The memory of the small, yet powerful figure of Cesar Chavez addressing the convocation will always be with me. We had listened to a Bishop, a former State Governor, several academic types, and an activist or two, but when Chavez spoke, he embodied the message so completely that Rerum Novarum's truth came to life in this good man. This occurred at a celebration of the Centenary of RN in 1991.
I remembered this event again as I read Dalton's The Moral Vision of Cesar Chavez for this review. Thanks to Dalton (and to Orbis Books for its continuing commitment to the alternative voices in our tradition), more people should have access not only to the vision of Chavez which Dalton analyzes well, but also to the personality of this follower of Jesus in our time.
Dalton makes clear from the beginning the subject of his project: "the locus of moral theological reflection" is the "Christian praxis of Cesar Chavez". He "re-tells" the story of Chavez, not the story of the upwardly mobile, hard-working Mexican American who worked his way out of the farm fields where he had spent his youth in a large migrant family. Other authors document how Chavez had "made it" into a white-collar job that might have given him more money and another kind of prestige had he continued to pursue that early career. Dalton's story is about the Chavez who said, "All my life, I have been driven by one dream, one goal, one vision: To overthrow a system that treats farm workers as if they are not important human beings," the man who gave up other work to devote his life to la causa, Chavez' name for the herculean effort he had to lead farm workers to create their own organization. Dalton's work, the fruit of his research for his doctorate, brings together liberation ethics and virtue ethics in the story of Chavez. The two ethical approaches are often addressed in different, even contrasting settings. Using the actual histories—of Chavez' personal achievements, his learning how to use his own experience, the history of the labor movement in California, the work with Alinsky on organizin—-Dalton clarifies how liberation ethics works. He analyzes again (as Chavez had done earlier) the political and social situations of the agribusinesses in California, and the actions in support of justice which were called forth in the particular settings. These actions brought Chavez and the farm workers to situations of conflict, especially with the owners who often had politicians and church leaders on their side. La lucha, the struggle, was often intense and demanding.
It was "not just a struggle in the fields, legislative halls, and corporate boardrooms; la causa was a struggle in the hearts and minds." (24) It demanded new sets of virtues of all involved in the issues. And always for Chavez la causa was in the context of faith. Chavez' faith was not complicated: it was the faith of the grandmothers, prayer, penance, pilgrimage, devotion to the Virgin of Guadalupe. Neither was it simple. It called, along with the practices, for more than lip-service to what the church teaches. Dalton's account of Chavez' differences with owners, many of whom were Christian, reveals how faith can sometimes lead us in different ways.
As a teacher of social justice issues I found Dalton’s book to be helpful for illustrating not only the fruitfulness of modern Catholic social teaching, but also for demonstrating how it can be lived, albeit in a setting different from our own. The "document" tradition of the papal encyclicals and other social teachings are greatly enriched by "heroes and heroines" whose lives teach so artfully what it’s all about. There are many helpful synthetic treatments in the book of issues like nonviolence, prayer, virtue and prophecy, but it is in the the very earthy telling of the story (including the warts, the character flaws and limitations of the man) of Cesar Chavez, “a contemporary prophet of truth and justice, a man whose life and vision witness to human dignity and the promise of freedom from unjust suffering for all people,” (154) that Dalton’s work is most instructive and creative.