Continuing our focus on contemporary prophetic figures, today’s student essay discusses the prophetic credentials of twentieth-century social activist Dorothy Day (1897-1980). The essay is written by Lauren Wilks, who is from Nelson, NZ. She has just completed her second year of study for a Bachelor of Commerce majoring in Economics and International Business. Next year, she plans to spend a semester in Mexico on the University of Auckland’s 360° student exchange programme. Lauren took our Bible and Pop Culture course upon a recommendation by her elder sister who took the course in 2012 and enjoyed it a great deal. Lauren assures me she loved it just as much! Her essay is fabulous, so we hope you enjoy learning more about the amazing figure of Dorothy Day.
Living for more than today
“…God did not intend that there be so many poor… we are urging revolutionary change.”
(Day, cited in Barrett, 2017)
Summarised in her own words, Dorothy Day (1897-1980) was a passionate pacifist and one of the most well-known Catholic social activists in history. Her uncompromising vision for social justice caused disturbance among the status quo, but generated lasting change to society’s role in serving the poor. Borg (2001) established a framework to define biblical prophets, which we can use to determine if a modern-day figure or group fulfills a similar prophetic function. Fulfilling all six criteria of Borg’s definition, Dan can be seen as effectively performing a prophetic role. This essay will conclude Day is a contemporary prophet, focusing on her disturbance of social norms, her prophetic action to fight for social justice, and her relationship with God. The biblical texts of Isaiah 58, Isaiah 20, Ezekiel 2 and Isaiah 41, will be used throughout to relate Day to the biblical prophets.
Borg (2001) explains that Biblical prophets disturbed dominant discourses, not just accepting, but challenging the status quo to fight for something they believed in. In Isaiah 58, Isaiah encourages the confrontation of injustice. He challenges false compared to true worship, stating religious practices are in vain if there are people who are oppressed, Isaiah 58:1, “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion…” Day’s message of social justice, focused on pacifism and serving the poor. She confronted those in the church who were living comfortably, favouring the rich and powerful, while the poor were continuously mistreated. She insisted that the “church is the cross on which Christ is crucified”and that social injustice was an insult to Christ (Forest, n.da, para.23). Her heart for social justice was derived from Jesus’ message, particularly the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). Day took this scripture of Jesus’ moral teaching and truly lived it out (Allison, n.d). Like Isaiah, she understood working for and being with the poor was an essential part of being Christian: “share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them” (Isaiah 58:7). She considered it immoral to call yourself Christian without acting out what the Bible requires. Day had a focused vision, which is evident in the following excerpt from her writings: “To follow the gospel teaching of the works of mercy. If your brother is hungry, feed him, shelter him. How can you show your love for God except by love for your brother and sister? The one who does not love his brother whom he has seen, how can he love God whom he hasn’t seen?” (Dear, 2011, para.28).
Day also challenged society to evaluate how everyone’s work benefits (or not) the wider community. She believed jobs in finance and advertising led to social tension by making people desire possession they did not need (Hinson-Hasty, 2014). Through her message of social justice, Day was a founding encourager in the Catholic Church expanding their outreach (Bailey, Ohlheiser & Zak, 2015).
Day lived in the 20th century, a time where many believed they were obliged to serve their country during war. She was outspoken in her anti-war stance and did not accept that moral conditions ratify war (Parachin, 2016). Her message addressed people in power, particularly Church leaders as throughout history, Popes had blessed armies and supported crusades (Forest, n.db). The Church had accepted ‘just war’, but Day wanted non-violence to become a fundamental Christian principle. Her pacifist views were revolutionary to the Church, in that she claimed violence contradicted biblical values as it fortified the rich and devastated the poor (Coy, 1988). She believed that in order to achieve peace, the most vulnerable needed to be helped. Like the prophet in Isaiah 58, she did not hold back in telling the Church their shortcomings. In writing to the Vatican Council, she said war was a crime against God and man (Fox, 2015). Although her message was radical at the time, it has since been accepted and adopted by many. Pope Francis named her one of the four most influential Americans in history. His support of Day’s non-violent ideologies shows the development in the Churches attitude towards peace and social justice (Bailey et al., 2015). Her willingness to critique the system and not accept that poverty was a normal part of society saw many touched by her message of justice and humility. Day clearly fulfills Borg’s criteria of disturbing social norms to bring about revolutionary change.
