Charity vs Solidarity

Note: Parts of this originally appeared as posts on the Bilgrimage blog.

I recently finished Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz’s book on mujerista theology in which she said that solidarity needs to replace charity as the pinnacle of Christian virtues and I heartily agree. Last year, I wrote about how the word “uncharitable” is misused by conservotrads (, and now I’m going to write about why charity falls short as a virtue.

Charity can mean several things in the Catholic context. Often it means love of god and love of humanity in an agape sense. As a Christian virtue, charity comes into ones soul through faith. This is why the Catholic Encyclopedia can boast that:

The spirit of the Gospel as regards charity is for superior to that of any of the other great religions. Its excellence appears in the following points: love of the neighbour is akin to love of God; the neighbour is to beloved even as the self; men are brothers, members of the same family; the law of charity extends to the whole human race, thus making all persons equal; men are obliged to love even their enemies; the neighbour is not merely a rational creature made in the image and likeness of God, but also the supernaturally adopted son of the Father, and the brother of the Father’s Only-Begotten Son; finally, the Gospel presents the supreme exemplification of brotherly love in the death of Christ on the Cross. In no other religion are all these characteristics found; in most they are totally wanting.

Of course, if we examine “actually existing Christianity,” whether in its Protestant, Catholic, or Orthodox forms, the reality of “Christian charity” tends to be underwhelming. I come at this from a particular perspective of seeing how the churches in the American South have utterly failed for the most part in doing anything constructive about race relations, and in many cases were the biggest cheerleaders for slavery and Jim Crow. Even today you have people like Thomas Woods saying that slavery was a benign system, where “Christian” slave masters had a duty to be “charitable” to their slaves. Because nothing says, “love of god and man” than systematically raping and torturing a group of people who have been reduced to the level of property. If “the peculiar institution” is an example of “Christian charity” in action, I want no part of it.

Charity tends to be patronizing and condescending. This is what we see in the mainstream white-dominated Catholic media towards racial minorities, LGBT people, poor people, non-Christians, and “uppity” women: the smug belief that the hierarchy and their lay enablers know what is best for everyone disguised as “charity.”Solidarity doesn’t mean automatically agreeing with everything someone from a marginalized background says, and nor should it mean trying to assimilate people into a particular model of “brotherhood” or “sisterhood.” Rather, it means developing common interests, actions, and responsibilities with the marginalized, rather than seeing them as a social problem or “those people.”

Nothing illustrates the problem with charity than the (mis)treatment of LGBT people within the Catholic church. The church teaches that LGBT people are “intrinsically disordered,” a group of nature’s mistakes that should be pitied for their lamentable affliction. Nonetheless, LGBT people should be treated kindly and not be subject to physical violence. If this sounds similar to the kind of hate-tolerance once reserved for Jews during the days of the ghetto, it’s because modern LGBT people are the new scapegoat class for the contemporary Catholic church, along with feminists. If it wasn’t for those libertine LGBT and sex-crazed feminists, everyone would pay attention to the Catholic church’s position on sexual ethics! Or not. The church thinks that its brand of charity/condescension towards LGBT people is sufficient, but its not, because sexual minorities are seen as “those people.” According to this view, LGBT people simply need to be evangelized harder, and there is no need to listen to the concerns of LGBT people and their allies. What is needed is for the Catholic church and other conservative religious groups is to see LGBT people not as “those people” but “our people.” That’s the difference between charity and solidarity.

When you practice charity, you can just do a one-off “good deed” towards a marginalized group or person, and then not have to think about them again. This is the traditional Catholic view, in which rich people need the poor to gain merit and the poor person needs the rich person for alms (this is how it was explained to me at St F). Nowhere it is suggested that the rich person should find ways for the poor person to not be poor in the first place. Charity doesn’t require the giver to question his or her assumptions and biases or even to ask whether the act of charity in question is really helping the other person flourish or whether it is a passive-aggressive act of forcing them into a particular model of personhood. Solidarity requires shared interests and shared responsibilities, and as such, as much more difficult than charity. However, I think that building solidarity is the true summit of the virtues, and the only way to ensure our survival as a country and a species into the future.