As the old Pope died, people’s memories of him began to flood the world’s public square. What struck me most about those memories was a word he used over and over: solidarity. “Basic human solidarity” was one of his favorite phrases, invoked in every form of his public utterances.
That word comes in part from his Catholicism. For over a century, since Leo XIII’s epochal encyclical Rerum Novarum, Catholic social teaching has emphasized the basic obligations people have to one another in society, especially in the realms of work and money. Undergirding that teaching is the profound sense that we were made to be in this together. Using insights drawn from 19th-century European union movements, this line of thought understands solidarity as the normative mode of human interaction.
This business of being social and political animals means we have to not only recognize one another as humans, but back that up with action. Jefferson said all men were created equal; first-wave feminism rightly amended him to include “and women.” The logic of solidarity demands a more radical step.
It’s one thing to say that someone is your equal, but quite another to identify with her. Identity means allegiance. It means sharing in others’ joys and troubles as your own. In the Gospels’ phrase, it means loving your neighbor as yourself. When John Paul II invoked “basic human solidarity,” it called on his audiences — both Catholic and “all people of good will,” as his encyclicals put it — to identify with everyone who crossed their paths.
The Pope’s own national identity gives us another clue to his love for this word. The Solidarity movement turned Soviet-run Poland upside down, and did it peacefully. Lech Walesa’s labor union turned into a democracy engine. Even when forced underground, it only grew stronger. It represented the same power over persecution that the Catholic Church, at its best, has striven to embody. Imagine that the English word signified not only togetherness and mutual identification in the midst of trouble, but also the inexorable victory that solidarity can produce over injustice. In Polish, “solidarnosc” came to mean freedom.
As Jon Stewart has pointed out, the Republican press machine immediately took the old Pope to stand for “freedom” and “a culture of life,” two of their own favorite tropes. This interpretation tends to ignore his methodology. While his anti-Communist and pro-life stances are famous, how he reached them is what matters.
When John Paul II quarrelled with Marx, it was not only on theoretical grounds, but because he identified with the victims of Soviet oppression. He proclaimed a strikingly capacious definition of human life in order to make people identify with the unborn and the dying. And he chose these groups as the objects of his solidarity precisely because they were among the wretched of the earth.
The word “solidarity” doesn’t show up much in American high politics. Even the most visionary of our politicians have avoided such talk. Lincoln won his presidency on a platform not of abolition, but of letting the Whiggish North look after and extend its own free-soil customs. Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights and Great Society visions came from on high, bestowing social programs and ballot boxes like gifts from the Great White Father. Both were responding to popular movements with deep solidarity strands, but neither entirely identified with them either. Even the little they did proved costly enough to them and their parties.
The old Pope’s vision recognized that while doing the right thing will work in the long run, it will never come cheaply. Solidarity means getting off your high horse. For Lech Walesa, it meant giving up his job security and his personal freedom. For the Polish government that ultimately caved to his movement, it meant giving up the false human righteousness of Marxist orthodoxy. For Johnson, it meant losing his power, as the poor and the black folks with whom he partially identified had so often been disempowered. For Lincoln, it meant losing his life, as he had praised Gettysburg’s thousands for dying that the nation might live.
The Pope’s model for human life derived from just such a descent from honor and power. His faith was in a God who identified so completely with humanity as to share our human nature, who remained in solidarity even with those who killed him, who rose again in victory to inaugurate a new age. As we graduate from our rich and prestigious university, we have a chance to do likewise. We can identify with Christ and do what he did. We can live in human solidarity. If we can believe the Pope’s life and death, that way lies glory.
Christopher Ashley is a senior in Silliman College. This is his last regular column.