The Cost of Solidarity

For many of us who have gone through (or are going through) the process of coming out, we face a lot of varied and often difficult responses. There are those who will directly and unequivocally question our integrity, our motives, and even the quality and substance of our faith and salvation. There are those who have no intention to listen or understand, but simply condemn us on the spot. This can be especially painful when it comes from people we love and trust, such as friends and family.

Yet, it is not these people who I have found the most difficult. Perhaps it isbecause I know what to expect, and while painful, there is less of a sense of surprise or betrayal as a result. Instead, it is those in the ambiguous middle that leaves me most troubled. And it can be a hard group to define: There are those who share our affirming view but would rather not talk about. There are those who don’t agree with our beliefs on this issue but privately tell us they stand with us (while never defining what that means). There are those who will talk to us privately but refuse to engage publicly for various reasons. The variations are many and, in their own way, their postures are understandable, even if only insofar as they follow a consistent (if flawed) internal logic.

So why are these people often the most difficult? That is the question I have been trying to answer and feel as though I am beginning to brush up against the edges of an answer. In an article entitled “How to Spend Your Privilege”, activist/educator Brittany Packnett‘s words brought my question into focus:

“Spending one’s privilege can carry consequences, but nothing important comes without risk and it’s worth taking one in the name of justice.”

I had been reading and researching on the topic of solidarity for some time when I came across this powerful piece. Not only did it challenge me in my own privilege and how was spending it, but it resonated deeply with my own experience of how people have stood with me (or not) in my journey of coming out as a queer Christian. As I wrestle with the questions of what friendship, support, and allyship truly mean, the place where clarity seems to come the clearest is around the idea of solidarity.

While a dictionary definition of “solidarity” can give us a general understanding of it’s meaning- “unity or agreement of feeling or action, especially among individuals with a common interest; mutual support within a group”– the lived experience of it is more complex. And as people ask us how they can support us through difficult times surrounding our journeys, it is important for us to unpack what solidarity really means.

It was in the expression “spending one’s privilege” that clarity came for me. Solidarity is (and must be) costly. And that cost is not a one time fee, but an ongoing expensive out of the wealth of privilege that is held. Packnett confirms this, reminding us that “as soon as you think you’ve spent enough privilege, that’s a sign that it’s time to spend some more”. The greater the solidarity, the greater the price exacted. It is through this grid of understanding that I have to realize how rare true solidarity is.

Of course, the greatest solidarity comes from those who share our experience. This has less to do with privilege and more to do with mutuality, understanding, and shared common interest. And it is so important and beautiful when such community forms. And it is powerful. For example, as bell hooks said in “Killing Rage: Ending Racism”:

“As more people of color raise our consciousness and refuse to be pitted against one another, the forces of neo-colonial white supremacist domination must work harder to divide and conquer.”

While this internal solidarity is important, it is critical that it extends beyond those spheres. Rather than allowing ourselves to bracket off into tribalism, true solidarity needs to be rooted in what Desmond Tutu calls “ubuntu”:

“It is to say, ‘My humanity is caught up, is inextricably bound up, in yours.’ We belong in a bundle of life. We say, ‘A person is a person through other persons.’…  A person with ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed, or treated as if they were less than who they are.”

James Baldwin is clear on the demands solidarity makes on us:

“If we know, then we must fight for your life as though it were our own- which it is- and render impassable with our bodies the corridors to the gas chamber. For if they come for you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night.”

And so we must embrace that kind of solidarity in our own lives, as well as ask for such solidarity from those around us. To our straight and cisgender allies, we need this kind of radical solidarity, knowing what it will cost you. We need to know where you stand and how willing you are to stand with us- not simply out of some ideological tribalism but for survival and mutuality. If you are affirming, please share that truth with us and others.

For those who do no hold an affirming belief, you can still be in some degree of solidarity. You can disagree with my belief yet still support the validity of a different belief and the right to hold it. You can speak out in support of accepting this difference in the same way we accept many other theological differences. You can also spend your privilege on that greater good.

And to those who say that they stand with us, yet are unwilling to pay any price for that support- whether you are affirming or not- know that such friendship, while appreciated, is limited in value. I know that sounds harsh but please understand: Sending words of encouragement and expressions of love- while not without value- is mitigated by the fact that the limits of that support end at personal cost. It is the painful experience of receiving the proverbial “Be warm and well fed”. It might make you feel good but it leaves us feeling empty, alone, and even betrayed.

Again, bell hooks sums it up powerfully. While she refers to the common interest of women, the application is broad:

“Solidarity is not the same as support. To experience solidarity, we must have a community of interests, shared beliefs and goals around which to unite, to build Sisterhood. Support can be occasional. It can be given and just as easily withdrawn. Solidarity requires sustained, ongoing commitment.”

Many of us face the serious consequences of standing for our convictions and standing with those who have been marginalized. Without your true solidarity, those consequences could very well overwhelm us. This is not rhetoric or drama. This is the stark truth. We need you. You need us. Let’s stand together no matter the cost.

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.