Whose ‘Filthy, Rotten System’?

Feb. 18, 1970, edition of National Catholic Reporter (NCR photo/Toni-Ann Ortiz)
Brian Terrell has a great column in the National Catholic Reporter (April 16, 2012) tracing the origin of one of Dorothy Day’s most famous phrases: “Our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system.” And he found a surprise! The Occupy Movement has taken up Dorothy’s phrase as one of their slogans to indict an unjust economic system. But for people of faith, we need to dig a little deeper into Dorothy’s original intent. Here’s an excerpt from Brian’s piece:

My efforts to find the origins of this quote were inconclusive. The archivist for the Catholic Worker papers at Marquette University, Phil Runkel, could find no reference to the quote earlier than the poster itself, which was published by WIN magazine in 1973.

One of Dorothy’s biographers, Jim Forest, did a search of the word rotten and found this in a column by Dorothy from 1956: “We need to change the system. We need to overthrow, not the government, as the authorities are always accusing the Communists of conspiring to teach to do, but this rotten, decadent, putrid industrial capitalist system which breeds such suffering in the whited sepulcher of New York.”

Tom Cornell, former managing editor of The Catholic Worker, offered a promising lead: “My clear recollection is that [Day] said these words in an interview in the offices of theNational Catholic Reporter in Kansas City, that she did not expect to be quoted, and that when she saw the words in print she was offended to be quoted using language which she considered vulgar and crude.”

By this time, though, I was tired of the whole matter and gave it up.

The ringing denunciation of the filthy, rotten system as the source of our problems could not be quieted, though, whatever its origins. In the intervening years, as if doubts cast on its authenticity breathed new life into it, scholars and Workers alike used the quote more than ever, attributing Dorothy’s authority to it without question. In the last few months, moreover, the analysis that “our problems stem from our acceptance of this filthy, rotten system” has found resonance in the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Encouraged by images of hand-lettered placards attributing this scathing critique of the system to Dorothy Day popping up at Occupy encampments, I decided to renew my search of its genesis and forwarded Tom’s recollection to a friend on the staff of NCR, Joshua McElwee.

Joshua found the interview Tom remembered in NCR’s Feb. 18, 1970, issue, in which the editors interviewed Dorothy and writer Gary MacEoin and presented their conversation as a Lenten reflection under the headline “Money and the middle-class Christian.”

The editors put a large box in the body of this article with a subhead proclaiming in large, bold type: “Dorothy Day: Our problems stem from the acceptance of this lousy, rotten system.”

Here, I am convinced, is the “smoking gun”! …

Read Brian’s whole article.

Richard Rohr: Antidote To ‘The Dirty Rotten System’?

Police flank Dorothy Day, seated at a farm workers picket line in Lamont, California, in 1973.

“We are all complicit in and benefitting from what Dorothy Day called ‘the dirty rotten system.’ That’s not condemning anybody; it’s condemning everybody because we are all complicit and enjoying the fruits of domination and injustice. (Where were your shirts and underwear made?) Usually the only way to be really non-complicit in the system is to choose to live a very simple life. That’s the only way out of the system!

Thus most of the great wisdom teachers like Gandhi, Saints Francis and Clare, Simone Weil, Dorothy Day, Jesus and Buddha—lived voluntarily simple lives. That’s almost the only way to stop bending the knee before the system. This is a truly transfigured life in cultures which are always based on climbing, consumption, and competition (1 John 2:15-17).

Once we idealize social climbing, domination of others, status symbols, power, prestige and possessions, we are part of a never ending game that is almost impossible to escape. It has its own inner logic that is self-maintaining, self-perpetuating, and self-congratulating as well as elitist and exclusionary. It will never create a just or happy world, yet most Christians never call it into question. Jesus came to free us from this lie which will never make us happy anyway, because it’s never enough, and we never completely win.”–Richard Rohr, ofm

Adapted from Spiral of Violence by Richard Rohr

30 January: 64th Anniversary of Gandhi’s Assassination

Today marks the 64th year since Mohandas Gandhi was assassinated.

