Deep Solidarity: Beyond Charity and Advocacy

By Joerg Rieger, Distinguished Professor of Theology and Cal Turner Chancellor’s Chair in Wesleyan Studies, Vanderbilt University

In a recent book, Rosemarie Henkel-Rieger and I are proposing that the time is right to move beyond charity and advocacy (Unified We Are A Force: How Faith and Labor Can Overcome America’s Inequalities, 2016). Our work on labor and religion is the basis for the argument.

Joerg Rieger

While charitable giving is widely appreciated, it is neither the only nor the most helpful response to the problems of the world. To put it bluntly in the language of Christianity, which is one of the religious traditions we discuss in the book (in addition to Judaism and Islam): Jesus preached good news to the poor and freedom to the oppressed rather than charity (Matt. 11:5, Luke 4:18). What is good news to the poor and the oppressed? Is it receiving 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 the causes of the problems, we are one step closer to good news to the poor. That this step is a move in the right direction is evidenced by pushback. As Dom Hélder Câmara, a former Roman Catholic Brazilian bishop, 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.”

Unified We Are a ForceCharity tied to a deeper understanding of the problems of the world often leads to advocacy, which means speaking out against injustices that cause these problems. Such advocacy is solidly grounded in many religious traditions and may constitute a more faithful approach than charity. 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).

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 by Jews, Christians, and Muslims.

Advocacy brings us one step closer to good news to the poor, although there are still limits. Advocates sometimes overestimate their own power, acting as if they could solve the problems alone, and they can stifle the agency of those for whom they advocate.

Good news to the poor is not complete without what Rosemarie Henkel-Rieger and I are calling “deep solidarity.” The message of Amos and Mary can also be interpreted in this way. Deep solidarity includes both charity and advocacy, but it reaches further.

Deep solidarity is not a matter of the relatively privileged trying to help the underprivileged and to solve their problems; rather, it is a matter of understanding that nothing will change unless we are addressing the problems of the world together. And deep solidarity is the recognition that we might be in the same boat.

Mary provides a first example. She realizes that she is one of the lowly ones and she sides with them. Jesus, likewise, is aware of his lowly beginnings as a construction worker born in a barn and he never renounces them. His ministry takes place in solidarity with the people. Amos, too, is not afraid to side with those who are getting a raw deal in his time. That an injury to one is an injury to all is also a time-honored insight of the labor movement.

Perhaps the most telling embodiment of deep solidarity is Moses, whom the Abrahamic religions of 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, when he hears God’s voice from the burning bush, Moses accepts the charge to join the solidarity movement of God and slaves, working for liberation (Exodus 3:1-12). As a result, good news is brought to the poor and the exploited.

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 how much we share in common. In the current economic climate, even the middle class is waking up to the fact that the problems of the world are no longer passing us by as our children, our parents, and our communities are taking hits, as are more and more of us.

The ever-growing need for charity and advocacy should make us aware the extent of the problem and that there is no easy fix. In many of our large cities like more than a third of all children now live below the poverty line, while most of their parents are working (in Dallas, TX, for instance, 38 percent of children are directly affected by poverty). And even college graduates find it more difficult than ever to find and keep a job and pay off their burdening debt. As we begin to address these problems together, our differences do not fade away but can be put to use productively.

Those who are experiencing the problems of our time in the most severe ways—like the many working families wo have trouble making ends meet—can help us see what is really going on. Their perspective can serve as a lens that helps us see how our stories are connected: low-wage work depresses all wages, fear of deportation creates easy opportunities for worker rights violations that creep into all job sectors, problems that are compounded by race and gender. When we begin to realize this, those of us who still enjoy some limited privileges can begin to put them to use for the community.

The 1 percent are not excluded from all of this but are invited to take the side of those who are struggling. If our Abrahamic religions traditions are right, God does so as well.

Joerg Rieger and Rosemarie Henkel-Rieger have worked for decades in movements of resistance to power and domination, both in Germany and the United States, with the intention of providing genuine alternatives. Joerg is an author and professor of theology, and Rosemarie is a community and labor organizer.

Buy United We Are a Force: How Faith and Labor Can Overcome America’s Inequalities now.


 

After Charlottesville: Not Enough

By O. Wesley Allen, Jr., Author of Preaching in the Era of Trump

First off, a confession: I am a white man.

