Until I read Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz’s chapter from her book, Mujerista Theology: A Theology for the Twenty-First Century (Orbis Books, 1996), my ideas about solidarity came from my knowledge of well-known political movements, namely the Solidarity Movement originating in the Gdansk shipyard in Poland during late summer 1980, and the International Solidarity Movement of 2001 advocating nonviolent support of the Palestinian cause in the conflict with Israel. In addition to the word, solidarity, I was familiar with two names: Lech Walesa in Poland who, after leading the labor movement, went on to become president of that nation; and Rachel Corrie, who was killed by an Israeli Defense Forces bulldozer as she attempted to block the destruction of a Palestinian home.
These were the first thoughts to come to mind when I read the title of Isasi-Diaz’s book chapter, “Solidarity: Love of Neighbor in the Twenty-First Century.” I also did not know that love of neighbor went by different nomenclature in other centuries. Hasn’t solidarity always been about standing with someone, physically and spiritually, and if so, solidarity should be just one more way of loving one’s neighbor. In considering my neighbor, we may not look alike, but we share common ground, and therefore, if I am in solidarity with him, I am willing to put myself next to him and be subjected to the same experiences and consequences for actions taken in support of his cause. What has changed now that I have read Isasi-Diaz is that this is one of the tenets of evangelical poverty, the act of putting oneself in the service of others who are poor and destitute, suffering through the circumstances, the injustice and discrimination that they must endure, all while standing with them in solidarity.
Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, who died on May 13th at the age of 69, was a professor of ethics and theology at Drew University in New Jersey. She believed most fervently that women should be ordained as Catholic priests, and if that were possible, she would have been first to sign up. Her special area of research was mujerista theology, a study that celebrates the role of Hispanic women, especially women of poverty, in bringing Christian faith into the struggles of everyday life. The word mujer is Spanish for woman.
She begins her chapter on solidarity by recounting the story of her neighbor in Peru, where she was a missionary. He asked her why she left the United States. Isasi-Diaz tried to explain that she was practicing evangelical poverty, hoping to live among impoverished people struggling against injustice. The man pointed out one very salient fact: she could always leave and return to her first world nation; however, he and his family did not have any other option but to live in those circumstances. For Isasi-Diaz, it was of utmost importance not to simply do for others; she wanted to be with them physically and spiritually, experiencing every day what the poor go through to survive. For her, solidarity meant not just in partnership with or standing together, not in agreement with or having sympathy for, another. Her neighbor’s words reminded her that she could not just be in solidarity when working as a missionary and leave it behind when her time was up. It was also not enough to be sympathetic to another’s cause, or offer support in spirit. True solidarity must be practiced; it must consist of physical, concrete action taken over a lifetime.
Solidarity is more than charity. Christians practice charitable giving. They give food, clothing, and money, but donations alone are not enough. Charity alleviates immediate suffering, but charity with solidarity means living with the poor and sharing resources, a deeper, more extensive commitment. In Christian communities, according to Isasi-Diaz, charity often means love thy neighbor, but she suggests that solidarity is the more effective way to demonstrate this love. She creates a syllogism to illustrate this point: salvation, the ultimate goal of a Christian, means to love one’s neighbor; love of neighbor means living in solidarity; solidarity, therefore, means salvation.
To be in solidarity with another means understanding the interconnectedness of all human beings, especially in circumstances of oppression and privilege, wealth and poverty, oppressors and the oppressed. Communities who struggle for justice must join together in a cohesive front and from their shared feelings and experiences, take unified action. This solidarity and cohesive action results in liberation, and Christians must participate in the ongoing process of liberation to reach what Isasi-Diaz calls the “kin-dom of God.” The word “kingdom” she finds too sexist, she writes in a note to the text, and it assumes God is male. A kingdom also denotes a hierarchal and elitist structure, whereas the word “kin-dom” promotes family, the idea that all humans are brothers and sisters. In this context, liberation equals salvation and salvation equals liberation, and one cannot exist without the other.
In Isasi-Diaz’s construction, a person is connected to a horizontal and vertical axis: God is the vertical connection, and one human being to other human beings is the horizontal connection; a person must have a loving relationship with each entity. In this construction, an oppressor is alienated from God and other human beings because of his behavior. On the other end of the spectrum, a person must struggle against oppression and the resulting alienation to affect a personal conversion before she can join in solidarity with others and return to a complete relationship with both God and humanity. The oppressed must struggle to see a new way to live for all human beings; otherwise they remain trapped in their oppression. However, their freedom from oppression means setting free the oppressors, and this is the interesting point: the oppressors are just as trapped in their behavior as those they oppress. Both parties sink into alienation from God and humanity when they lose themselves in this behavior. They deny God and their own humanity when they oppress, and the oppressed lose their connection with the grace of God and the realization of their humanity when they remain trapped in the vicious cycle of anger and vengeance common to people plagued by injustice.
