It was sunny in Regents Park, London, on 15 August 2009, when the UK Black Pride festival was held. The atmosphere was celebratory as lesbian, gay, bisexual and trans people of African, Asian, Caribbean, Middle Eastern and Latin American descent, their friends and families talked, listened, ate, drank and danced.
Yet for many, it had not been an easy or painless process to reach a point where they could be relaxed about being themselves.
The headline act was Beverley Knight, one of Britain’s best R&B artists, and an outspoken opponent of homophobia as well as a fundraiser for AIDS charities. She was in excellent form that Saturday afternoon as she pledged in her song “Keep This Fire Burning”:
Even when you think you’re all alone…
Even when you’ve lost your faith in love
Even when there is no light above…
I’ll be on your side
I was reminded of the value of solidarity as I listened, in the midst of a crowd gripped by her performance. This was reinforced later that evening, as grim news reached me from Sri Lanka of flooding in the refugee camps where hundreds of thousands of Tamils have been kept by the army for months.
Previously held hostage by the Tigers, the end of the war had brought them hope of returning to their homes and trying to rebuild their lives. But very few have been released, despite growing international disquiet and now the rainy season has brought further misery. Some church leaders in other parts of the island have been seeking to improve their conditions and encourage greater justice across all ethnic communities, despite the increasing authoritarianism of the government and its unhelpful attitude to minorities.
However, many Christians throughout the world are more comfortable with charity than solidarity. They are reluctant to be too “political” or to offend those who are influential or powerful. Some associate solidarity with the secular world, forgetting the spiritual as well as physical damage done to those who come to disbelieve in their own worth, as well as the more subtle yet deadly effects on those encouraged to hate, neglect or despise their neighbours.
Yet solidarity is a central theme in the Bible. In Isaiah’s much-quoted prophetic passage on the coming of the Prince of Peace, it is on humans laid low by suffering and failure, those who dwell in deep darkness and feel the rod of oppression, that the light shines, and to them that the son is given who will bring release (Isaiah 9.1-7).
In Christ, God enters into costly solidarity with humankind, even to the point of death, to open up the possibility of abundant life for us, inviting us to show solidarity likewise with others (Philippians 2.3-9). We are to share with friends and strangers, rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep, associate with the lowly. (Romans 12.13-16).
It can be hard enough to be attentive to the needs and experiences of our family and friends, let alone those whose lives are markedly different from ours. Yet faith invites us at least to make the effort to challenge whatever blights our neighbours’ lives as if we ourselves were affected, trusting in the Holy Spirit to guide and encourage us so as to overcome the obstacles we will face.
This can be costly. 15 August is also a day (the Dormition/Assumption), when many Christians celebrate Mary’s openness to joining in God’s purposes for humanity, and her hymn of joy to One who exalts the humble and fills the hungry with good things (Luke 1.26-55). Yet her son, the light of the nations, will face fierce opposition, and in solidarity with him she will suffer as if a sword had pierced her very soul (Luke 2.30-32, 34). Assisting the needy, but at arm’s length, and in ways that do not undermine the status quo, can feel much safer.
Nevertheless, acts of solidarity can offer opportunities for growth, to connect at a deeper level not only with other humans but also with the divine. And to those who experience harsh oppression or feel abandoned, even a glimmer of light can sometimes ward off despair.
(c) Savitri Hensman was born in Sri Lanka. She works in the voluntary sector in community care and equalities in the UK and she is also a respected writer on Christianity and social justice. She is an Ekklesia associate.