Twice in my life I've burned a dollar bill -- a few years ago as a Lenten prayer and more than 20 years ago at a Catholic Worker gathering. Both times the impact took me by surprise.
The first time we were in Las Vegas, celebrating what would have been Dorothy Day's eightieth birthday by getting arrested at a White Sands nuclear weapons protest. The sheriff didn't press charges. Now, it was dark, and 50 or so of us were gathered in a church courtyard.
We acknowledged our sinfulness and our shared responsibility for the military-industrial complex. I set fire to the dollar bill and we used it to light candles. Then we sang and shared peace.
The night sky glowed with casino lights and I, living on a bare-bones budget, felt the loss of my crumpled dollar bill, pulled out of my pocket -- but more I felt the pull of what that dollar could buy and my choice to live on the margins of society. That fire felt like a sacrament, immolating my own access to power and comfort.
Some years later, when I'd pretty well forgotten that first impact and had to lead a Lenten prayer, I did it again, this time in a small bowl. We passed it around, amazed at how the dollar had held its markings in the ash. Then we used that ash to sign each other with the cross.
This time I was overwhelmed with sorrow. The charred image captured my sense of the failure of power to accomplish anything worthwhile.
I haven't burned a dollar bill again. And it was only a dollar, not a 10 or 20. But it taught me some things about myself and continues to remind me to resist our American culture.