Another criterion is that Biblical prophets took action to amplify their message, translating prophetic speech into prophetic action (Borg, 2001). With reference to Isaiah 20:1-5, both Day and the prophet Isaiah used action to signify the importance of their messages. Isaiah protested the military alliance between Judah and Egypt, “Just as my servant Isaiah has walked naked and barefoot for three years as a sign and a portent…” (Isaiah 20:3). Day always focused on what she could do, taking Catholic theology and putting it into action in prophetic ways (Chapp, 2015). Rather than helping the poor during the day, then returning to her comfortable home at night, Day fully immersed herself in a life of poverty to proclaim the importance of her vision (Chapp, 2015).
In May 1933, Day and Peter Maurin, a French revolutionary, started the Catholic Worker newspaper to synthesise Catholic social teaching and social justice (Xiaoyu, 2010). Her decision to live in voluntary poverty meant she was greatly empathetic, writing to and on behalf of the poor. The newspaper became a beacon of hope by confronting the oppressive system. She wrote about social injustices, using scripture to challenge the Church in failing to exemplify the Gospel message, but also to inspire action to help those in need. Her pacifist views caused division within the Catholic Worker movement, with those who believed war was justified breaking away from the movement. Even though her message was controversial, the complaints the Church received about the newspaper did not stop Day from publishing it despite its loss of popularity during the wars (Bailey et al., 2015).
The actions Day took were to fulfil God’s will. Drawing on Matthew 6:10, she said, “We are working for ‘a new heaven and a new earth, wherein justice dwelleth.’ We are trying to say with action, ‘Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven’” (Zwick, n.d, para.12). Her writings on social justice drew those in need into Catholic homes, which led to the creation of the Houses of Hospitality. Day believed hospitality was part of Christian tradition, using the houses to live out biblical values (1 Peter 4:8-9). They provided food and shelter to the needy, and as Day’s message confronted the rich and powerful, the houses gave them an opportunity to serve the poor (Barnette, 2011). There was controversy around who was accepted into the homes, as some believed not all were ‘deserving poor’. Day replied by saying, as family in Christ, they were welcome to stay forever (Forest, n.db). She established and inspired many houses, by 1936, there were 33 houses throughout the US, with a growing need during the Great Depression (Forest, n.db). The movement continues today, with 200 Catholic Worker communities and 40 Catholic Worker Houses (Bailey et al., 2015).
Day spent her whole life serving others. Further actions she took for the oppressed include protesting outside the White House for women’s suffrage, which led to the first of seven imprisonments, and going on a hunger strike to protest poor jail conditions (Barnette, 2011). It is evident Day fulfils Borg’s criteria of prophetic action. With the Catholic Worker newspaper and the Houses of Hospitality, her life-long commitment of personal sacrifice translating vision into action.
Borg (2001) found the prophets to be passionate about both God and justice, a two-fold relationship between the world and spiritual realm. Day’s intimate relationship and experiences with God were the source of her vision for social justice (Dear, 2011). In Ezekiel 2, the spirit of the Lord commissioned Ezekiel to speak God’s word to the rebellious Israel, “…I am sending you to them, and you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the Lord God’” (Ezekiel 2:4). Day did not hear the audible voice of God calling her to serve the poor like Ezekiel and other Biblical prophets did, but God spoke to her through the Bible (Allaire & Broughton, n.d). Because she had an extensive knowledge of the Bible, she weaved scripture into her writings to convey not her message, but Jesus’ message. Using scripture as God’s mouthpiece, she once said, “If I have achieved anything in my life, it is because I have not been embarrassed to talk about God” (Howell, 2017, p.97). Borg (2001) sees the prophet’s dream as God’s dream. Day fulfils this criterion as she lived beyond herself, challenged by Jesus’ message to serve the poor (Mark 10:21). Daily spiritual devotions strengthened her knowledge and connection with God, which equipped her to face the challenges her fight for social justice bought (Allaire & Broughton, n.d). She said, “When God asks great things of us, great sacrifices,” (Ellsberg, 2010, para.11). The prophet Isaiah experienced great suffering in his life. Through the trials, he continually looked to God to renew his strength and protect him. Isaiah 41:10, “do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you.” Day experienced discomfort in voluntary poverty. She let go of worldly possession as she believed to truly serve, was to give out of nothing (Hinson-Hasty, 2014). This was not easy, but her intimate relationship with God, through scripture and prayer, sustained her vision for justice.
