March 8, 2012
BOOK REVIEW: Broken and Shared, by Jeff Dietrich
Los Angeles: Marymount Institute Press, 2011
418 pp., illustrated. $29.95
Jeff Dietrich is Horatio Alger in reverse. He's the self- unmade man. While his peers were making money, he was making soup. The Social Security Administration calculates his total lifetime income to be $2,553.82.
He's the Man Who Came to Dinner. Over forty years ago, he dropped in at the Catholic Worker soup kitchen on L.A.'s Skid Row and never left.
Fortunately for the world, the leaders of the Catholic Worker community saw talent in the lad and immediately made him the editor of their bimonthly eight-page tabloid, the Catholic Agitator. Now, from hundreds of articles written for the paper over the years, he has culled almost 80 of them for his new book, Broken and Shared: Food, Dignity, and the Poor on Los Angeles' Skid Row.
Brilliantly written, combining pathos, outrage, and scholarly analysis with bracingly ironic humor, Dietrich's essays reflect and amplify the vision of the founders of the Catholic Worker movement, Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, two radicals who during the Great Depression rejected Marx's social analysis for Jesus', and Lenin's monolithic Communism for simple solidarity with the poor.
In 1970, while hitchhiking across the country, he chanced on a meeting of the Milwaukee Catholic Worker, some of whose members were headed for prison for burning draft files. "This is what Jesus would be doing if he were around today," he recalls thinking. "He'd be feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and burning draft files!"
It was his satori, that Zen flash of insight when all reality falls perfectly into place. Suddenly, the Catholicism of his childhood, dogmatic and institutional, was distilled to its essence: "We were not supposed to worship Jesus," he writes, "we were supposed to practice Jesus."
Taken as a whole, these essays confirm that experience. From the earliest ones to the latest, his basic beliefs remain unchanged; they do not evolve, they deepen. Out of modesty he says he is not a scholar, but his writings reveal a breadth of knowledge greater than many academic professionals'. Interwoven with citations by a wide array of thinkers and theorists, his analyses of social problems and the institutional structures he believes cause them make for compelling, contrarian reading.
Most impressive is his informed and eye-opening exegesis of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures. Not surprisingly, his focus is on food and why some grow fat while others go hungry. The Hebrew Scriptures, he argues in many articles over many years, consistently point to "big agriculture" and its ensuing commerce and militarization as the root cause, from Cain the farmer (scorned by the Hebrew God for Abel, the hunter-gatherer) to today's global agribusiness: Those who grow the food hold power over those who don't. The mission of Jesus, especially as depicted in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, was to liberate the hungry from the institutions that keep them that way. He shows that it's not by chance that Matthew juxtaposes King Herod's banquet, where the main course is John the Baptist's head on a platter ("not a typical dinner party arranged by, say, Martha Stewart") with his feeding of the 5,000 from their own resources. Thus the "power lunches" of Washington, where "decisions are made that consign the poor, the immigrant, and the homeless to death" stand opposed to the soup kitchen at the Catholic Worker: "When food and hospitality are shared outside the money economy, the kingdom of God has come near."
Many other assaults against conventional wisdom await you, such as why Jesus is hardly the exemplar of Christian Family Values.
This book will either drive you crazy or drive you sane.