Dorothy Day and Pacifism

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Since the emergence of theological systems of belief, theologians have created various doctrines and religious sects in accordance with their individual interpretations of scripture and church texts. Dorothy Day follows this tradition by constructing the doctrine of absolute pacifism from her interpretation of the Bible. She understands the Bible’s literal text and its explanation of the message of Jesus’ ministry as evidence for nonviolent solutions to all conflicts. However, a critical evaluation of the Bible along with Day’s arguments reveals clear flaws and contradictions in her employment of the Bible to support her own ideas. Dorothy Day’s arguments for pacifism remain justifiable to a degree. However, an examination of the Bible highlights both that explicit quotations exist in support of physical force as a means to resolving conflict and that Day’s pacifism fails to coincide completely with the Jesus’ message of love because it does not fully respect the human dignity central to His message.

While Dorothy Day explains that the Bible demands an absolute pacifist attitude from humans, students can interpret this document as a sanction for physical force in certain situations. Day bases her argument for the necessity of pacifism upon her reading of the Bible’s exact text and its depiction of Jesus’ life. She finds that the Biblical text plainly and clearly calls for pacifism. For instance, Day comments that, “Our manifesto is the Sermon on the Mount, which means that we will try to be peacemakers” (Day 262). At the same time, Day adhered to the conviction that one must lead a life in “imitatio Christi”, which means that, since Jesus never used physical force in his ministry as represented in Scripture, individuals must always resolve conflicts through nonviolent means. Although Day supports her argument successfully, an examination of the Bible offers textual evidence in support of using physical force as an appropriate means for resolving conflict and, consequently, weakens her justification for absolute pacifism. The Old Testament portrays an image of a war-like God who uses physical retribution as an answer for sin. The Book of Genesis states that, “The Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven, and he overthrew those cities, and all the plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground” (19:24-25). This quotation does not directly prove that Jesus sanctioned violence, but it both allows for such an inference to be made and consequently undermines Day’s argument. If God employed violent means in the Old Testament, and if Jesus is both fully human and fully God, then individuals would necessarily need to view Jesus as allowing for violent means in certain situations in order to not construct a contradictory view of God. The New Testament furthers this idea by offering clear imagery of Jesus commanding violence in the last judgment of humanity. The Book of Revelation states that, “the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet…the two were cast alive into the lake of fire that burneth with brimstone: and the rest were killed with the sword of him that sat upon the horse (19:19-21).

Although Dorothy Day believes that pacifism fully coincides with Jesus’ message of love, pacifism stands in contradiction to Jesus’ message because it denies the absolute dignity for all humans that exists as a central component of this message. Jesus’ ministry does focus upon the love of God and the love of others, as he states to, “love the Lord thy God with all thy heart,” and to, “love thy neighbor as thyself” (Matthew 25:37-40). The dignity of all humans exists as a central component of this message, because life of love is sought, in large part, to preserve and promote the dignity inherent to all humans. Jesus exemplifies this connection when he heals the blind and cleans the lepers of his society. Dorothy Day’s message of pacifism does coincide with Jesus’ message because it encompasses the love preached in Jesus’ ministry and it does appear correct in believing that the avoidance of violence is essential in loving others. These points become evident when Day supports her arguments with Jesus’ commandment to “‘love your enemies…and pray for those who persecute and calumniate, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven’” (261). Day’s doctrine also embraces the call to respect human dignity, as she adheres to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Yet, Day’s doctrine of pacifism fails to fully align with the ministry of love preached by Jesus because it misinterprets his message and falls short of fully respecting the dignity of all humans. Dorothy Day’s interpretation of Jesus’ call to love enemies falls short of its true intentions. Rather than being a singular command to amicably associate with enemies, the true intention of this command is to emphasize the depth and extent of God’s love for humanity, and, as a result, a doctrine of pacifism can not rightly follow from this quotation. The theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer commented on the purpose of this message. He states that, “‘since we are tempted to restrict love to those we like, Jesus sharply defines the sort of love he is talking about. In the enemy, God magnifies divine love” (Green 38). While interpreting this message, Day’s pacifism fails to fully respect human dignity. Maintaining human dignity means that an individual respects the fundamental rights and goals of fellow humans. Self preservation exists as a right that must be maintained in order to preserve human dignity, because, as Aquinas highlights in the Summa Theologica, this characteristic exists as the most fundamental quality common to all substances. However, pacifism fails to respect this inclination and right because this doctrine allows for the continual appeasement of aggressors along with both the violation of victims’ rights and the endangerment of their existence. Pacifists may reply that an attack upon aggressors would violate their own human dignity, but many theologians recognize that unjustified aggressors forfeit their rights and the protection of their dignity when they decide to take a violent position to others. Jan Narveson writes that, “because of the pivotal nature of this interest [self preservation], there emerges a general rule for all: do not kill. Those who violate it vacate their eligibility for protection. To earn the right to life we must respect it in others” (62).

Dorothy Day’s arguments for pacifism are valid to an extent. However, the Biblical text and the ministry of Jesus service as evidence that Day’s message falls short in certain respects. Day seems to lift text from the Bible that supports her argument, while she fails to address those areas in the Bible that support physical violence in resolving conflict. At the same time, her doctrine of pacifism fails to fully coincide with the message of love spread by Jesus that acts as its foundation. Because of this reasons, theologians and students alike must remain cautious when studying and accepting the tents of Dorothy Day’s pacifism. Jesus explained that individuals must create works with their faith to exist as true believers in Christ, and a critical examination of pacifism highlights that this doctrine falls short of creating the works necessary for truly living the faith.

Works Cited

College Study Bible. Winona, Minnesota: Saint Mary’s P, 2007.

Ellsberg, Robert, ed. Dorothy Day: Selected Writings. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 261-267.

Green, Clifford J. “Pacifism and Tyrannicide: Bonhoeffer’s Christian Peace Ethic.” Studies in Christian Ethics 18 (2005): 31-47.

Narveson, Jan. “Pacifism, Ideology, and the Human Right of Self Defence.” Journal of Human Rights 1 (March 2002): 55-69.

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