Service, Solidarity, Human Rights, and Peace
Sisters Today, Volume 72, No. 5 (September 2000)
Each semester in a couple of my Peace Studies courses I give my students the option of doing a service-learning project. The majority of the students usually take the option and do well in their projects. As part of their writing assignment for the project, I ask them to relate their service experience to relevant peace studies concepts such as solidarity, human rights, and peace-building. I decided that it would be useful to provide the students with a framework for their thinking about these concepts in relation to service. This essay briefly lays out that conceptual framework, drawing from Catholic social principles.
I begin with the concept of solidarity, which has been much discussed in recent Catholic social thought, and which I have found particularly helpful in conceptualizing service.
Solidarity. The key concept in the framework I am proposing is solidarity. While the concept has a particular intellectual history, I am drawing from how it is used in recent Catholic social thought. Ideally, I contend, service is motivated and guided by a spirit of solidarity. In Catholic social thought, the concept of solidarity is based on empirical observation of the nature of the human person who is irreducibly social in nature. Solidarity is also a normative concept: the gospel calls us to live a life in solidarity with others. It is also, as Thomas Massaro wrote,
. . . a subjective internal attitude and an observable objective praxis. As such it constitutes a regulative norm by which we may judge institutions and policies proposing such questions as: does a given practice foster cooperation and partnership, or does it increase social distance and diminish the achievement of the good of solidarity?
Thus solidarity is an attitude – we can speak of the "spirit of solidarity" – and it is an ethical norm – we are called to practice solidarity with others, to engage in service. The U.S. Catholic bishops provide an informative discussion of solidarity in their 1986 Pastoral Letter, Economic Justice for All:
The commandment to love God with all one’s heart and to love one’s neighbor as oneself are the heart and soul of Christian morality. Jesus offers himself as the model of this all-inclusive love: ‘. . . love one another as I have loved you’ (Jn 15:12). These commands point out the path toward true human fulfillment and happiness. . . . Only active love of God and neighbor makes the fullness of community happen. . . . The Spirit of Christ labors in history to build up the bonds of solidarity among all persons.
The bishops see this biblical and Christian understanding supported in the work of ancient Greek and Roman philosophers who saw the human being as a "’social animal’ made for friendship, community, and public life," and who achieves "self-realization not in isolation, but in interaction with others." The bishops conclude that "Solidarity is another name for . . . social friendship and civic commitment. . . ." Thus, the concept of solidarity is based on a very social, not individualistic, understanding of the human person, and understanding which, for example, is at odds with the highly
The concept of solidarity is based on a very social, not individualistic, understanding which, for example, is at odds with the highly individualistic classical economic theory.
individualistic classical economic theory. Humans are interdependent, not independent, by nature and the norm of solidarity is the ethical response to this fact. As Massaro wrote, "to be truly morally good, . . . relationships must be characterized by mutual concern for the well-being of others and by a willingness to make necessary sacrifices for the common good of the human community as a whole." Similarly, John Paul II described solidarity as 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."
When we have the spirit of solidarity, we are motivated to various forms of service, overcoming divisions and enhancing human dignity. As the U.S. Catholic bishops wrote,
When we have the spirit of solidarity, we re motivated to various forms of service, overcoming divisions and enhancing human dignity.
Solidarity binds the rich to the poor. It makes the free zealous for the cause of the oppressed. It drives the comfortable and secure to take risks for the victims of tyranny and war. It calls those who are weak and vulnerable across the spectrum of human life. It opens homes and hearts to those in flight from terror, and to migrants whose daily toil supports affluent lifestyles. Peacemaking, as Pope John Paul II has told us, is the work of solidarity.
The bishops go on to say that "solidarity demands responses and initiatives that are as rich and varied as our relationships, responsibilities, and lives." The spirit of solidarity motivates us to various forms of service, not just "direct service" like that in a soup kitchen, but any action that will enhance the dignity and well-being of others. The spirit of solidarity often motivates people to work for the realization of human rights and to build peace.
Human Rights. Solidarity motivates service for the common good and the realization of human rights. Vatican Council II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World provided a frequently used definition of common good as "the sum of those conditions of social life which allow social groups and their individual members relatively thorough and ready access to their own fulfillment. . . ." Many of these conditions of social life, which incorporate "everything necessary for leading a life truly human," are outlined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which is frequently cited in recent Catholic social teaching. Thus, a guide for service motivated by the spirit of solidarity is the Universal Declaration itself, which includes not only civil and political rights but also economic, social, and cultural rights, such as the rights to food, clothing, housing, medical care, education, and necessary social services (arts. 25 and 26). The rights listed in the Universal Declaration are presented as necessary for a life lived with dignity. Service that helps to realize human rights and meet the human needs they represent is service that enhances human dignity in the spirit of solidarity. Such service can help realize rights by taking a direct service form, such as working in a shelter for the homeless or building houses with Habitat for Humanity, or taking an advocacy form, such as lobbying for government policies supporting affordable housing. The realization of human rights not only enhances human dignity but, as "just" or "right relations," provides the basis for peace. When human rights are not realized or protected, the seeds of discontent, conflict, and violence are planted.
Peace. The spirit of solidarity motivates service for peace as well as for human rights. Indeed, peace and human rights are intimately connected. Under the heading
The spirit of solidarity often motivates people to work for the realization of human rights and to build peace.