Since Day’s passing in 1980, her message has remained relevant and is evident in the Catholic Church’s outreach. She is often drawn upon as a source of inspiration, upholding values of peace, community, and integration of faith and acts (Allaire & Broughton, n.d). It is clear Ezekiel was known as a prophet, Ezekiel 2:5, “Whether they hear or refuse to hear… they shall know that there has been a prophet among them.” The Catholic Church has not named Day a prophet, but have identified her as an extraordinary person by commencing an inquiry into her canonisation (Catholic News Service, 2016). Elevating her to this status recognises her exceptional life and challenging vision of hope.
To summarise, Day can be regarded as a contemporary prophetic figure as defined by Borg. Her willingness to speak out for social justice, promoting pacifism and voluntary poverty, disturbed social norms. She used prophetic action through the Catholic Worker newspaper, Houses of Hospitality and protests, to solidify her vision. She believed in a personal God, and her strong relationship with him was the foundation of her mission. Although controversial at the time, her relentless commitment to pacifism and personal responsibility to the poor has continued to be an inspiration (Fox, 2015). Day’s legacy leaves a challenge, live out the Gospel and bear witness in everyday life (Ellsberg, 2010).
All Biblical texts are from the New Revised Standard Version
Allaire, J. & Broughton, R. (n.d). An introduction to the life and spirituality of Dorothy Day. The Catholic Worker Movement. Retrieved from http://www.catholicworker.org/dorothyday/life-and-spirituality.html
Allison, D. (n.d). The Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7). Bible Odyssey. Retrieved from https://www.bibleodyssey.org/
Bailey, S., Ohlheiser, A. & Zak, D. (2015, September 24). Pope Francis praised Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton. Here’s who they were. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com
Barnette, S. (2011). Houses of hospitality: The material rhetoric of Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker. University of Tennessee. Retrieved from http://trace.tennessee.edu/
Barrett, L. (2017). Taking to the streets, and beyond. Yale Divinity School. Retrieved from http://reflections.yale.edu/article/god-and-money-turning-tables/taking-streets-and-beyond
Borg, M. (2001). Readings the Bible again for the first time: taking the Bible seriously but not literally. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco
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Chapp, L. (2015). The precarity of love: Dorothy Day on poverty. International Catholic Review. Retrieved from http://www.communio-icr.com/files/Chapp_-_42.2_Poverty_and_Kenosis.pdf
Coy, P. (1988). A revolution of the heart. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Dear, J. (2011, January 25). Dorothy Day’s letters show heartache, faith. National Catholic Reporter. Retrieved from https://www.ncronline.org
Ellsberg, R. (2010, November). Day by day: The letters and journals of Dorothy Day. U.S Catholic Worker, 75(11), 34-36
Forest, J. (n.da). What I learned about justice from Dorothy Day. US Catholic. Retrieved from http://www.uscatholic.org/culture/social-justice/2009/02/what-i-learned-about-justice-dorothy-day
Forest, J. (n.db). Servant of God Dorothy Day. The Catholic Worker Movement. Retrieved from http://www.catholicworker.org/dorothyday/servant-of-god.html
Fox, T. (2015, September 24). Day and Merton: The Catholic radicals Francis cited. National Catholic Reporter. Retrieved from https://www.ncronline.org
Hinson-Hasty, E. (2014). Dorothy Day for armchair theologians. Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press
Howell, J. (2017). Worshipful. Oregon: Cascade Books
Parachin, V. (2016, April 29). Dorothy Day, Social conscience of American Catholics. Our Sunday Visitor. Retrieved from https://www.osv.com
The Catholic Worker Movement. (n.d). Dorothy Day. Retrieved from http://www.catholicworker.org/dorothyday/themes/On%20Poverty%20(Dorothy%20Day).pdf
Xiaoyu, P. (2010). The conversion of a radical – Dorothy Day and the Catholic social thought. Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2(5), 7470-7478. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sbspro.2010.05.112
Zwick, M. (n.d). What is the Catholic Worker Movement. Houston Catholic Worker. Retrieved from http://cjd.org/about/what-is-the-catholic-worker-movement/