At various times in her life, Dorothy Day considered herself an anarchist, and she was for a brief period a socialist. Her relationship with politics was always complex and often confounding. She believed individuals should not leave to government what they should do themselves, and while she was an early advocate of women’s suffrage, she never voted. Throughout her life, she challenged the government’s authority to levy taxes, wage war, implement a draft, and develop weaponry. She marched, protested, witnessed, and was arrested when she felt that government infringed upon or did not uphold human dignity and care for the vulnerable. Not everyone agreed with her stances or her tactics, but everyone knew that she stood upon her convictions and would be heard.
Questions to Consider
- Why was Heschel’s vocal and very visible opposition to the Vietnam War so controversial in some quarters of American Judaism? What did American Jews have to lose by opposing the war? What might they gain by supporting it?
- What was the basis for Heschel’s opposition to the Vietnam War? How did he relate the teachings of the prophets to what was happening in Vietnam? Why did Heschel view the fight against Hitler in World War II as necessary, while the Vietnam War was a tragic and deeply unjust event?
- Why did Heschel, King, and other members of CALCAV hold a prayer vigil in Arlington Cemetery in February 1968? What was the significance of bringing the Torah scrolls to that protest? Do you think Heschel, King, and the others were taking a great risk?
- Benjamin Sax suggests that, by opposing the Vietnam War, Heschel was “putting at risk his life’s work to do the right thing,” and that Heschel was aware of what his actions might cost him. Do you agree with this assessment?
- Several commentators suggest that, by taking controversial public stands, such as opposition to the Vietnam War, King and Heschel sometimes found themselves socially or politically isolated. Nonetheless, they had each other to lean on, support, and take inspiration from. How do you envision their relationship? What do you imagine were its primary attributes?
Related Day Quotes
We make this demonstration not only to voice our opposition to war, not only to refuse to participate in psychological warfare, which this air raid drill is, but also as an act of public penance for having been the first people in the world to drop the atomic bomb. We are engaging only ourselves in this action, not the Church. We are acting as individual Catholics. (The Life You Save May Be Your Own, 236)
[Writing of her youthful engagement with Socialism] For me Christ no longer walked the streets of this world. He was two thousand years dead and new prophets had risen up in His place. I was in love now with the masses. . . . The poor and oppressed were going to rise up, and they were collectively the new Messiah, and they would release the captives. (The Long Loneliness, 46).
[Writing of her decision to convert to Catholicism] I had become convinced that I would become a Catholic; yet I felt I was betraying the class to which I belonged, the workers, the poor of the world, with whom Christ spent His life. (The Long Loneliness, 144)
[Of that conversion] I was just as much against capitalism and imperialism as ever, and here I was going over to the opposition, because of course the Church was lined up with property, with the wealthy, with the state, with capitalism, with all the forces of reaction. This I had been taught to think and this I still think to a great extent. (The Long Loneliness, 149)
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