June 22, 2012
Jeff Dietrich is Horatio Alger in reverse. He’s the self-unmade man. While his peers were getting their MBA’s, he was getting arrested at anti-military protests. While they were making money, he was making soup. Last year, as he approached age 65, the Social Security Administration informed him that his total lifetime taxable income was $2,553.82.
He’s the guy the flower-children thought they’d always stay, until they hit 30 and figured they’d better buy life insurance. Jeff Dietrich’s insurance policy was drawn up by his Agent on the Mount: "Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself."
He’s the Man Who Came to Dinner. Over forty years ago, fresh out of college and dodging the draft, 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. He’s been at it ever since. Now, from hundreds of articles written for the paper over the years, he has collected almost 80 of them into a book, Broken and Shared: Food, Dignity, and the Poor on Los Angeles’ Skid Row.
Brilliantly written, combining pathos, outrage, and scholarly analysis with bracingly biting 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 rejected Marx’s social analysis for Jesus’, and Lenin’s brutal Communism for gentle communitarianism in solidarity with the poor.
His great awakening came In 1970. While hitchhiking across the country, he chanced on a meeting of the Milwaukee Catholic Worker, some of whose members were headed off to prison for burning draft files. "As I listened to their story," he recalls, "a light suddenly went on in my head. This is what Jesus would be doing if he were around today. He’d be feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and burning draft files!"
That was his satori, the Zen flash of insight when all reality falls perfectly and permanently into place. In an instant, Catholicism, whose dogmatism and institutionalism had suffocated his spirit as he grew up, was revealed in 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 primal experience. From the earliest ones to the latest, his basic beliefs remain unchanged; they do not evolve, they deepen.
He is an autodidact, and often states he is not a scholar. But his writings reveal a breadth of knowledge and intuitive insight greater than many academic professionals’. Interwoven with citations by a wide array of thinkers and theorists from Jacques Ellul to George Will, his analyses of social problems and the institutional structures he believes cause them make for compelling, contrarian reading.
For Dietrich, Catholicism is all about food and its transubstantiation. Bread is not just bread, it’s the substance that unifies humanity. The ritual of the altar and the ritual of the soup kitchen are two dimensions of the same Eucharist: "Just as Christ ... feeds us with his body," he writes, "so we also ... feed the poor." There is "no distinction between our daily lives of service to the poor and our communion with Christ in the Eucharist."
Most impressive is his eye-opening exegesis of Scripture. As always, his focus is on food, particularly 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 mercantilism and militarism as the central problem. In Dietrich’s view of sacred history, after the expulsion from the self-sustainable Garden of Eden, the human trajectory of exploitation runs in pretty much a straight line from the farmer-murderer Cain and the hybris of the Tower of Babel right up 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 Synoptic Gospels, was to liberate the hungry from the institutions, religious and secular, that work to keep them that way. It’s not by chance, he shows, that Matthew’s Gospel 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 Jesus’ feeding of the five thousand. 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."
Again and again he insists that the fundamental message of Jesus has been hijacked by institutional Christianity, from Constantine painting the Cross on the shields of his soldiers to the religious empire-builders of the present day. (Cardinal Roger Mahony’s multimillion-dollar cathedral, built overlooking Los Angeles’ Skid Row, is a particularly easy target.)
Dietrich despises the political co-optation of religion, as in "Christian Family Values." The Jesus of the Scriptures, he points out, is no poster-boy for this movement, having rejected his family ("Who is my mother?") and demanded that his disciples also leave theirs to follow him.
Read Jeff Dietrich, and you’ll never read the Gospels the conventional way again.
All this heavy thinking, mind you, has been done in the spare moments when he wasn’t chopping celery, breaking up skid-row fights, and pouring blood on the steps of City Hall (though his 40-some stints in jail for civil disobedience did give him larger blocks of writing time).
Inspiration for his writing comes from the streets, and most of these essays are intertwined with stories of the alcoholics and addicts, the down-and-out and desperate, the incarcerated and infected that he deals with every day.
"The poor are not nice!" he writes. "The poor are a pain in the neck." Yet "without the poor, there is no cross, there is no Resurrection, no Easter, no Christianity." For Jeff Dietrich and his fellow Catholic Workers, the victimization and liberation of the poor lie at the center of the Mystery of Faith.
Like his mentor Dorothy Day, the Old Testament prophets, and Jesus himself, Dietrich’s is a voice crying out in the food desert, from the periphery of the System, calling those deep within the System — politician and prelate, capitalist and consumer — to practice justice, to practice Jesus.