleeper cell for the abandonment of material pursuits. Someday I may yet awaken.

[1] Perhaps Max Weber coined the term “Protestant Work Ethic.” In any case, the evolution of the Puritan or Protestant Work ethic is a complex story; I settle for a caricature here to make my point. Ironically, though, Protestants or Puritans in the Reformation period were dedicated anti-Catholics, and the New England Puritans of the 1600’s were also believers in reforming society—and persecuting those they disagreed with. The echoes of this attitude in the enthusiastic “right wing” of contemporary American politics is apparent. Thus, my disagreements with the Puritans, at least as they are characterized here, run pretty deep.
[2] Rev McCarthy to my knowledge is still living,  preaching , and writing. He is a pastor in Damascus and his work is described at
[3] Also, see McKenzie’s book, “The Power and the Glory” (recently republished by Wipf & Stock Publishers) for trenchant exposition of the non-violent Jesus and compelling challenge to Catholic and other church teaching that defend war and violence as acceptable for Christians.
[4] Rutilio Grande, 1928-1977, was a Jesuit priest, servant of the poor; his life story is remarkable and for any who think that there are no longer true martyrs, read his life story. He was a martyr for the faith, killed, like Christ, for proclaiming the Gospel to the poor and for calling to account those who abused them. Grande’s death converted Romero to the Gospel of justice for the oppressed, and Romero in turn inspired thousands. The film Romero is an unforgettable portrayal of the two men’s lives and martyrdom.  These are lives that only seem to occur among Christians, and so have inspired me to continue to seek God in Christian ways as best I can.


  1. Riveting, honest, and illuminating. You make the power of love visible and compelling, keep it up my friend.

    Lee Anzicek

  2. "I am like a sleeper cell for the abandonment of material pursuits. Someday I may yet awaken." I love this statement. Beautiful. This piece was thought provoking to me, Joel.