Sunday, November 29, 2020

Dorothy Day's "Politics of Mercy"

Forty years ago, on November 29, 1980, Dorothy Day came to the end of her very "unconventional" earthly pilgrimage. As we begin the season of Advent, we also remember this significant anniversary of her death. Those of us who live in the United States of America can benefit especially from reflecting on the foundations of her perspective on human society.

During her long life, the founder of the Catholic Worker devoted herself to the practice of the works of mercy on the margins of an American cultural environment that many of us today look back on with nostalgia. We see it as a time of innocence and decency.

She didn't.

Dorothy Day was deeply critical of USA society in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s (and then, of course, the 1960s and 70s too) in ways that are often beguiling to both "conservatives" and "liberals" in this country. Her passionate convictions defy all the standard classifications.

Some of us would like to see Dorothy beatified for her heroic work with the poor, while setting aside her judgments about the society around her as naive and idiosyncratic. "Saints can be wrong, or not well informed. They are not infallible," we say.

Fair enough. I certainly wouldn't argue that all her particular judgments were correct, or that all the causes she supported upheld justice the way she thought they did. What interests me is the position from which she looked at secular society. Her judgment on society flowed from her concrete adherence to the Person of Jesus Christ in the Church, especially His presence among the poor.

She was thus neither a "right winger" nor a "left winger." Nor is it sufficient to explain her views by saying she was "liberal" on economic and social justice and "conservative" on liturgy, sexual morality, and fidelity to Church teaching.

What must be said is that she judged the society of her time (even in its political structures) from her experience of belonging to Christ in the Church. She was radical in the sense that her whole life came from "the roots," from the Person of Jesus in the communion of the Church.

She transcended the dialectic of the "leftist ideology" and "rightist ideology" that constantly battled against each other and fed off each other. Her politics was what Brent Bozell the elder called "the Politics of Mercy."

This "politics of mercy" is based on respect and love for the human person created by God and redeemed by Christ, the human person whom Christ identifies with himself--"You did it to me." It involves the work of building a community of persons, building the relationships of love that bring persons to their fulfillment and that can also really shape the structures of social and even economic interaction.

Building a real community of real human persons whose dignity is fully valued is the hardest thing in the world. And even though we must begin with people "wherever they are," acknowledge them as our brothers and sisters, and respect the real mystery of how and where God is working in their lives, we know that this community is impossible without Jesus Christ.

Dorothy Day had a vivid awareness of this fact. Jesus is truly the One who calls each human being to his or her destiny and who brings us together on a common road in this world, a place where day by day we journey toward him whether we know it or not.

Practical arrangements, dialogue, respect for freedom, inclusiveness... all of these are important. Still, Dorothy Day's witness calls us Christians to recognize that Jesus Christ is at the heart of all of our actions on behalf of society. It is the experience of being loved by Jesus that opens us up to loving others and to serving them concretely, in works of mercy, all of which tend toward the communion of persons.

Love does not coerce anyone. It trusts, rather, in the Infinite Love of God who works in the very depths of the freedom of every person. Christians are called to bear witness to this Love through solidarity and humble service to every person, especially those in need.

Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is not jealous or boastful, arrogant or rude or resentful. Love does not insist on its own way. It does not rejoice in wrong, but rejoices in the right. Love bears all things, hopes all things, believes all things, endures all things. (see 1 Corinthians 13:4-7)

This is what is at the heart of the "politics" of Dorothy Day. The more we enter into this heart, the more we realize the profound inadequacy of the twentieth century secular world and its powers in their attempts to propose (and impose) human community.

In the 40 years since her death, we have seen great developments of resources and technology and a vast global communications network, opening new possibilities for so many good things. Nevertheless, the essential drama has only intensified. All of this power remains in our human hands, expressing the deep ambivalence of our souls, accomplishing much good but also amplifying the division between our aspirations and our selfishness, and deepening our alienation from one another.

Dorothy Day's criteria for judgment are more relevant than ever. Today, our society continues to lose its increasingly thin veneer of ritual civility, and shows itself more and more to be openly brutal, factional, and violent. We are beginning to discover that the most meaningful "political" posture for a Christian is a radical loving adherence to Jesus and a compassion that serves Him in every person who is suffering.

We will find that Dorothy Day has much to teach us about this adherence and this compassion, about the practice of the politics of mercy.