Social Justice

The Prophecy of Isaiah Continued in the Catholic Worker Movement

posted on 03/09/10 03:50 pm by Fr. Paul Hansen, C.Ss.R.  

Isaiah the prophet of the Jewish scriptures belongs to the last years of the Kingdom of Judah in the 8th. Century BCE. His mission was to announce the fall of Israel and of Judah as the due punishment for the whole nation’s unfaithfulness. The Kingdom of Judah was looking for military alliances to deal with the threat of an Assyrian invasion. Isaiah resisted all such human expedients as showing a lack of faith in Gad and God’s purposes. Isaiah advised the King not to capitulate and the city of Jerusalem was saved without a battle.

Much later this prophecy was carried into the Babylonian Exile in the 6th. Century BCE and new chapters were added to the prophecy. (40-55) Known as the “Book of the Consolation of Israel.” Here we find the four songs of the Servant of Yahweh very familiar to Christians and some of the most beautiful poetry in all the scriptures. Chapters 55-66 contain prophecies, which point toward the restoration in Jerusalem and the building of the new temple after Exile.

I would suggest that the prophecy of Isaiah is a movement, or a call or even better, a school of discipleship within Israel. Originally inspired by a single prophet, the prophecy has now become a way of life lived by disciples, a presence kept alive in adversity and exile. The early Christians saw in Jesus and The Way a fulfillment of this prophecy.

The prophecy of Isaiah speaks against putting one’s hope in preparations for war: “these will hammer their swords into ploughshares, their spears into sickles. Nation will not lift sword against nation, there will be no more training for war” 2:5. It speaks a satire on idolatry 44:9 “They are all makers of idols; they are nothing and the works they prize are all useless.” In chapter 58 we are reminded of the kind of Fast God expects of us: “to break unjust fetters and undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and break every yoke, to share your bread with the hungry and shelter the homeless poor, to clothe the one you see to be naked…” We are all called to accept the great invitation of the Messianic Banquet where: “On this mountain Yahweh will prepare for all peoples a banquet of rich food, a banquet of fine wines” 25:6.

This school of prophecy and discipleship continues today in movements like that of the Catholic Worker. Founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, the Catholic Worker is truly a 20th century prophetic movement and a lived continuation of the prophecy of Isaiah. Day and Maurin opened houses of hospitality where the poor could be fed, clothed and housed. The Catholic Worker Movement is not simply a presence of charity among us. It is a presence inviting us to transform our culture so that people will be compelled to share, cooperate in community living and respect the earth. Peter Maurin insisted that we must create a society in which it is “easy to be good.”

In the fifties when school children in the United States were being educated to “duck and hide” under their desks in preparation for nuclear war or having to go to shelters, Dorothy Day was having a picnic in Central Park in New York City. In so doing she was breaking the civil law because of her obedience to a divine law. She knew Isaiah the prophet well.

Dorothy Day challenged the idols of culture in a radical manner. She refused to worship at their altars of militarism and consumerism. She lived a life of voluntary poverty and invited others to do the same. She entered the struggles of ordinary people like the Farm Workers in North America in their boycott of grapes and lettuce helping them to survive the system and to build another way.

Peter Maurin died on May 15th, 1949. Dorothy Day died on November 29th, 1980. Both Maurin and Day during their lifetime were often called saints. Dorothy dismissed such a notion. “Don’t call me a saint. I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.” She didn’t want recycling food from dumpsters, sleeping on a stinky prison floor, and getting to mass every afternoon to be dismissed as being only for special people. All people of God are called to be saints. The possibility of her being declared a saint is very real. The process has started.

Throughout Canada and the United States Catholic Worker houses of hospitality continue to be found. Their members live a life of simplicity as they feed, clothe and house the wounded and broken. They critique the idolatry of war and invite all of us to be willing to accept and participate in that great Messianic Banquet of Isaiah. The prophecy of Isaiah lives on in the Catholic Worker.

Paul E. Hansen

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