Rusty Reno notes in his opening essay of First Things' June/July issue that "solidarity" is a word that, "for a long time, has been a word of the left: class solidarity, workers' solidarity, solidarity strikes and so forth."
The purpose of his article, which I heartily recommend and endorse, is to leave behind the placards and plumb the depths of the word and its public implications for North America.
Drawing on the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, he notes that
"Solidarity" refers to the overall quality of our common life rather than a principle by which we can judge specific circumstances and actions. We are "in solidarity" when there are enough shared ideas, conversations, commitments, and sacrifices to make us into a unified whole. It can be understood as social or civic friendship, which is a kind of habit or virtue.
I want to focus on one particular aspect of his definition that I feel hangs at the crux of it: the notion that "sacrifice" is part of what makes us a "unified whole."
Sacrifice, perhaps more than shared ideas or conversations, is at the heart of solidarity. That is, insofar as we live in such a way that denies the importance of sacrifice, or denies the possibility of positive moral good arising from sacrifice made by individuals and communities, so far do we deny the possibility of solidarity and therefore of a quality common life. Put more forcefully: society cannot thrive without sacrifice.
Why is this and how does such an understanding differ from the "placard" version of solidarity? These days we rarely hear the word solidarity save among the leadership of the union movement, or in protests (of the student variety, or the battle in Seattle variety). The common thread of the use of the word in these situations is one of locking shields against a common adversary. It's about holding the line against an adversary in pursuit of justice. There is a place for this understanding of solidarity, of course, but when "holding the line" becomes the dominant posture, you lose the richness of solidarity that is captured in an understanding of solidarity as defined by Reno. Ties that bind are more blessed than shields that lock.
The tie that binds one to another is service, and service at its core is sacrifice. It means placing others before yourself. Without that deeper understanding you may win the battle against whatever adversary, but you will lose the war. Service, sacrifice and yes, suffering, are powerful because they show the other side what they are missing by not being just. It was the suffering of those who followed Dr. King, just as much as the powerful legal and public actions of those involved in the civil rights movement, that won the victory for civil rights. They overcame because they walked arm in arm. They overcame because, at the end of the day, people could not cognitively reconcile that people willing to walk arm in arm singing hymns were also being torn by police dogs and water cannons.
If we buy this—and I look forward to engaging those who might disagree—then it stands to reason that Christians have something powerful to offer a culture which is centred on the primacy of the individual. In their daily lives, they can live the habits and assume the posture of the God they follow. And, perhaps, they will show an overall quality of common life which encourages these habits, in turn rippling through our North American common life.