By Joerg Rieger, Distinguished Professor of Theology and Cal Turner Chancellor’s Chair in Wesleyan Studies, Vanderbilt University
In our recent book, Unified We Are A Force: How Faith and Labor Can Overcome America’s Inequalities), Rosemarie Henkel-Rieger and I are proposing that the time is right to move beyond charity and advocacy. Our work on labor and religion is the basis for the argument.
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.”
Charity 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 who 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.
For a fuller biography of Joerg Rieger see here. His main interests are social movements that bring about change and the contributions of religion and theology. Author and editor of 20 books, his most recent books include Unified We are a Force: How Faith and Labor Can Overcome America’s Inequalities (with Rosemarie Henkel-Rieger, 2016), Faith on the Road: A Short Theology of Travel and Justice (2015), Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude (with Kwok Pui-lan, 2012), and No Rising Tide: Theology, Economics, and the Future (2009).