With whom should Christians be in solidarity? They should be in solidarity with “the ones who are exploited, who suffer systemic violence, the victims of cultural imperialism,” Isasi-Diaz writes. She further defines the poor as ones for whom survival is the continual struggle of life. They often suffer life-threatening hunger, or are illiterate and exploited. Because of a deep and entrenched ignorance, they may not even realize the source of their suffering. People beaten down by injustice are marginalized and powerless. They experience sexism, racism, and classism. The oppression and domination reach across all levels of society, and can be found in religion, government, businesses, families, and relationships. The common denominators of oppressive structures and relationships, however, are control and domination.
Joining in solidarity with those in distress means allowing commonality of feelings and interests to develop and flourish, says Isasi-Diaz. She argues that if society takes solidarity as a cornerstone of its foundation, radical change can occur. This change will require the development of insights and strategies to replace the twin evils of control and domination. However, before any system-wide change can take place, the transformation must begin on a personal level. Person-to-person relief of oppression will start the process to remedy wider human alienation and oppression. The oppressed must let go of vengeance and anger, and practice mutuality—recognition of common interests—to avoid becoming the oppressors once the tide shifts. True solidarity requires the practice of mutuality. Isasi-Diaz outlines the steps to this practice. The parties must dialogue with truth and honesty, and come to a “circular understanding of interests and mutuality.” This will lead to an important component of mutuality: conscientization.
Conscientization means recognizing that something is wrong in the oppressive situation, leading to a thorough and honest examination of all aspects and perspectives on the part of the oppressed and the oppressor. Isasi-Diaz makes clear that conscientization is not just a theory, but must be practiced to reach an understanding. The oppressed do not often see the shared interests they have with other victims because they are fighting each other for survival under the oppressors. She also points out that quite often the oppressed actually become dependent on the oppressors for their survival. This leads to imprisonment in the circumstances of oppression. Through open, honest dialogue between the oppressed and the oppressors, conscientization can be achieved, but the parties must truly listen to each other and become what Isasi-Diaz calls, “friends.” The word is often a weak one, sometimes even denoting a casual relationship, but in her terminology, friends listen and dialogue truthfully, all keys to conscientization. Without this dialogue leading to conscientization and finally, mutuality, the heart of solidarity will be missing. With this dialogue, revolutionary politics can be achieved; solidarity requires this commitment to push the oppressor and oppressed into the kin-dom of God. Justice will prevail, and love of neighbor requires justice. Solidarity and justice are the ways to understanding and living the gospel teachings.
Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz emphasizes even more the need to be in solidarity with the poor by actually being with them physically and spiritually. Living in such a status-driven, materialistic society, this will be extremely difficult for many people to accomplish. The ostentatiousness is ingrained in the culture, especially here in America. Self-image is tied directly to occupation and wealth, so surrendering such false trappings of success and purposely living a life of poverty, or living in solidarity with the poor, will be impossible for those who remain shallow and superficial. People often do not want to recognize the common ground and mutuality they hold with the poor. It is a matter of pride, which is its own trap. Therefore, to be in solidarity with those who are suffering through poverty and injustice means liberating oneself from the prison of arrogance and materialism. Humility in this case means freedom, liberation and salvation. Recognizing the face of God in the homeless man on the street as well as being with him in complete solidarity also equates to freedom, liberation and salvation.
In terms of the oppressed coming to be dependent on their oppressors, I found a real-world example last week when I interviewed Nick Bryan of the St. Vincent de Paul Society San Fernando Valley Conference. He told me that impoverished people who approach his organization for help are often dependent on government aid to survive. When for whatever reason the check does not arrive in the mail, they have no plan for survival. They call his office and simply want to substitute the aid from his organization for what they lost in government benefits. He has to work all that much harder to institute a preferred option for the poor to escape their situation; otherwise, they will remain dependent on the handouts forever, a perfect example of the oppressed dependent on the oppressors.
It is not enough to simply alleviate the immediate suffering of the oppressed. People must be offered a way out of poverty, and at times must be forced down this path to liberation. Too many assistance programs institutionalize poverty by making the oppressed dependent on the oppressors. Evangelical poverty means living with the impoverished, forsaking material wealth and comfort in order to understand and be in solidarity with those who thirst for justice. Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz’s discussion of solidarity concludes with the idea that the permanent cycle of poverty and oppression must be broken and those suffering in dire situations be taught that there is a way to recover their dignity and secure justice for their future. When the day is done, no one should be left behind.