Christian ¿Charity? Solidarity

There has been an interesting and subtle development in the way Christian charity is viewed, especially among the millennial generation. This can be seen in the use of novel terms like ‘white savior’ (often used to describe white families who adopt black children) or the commonly shared meme, showing the apparent inconsistency of short-term charitable missions in developing nations compared with the lack of political action on behalf of those entering the southern U.S. border.

The elements of this criticism relate to slight adjustments within people’s theological method, the nature of which is well represented by the concept of liberation theology. A quote from Naim Ateek, a Palestinian Christian leader examples well the diminishing view of charity.

In general, the first responses of Christians and churches to the Nakba (The crises which caused the Palestinian refugees in 1948) were humanitarian. They provided food and shelter to the refugees and to the vulnerable members of the Palestinian community. However, these acts of charity were not accompanied by political action. [1]

Ateek’s quote finds itself at home within the fundamental construct of liberation theology. The basic premise goes like this: if you care about someone, you won’t just assist them with their essential needs, you will align yourself with their historical and embodied interests. Such alignment in a democratic, rights-based construct usually means that you will stand for their social, political and economic rights as much as possible. In other words, charity has become morally downgraded below solidarity.

The concept of empowerment over patronage as evidenced in the basic Chinese proverb, ‘give a man a fish, feed him for a day; teach him to fish, feed him for a lifetime,’ seems to have been around since time and memorial. Our current concept of solidarity goes beyond this, however. Its moral ascendancy combined with the movement of post-constructionist theory (think: let me question the intentions of everything and everyone) has now replaced our long-honored proverb with one that goes more like, ‘give a man a fish, and you are probably just positioning yourself into a privileged “giving” class; teach a man to fish, and you are just enculturating him into your pre-determined economic system.’ Maybe this is too harsh of an assumption as it relates to solidarity and its moral contempt for charity. Certainly, one could believe in solidarity and not be as embedded within post-modern criticism and thereby present a positive approach to the proverb, such as, ‘ask a man what he wants to do and work towards creating the social, political, and economic potential for it to happen.’[2] Despite the happier tone of this proverb, there are still a lot of assumptions to be found in it, not least of which is the departure from the reality of a person’s daily need to procure food (we have the luxury of such an assumption). Beyond that, however, it is also that the person’s interest is the starting place and any market reality is an inconsequential afterthought.

Maybe one shouldn’t make too much of my new fictional versions of a familiar proverb. The point of such an exercise is to simply reflect on the reality that charity has nearly become a byword. The only assurance one has of your sincere motivations in our time is if your charitable help includes some expression of solidarity. How did it come to this? This article will attempt to briefly answer this question or at least bring some critical thought into the mix.

Within the realm of theology, liberation first entered the scene in 1973 with the writing of A Theology of Liberation by a Peruvian theologian and priest named Gustavo Gutiérrez. Any summary of Gutiérrez' work is in danger of oversimplification but summarize we must. In his book, he presents the idea that God has chosen to stand on the side of the poor within biblical history by presenting the many passages which demonstrate God’s care and concern for the poor. Of course, naming the concern God has for the poor is not a novel idea in itself. Christian and Jewish traditions have long since acknowledged this theme and thus have long histories of charitable theology and activity. The novelty of Gutiérrez’ ‘preferential option for the poor’ is in the way he presents a socio-political class of people (the poor) as not only the object of God’s concern, but as belonging to the theological community itself. In other words, in answer to the question, ‘among whom is God to be found?’ Gutiérrez would say, ‘among the confessional community of faith and among the poor.’

