When Dorothy Day took a knee
Ammon Hennacy, a courageous activist who joined the Catholic Worker in the 1950s, said he was inspired to become a Catholic by the example of Dorothy Day. Specifically, he referred to an occasion during Mass when the organist began to play “The Star Spangled Banner.” As everyone else stood up, Dorothy dropped to her knees in prayer. Dorothy did not like that story; she did not think that was the right reason to become a Catholic. But she did not dispute Ammon’s account. In his view, Dorothy’s action represented a courageous repudiation of the blurring of cross and flag (and sword) that went all the way back to Constantine.
I thought of Dorothy when I saw images of N.F.L. players “taking a knee” in protest during pre-game renditions of the national anthem this past weekend. Of course, the context is very different. Possibly, the players, who were protesting racism and making a gesture of defiance against a president’s provocative appeals to white nationalist grievance, did not exactly think that they were “praying.” But the symbolism of dropping to a knee in the midst of a patriotic ceremony would not be lost on Dorothy. Though not really a football fan, she would surely have understood and honored their protest.
The symbolism of dropping to a knee in the midst of a patriotic ceremony would not be lost on Dorothy Day.
Dorothy stood with those who questioned authority, who followed their own lights, and raised a nonviolent witness to justice, equality and human dignity. She loved her country and she loved the church, and part of that meant knowing when to stand and when to kneel, when to sit still and when to march.
You could say that Dorothy “took a knee” when she refused to collaborate with New York’s compulsory civil defense drills—rehearsals for doomsday—by sitting in City Hall Park. Like the N.F.L. players, she was charged with being unpatriotic, if not treasonous. But for her, protest and prayer were not entirely separate. If her life was a prayer for peace, it was also a protest against all the forces that demean and degrade life. That certainly would have included the forces of white nationalism and the devaluation of black lives.
Those players who have “taken a knee,” undaunted by accusations that they are unpatriotic, have stood for something. And Dorothy, for one, would certainly have knelt with them—in a prayer for justice and reconciliation; in penance for the legacy of slavery and injustice. God help us.