An Instrument of Peace

On November 8, 1897, just a bit over a century ago, Dorothy Day was born in New York City. She became an activist for peace and social justice, a maverick whose left-wing views bothered Roman Catholic church authorities and whose religious faith puzzled many old-time Communists. Like other American activists such as Mother Jones, Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King, she went to jail for civil disobedience.

I owe a personal debt to Dorothy Day. When I was an undergraduate in the late 1960s and trying to figure out my own faith and my stand on the Vietnam War, I found comfort, faith and direction in Ms Day’s autobiography, The Long Loneliness, and her monthly columns in The Catholic Worker. As a Lutheran I don’t need church bishops to tell me she is a saint, a title which always made her uncomfortable. Most likely she has now found reassurance of her own sainthood among those she admired from Mary of Nazareth, the mother of Jesus and Benedict of Nursia whom historians credit as the father of peace movements in Western Christianity to Mahatma Gandhi, the greatest non-violent activist of the 20th century.

an icon of Dorothy Day

She gave a wonderful, concise statement of her faith and politics in a speech at Union Square on November 6, 1965, two days before her 68th birthday. Here is what she said:

Dorothy Day

“When Jesus walked this earth; True God and True man, and was talking to the multitudes, a woman in the crowd cried out, ‘Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breast that bore you and the breast that nourished you. And he answered her, Yes, but rather, blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it.’ And the word of God is the new commandment he gave us to love our enemies,to overcome evil with good, to love others as he loved us that is, to lay down our lives for our brothers throughout the world, not to take the lives of men, women, and children, young and old, by bombs and napalm and all the other instruments of war.

Instead he spoke of the instruments of peace, to be practiced by all nations to feed the hungry of the world, not to destroy their crops, not to spend billions on defense, which means instruments of destruction. He commanded us to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, to save lives, not to destroy them, these precious lives for whom he willingly sacrificed his own. I speak today as one who is old, and who must uphold and endorse the courage of the young who themselves are willing to give up their freedom. I speak as one who is old, and whose whole lifetime has seen the cruelty and hysteria of war in this last half century. But who has also seen, praise God, the emerging nations of Africa and Asia, and Latin America, achieving in many instances their own freedom through non-violent struggles, side by side with violence. Our own country has through tens of thousand of the Negro people, shown an example to the world of what a non-violent struggle can achieve. This very struggle, begun by students, by the young, by the seemingly helpless, have led the way in vision, in courage, even in a martyrdom, which has been shared by the little children, in the struggle for full freedom and for human dignity which means the right to health, education, and work which is a full development of man’s god-given talents. We have seen the works of man’s genius and vision in the world today, in the conquering of space, in his struggle with plague and famine, and in each andevery demonstration such as this one there is evidence of his struggle against war.

I wish to place myself beside A. J. Muste speaking, if I am permitted, to show my solidarity of purpose with these young men, and to point out that we too are breaking the law, committing civil disobedience, in advocating and trying to encourage all those who are conscripted, to inform their conscience, to heed the still small voice, and to refuse to participate in the immorality of war. It isthe most potent way to end war. We too, by law, myself and all who signed the statement of conscience, should be arrested and we would esteem it an honor to share prison penalties with these others. I would like to conclude these few words with a prayer in the words of St. Francis, saint of poverty and peace, ‘O Lord, make me an instrument of your peace, Where there is hatred, let me sow love.’”

A J Muste with Dorothy Day right before their arrest for supporting young men who burned draft cards

Historical note: A. J. Muste was a Dutch-born labor organizer and pacifist, also present at this demonstration. At the time was 80 years of age.

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