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When Dorothy Day Took a Knee

Volume 31, Issue 10,11 & 12, December 20, 2017

Robert Ellsberg, September 26, 2017, Excerpted from America, The Jesuit Review

     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 NFL players “take 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.
     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.
     Those players who have “taken a knee”, undaunted by accusations that they are unpatriotic, have stood for something. And Dorothy, for one, would have certainly knelt with them – in prayer for justice and reconciliation; in penance for the legacy of slavery and injustice. God help us.