In India, this day is known as Martyr’s Day and the entire country observes two minutes of silence at 11 a.m. to remember when the prophet of nonviolence and Indian liberation “stopped three bullets.” (There’s an interesting commentary by Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay in The AsianCorrespondent).

If you haven’t already, please read the just-released book Gandhi and the Unspeakable: His Final Experiment with Truth by Jim Douglass. It details the little-known history of who killed Gandhi, why, and how the repercussions continue to influence nuclear policy between Pakistan and India today.

Thanks to friend Art Laffin who sent this lovely reflection for the day:

Today is the anniversary of Gandhi’s assassination. At our weekly Dorothy Day Catholic Worker sponsored Pentagon vigil this morning, I prayed in gratitude for Gandhi’s life–for all he did to show the world the transforming power of nonviolence and the use of nonviolent resistance as a means to bring about revolutionary change. Gandhi is best known for espousing the nonviolent philosophy of “ahimsa” (Sanskrit term meaning “nonviolence” or “non-injury” — literally: the avoidance of himsa: violence) and “satyagraha” (literally translated “insistence on the truth”), and for leading a civil disobedience campaign which ended British rule of India.

Gandhi’s commitment to nonviolence and resistance was deeply influenced by Jesus as evidenced by his belief that: “Jesus was the most active resister known perhaps to history. This was nonviolence par excellence.”

As one of the most influential figures in modern social and political activism, Gandhi considered the following traits (seven deadly sins) to be the most spiritually perilous to humanity:

  • Wealth without Work
  • Pleasure without Conscience
  • Science without Humanity
  • Knowledge without Character
  • Politics without Principle
  • Commerce without Morality
  • Worship without Sacrifice

Living in a society and world where violence and killing have tragically become the norm, where the U.S. is the world’s preeminent nuclear superpower, the following quotes from Gandhi point the way to creating a culture of nonviolence. “The first condition of nonviolence is justice all round in every department of life.”

“Nonviolence is the greatest force at the disposal of (hu)mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.”

“Nonviolence is not a garment to be put on and off at will. Its seat is in the human heart, and it must be an inseparable part of our very being.”

“Nonviolence is the only thing the atom bomb cannot destroy…Unless now the world adopts nonviolence, it will spell certain suicide for (hu)mankind.”

“If there were no greed, there would be no occasion for armaments. The priciple of nonviolence necessitates complete abstention from exploitation in any form…Real disarmament cannot come unless the nations of the world cease to exploit one another.”

“My optimism rests on my belief in the infinite possibilities of the individual to to develop nonviolence. The more you develop it in your own being, the more infectious it becomes till it overwhelms your surroundings and by and by might oversweep the world.”

Mohandas Gandhi, prophet of nonviolence, pray for us!--Art Laffin, Dorothy Day Catholic Worker, Washington D.C.

Prayer Should Be ‘Short and Pure’

Today, I dipped into Robert Ellsberg’s wonderful All the Way to Heaven: Selected Letters of Dorothy Day for encouragement and some of Dorothy’s straight-up truth.

In the autumn of 1964, Dorothy spent six months at her daughter’s farm  in Vermont minding her grandchildren their father left. In a letter to artist Fritz Eichenberg during that time, she recounts the children’s spirituality.

“Eric is 16 and Nickie is 14, and they still so trustfully put up their foreheads for me to make the sign of the cross on them before they go to bed at night and before they go to school in the morning. I urge them, as St. Benedict did, to short and frequent prayer, as they go down the road to the school bus in the morning…” (p.304)

The Rule of St. Benedict Dorothy refers to was written to make it easier for us to be good and to love God. Chapter 20, on “Reverence in Prayer” says:

it is not in saying a great deal that we shall be heard (Matthew 6:7),
but in purity of heart and in tears of compunction.
Our prayer, therefore, ought to be short and pure,
unless it happens to be prolonged
by an inspiration of divine grace.

What’s a Personalist and How Do I Become One?

Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin

New Hope Catholic Worker Farm and Agronomic University in LaMotte, Iowa, is hosting its second week-long intensive on “Growing Roots: Peter Maurin & Economics” July 17-23, 2011.

They included the excellent article Distributism: Ownership of the Means of Production and Alternative to the Brutal Global Market by Louise and Mark Zwick as part of the reading list. Below I’ve highlighted a few sections, but I commend the full article to your reading.

On the Catholic Worker View of Economics

It is very much in the tradition of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin to write about economics. Under the editorship of Dorothy Day, the Catholic Worker criticized an unbridled capitalism which put the majority of money and resources in the hands of a few big corporations and individuals. The Catholic Workers not only disagreed with industrial capitalism on a massive scale, but presented an alternative economics called distributism-a person-centered economics.

As personalists, Catholic Workers believed there had to be a better way than to have the world run by Standard Oil, General Motors and Henry Ford (today we have the global market, giant corporations, sweatshops, maquiladoras).

Peter and Dorothy recommended the works of G. K. Chesterton, Hilaire Belloc and Fr. Vincent McNabb, O.P., on distributism and R. H. Tawney on capitalism, and their ideas were published in the paper. These writers insisted that all people were created in the image and likeness of God, and should not be treated like cogs in a machine or made to work twelve hours a day in back-breaking work as wage slaves (in coal mines, for example), while large corporations and their directors became fabulously wealthy.

Chesterton, theorist of person-centered economics and critic of the excesses of capitalism, shared the views of the Catholic Workers. He knew that the opinions of Henry Ford (who said that most people preferred the mechanical action of the assembly line and were only fitted for it), were against Catholic teaching on the dignity of the human person. Ford made it clear that most people were not smart enough to do anything except repetitious work. As Chesterton put it in The Outline of Sanity, “It will be noted that Mr. Ford does not say that he is only fitted to mind machines.”

Chesterton argued that the Catholic Church taught that every human being was worth saving. He insisted on “respect for the humanity and dignity of ordinary, shabby, ignorant people.” (Margaret Canovan, G. K. Chesterton: Radical Populist, New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977, p. 9).

On “The Invisible Hand” of the Market

Since Adam Smith, the proponents of wealth creation have promised heaven on earth if their ideas were followed: Just believe religiously in the market and allow it absolute freedom, then salvation will come. It is hard to imagine a heaven where one’s creativity and destiny are squandered working on an assembly line or at McDonald’s.

Pope Pius XII went so far as to call the idea that the invisible hand of the market will on its own rather like fate control the world, a “superstition. (Dorothy Day, “Distributism vs. Capitalism,” Catholic Worker, October 1954).

What Are We Talking About When We Say “Capitalism”?

Chesterton knew that when most people spoke of capitalism, they had in mind something quite different than a few very wealthy people controlling everything. To clarify for his readers what he was criticizing, he first described the situation where a few people hold the wealth and all others struggle: “When I say ‘Capitalism,’ I commonly mean something that may be stated thus: ‘That economic condition in which there is a class of capitalists roughly recognizable and relatively small, in whose possession so much of the capital is concentrated as to necessitate a very large majority of the citizens serving those capitalists for a wage.” He emphasized that others had something quite different in mind when they spoke of capitalism: “The word… is used by other people to mean quite other things. Some people seem to mean merely private property. Others suppose that capitalism must mean anything involving the use of capital.

“If capitalism means private property, I am capitalist. If capitalism means capital, everybody is capitalist. But if capitalism means this particular condition of capital, only paid out to the mass in the form of wages, then it does mean something, even if it ought to mean something else.

“The truth is that what we call Capitalism ought to be called Proletarianism. The point of it is not that some people have capital, but that most people only have wages because they do not have capital.”

Read the whole article.

Jim Douglass: Dorothy Day’s Take on Kennedy’s Character (Part 3)

The most important book for any American to read is JFK and the Unspeakable: Who Killed Him and Why it Matters by James D. Douglass.