Even though his context meant that God was calling the Church into solidarity with the poor of Peru, this theological shift in the community was quickly introduced into many new contexts. Feminist theology, Black Liberation theology (exampled in the U.S. and South Africa), and many other contextual theologies began to develop based on the idea of this shift. Gutiérrez makes it clear that such a contextual approach toward God’s preferential option is correct, saying,

The theology of liberation is an attempt to understand the faith from within the concrete historical, liberating, and subversive praxis of the poor of this world—the exploited classes, despised ethnic groups, and marginalized cultures.[3]

These theologies do not only have as their starting place a particular gender, ethnicity or other category but rather the way that these categories have been historically disadvantaged or victimized. You don’t have to be a woman to subscribe to feminist theology. You simply have to recognize the historical disadvantages of women in society as well as God’s determination to stand on their behalf. Furthermore, this historically disadvantaged group and God’s solidarity with them must shape the way you view the Christian community. For this reason, each of these liberation theologies condemns as immoral any expression of Christian exclusivity based on confession or the expectation of a particular lifestyle.

It is this theological location shift which seems to be at the heart of the movement from charity to solidarity. Whereas evangelicals are generally known for their high level of involvement in charitable work, they are often equally known for their determined community boundaries, doctrinally speaking, and its related lifestyle expectations. Charitable work that is done by a group that still maintains such exclusionary or defined boundaries (regardless of how those boundaries are maintained) is viewed with skepticism or outright hostility. This skepticism comes not only from the concern that the care being offered is disingenuous but even that such charitable work helps to prop up a broken system that should instead be transformed. To all my Christian friends expecting to get a pat on the back for their charitable activity, the secular society in which we now live and its expectation for solidarity is as likely to scoff at your charitable works as they are to honor them. Hopefully, we have all been trained enough by the Sermon on the Mount so as not to be practicing our charity for the sake of the praise of men. But we should also not expect that this activity would now offer anyone the moral high ground in socio-political policy discussions.

Despite the subversive way solidarity is being used against charity, Christian mission, charity, and solidarity have begun to intersect with one another in new and interesting ways. It is not uncommon for contextual missions groups to take on the cause (the political, social, and economic interests) of a people group in their missional purpose.[4] A fascinating development in Christian missions is the way that certain ministries present themselves as advocates for the national or ethnic interests of a people group, regardless of the historical divisions between the missionaries and the served people groups in categories of faith and lifestyle.[5] At least for the sake of interfaith dialogue and relationship building, the boundaries of such Christian groups also seem to be less stringently maintained, even if for a contextually missional purpose. In this case, even if it is not viewed as morally superior to charity work, solidarity is at least seen as a more effective strategy when compared to the also common relief/development combined with religious dialogue.

The point here is that not all expressions of theological engagement with the concept of solidarity are negative. It is clear, however, that the way liberation theology invites a socio-political classification of people into the theological community has contributed to our current atmosphere of skepticism toward charity. Is the current ‘solidarity-over-charity’ mentality correct? That is a question I will leave with you.


[1] Ateek, A Palestinian Theology of Liberation, p.29 (my clarification in the parenthesis).

[2] I chose to remain faithful to the script of the original proverb by using the term a ‘man.’

[3] Gutiérrez, The Power of the Poor in History, p.37

[4] exampled in the documentary films Better Friends than Mountains I and II. In these films, the cause of the Kurdish people (their national self-determination) intersects with themes of Christian relief and mission.

[5] This is especially common in the Middle East where post-colonial, national self-determination is still reshaping the boundaries and borders of the region along with the vision of a transnational, Islamic empire (ISIS as the most recent example). There are also examples of how this approach of using a unified national self-determination or ethno-political identity to serve in contextual missions can also contain pitfalls. The best example of this is the way the Arab-Palestinian Christian community has aligned itself with the political identity of the Palestinian people, in some cases for a missional purpose (Kuruvilla, Samuel J., ‘Liberation Theology in Latin America and Palestine-Israel: Practical Similarities and Contextual Differences’ pp.12-13). Since the Palestinian political identity is directly related to anti-zionist views, prioritizing Palestinian national self-determination as a method for interfaith dialogue meant also severing itself from a wider Christian community which would see some expression of biblical legitimacy in the reinstatement of a national Israel.

Justin and Rawan Shrum -
Founders of The Justice Project

Justin and Rawan live in southern Germany with their three kids, Luke, Angelia, and Lincoln, where they lead a team working to combat Human Trafficking and forced prostitution.

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