What I learned about Solidarity

What I learned about ‘Solidarity’ from Richard Rohr, Paulo Freire, David Brooks, the Coronavirus Outbreak and the Murder of George Floyd.

By Jim McCarville

June 2, 2020

Solidarity, together with its sister-value Subsidiarity, is one of the key building blocks of Catholic Social Teaching (CST), or as it is more correctly named, Catholic Social Doctrine (CSD).

Subsidiarity is the principle that a problem needs to be solved at the lowest social level that a solution can be arrived at. Only if the lowest social level is not capable of resolving the issue should it be kicked up to the next higher level. Take eating for example. If I can feed myself, I should. No question. If I can no longer feed myself, then my family should feed me. If my family can’t, or worse won’t, then the community should feed me. If the community fails, then the State, Provincial or Federal authorities in succession should see that I am fed. Finally, if a nation cannot feed its people, and such is the case in famine-stricken, war-torn Yemen, then it is incumbent on the international powers to provide the resources so the people can be fed.

Subsidiarity is sometimes used by the higher social authorities to justify turning a blind eye to a difficult problem. Obviously, there are many levels of failure evident here. That is why it always has to be balanced by Solidarity.

Solidarity is more complex. It is more than a vague sense of empathy or compassion. David Brooks, a non-Christian, columnist for the New York Times, described it well in an editorial, March 19, 2020, just as we were all beginning to realize we were going to be in for an extended state of epidemic quarantine.

Through plague eyes I realize there’s an important distinction between social connection and social solidarity. Social connection means feeling empathetic toward others and being kind to them. That’s fine in normal times.

Social solidarity is more tenacious. It’s an active commitment to the common good — the kind of thing needed in times like now.

This concept of solidarity grows out of Catholic social teaching. It starts with a belief in the infinite dignity of each human person but sees people embedded in webs of mutual obligation — to one another and to all creation. It celebrates the individual and the whole together, and to the nth degree.

Solidarity is not a feeling; it’s an active virtue. It is out of solidarity, and not normal utilitarian logic, that George Marshall in “Saving Private Ryan” endangered a dozen lives to save just one. It’s solidarity that causes a Marine to risk his life dragging the body of his dead comrade from battle to be returned home. It’s out of solidarity that health care workers stay on their feet amid terror and fatigue. Some things you do not do for yourself or another but for the common whole.

It will require tenacious solidarity from all of us to endure the months ahead. We’ll be stir-crazy, bored, desperate for normal human contact. But we’ll have to stay home for the common good. It’s an odd kind of heroism this crisis calls for. Those also serve who endure and wait.

I wonder if there will be an enduring shift in consciousness after all this. All those tribal us-them stories don’t seem quite as germane right now. The most relevant unit of society at the moment is the entire human family.

Brooks almost wistfully wonders “if” after all of this quarantining “will there be an enduring shift in consciousness.” We thought the pandemic would be the biggest event of the year. That was just a couple of months ago. There was still a feeling that “we are all in this together.”

The May 25 murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis policeman appears now to eclipse even COVID-19 in its impacts on our social legacy. For a brief time, we were all together in the tension between anger and rage as we watched the slow callous cop, now an ex-cop, literally squeeze the life out of a man whose crime had been to attempt to pass off a counterfeit $20 bill. But the unity did not hold.

For one cop, it appears to be murder by racism. For three more cops, it was murder by collegial clericalism. For all of us unconcerned by these crimes, it may be murder by complicity.

The peaceful protests turned violent. Did the police provoke the protestors? Did a faction within the protestors provoke the police? We will hear both stories. Within the cover of protestors, a faction initiated looting and burning and drove a wedge between the police and people. Unfortunately, looting can become contagious. Unfortunately, the President, can fan fires with talk of “domination.”

Can we learn anything from Solidarity? Let me go back to Richard Rohr and Paulo Freire. Richard Rohr is a Franciscan priest who I have long admired for his fresh (although he calls it ancient) approach to understanding Christianity. Paulo Freire was a Brazilian educator in the 1960s who wrote, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, in which he teaches the oppressed to understand that they are not the cause of their own poverty. The Portuguese word was conscientizaçåo. He was exiled by the Brazilian Military regime in 1964. Still, he had a profound impact on the development of Liberation Theology in Brazil and was even a major inspiration for the Peace Corps program that I served in between 1969-71. I would, however, only come to learn how deeply he understood the problem much later.

Richard Rohr sends out a daily meditation. For the week ending May 30, 2020, he took the theme of Solidarity and what he learned about its five stages of conversion from Paulo Freire.

Freire’s 1st conversion in Solidarity acknowledges the existence of social inequality and any relative position of our own privilege. It asks us to re-think what Christians mean about “charity, service” and “mission.’ It is more than mere compassion and empathy. It is entering into the pain of the other. It is an authentic and humbling connection to them, a being at one with them.

In the 2nd conversion we enter into anger and outrage at the unjust situation that caused the position of poverty of the other (which can mean much more than economic poverty). We need to see through our delusions about cultural bootstrapping. Anger can be useful, even sacred. It can protect us and our boundaries. It is sacred until it distorts the message it came to offer, until it becomes intent solely on focusing on the problem rather than becoming part of the solution. The question of true Solidarity is “how can I work through my anger to get to the other side.”

The 3rd conversion idealizes some of the virtues of the poor that we do not have ourselves. But staying at this stage is an unfair burden on the marginalized, leaving them in their state of oppression. We should neither de-humanize nor super-humanize them.

The 4th conversion comes to grips with the deep dulling pain systematic oppression creates. The marginalized themselves can all to easily attribute their lot in life to perceived personal failures and fail to understand the burden that social location or zip code, can impose on them.

The fifth conversion is a choice we make to walk with the marginalized, be taught by them as equals and to note the divine indwelling within each. It is dialogue between oppressor and oppressed, each as subjects in full humanity, each teaching and each learning. It requires an intense faith in humankind.

The events of this past week, the cold-blooded murder of George Floyd, the righteous outrage of protestors, the excesses of those not wanting to be part of the solution, the pain of the property owners suffering losses challenges us all to walk through this process of conversion. The outrage is legitimate. The anger is useful, even sacred. Our question is, “can we work through anger to get to the other side.” And, how, given all of the pain and circumstances, can we ever do this?

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