What is needed, according to Freire, is for us to “stop making pious, sentimental, and individualistic gestures, and risk an act of love”

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. Let’s begin:

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

The Second Conversion to solidarity is anger at the unjust situation that caused their poverty. Many people never reach this stage of anger at injustice, especially in the United States. Our cultural worship of individualism and “bootstrap” mentality deprives us of the capacity to empathize with people in need and recognize systemic oppression. When we are in the middle or upper tier of privilege, it is almost impossible to see the many ways the system helped us succeed. We cannot recognize or overcome this “agreed upon delusion” as isolated individuals, mostly because it is held together by the group consensus. The dominant group—in any country or context—normally cannot see its own lies. We have to pay attention to whomever is saying “I can’t breathe” to recognize the biases at work.

This often only changes when, through friendship with people of different backgrounds and life experiences, we witness mistreatment and marginalization. We get to know someone outside our immediate social circle. Our sister falls in love with someone from another race, religion, or culture. Our grandchild is transgender. We see all the ways life is more difficult for them than it needs to be. We feel their pain instead of standing apart at a safe distance.

Anger is a necessary, appropriate, and useful response to this kind of injustice. It is the beginning of social critique and helps us protect the appropriate boundaries for ourselves and others. Yet anger can be dangerous, too. When it hangs around too long, it becomes self-defeating and egocentric. Then it distorts the message it came to offer us. We can become so intent on pointing out problems that we are never actually willing to be part of the solution. As I like to say, the best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better, not more criticism! The question of true conversion and solidarity is, “how can I work through my anger and get to the other side, so I can be a life-giving presence with and for those who are most suffering?”

For oppressed communities, however, anger can be a form of survival, a necessary stage on the path towards healing. Listening to such anger with compassionate friendship can itself be a form of solidarity. As my colleague Barbara Holmes writes:

Many spiritual traditions warn us against anger. We are told that anger provides fertile ground for seeds of discontent, anxiety, and potential harm to self and others. This is true. However, when systems of injustice inflict generational abuses upon people and communities because of their ethnicity, race, sexuality, and/or gender, anger as righteous indignation is appropriate, healthy, and necessary for survival. . . Until the killing of black and brown people stops, all peaceful methods of resistance are appropriate. Right now, our anger is our truth, and our anger is a sacred part of our humanity and our faith.

The Third Conversion is when we idealize some of the virtues of the poor that we ourselves do not have. When the lens is cleared by our initial awakening to injustice, it is much easier to focus on people’s admirable qualities, especially those that might be lacking in our own group. This was certainly true for me. In my travels to India, the Philippines, and many Global South nations, I saw plenty of people who were happy, generous and grateful with the little they had. By contrast, I could be entitled and grumpy whenever the littlest things went wrong! It was so humbling.

Although it feels positive, staying at this conversion stage still places an unfair burden on those who are marginalized. Projecting only good qualities onto them tends to ease the burden of solidarity work from us. Layla F. Saad describes this tendency in relation to black women in her book Me and White Supremacy:

Black women are either superhumanized and put on pedestals as queens or the strong Black woman, or they are dehumanized and seen as unworthy of the same care and attention as white women. Both superhumanizing and dehumanizing are harmful because . . . they fail to capture Black women in the mess, joy, beauty, and femininity of women of other races. [1]

If it is unjust to dehumanize others, it is equally unjust to “superhumanize” them, applauding their ability to “do it all” instead of making sure they don’t have to.

The Fourth Conversion is a deepening recognition of the impact of systemic oppression. This tends to come about as a result of disillusionment and disappointment with the poor, especially when one sees how they have been socialized to a worldview of failure and scarcity. This is internalized oppression. As Paulo Freire puts it, “so often do [the oppressed] hear that they are good for nothing, know nothing, and are incapable of learning anything . . . that in the end they become convinced of their own unfitness.” [2] From the very beginning, the systems we operate in either support us or tear us down.

From my place in society, I was able to enter into a good education system, and I always had good healthcare. I was offered so many options and encouragement to become “successful.” But when we come from a social location that has put us in systems and relationships where options are limited, we are often humiliated and looked down upon at every stage of our life. Under those conditions, it is much harder to keep putting our best foot forward.

The work of solidarity is to close the distance these systems have put between us by joining and accepting others as fully human—in our struggles and gifts alike. This work requires a commitment to relational accompaniment. What is needed, according to Freire, is for us to “stop making pious, sentimental, and individualistic gestures, and risk an act of love.” [3]

Interview with Richard Rohr, “From Service to Solidarity,” Living School Alumni Quarterly (Winter 2020).

2nd

[1] Barbara Holmes, “Contemplating Anger,” “Anger,” Oneing, vol. 6, no. 1 (CAC Publishing: 2018), 20, 25.

3rd and 4th

[1] Layla F. Saad, Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor (Sourcebooks: 2020), 87.

[2] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, trans. Myra Bergman Ramos, 30th anniv. ed. (Continuum: 2005, ©1970, 1993), 63.

[3] Ibid., 50.

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