This Changes Everything

Deep solidarity goes beyond charity and advocacy to create real change.

This Changes Everything
Part of National Seminar 2015, United Methodist Women members joined other faith communities at Hartzell United Methodist Church.

Charity is a time-honored way for Christians to respond to the needs of the world, and advocacy is sometimes presented as the next step. Yet both models often remain one-way streets, where some are supporting others. Real change, we argue, requires mutual relationships and what we are calling deep solidarity. Many of our religious traditions support this move in unexpected ways.

Charitable giving is, of course, how the majority of people of faith believe they can make a difference. Many take it for granted that this is the most faithful response to suffering. No doubt, charity has done a lot of good, providing relief for hunger and homelessness, poverty and many other pressures that people face. Yet charity is not the only and perhaps not even the most helpful response to suffering. To put it bluntly: Jesus preached good news to the poor and freedom for the oppressed rather than charity (Matthew 11:5, Luke 4:18). What is good news to the poor and the oppressed? Is it to be recipients of handouts — or is it that they will no longer be poor and oppressed?

Charity is at its best when it does not remain a one-way street. When the eyes of those who engage in charity are opened to what causes poverty and oppression, we move one step closer to good news to the poor and freedom for the oppressed. That this is a step in the right direction is confirmed by hitting a nerve: As Dom Helder Camara, a former Roman Catholic bishop from Brazil, put it: "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why they are poor, they call me a communist." Charitable giving can help open our eyes.

Deeper understanding

When our eyes are opened to deeper understandings of poverty and oppression, advocacy is often the next step. By this we mean speaking out against injustices that cause these problems. Although this may come as a surprise, advocacy seems to be a more faithful approach than charity, as it is solidly grounded in many religious traditions. Many of the Jewish prophets speak out against injustice, challenging those who "trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain" (Amos 5:11), and many voices in the New Testament concur.

Mary, the mother of Jesus, speaks of God's advocacy when she proclaims that the God who lifts up the lowly pushes the powerful from their thrones and fills the hungry with good things while sending the rich away empty (Luke 1:52-53). Her inspiration is Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel (1 Samuel 2:1-10), recognized not only by Christians but also by Jews and Muslims. Jesus, following along these lines, blesses the hungry and the poor and challenges the rich and the full (Luke 6:20-25).

Advocacy brings us one step closer to good news to the poor. Nevertheless, some limits remain, most importantly a lack of relationship between those who advocate and those for whom they advocate. As a result, advocates sometimes overestimate their own power, acting as if they could solve the problems of others. In this way, they can stifle the initiative of those for whom they advocate, and they lose momentum and community support necessary to bring change. In the end, advocates often burn out and walk away, or they lower their expectations and return to the charity model.

Good news to the poor and freedom for the oppressed requires a more holistic response. This is what we are calling deep solidarity. Deep solidarity includes both charity and advocacy, but reaches further. The message of Amos, Mary and Jesus can also be interpreted in this way.

Unlike charity and advocacy, deep solidarity is not a matter of the more privileged supporting the less privileged; neither is it a way of solving the problems of other people. Deep solidarity is a matter of understanding that nothing will change unless we are addressing the problems of the world together. And, equally important, deep solidarity includes the recognition that many of us might have more in common than we think and that in some ways we are in the same boat. What if middle class people understood that we are not the saviors of the poor and the oppressed but that we are all affected by and part of what is happening, some more and some less?

Our stories are connected

Those who are experiencing the problems of our time most severely — like the many working families that have trouble making ends meet — can help us see what is really going on and how even the middle class is increasingly pulled into a downward spiral. As we deepen our relationships, we find that our stories are connected. What is happening at work may serve as an example: "Mean and lean production" is practiced not only in blue-collar factories but also in white-collar cubicles and even in universities. Low-wage work depresses all wages. And worker rights violations are creeping into all job sectors. All these pressures are rising, and they are further compounded by race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality and mounting threats of deportation.

