The Difference Between Charity and Solidarity and Why It Matters

When I was in Athens working in the refugee community in 2016, I had lunch one day with a wise young man. We talked about the work we were doing and I disclosed that I cried a lot, even though being around vulnerable people had never made me cry before. He replied “Well then, maybe you have crossed over from charity to solidarity.”

Since then, I have thought a lot about the difference between charity and solidarity.

Charity implies an unequal relationship. You are poor and weak, and I am not. You need me and I feel good about myself when I help you.  There is the “us” and the “you.”

Solidarity requires the belief in a common interest. We are in this together, and your welfare affects mine and everyone else’s. If you are empowered, we are all empowered. There is only us.

Why does this matter? A sandwich offered through charity is the same as a sandwich offered through solidarity, right?

Not really.

Charity without solidarity accepts the systemic hierarchy that creates the injustice that we think we are addressing.

Solidarity acknowledges a problem with the system. If I am wealthy and you are hungry, it’s because the system is unfairly rigged in favor of some at the expense of others.

And it is. My good fortune is due to an accident of my birth and comes at the expense of others. The United States has murdered, enslaved and oppressed people all over the world in pursuit of a disproportionate share of wealth. Even the most progressively-minded Americans are uncomfortable with this truth – but we are seeing it in real time in the case of Venezuela. (And if you think the US is staging a coup to help the Venezuelan people, ask yourself how it can simultaneously kidnap the children of innocent migrants and sell weapons of war to dictators.)

Why does this matter? Because when the powerful people of the world think charity is enough, there is not much chance for true social justice or peace. Only sandwiches and ways for us to affirm our own goodness.

Solidarity is more complicated and it won’t solve the world’s problems. But thinking of the world as “us” instead of “us and “them” is a start. And when we really feel it, we are connected to the whole world.

 

“How are we supposed to treat others?”
“There are no others.”
—  Ramana Maharshi

4 comments

  1. Well, said. Charity leads to a perpetuation of them and us. It is a powerful negative that undermines the best of intentions.

  2. Well stated. I agree with your fundamental premise.

    However, I also believe that the American Empire has often been “less evil” than virtually all that have preceded it and at times has been a significant positive force for freedom, equality and greater prosperity to people at the bottom rung of the economic structure in many places around the world.

    I believe that the myth of American Exceptionalism is a worthy myth to hold up as a goal for us to strive for in today’s world. It should spur us toward identifying with all oppressed people and those in the world with less than the riches we enjoy.

    However, until nation-states are a thing of the past I think we will always face a dichotomy between our self-professed aspirations and our performance.

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