Solidarity Ethics: Transformation in a Globalized World (Fortress Press, 2014)

[1]“The ethic of solidarity offered in this book is grounded in the idea that when people of privilege develop relationships with people who are different from them, it offers the possibility of helping first-world Christians develop a more adequate understanding of the world and the social problems that we face. Building relationships of solidarity with individuals and communities across lines of difference – be that across town or across the world – offers the possibility for metanoia, for first-world Christians to begin to see the world from new and different vantage points, vantage points that may disrupt what we think we know. . . A theology of solidarity is not an intellectual exercise; it is primarily an ethic that can help people understand how to live in ways that honor God and God’s creation in the contemporary world (115).”

[2] Rebecca Todd Peters writes from her personal experience of metanoia, or seeing with new eyes, when at the age of twenty-four she attended a women’s leadership development conference in Jamaica that was sponsored by faith-based organizations. At the conference she developed relationships with women whose lives were very different from her own and listened to their stories of struggle and challenge. These personal relationships gave her a new vantage point for understanding economic globalization. Her even deeper transformation occurred when after sharing her story of being called to help people by doing mission work in the two-thirds world, a Nigerian lawyer said to her, “If you want to help me and my people, the best thing that you can do is to go back to the United States and confront the powers of globalization that are destroying my country and my people” (xii).

[3] In this book Peters helps first-world Christians with privilege think about how they might act in solidarity with those who suffer poverty and injustice as a result of neoliberal economic globalization. Peters first lays out two underlying problems of globalization: overconsumption by the world’s elite in the face of human suffering; and massive inequalities as a result of structural factors in our global society. She prophetically calls first-world Christians to an ethic of solidarity; to work for social change together with those who are most exploited and marginalized from economic globalization. To adopt such an ethic, Peters holds that first-world Christians must understand their social location and personal privilege, build relationships with people across lines of difference, and engage in structural change. While many first-world Christians have moral intuitions towards sympathy and responsibility, Peters argues that put into practice, these intuitions are disempowering to people living in poverty and fail to address the systemic factors that have contributed to social injustice. In contrast, the ethic of solidarity that Peters proposes is based on the moral intuition of mutuality and connected to the values of justice and sustainability.

[4] Before outlining the ways in which first-world Christians can move towards solidarity, Peters gives a theoretical background for solidarity from the disciplines of political science and theology. Solidarity in political theory ranges from an understanding of public policies that provide a guaranteed minimum income to support families; to calls for socialism in response to the disunity caused by industrialization; to the rallying cry for justice in the worker’s movement. Theoretical foundations for solidarity in theology can be found in the turn of the century Protestant Social Gospel movement that addressed the exploitation and suffering of workers in a capitalist society, in Roman Catholic Social Teachings that talk about the interdependence between people and call for a common good, and in the Latin American liberation theology movement that called the institutional church to support the poor by recognizing their self-determination for liberation.

[5] An ethic of solidarity, Peters claims, must balance both prophecy and pragmatism. It realistically recognizes the devastation humans have waged on one another while retaining a commitment to hope and a belief in the possibility of a better world. The life and work of Jesus serves as starting point for the practice of solidarity. Jesus preached a message of radical social transformation that offered hope to those who were oppressed and marginalized, and he embodied a sacred presence that was felt in and through relationship with others. In contrast to the neoliberal emphasis on individual autonomous beings who act in their own self-interest, an ethic of solidarity is deeply relational and is concerned about the well-being of all life on Earth. Thus, it places emphasis on both sustainability and social justice, and involves both theory and action.

[6] Since a first-world ethic of solidarity begins from a position of privilege, analyzing and understanding that privilege is a necessary first step for first-world Christians. Without an analysis of privilege people can act out of moral intuitions that keep the status quo in place. For example, when people act of sympathy, there remains a divide between the privileged “helpers” and the unfortunate “others” who receive the help. Furthermore, the focus is usually on fixing the immediate suffering with no attention to the systemic factors that contributed to injustice. Other people act out of responsibility rather than pity, but nevertheless “position themselves as experts in ways that disempower the voice, perspective, and agency of people living in poverty” (40). Acting out of mutuality requires a deeper understanding of one’s social location and privilege and entails asking deeper questions about the causes of problems. Mutuality also entails deeper relationships and an understanding and respect for the differences that divide us.

