Solidarity, Not Charity ∗
I’ve been thinking about a sermon refrain a friend of mine used recently: “solidarity, not charity.” Of course, my friend didn’t coin the phrase, and I didn’t hear the sermon, but I imagine she used it eﬀectively.
Solidarity, not charity. It should be a refrain. It bears repeating. It should become a mantra, like breathing in and breathing out. Because it’s counterintuitive.
Charity is beautiful. It’s an old word for love.There’s a reason people used to christen their children with it. No one (except perhaps the most ardent Marxist) would ever name their kid Solidarity.
Christian churches are great at charity. We organize food banks, clothing stores, soup kitchens, schools, and shelters. We’re great at disaster relief and long-term aid programs. And people expect churches to act charitably. Do you remember the righteous indignation when Lakewood Church in Houston didn’t open its facilities to people displaced by Hurricane Harvey in 2017? Everyone knows that Christians ought to be about the work of giving, alleviating suﬀering, and meeting immediate needs.
But charity, despite our best eﬀorts, always involves a power imbalance. It neatly bifurcates the world— there is a need on one side and there is a means to meet that need on the other. It splits the world into givers and takers, haves and have-nots. And in that, it perpetuates the status quo. The world doesn’t have to change as long as charity is around to pick up the pieces. In fact, an argument can be made that the power structures of the world rely on charity in order to maintain their precarious balance. Charity can paper over injustice and alleviate enough suﬀering to make the world seem adequate enough to continue.
My friend’s slogan was a paraphrase of the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, who wrote,
“I don’t believe in charity. I believe in solidarity.
Charity is so vertical. It goes from the top to the bottom.
Solidarity is horizontal. It respects the other person.
I have a lot to learn from other people.”
If charity feels at home in Christianity, solidarity is more closely associated with socialism and labor movements. But it’s also a deeply Christian concept. At the heart of Christianity is the image of incarnation, of the divine assuming humanity — living, eating, breathing, and dying not only for us but with us. Years ago i read an article by a fundamentalist Christian who said, simply, “Jesus didn’t commute.”
Solidarity is often symbolized by hands: raised in fists or interlocking with one another. Both are important. A fist, as a labor organizer put it, is greater than the sum of its parts.
Raised fists say the cruelties inherent in the systems of the world are not acceptable and interlocking hands say we’re working together to bring about change in that world.
Jesus preached something often translated “the kingdom of God”. Others have rendered this the commonwealth of God, the realm of God, the web of God. He called it gospel: good news that no one has to live in conformity to the cruelties of the world as it is, good news that kindness and goodness and generosity and grace are marks not only of God, but of humanity, despite our propensity toward evil. In other words, good news that human beings can live in solidarity with God and one another.
As i said above, churches are great at charity. I hope as we move forward, confronting climate change, economic disparities, residual pandemic impacts, and countless unseen realities, we can be both charitable and stand in solidarity with God and one another.