Douglass’ investigation into the secret papers finally released during the Clinton era begin to uncover a deadly “family pattern” of behavior in the highest levels of political power. Now, Douglass has written an important article for Tikkun magazine that looks at how the pattern is being repeated again between President Obama, Gen. Petraeus, and Afghanistan.

Below is Part 3: Dorothy Day’s Take on Kennedy’s Character

I am a Catholic Worker. I am deeply skeptical of the power of kings and presidents — all of them. But what I also learned from Dorothy Day, mother of the Catholic Worker movement, was a belief in the goodness of every human being. Dorothy had that belief in John Kennedy. She told me pointedly, after JFK’s death, to study his life.

I didn’t know that she and Kennedy had met. Young Jack Kennedy and his older brother Joe, who would die in World War II, visited the Mott Street Catholic Worker in Manhattan one day in the summer of 1940. Catholic Worker Stanley Vishnewski recalled the incident in an interview with Bill Moyers:

I remember distinctly how bewildered [John Kennedy] was by the sight of the poverty and the misery of the place. And then Dorothy came in. She talked to him. Then Dorothy says, “Come and have supper with us.” And Kennedy looked at her, a little startled, and says, “No, come out and have dinner with us instead.” So Dorothy, and Joe and John Kennedy … we went out to a little restaurant around the corner. We had a wonderful conversation.

They talked long into the night “of war and peace and of man and the state,” as Dorothy wrote in her book, Loaves and Fishes.

Even when Dorothy Day was marching and speaking out decades later against JFK’s Cold War policies, something about him struck the chord of her belief in human goodness. So she said after he was killed: “Pay attention. Learn more about his life.” It took me over thirty years to follow her recommendation. Yes, we can learn more from his life … and his death.–James Douglass, from JFK, Obama, and the Unspeakable

‘My Kinda Christian’: Catholic Worker Art Laffin

Art Laffin

I’ve had the honor of knowing Catholic Worker Art Laffin at Dorothy Day House in D.C. for more than 20 years. We’ve worshiped together, sung together, been arrested together, eaten together, and cried together. All the things that Christians do. Lest I ever forget the amazing people of faith who surround me, here is the note that Art sent out today:

Eleven years ago today, my brother Paul was killed by Dennis Soutar. I still can’t believe what happened. Although eleven years has passed, all who know and loved Paul still feel a sorrow and grief that defies words. We can take consolation in knowing that Paul is home with God and is interceding for us, together with the cloud of witnesses and all our beloved departed. We give thanks for Paul’s life of extraordinary service to the poor, and for all the laughter and love he gave us. Paul, you will always have a special place in my/our hearts!

Let us also pray today for healing for Dennis Soutar. I pray that Dennis will experience God’s forgiving love. I also pray for Dennis’ sister-in-law, Vernetta Soutar, and the rest of the Soutar family. Mom and I met and prayed with Vernetta several weeks after Paul’s death at St. Francis Hospital where she worked. We also prayed with Vernetta, Dennis’ brother and their children at a Mass at St. Michael’s church where they are parishioners.

Finally, let us hold each other in prayer and heart on this special anniversary day. I want to thank each of you from the bottom of my heart for the prayers and loving support you have offered me and my family in the aftermath of this horrific tragedy. I am forever grateful to you.  With love and gratitude, Art

This is what being a Christian looks like. It’s hard. It’s glorious.

Happy Birthday, Dorothy Day!

DDay film

Very nice article in St. Louis Today celebrating Dorothy Day’s Nov. 8 birthday titled Dorothy Day: Giving Proof that the Gospel Can Be Lived.

Author Sharon Autenrieth works with the Church of the Nazarene’s Good Samaritan Ministries in East St. Louis. She writes, “There are now over 185 Catholic Worker houses of hospitality, including three in St. Louis, and it all started with soup and coffee in Dorothy’s kitchen.”