[7] A historical examination of poverty, inequality, and the environmental crisis is crucial to understanding how structures of privilege have been built into our social contract and political economy. Without such an historical analysis, many first-world Christians are unaware of the ways that they are complicit in the exploitation of other people. The prophet Nehemiah serves as biblical example of someone with privilege who was morally unaware of the ways his high-interest money lending was perpetrating injustice. Not until he listened to the people who were hurt did he have a conversion experience and become a champion for justice.

[8] While first-world Christians are led to an ethic of solidarity primarily through the experience of meaningful relationships with marginalized people who are different than themselves, solidarity requires understanding and honoring the differences that separate us and being accountable for creating relationships that reflect justice. Accountability entails that first-world Christians not simply care about their family or local community, but that they live in sustainable ways and work in solidarity with people in poverty to change oppressive structures. Peters offers three concrete strategies for embodying an ethic of solidarity. First, we can live into justice by being more intentional about how we make purchases necessary for survival (not by buying more, however). For example, we can buy local, free trade, and organic goods, we can change our eating habits, and we can adopt socially responsible investing. The latter might entail shareholder advocacy and/or support of community banks and micro-credit lending.

[9] Second, we can promote “solidarity economics,” that is, economic activity that increases the well-being of humanity and the Earth. For example, nonmonetary economies include extended networks of family and friends who engage in a gift economy, religious communities that tithe for the larger community, or barter economies. Monetary economies where maximizing profits is not the primary consideration include worker democracy in cooperative businesses, worker co-ops, and individual responsible businesses.

[10] Third, we can create communities of solidarity by moving beyond charity and building relationships of solidarity with people who are different from us. Peters offers an example of a church in North Carolina that responded to a racially-motivated murder by creating a community garden where church members and residents of the local community, including Hispanic migrant farm workers, worked together to grow produce for community members who did not have access to healthy food. While this response did not change the structures that cause poverty, it worked to create the kind of community where social change and transformation is possible. Strategies for large-scale social change, Peters argues, will require the development of solidarity across member churches in the U.S. and between church communities in the global North with those in the global South. Many communities working together to address the structural problems of poverty, inequality, and environmental destruction can make a difference.

[11] While Peters offers an important theoretical contribution to the discipline of Christian social ethics by offering a foundation for the norm of solidarity, she also manages to make her book accessible to a broad audience. Her claim that an ethic of solidarity is both a theory and an action entails that a sound theoretical foundation matters, but even more important is the goal of first-world Christians living into justice and creating communities of solidarity. This book could be assigned at both the undergraduate and graduate level and is a must-read for faith-based development and mission organizations, and church communities organizing for social change. Peters offers an important challenge for first-world Christians to be aware that without an acknowledgement and understanding of personal privilege, their efforts of help are likely to work against solidarity and social justice. Her challenge also extends to those of us who act out of responsibility rather than pity in addressing poverty and injustice.

[12] Peters argues that to adopt an ethic of solidarity we must engage in structural change. I know from my own work of prompting church communities and individuals to end homelessness through structural change, that such a focus is complex and requires long-term organizing. While Peters offers excellent examples of actions we can adopt to live justly and models we can emulate for creating communities of solidarity, I would have liked more examples of the ways in which church communities and faith-based organizations have forged relationships across lines of difference, and then in solidarity worked to transform structures and unjust policies. Peters would agree with me that creating solidarity economies in resistance to neoliberal globalization and late-stage capitalism, while important, is not sufficient. Multinational profit-making will continue on its merry way despite the existence of alternative communities and economies.

[13] Something must be done to change the structures and policies that allow multinational corporations to gain huge profits by exploiting people and destroying the environment. If first-world Christians with privilege want to be in solidarity with people in the global South and with people who suffer from poverty in their own countries, they must rise to the Nigerian lawyer’s call to “confront the powers of globalization.” Peters lays the groundwork in this book for how we can come together in solidarity across lines of difference to create movements for justice and structural change. Long-term justice-making and organizing for structural change is never an easy road to follow, but God created us as relational beings and gives us the sustenance of divine grace to be in mutual and just relationships of solidarity and together to sustain and honor all of God’s creation.