The Class of Nonviolence
Lesson 3, Reading 4
By Dorothy Day
A principle, Dorothy Day believed, remains abstract until it costs us something. In 1961, she welcomed the opportunity to see the value of one of her convictions in a gesture of disarming originality. The cost was $3,579.39. For years the Catholic Worker had repeated Peter Maurin’s defense of the medieval ban on usury. The acceptance of the belief that value resides in the currency rather than labor, he believed, was a turning point in the transition from a functional to an acquisitive society. The Catholic Worker could not single-handedly reverse this process, but it could at least issue a solitary protest, and make what Peter would call “a Point.”
The Catholic Worker
39 Spring Street
New York 12, NY
City of New York
We are returning to you a check for $3,579.39 which represents interest on the $68,700 which we were awarded by the city as a payment for the property at 223 Chrystie Street which we owned and lived for almost 10 years, and used as a community for the poor. We did not voluntarily give up the property – it was taken from us by the right of eminent domain for the extension of the subway which the city deemed necessary. We had to wait almost a year and a half for the money owed us, although the city permitted us to receive two-0thirds of the assessed valuation of the property in advance so that we could relocate. Property owning having been made impossible for us by city regulations, we are now renting and continuing our work.
We are returning the interest on the money we have recently received because we do not believe in “money lending” at interest. As Catholics we are acquainted with the early teaching of the Church. All the early councils forbade it, declaring it reprehensible to make money by lending it out at interest. Canon law of the Middle Ages forbade it and in various decrees ordered that profit so obtained was to be restored. In the Christian emphasis on the duty of charity, we are commanded to lend gratuitously, to give freely, even in the case of confiscation, as in our own case – not to resist but to accept cheerfully.
We o not believe in the profit system, and so we cannot take profit or interest on our money. People who take a mnaterialistic view of human service wish to make a profit but we are tryin to do our suty by our service without wages to our brothers as Jesus commended in the Gospel (Matthew 25.) Loaning money at interest is deemed by one Franciscan as the principle scourge of civilization. Eric Gill, the English artist and writer, calls usury and war the two great problems of our time.
Since we have dealt with these problems in every issue of The Catholic Worker since 1933 – man’s freedom, war and peace, man and the state, man and his work – and since Scripture says that the love of money is the root of all evil, we are taking this opportunity to live in practice of this belief, and make a gesture of overcoming that love of money by returning to you the interest.
Insofar as our money paid for services for the common good, and aid to the poor, we should be very happy to allow you to use not only our money without interest, but also our work, the Works of Mercy which we all perform here at the headquarters of The Catholic Worker without other salary or recompense than our daily food and lodging, clothes and incidental expenses.
Insofar as the use of our money paid for the time being for salaries for judges who have condemned us and others to jail, and for the politicians who appointed them, and for prisons, and the execution chamber at Sing Sing, and for the executioner’s salary, we can only protest the use of our money and turn with utter horror from taking interest on it.
Please also be assured that we are not judging individuals, but are trying to make a judgment on the system under which we live and with which we admit that we ourselves compromise daily in many small ways, but which we try and wish to withdraw from as much as possible.
Dorothy Day, Editor
It is not easy, having acted upon principle, to explain it in ways acceptable and understood by others. An instance is our recent sending back of the interest on the money given us for St. Joseph’s House on Chrystie Street.
During the course of the month we have received a few letters, not very many, of criticism of our act. One letter, from a generous benefactor who had given us a large sum when her father died, pointed out that if her parent had not invested his money wisely she and her mother would not have had anything left to live on; also that we probably received many donations which came from dividends, interest, etc.
I only try to answer as best I can. But sometimes one confuses others the more by trying to answer objections. When we wrote our letter to the city. And published it in the paper, we also printee some excerpts for the teaching of St. tjhomas Acquinas on interest and money lending. We use some of Peter Maurin’s easy essays on the subject, and an article by Arthur Sheehan on credit unions which, however, ask for a small interest on their loans. How can this be reconciled with the “gesture” we made of returning to the city the large check which represented the interest for a year and a half on the money poaid us for our property on Chrystie Street? First of all, we asked with Chesterton: Whose money is this interest which the city was paying us? Where did it come from? Money does not breed money; it is sterile.
To answer our correspondent: Of course we are involved, the same as everyone else, in living off interest. We are all caught up in this same money economy. Just as “God writes straight with crooked lines,” so we too waver, struggle on our devious path – always aiming at God, even though we are conditioned by habits and ancestry, etc. We have free will, which is our greatest gift. We are free to choose, and as we see more clearly, our choice is more direct and easier to make. Be we all see through a glass darkly. It would be heaven to see Truth face to face.