Here’s an excerpt from Autenreith’s article:

Dorothy Day never abandoned her anarchism or pacifism.  Her politics were a scandal to Christians who felt the church should serve as chaplain to the state and maintain the status quo.  Her religion was incomprehensible to the anarchists, Socialists and Communists with whom she’d spent her youth.  But Dorothy continued to reach out to both sides, seeing herself as a faithful daughter of the church, and yet a radical called to disturb the comfortable – even when the comfortable were in the pews, or the prelate’s office.  And so she often found herself, as she once wrote in her column “On Pilgrimage”, talking “economics to the rich and Jesus to the anarchists.”  It wasn’t an easy path.

Read Sharon Autenrieth’s whole article here.

Dorothy Day: Previously Unpublished 1933 Essay ‘Our Brothers, The Jews’ Published for First Time

Dorothy Day, 1925
Dorothy Day, 1925

Fr. Charles Gallagher has discovered a previously unpublished essay by Catholic Worker co-founder Dorothy Day, which lay in a correspondence file in the Dorothy Day-Catholic Worker Collection at Marquette University. I’m stunned!

Dorothy Day was a lay Catholic woman with radical politics, a deeply rooted faith, and a phenomenal amount of courage. She co-founded the Catholic Worker movement with Peter Maurin in the 1930s.

The manuscript titled Our Brothers, The Jews was written in autumn 1933. It is published for the first time in the November 2009 issue of America magazine.

Five years before Adolph Hitler became “The Fuhrer,” when he was still chancellor of a coalition government and head of the Nazi party with the Nazis holding a third of the seats in the Reichstag, Dorothy Day called to account Catholics who supported and fostered Hitler’s hate-based political agenda in the U.S.

Her point of view was very unpopular at the time. So unpopular in fact that she had a hard time getting her essay published anywhere. (America magazine rejected it when she submitted it to them in 1933.) But race-baiting and Jew-hating was on the rise in the U.S. and Catholic speakers in Brooklyn, near where the Catholic Worker was based, were drawing cheering crowds when they excoriated Jews.

“She keenly foresaw the dynamic that five years later would lead to the rise of Brooklyn’s powerful Christian Front movement and its quasi-terrorist anti-Semitic plot, which was scuppered only by a spectacular set of arrests in early 1940 by J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Day’s warning about how Catholics ought to deal with Hitler rested on two of the main pillars of her faith—scriptural reflection and concern for social justice. Her deep beliefs rested on an apostolic zeal that held out the possibility for all men and women to be fully integrated into the mystical body of Christ,” the editor’s note concludes.

Here’s an excerpt from Day’s essay:

For Catholics—or for anyone—to stand up in the public squares and center their hatred against Jews is to sidestep the issue before the public today. It is easier to fight the Jew than it is to fight for social justice—that is what it comes down to. One can be sure of applause. One can find a bright glow of superiority very warming on a cold night. If those same men were to fight for Catholic principles of social justice they would be shied away from by Catholics as radicals; they would be heckled by Communists as authors of confusion; they would be hurt by the uncomprehending indifference of the mass of people.

God made us all. We are all members or potential members of the mystical body of Christ. We don’t want to extirpate people; we want to go after ideas. As St. Paul said, “we are not fighting flesh and blood but principalities and powers.”

Read the whole essay here.

The discovery of this Day manuscript is astonishing–for its historical resonance and insight into social activism. Day’s examination of hate politics from the perspective of her deeply rooted Catholicism provides us with clues for today. It forces the question: How do we bring scriptural reflection and the concerns of social justice to bear on the Tea-Partyers, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Lou Dobbs, and others who use hate as a political strategy to gain power?

I was particularly touched by the comments of one contemporary reader of Day’s article who wrote, “I am an 80 -year- old Jew who lived thru the 30s in New York, and my hard heart is melted at seeing for the first time that we had such a beloved advocate. Is that what makes a saint?”

Indeed, Dorothy Day is on the path to official canonization in the Catholic Church (read my article on that here), but papal process is not what makes her a saint. Her prophetic stance rooted in faith and the response of an 80-year-old Jewish woman are.