Mary provides an example from the Christian tradition. Instead of speaking for the lowly ones of the world, she recognizes that she is one of them, and she takes sides (as liberation theologians realized decades ago, even the poor need to make an option for the poor). Jesus, unlike many of his followers, is conscious of his lowly beginnings as a construction worker born in a barn and he never renounces his roots. His ministry takes place among the people, in solidarity with them. The prophet Amos, a shepherd, likewise is not afraid to side with those who are getting a raw deal in his time. In their own ways, Mary, Jesus and Amos embody deep solidarity, and they realize that "if one member suffers, all suffer together with it" (this is how the apostle Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 12:26).

An even older embodiment of deep solidarity can be found in the stories of Moses, whom all three Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) hold in high esteem. Raised as an Egyptian prince, Moses wakes up when he sees Hebrew slaves being abused by their taskmasters. Later, having joined the workforce as a shepherd, Moses accepts the charge to join the solidarity movement of God and slaves, working for liberation (Exodus 3:1-12). This might be the real miracle of the burning bush story: both Moses and God enter into deep solidarity with the people and their suffering (observing, hearing and experiencing it) — the miracle of a bush that burns and is not consumed pales in comparison. As a result, good news is brought to the poor and the oppressed.

Mutual relationship

Where does that leave those of us who engage in charitable giving and advocacy? Deep solidarity puts us in a mutual relationship with those we intend to support, helping us realize that we share important concerns in common. In the current economic climate, even the middle class is gradually waking up to the fact that the problems of the world are no longer passing us by as our children, parents, communities and churches are being pulled into a downward spiral.

The ever-growing need for charity and advocacy itself should make us aware of the extent of the problem and that there is no easy fix. In many of our large cities more than a third of all children live below the poverty line, while most of their parents are working often more than one job. And even college graduates find it more difficult than ever to find and keep jobs and pay off their debt. As we begin to address these problems together, our differences do not fade away but can be put to use more productively.

The point of deep solidarity is, therefore, not to make everyone look alike. The point of deep solidarity is to realize the pressures that are on us and then to employ our differences — as well as our limited privileges — for the common good. Those who endure the greatest pressures in their own bodies are the guides: They help us become aware of how the pressures of our time destroy lives and communities, how they increasingly affect all of us, and what the root causes might be.

As we deepen our relationships and our sense of solidarity, those of us who enjoy more privileges can put these privileges to use for meaningful change: rather than supporting systemic racism, white people can use their white privilege in solidarity with racial minorities to bring down oppressive structures such as racial biases in obtaining loans and mortgages, excessive police force against people of color, and so on. In the process, white privilege is deconstructed. The same is true for male privilege, ethnic privilege and even for heterosexual privilege.

Deep solidarity reminds us that the experiences of minorities are linked to the experiences of the majority of the 99 percent and that divisions serve the elites (the proverbial 1 percent) more than anyone. Who ultimately benefits when white and black, male and female, gay and straight, Latinx and Anglx are played off against each other? Deep solidarity helps us resist divide-and-conquer tactics and allows us to form new relationships that create both the power and the energy to make real differences.

Change can happen when we know what we are up against, realize that we need one another (because even middle-class people are not in control) and start building relationships. Working in solidarity with our sisters, brothers, siblings, communities and the environment calls for taking sides. Even the 1 percent are not excluded from all of this but are invited to take the side of those who are struggling against poverty and oppression. If our Abrahamic religions traditions are right, God does so as well. Which side are you on?

Joerg Rieger, Ph.D., is an ordained elder in The United Methodist Church and Distinguished Professor of Theology at the Divinity School and Graduate Department of Religion at Vanderbilt University. Rosemarie Henkel-Rieger is a community and labor organizer and the founder of the Texas New ERA Center/Jobs with Justice. Their book Unified We Are a Force: Growing Deep Solidarity Between Faith and Labor is available from Chalice Press.

Posted or updated: 5/4/2018 12:00:00 AM