How to protest like a Catholic Worker
As Patrick Gilger, S.J., says in his article “Re-enchanting the World,” it is hard to find belonging in an age where we lack a sense of common meaning. As a result, Father Gilger explains, protest movements can become a major source of commonality. But, he argues, bonds based on resistance and refusal are fragile if they lack a positive orientation.
Yet, while belonging is tenuous in some ways, being a part of certain systems is the nearly unavoidable default. Simply being a U.S. citizen, for example, means I am complicit in anything the government does in my name or with my tax dollars—from deporting undocumented immigrants and bombing foreign countries to funding schools, infrastructure projects and services to those in need. I, along with the vast majority of Americans, cannot meet my basic needs without using products produced by people I do not know. I am connected to public power grids, water lines and sewer systems, and depend on fossil fuels for transportation.
Some aspects of this connectedness might be good. But consequences of our interrelatedness make it more difficult to act as though we truly belong to each other. The systems we are a part of can hurt workers at home and abroad, innocent citizens of countries with which we are at war, migrants fleeing violence, people living in poverty or future generations who need the earth to remain a livable environment. Sometimes, it is precisely for the sake of recognizing our connection to—and responsibility for—our fellow humans that we build movements that include a strong element of protest and refusal. And when we begin from the premise that we belong to each other, we do not just resist the “reigning social system” for the sake of resistance; we also have a constructive vision to work toward.
I first realized how difficult—and beautiful—this kind of resistance can be when I visited White Rose Catholic Worker Farm in La Plata, Mo. If you ask members of White Rose what they are against, they might have a long list, including militarism, global warming, consumerism, torture and exploitation of workers. It is their opposition to these forms of violence and oppression that led them to refuse things many Americans consider necessities—paid employment, cars, pre-packaged food, indoor plumbing and electricity—in order to avoid paying taxes that fund unjust wars, polluting the environment and supporting unethical businesses. Yet they might also tell you that distancing themselves from many mainstream institutions and practices has made them closer to God, nature and their fellow humans. As they see it, disconnecting as much as they can from the U.S. government, the global economy and modern technology has not isolated them; it is this very detachment that frees them to live lives of sacrifice, community and joy.
While more extreme than many Catholic Workers, White Rose is part of a long tradition of resistance and community building started by Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day in the 1930s. Models of “refusal” in many ways, Day, Maurin and many Catholic Workers since have resisted the government by committing acts of nonviolent civil disobedience: refusing to pay taxes, to be drafted or to register as non-profits, and criticizing state-sponsored welfare programs.
Yet Maurin and Day stood for much more than refusal. Their whole manner of thinking was based on a positive message rooted in the Gospel: the recognition of the value of each human, and the premise that we must take responsibility for recognizing that value through direct acts of service, voluntary poverty, pacifism and communal living. The movement they started is responsible for hundreds of houses of hospitality (including the Oakland Catholic Worker, where I live and work), which focus on meeting the needs of their local communities. “We believe not only in St. Thomas’ doctrine of the common good,” Dorothy Day wrote in her 1955 fall appeal, “but feel [the common good] can be affected only if each one of us alone realizes his personal responsibility to his brother, that his love for God must be shown in his love for his brother, and that love must be expressed in the works of mercy, practiced personally, at a personal sacrifice.”
Of course, this belief does not eliminate hard decisions about how and when to protest or cooperate. At the Oakland Catholic Worker, we serve Latin American immigrants, many of them undocumented, who have often been severely harmed by our nation’s laws and policies. This sometimes means we work outside of government structures, participate in protests and maybe even practice civil disobedience. But we also work with government-funded programs, advocate to our representatives and help people sign up for welfare.
Whether we choose belonging or refusal, though, we are at our best when all of our decisions are centered around the people we try to serve—particularly Latin American immigrants living in our area but also other neighbors in East Oakland, our nation and people around the world. What impresses me most about the Oakland Catholic Worker is the community of hundreds of donors and volunteers who contribute to our work each year: the staff, volunteers and board members who came to receive help and returned to serve others; the guests who braved the border to make a better life for their children; and the kids who steal our office supplies, care for their younger siblings and brighten our lives with their artwork. We may not have put the world back together but, while we work on that, we try to exemplify the positive goal of resistance by bringing our community together.