As an American and a Christian I have been utterly disappointed and disgusted by our president’s response to last weekend’s event in Charlottesville. As everyone who has followed the presidential pendulum knows, on Saturday, August 12, President Trump blamed “many sides” for the violence that ensued and climaxed in white supremacist James Fields ramming his car into a crowd of counter protestors resulting in a dozen people being injured and Heather Heyer’s death. After some criticism, on Monday, August 14, Trump read a prepared statement that condemned racist violence without placing any blame on the side of activists. On Tuesday, August 15, at a press conference in which Trump intended only to address new infrastructure plans, he responded to journalists’ questions about Charlottesville with fire and fury by reasserting that there was “blame on both sides” and that there were “some very fine people on both sides” even though he continued to condemn white supremacists, the KKK, and Neo Nazis. Since then his tweets double and triple down not on condemning white supremacy but on supporting them.

Preaching in the Era of TrumpIn contrast to my frustration with President Trump’s lack of a moral vision in responding to Charlottesville, I have been pleased to see the widespread responses by political leaders (Democrats and Republicans), celebrities, late night hosts, pastors, bishops, business leaders, and even international voices condemning the white supremacists, Ku Klux Klan, Neo Nazis, and white nationalists. The kind of blatant and violent white supremacy emboldened by Donald Trump’s campaign and election must be resisted, countered, and conquered…and it seems that the only ones unwilling to do this are the white supremacists themselves (including our president).

Still, these condemnations have not gone far enough… not nearly far enough. To use Paul Ryan as an example, he tweeted in response to Trump’s press conference on August 15, “We must be clear. White supremacy is repulsive. This bigotry is counter to all this country stands for. There can be no moral ambiguity.” I single out Ryan’s tweet not because it is unique but because it is typical, and I am pleased to see someone in Trump’s own party saying No quickly and firmly to any attempt to draw any type of moral equivalency between the two sets of protestors in Charlottesville this weekend. Yet, this type of condemnation is easy.

What I mean is that it is easy for any decent white person to reject those who spout loud, radical, explicit hate speech and who promote violence and act violently in enforcing their racist, terrorist ideologies. What is harder…and necessary…is for white leaders not only condemn white supremacy but also to condemn and speaking honestly about white privilege. White privilege is the foundation of white supremacy. It is easy to condemn those who are white supremacists while silently living out the privilege of being white in a racist society. After all, even James Murdoch of Fox News did this in spite of the fact that long time Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly explicitly criticized the left for wanting “power taken away from the white establishment” and for arguing that “white privilege in America [is] an oppressive force that must be done away with” as part of his support for Trump’s candidacy during the election.

How different would our national conversation be right now if the Republican speaker of the House had tweeted, “We must be clear. White supremacy is repulsive. I commit myself to leading the House of Representatives in seeking a legislative agenda that dismantles institutionalized and implicit white privilege that provides a fertile soil for such hate speech and violence to thrive!” No one would be talking about Trump’s response anymore because serious conversation does not suffer fools.

I am not naïve enough, however, to expect the white majority in congress (Republican or Democrat) to find the courage to take up such a conversation while raising money from the white majority in their districts to be re-elected every two and six years.

I am naïve enough, however, to believe that the white majority of preachers who are called to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ can find the faith and trust in the God of all humanity to do just this. I am speaking of white leaders and white preachers because leaders and clergy who are person of color have been doing this for generations. It is time for those of us who benefit from white privilege to join them in declaring its evil and sinful nature.

Indeed, confession is the starting point for discussing white privilege in sermons. As opposed to condemning racism “out there,” sermons by white preachers that will have to potential to lead congregations through repentance to social action will likely begin with honest self-reflection (“in here”) about the various ways we have benefited by being white in a racist society. We may not have participated in direct discrimination of people of color, but we have been able to climb higher on the societal ladder thanks to others being forced to occupy lower rungs.

When we white preachers admit that we have benefited from racist structures perhaps even while despising them, our white congregants will be able to admit their participation in ongoing, systemic white privilege as well. Then they will be able to recognize that the opposite of privilege is oppression and that while they are not protesting with Neo Nazis and the Alt-Right they have been living on the side of the oppressors. And then they will pray for forgiveness. And then they will work for change.

Of course, I am not naïve enough to think one or two sermons by one or two preachers will reverse generations of ingrained ways of thinking and acting much less overcome the heightened level of explicit hate in the current cultural atmosphere. But I am naïve enough to believe that if enough preachers start to discuss white privilege pastorally and prophetically, God’s word will not return empty.

So, when it comes to white pulpits being silent about white privilege …enough is enough. Let’s get talking. Let’s start preaching.

O. Wesley Allen, Jr.
O. Wesley Allen, Jr.

Rev. Dr. O. Wesley Allen, Jr. is the Lois Craddock Perkins Professor of Homiletics at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University. Dr. Allen serves as president of the Academy of Homiletics.