Pandemics, whatever else they do, show us we are not alone. “No man is an island,” runs the much-quoted John Donne line, and that never seems truer than when you’re trying to be an island and failing: not keeping six feet of distance when meeting a friend, fighting to get the kids to keep their masks on, simmering with resentment that you can’t get to a Mets game.
Covid-19 is proof that, yes, there is such a thing as society; the disease has spread precisely because we aren’t autonomous individuals disconnected from each other, but rather all belong to one great body of humanity. The pain inflicted by the pandemic is far from equally distributed. Yet it reveals ever more clearly how much we all depend on one another, and how urgently necessary it is for us to bear one another’s burdens. Faced with the dilemma of how to resume social interactions safely, we’ve learned how badly we miss each other. In a way unimaginable a year ago, seven billion people’s joys and tears – at least in regard to the spread of the virus while we await a vaccine – are our own.
It’s a good time, then, to talk about solidarity. The more so because it’s a theme that’s also raised by this year’s other major development, the international protests for racial justice following George Floyd’s death. It was astonishing to watch crowds chanting “Black Lives Matter” in cities as far removed from US policing as Stockholm, Seville, and Sydney. Here was solidarity, or at least a craving for something resembling it.
The protests, too, raised the question of solidarity in guilt, even guilt across generations. One demand voiced by many protesters was for reparations: that the descendants of slavery’s perpetrators and beneficiaries pay back a debt to the descendants of the enslaved. How this would work in practice is far from clear, yet even critics of the idea will agree that in principle, reparations can be a just response to historical wrongs. Millions of Germans born after 1945 continue to pay reparations through their tax money to the descendants of those their great-grandparents killed. Truth and reconciliation initiatives in South Africa and elsewhere have sought to provide a kind of intergenerational justice. And in the United States, this year the Supreme Court reached back to an 1833 treaty to recognize half of Oklahoma as Native tribal land, in a ruling referencing the country’s appalling atrocities against Native Americans. In varying ways, each of these examples involves a claim about inherited responsibility – and perhaps inherited guilt.
Built into these claims is a logic at which the liberal mind angrily recoils. Schooled to think only in terms of individual rights and responsibilities, it asks: How can I be held responsible for evils over which I have no control?
“Everyone is really responsible to everyone for everyone and for everything.”
Many Christians might be inclined to agree with the objection. But the Christian tradition says: not so fast. In fact, Christianity takes solidarity in guilt, even inherited guilt, with utmost seriousness. According to the apostle Paul, all humankind sinned and was condemned in the sin of our forefather Adam: “For as in Adam all die…” (1 Cor. 15). Whether one speaks of “original sin” with Augustine, “federal headship” with the Reformers, or “total Adam” with Orthodox thinkers, this is not a theme Christians are free to casually dismiss.
The most vivid exploration of this kind of solidarity is Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoyevsky has one character, a dying teenager, tell his mother: “Every one of us has sinned against all men.…Everyone is really responsible to all men for all men and for everything.”
Responsibility for all and to all: on its face, this seems nonsensical. Its logic tars each of us with the guilt not only of those whom we know and might theoretically influence, but also with the sins of people we’ll never meet and of people long dead. (A cynic might add that responsibility for everything amounts, in the real world, to responsibility for nothing.)
Yet Dostoyevsky’s words aren’t just the ruminations of an eccentric novelist. They are repeated almost verbatim in one of the towering statements of modern Christian social teaching, Pope John Paul II’s 1987 encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis. Solidarity, the pope writes, “is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far. On the contrary, it is a firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good; that is to say, to the good of all and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all.”
This true solidarity is the opposite of the false solidarities of today’s identity politics on both the right and the left. Whether simply racist or purportedly antiracist, such false solidarities regard people primarily as bearers of one or more group identities based on nationality, race, class, or gender – and view these identity groups as inevitably antagonistic, locked with other groups in a bitter struggle for power. Here, “justice” means little more than a tense balancing of group interests. As a result, those who embrace such a worldview are liable to make recourse to coercion and even violence, as ugly episodes at some of the protests this past summer illustrate.
By contrast, Christianity – with Judaism and other faiths – teaches that people are first and foremost bearers of the divine image. Each of us shares with all others the fundamental bond of our common humanity. Because of this, the gospel utterly condemns the oppression of one group by another, including the entire demonic edifice of white supremacy. But for the same reason, it refuses to fight fire with fire, combating group self-interest with group self-interest. Instead, it offers the way of solidarity in guilt of which John Paul II and Dostoyevsky speak.
This way is no grim invitation to endless self-abasing struggle sessions. (In this, it couldn’t differ more from the racial essentialism of bestsellers such as Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility.) Instead, it is a doorway to rediscovering the glorious calling we share with all human beings.
By taking up our common guilt with all humanity, we come into solidarity with the one who bears it and redeems it all. “For as in Adam all die,” Paul continues, “even so in Christ shall all be made alive.” In Christ, sins are forgiven, guilt abolished, and a new way of living together becomes possible.
This solidarity in forgiveness – the solidarity that Christ has taken up with us – gives rise to a life of love. It’s the reason why another character in The Brothers Karamazov could say: “As for each man being guilty before all and for all, besides his own sins … when people understand this thought, the kingdom of heaven will come to them, no longer a dream but in reality.”
One hundred years ago this year, in a Germany shattered by war and revolution, a discussion group met each Thursday evening in a townhouse in Berlin to imagine a new way to live, one shaped by this kind of solidarity. As Antje Vollmer describes, the young participants were a diverse bunch: evangelicals and anarchists, military officers and pacifists, artists and Quakers. In a country ruined by nationalism, militarism, and exploitation, Dostoyevsky’s words about responsibility for all and to all struck them with enormous force. Especially, they read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. There, they found a God who invites us to a practical, creative way of life in which our solidarity in guilt is transformed into a new kind of togetherness as we work side by side to build the new social order the Gospels describe.
At the end of one of their gatherings in the spring of 1920, a young woman stood up and announced: “We have talked enough. Now it is time for deeds.” Eberhard and Emmy Arnold, the couple hosting the evenings, took her words to heart. He resigned his job at a Christian publishing house and sold his life insurance policy; Emmy brought their five children to a dilapidated villa in the backwater village of Sannerz. Together with Emmy’s sister Else von Hollander, they founded a communal settlement inspired by the example of the first Christians, and with friends started a new publishing house with the name Neuwerk: the New Work. Over the following decades, the publishing house would take the English name Plough, and the communal settlement would become the Bruderhof, the community that publishes this magazine.
In the same spirit as the Berlin discussion group a century ago, this issue of Plough seeks to explore what solidarity means, and what it looks like to live it out today, whether in Uganda, Bolivia, or South Korea, in an urban church, a Bruderhof, or a convent. We look forward to hearing what you think.
Peter Mommsen, Editor