Interview with the Catholic Worker Movement

As we head into autumn the thoughts of many anarchists in the south of England turn to the Anarchist Bookfair, being held this year at Central St Martin’s near Kings Cross Station, a highlight in the anarchist calendar for many. One of the regular stalls at the Bookfair intrigues some, confuses others and annoys a few so it seemed a good idea to find out a little bit more about the Catholic Worker Movement and why they align themselves with anarchism. I contacted Scott Albrecht for an interview and he kindly agreed.

Scott, most anarchists haven’t heard of The Catholic Worker Movement, and the word ‘Catholic’ isn’t great PR at the moment. Can you tell us a bit about it. How did it start, what are its values, what does it do?

The Catholic Worker was started on May Day 1933 by Dorothy Day, a former communist, and Peter Maurin, a learned man of the road. They decided they wanted to explode ‘the dynamite of Catholic social teaching’, ideas such as Distributism, Subsidiarity, Unions, Voluntary Poverty, Non-violence (although the catholic church as you rightly suggest has been violent, in the last century violence has had its primary roots within the nation state). Dorothy Day promoted pacifism, in fact immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbour the headline of The Catholic Worker Newspaper claimed “We are still Pacifists” The Catholic Worker lost 70,000 readers.

Within the Catholic Worker Movement are Houses of Hospitality for those who have been made destitute by government policy.  I live at The Catholic Worker Farm where we empower women and children who have fled internal and external conflicts, human trafficking, bonded servitude, FGM and domestic violence. We offer 23 of them food, shelter and clothing to start.  Then we offer therapies, Psycho, Group and Dance. We help them get solicitors, GP’s and dental work, put their children into school and generally support them as we share the same dignity.

But it doesn’t stop there.  We engage with the State, non-violently. Many of us have criminal records, I have four! I’ve been in jail over a dozen times. We’ve poured litres and litres of red paint on Government property, dug graves, blockaded and marched against Climate Change, Nuclear Weapons and all of the invasions. We have engaged with the DSEi Arms Fair, the MoD, Northwood Military Headquarters, The Home and Foreign Offices, MI5, and still keep on ‘ploughing’.

Oh yeah,we also Dumpster Dive and grow organic vegetables!

I first came across you at the Anarchist Bookfair in London, maybe about 10 years ago, where you had a stall. I remember you saying that you had a crucifix on it to express the idea that you don’t follow a god who wants to dominate. Are the Catholic Workers inherently anarchist-or is that your take on it? Can Christianity be anarchist? Do you really see a similarity between the teachings of Jesus and anarchism?

Dorothy Day taught that we believe in “the Anarchism of Kropotkin”  It is at the heart of all we do.  We are not a Registered Charities, and take no government funding.  We are trying to build something ‘new in the shell of the old’.  Something with human proportion, with human need at the centre. Zones of liberation.

Many christians are unaware that the earliest christians were pacifists and had a anarchist orientation towards the state.  It wasn’t until the Edict of Toleration in 324CE that Christianity was made legal.  Prior to that, the state kicked the shit out of christians for not worshipping Caesar, the State and not joining the military. To be radical can mean to go back to one’s roots. Christians need to go back and read early christian history.

Jesus taught that the “Archons” (rulers) lord their authority over others and make their presence felt.  He taught that If one wants to lead. one should become a slave of all.  He gets on his knees before the crucifixion and washes his friend’s feet, a role typically reserved in that culture for women or slaves. There are many passages in the Old Testament that forbid the establishment of a kingship; whilst all the other nations worshipped them. In the earliest passages, from Genesis, the Rabbi’s are claiming that all humans are created in the “Image of God”. Quite a radical perspective since all of the other surrounding religions taught that the King alone is the Image of God.

The dominant expression of the Catholic Church has historically been reactionary, patriarchal and often on the side of the oppressor, the antithesis of anarchism-how do you see yourself in relation to that Church?

I see myself as a challenge to that church.  While I may believe in its Dogmas, I believe we must challenge injustice in the church as well.  The church is always the last to change. It’s moves to pay a just wage, to stop pedophile priests are reactionary.  Like any institution, it reacts slowly and largely under pressure. The truth is though that we expect more from those who talk the talk but don’t walk the walk.

However the church is a voluntary association, unlike the State. It gives honour to the role of conscience. The state couldn’t care less. It needs us to remain sedated, support violence or live in fear.

You have been arrested a few times for anti-state/anti-militarist activity- can you tell us more about that? Does Christian Anarchism emphasise anti-militarism? 

I was conned into the military at an early age. The recruitment officers were wining and dining me. Prositituting themselves in order to score me. I was young and believed in the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD).  We had the fear of a Russian nuclear attack hanging over our heads as children. Having become a christian while in the military, I was then confronted with a new doctrine, “Love your Enemies”!  This hit me hard and I went to my commanding officer and said that I would refuse to take direct orders, work on F111 Fighter planes, load Nukes, the lot.

I now understand that the discipline, sense of community, orientation towards a higher goal has been the catalyst for my activism now. Those values (experienced in the armed forces) are still there, just redirected to enrich human life, not to destroy it.

Every Christian Anarchist I know is a Pacifist.

You have spent a lot of years in activism and engaged with social issues-how have you managed to avoid burn out and becoming jaded?

I’m not so sure that I’ve avoided burn out completely. I have been tired and the responsibilities of the farm are immense.  Prayer and trying to allow a revolution of the heart are equally important to me.  What’s it all about if we create utopia and yet know that we are feeling like crap inside?  I have an old black punk shirt that says, “ all anarchists are pretty” Id like to think so.

One of the issues I have though hard on in terms of Direct Action is this. When we close down the gates at Northwood Military Headquarters, do the military not use that as an opportunity to increase their mobility and focus?  If we could stop one bomb from dropping on Iraq, a friend said, it’ll have been worth it. The problem is, as I see it, If we could stop them from dropping one bomb, the military would still be largely effective. They either thrive on adversity or ignore it.

So where does that leave us? Symbolic actions have the power inherent in them to move consciousness. Think of the hammering of the Berlin Wall. The Prophet Isaiah said, “They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks and study war no more.” I like that, weapons into agricultural implements so that we can feed people.

What thinkers, writers etc do you find interesting and inspiring? 

I enjoy reading Chris Hedges, Jacque Ellul, Tolstoy, Ched Myers, Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky, who was willing to Skype us during our Christian Anarchist Conference last year, but he couldn’t get into his office!

What do you think is the most important lesson Christianity can learn from anarchism, and vice versa?

That together we’re stronger. Anarchist can teach christians from their own texts, cause we are largely illiterate!  While christians don’t have a monopoly on it, christians can share their thoughts on the primacy of Love and its power to move immovable objects. I believe in Ghandi’s Truth Force and Jesus’ ‘The truth will set us free’, but we need to understand reality first, on its own terms. Then we need to embrace and bare the burden of it. Only then can we change the course of it.