We are publishing a paper in which ideas are discussed and clarified, and illustrated by act. So we are not just a newspaper. We are a revolution, a movement, as Peter Maurin used to say. We are propagandists of the faith. We are the Church. We are members of the Mystical Body. We all must try to function healthi8ly. We do not all have the same function, but we all have a vocation, a calling. Ours is a “prophetic” one, as many priests have said to us. Pope John recently cited the courage of John the Baptist as an example for today. Prophets made great gestures, did things to call attention to whatever they were talking about. That was what we did; we made a gesture, when we returned the money to the city. It was calling attention to a great unsolved problem in which we are all involved, Church, State, corporation, institution, individual.
There is no simple solution. Let the priests and the economists get to work on it. It is a moral and an ethical problem. We can work on the lowest level, the credit union in the parish, for instance. Through the credit union families have been taught to resist the skillful seductions of the advertising men and by doing without many things, to attain ownership, homes, workshops, tools, small factories, and so on. These things have happened in Nova Scotia, in missions throughout the world, and is one way to combat what the bishops call the all-encr0oaching state. It is the beginning of the decentralist society.
So, primarily, our sending back the money was a gesture. It was the first time we had to do so with so large a sum of money. We were being reimbursed by the city – and generously, as far as money went – for the house and our improvements on it. (They had taken over the property by the right of eminent domain because a subway extension was going through.) One can argue that the value of the property went up, that the city had 18 months’ use of our money, that money purchases less now, and so on. The fact remains that the city was doing what it could to pay off each and every tenant in the two tenement houses from which they were being evicted, giving bonuses, trying to find other lodgings, though these were usually unacceptable, being in other neighborhoods or boroughs.
We agree that slums need to be eliminated, but that an entire neighborhood, which is like a village made up of many nationalities, should be scattered, displaced – this is wanton cruelty, and one of the causes of the juvenile delinquency of our cities. Also, it is terribly bad and ruthless management on the part of the city fathers.
Is Robert Moses responsible? He is the planner. But he deals recklessly with inanimate brick and cement at the expense of flesh and blood. He is walking ruthlessly over brokenhearted families to make a great outward show of a destroyed and rebuilt city. He has been doing what blockbusters and obliteration bombing did in European and British cities. Right now and entire neighborhood just south of Tomkins Square where some of our poor friends live is being demolished and the widows and fatherless are crying to heaven. The city fathers try to recompense them, try to give them bonuses to get out quickly. But what good does the money do them when there is no place to go? They do not want to go to another neighborhood or even to another block. Actually, as piled-up furniture on the street testifies, many cling to their poor homes until the last moment, and probably forfeit the 200 or 300 dollars that they are offered, rather than be exiled. That money means as much to them as the 2,000 or 3,000 did to us.
There is talk about doing things economically, yet money is poured out like water in all directions and scandals are always being unearthed of cheating and graft in high places. This extends down to the smallest citizen, too, trying to get in on the big deal and get his – from the building inspector who expects to be tipped, to the little veteran around the corner who is speculating in the real estate by buying and improving and renting and then selling back his property to the city at exorbitant prices. “It doesn’t matter if it is going to be torn down in a year or so,” he assures us. “Rent out all the apartments and stores and then you can ask more from the city.” Big deal! Everyone is trying to get in on the Moses big deal.
So to put it on the natural but often most emotional plane of simple patriotism, love of country or city, this feeling too, prompted us to send back the interest. We do not want to participate in this big deal. “Why are there wars and contentions among you? Because each one seeketh his own.”
We considered this a gesture, too, toward peace, a spiritual weapon which is translated into action. We cannot talk about these ideas without trying to put them into practice, though we do it clumsily and are often misunderstood.
We are not trying to be superior, holier than thou. Of course we are involved in paying taxes, in living on money which comes from our industrial capitalist way of life. But we can try, by voluntary poverty and labor, to earn our living, and not to be any more involved than we can help. We, all of us, partake in a way in the sin of Sapphira and Ananias, by holding back our time, our love, our material resources even, after making great protestations of “absolutism.” May God and you, our readers, forgive us. We are, in spite of all we try to do, unprofitable servants.
from By Little and By Little, the Selected Writings of Dorothy Day. Knopf, New York.
This reading is from The Class of Nonviolence, prepared by Colman McCarthy of the Center for Teaching Peace, 4501 Van Ness Street, NW, Washington, D.C. 20016 202.537.1372