If one of the primary markers of a Christian life is solidarity as modeled by Jesus, I am afraid that most of us still have a long way to go. It’s one of the reasons I say that Christianity is still in its infancy. We are just taking our first toddling steps towards a more mature and embodied faith. Transformed teachers like Francis of Assisi, Dorothy Day, and countless others, both sainted and anonymous, have invited us into solidarity with the poor and oppressed. When we are comfortably centered, it is difficult to move to the margins, but that is where we must go!
About fifty years ago, a Brazilian educator named Paulo Freire (1921–1997) wrote a book titled Pedagogy of the Oppressed. Freire worked for literacy amongst the poor in Brazil and Chile. His work became influential among many liberation theologians and those struggling against unjust systems. This book continues to impact my thinking about what it means to be in solidarity with those on the margins. It challenges many of our preconceived ideas about Christian “charity,” “service,” and “mission.” It is some of the most humbling subject matter we cover in our Living School curriculum. Many of our selfless and goodhearted students have dedicated their lives to Christian “service.” Yet they recognize the ways those vocations, as they are currently designed, often reinforce dehumanizing systems of oppression and marginalization. That paradox is often what drives them to study with us.
This week I will introduce you to a teaching I have developed in the Living School inspired by Paulo Freire’s work that I call “The Five Conversions.” It can offer us a path toward a more authentic Christian life where we recognize our deep connections to each other and choose to live in solidarity with suffering. Solidarity begins by becoming aware of our own social location, which is our place in society. For me and most of my readers that place is a starting point of privilege within the dominant culture.
The First Conversion to solidarity is to have basic compassion for the poor in general, or one poor person. Throughout this discussion, I will be using the word “poor” in a very specific way—those who are powerless, dismissed, or considered lesser in society. This is far larger than mere economic poverty. Sadly, there seems to be many Christians who don’t even have basic compassion for the poor. In the United States, we are pretty much trained to blame people who are poor, immigrants or refugees, victims, or gay, lesbian, or transgendered people. Far too many seem to think, even if to themselves, that if “those people” would simply work a little more, do things the right way, change their minds, stay hidden, or just “pray a little harder,” we’d all be better off. The first conversion is where we must begin. Our hearts must be softened, and we must experience basic sympathy, empathy, and recognition of another person’s pain.