"Development in the New Name for Peace" in his social encyclical Development of Peoples, Paul VI wrote:
Excessive economic, social, and cultural inequalities among peoples arouse tensions and conflicts, and are a danger to peace …To wage war on misery and to struggle against injustice is to promote, along with improved conditions, the human and spiritual progress of all… and therefore the common good of all humanity. Peace cannot be limited to a mere absence of war… No, peace is something that is built up day after day, in the pursuit of an order intended by God, which implies a more perfect form of justice among men.
Echoing Paul VI, the U.S. Catholic bishops wrote:
No society can live in peace with itself, or with the world, without a full awareness of the worth and dignity of every person, and of the sacredness of all human life (Jas 4:1-2). When we accept violence in any form as commonplace, our sensitivities become dulled…. Violence has many faces: oppression of the
Service that helps to realize human rights and meet the human needs they represent is service that enhances human dignity in the spirit of solidarity.
poor, deprivation of basic human rights, economic exploitation, sexual exploitation and pornography, neglect or abuse of the aged and helpless, and innumerable other acts of inhumanity. Abortion in particular blunts a sense of sacredness of human life.
Similarly, John Paul II wrote that "Every violation of human rights carries within it the seeds of possible conflict," and that " peace is the fruit of solidarity." The work of peace is also the work of solidarity and human rights. By reducing inequality, by assuring that basic rights such as housing , medical care, and education are realized and just relationships are built; and through simple acts of human caring and compassion that build the bonds of solidarity, we are slowly, day by day, building a true and lasting peace.
If we are motivated by the true spirit of solidarity we will move beyond those things that divide us. By working with people of different social classes or racial, ethnic, religious, or age groups, we can transform our stereotypes, better understand and build relationships with the socially distant other. Such service is especially important today as our society continues to fragment socially. It is indeed possible, and some would even say desirable, for many of us to avoid so many people different from ourselves in various ways. But the spirit of solidarity calls us to come together as God’s children, one and all. By working together with the marginalized, we can create new opportunity for a life with dignity, and prevent frustrations that can lead to conflict and violence. Ultimately, peace can never truly be established by force or the threat of force; rather it is established through building just relationships that are caring, responsive, and respectful. Thus we can understand how Paul II can say that peace is the fruit of solidarity.
The Meaning of "Service." Finally, we need to look a little more closely at the meaning of the word "service." In the conceptual framework that I have presented, service is motivated by the spirit of solidarity. But this solidarity is not simply confined to those in our immediate community or our country. Our solidarity must be with the entire human family, and we must pursue the global common good, which may be at odds sometimes with the common good of our own country. And we are not called to service only as individuals, but also as communities. For example, as the U.S. Catholic bishops wrote, "Catholic communities of faith should measure their prayer, education, and action by how they serve the life, dignity, and rights of the human person at home and abroad." The spirit of solidarity should motivate us to cultivate our sense of communal responsibility, and to not just think individualistically about service.
In this conceptualization, service is a partnership; a working with, not for, the other; a mutual sharing of the gift each possess; learning as well as teaching; accompanying and being accompanied. Indeed, the spirit of solidarity is not a spirit of servanthood but of friendship. As Jesus said, "No one can have greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends… I shall no longer call you servants… I call you friends" (Jn 15: 13, 15). Commenting on the passage, the community organizer John McKnight discussed the difference between friend and servant:
Friends are people who know, care, respect, struggle, love justice and have commitment to each other through time … [Jesus’] final message is not to serve. Rather he directs us to be friends.
Our solidarity must be with the entire human family, and we must pursue the global common good, which will be at odds sometimes with the common good of our own country.
Why friends rather than servants? Perhaps it is because he knew that servants could always become lords but that friends could not. . . . Friends are people who know each other. They are free to give and receive help.19
As noted earlier, solidarity is another name for social friendship and civic commitment to the common good. Our service should be conducted in that spirit of friendship because friends are equals; out of mutual love, friends will do more and less than a servant will do. The goal is to go to, and to share in, the banquet of life together – a banquet with enough for all, that God set for us all.
The goal is to go to, and to share in, the banquet of life together—a banquet with enough for all, that God set for us all.
I’d like to close with lines from the hymn, Christ, You Call Us All to Service, that eloquently summarizes what I have been discussing in this essay.
Teach us how to work together,
brothers, sisters, side by side,
equal partners in the struggle,
in the cause of truth allied.
To each one some gift is given,
man or woman, young or old –
help us use each skill and talent
your great purpose to unfold.20
EndnotesFor a brief discussion of the intellectual history of the concept of solidarity, see J. Verstraeten, "Solidarity and Subsidiarity," in D.A. Boileau, editor, Principles of Catholic Social Teaching (Milwaukee, Wisconsin: Marquette University Press, 1994), 133-147; and Franz H. Mueller, "Solidarism," and Matthew Lamb, "Solidarity," in Judith A. Dwyer, editor, The New Dictionary of Catholic Social Thought (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1994) 906-908, and 908-912 respectively. Thomas Massaro, Catholic Social Teaching and United States Welfare Reform (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1998) 8. U.S. Catholic Bishops, Economic Justice for All (Washington, D.C.: USCC Office of Publishing and Promotion Services, 1986), par. 64. Ibid., par. 65. Ibid., par. 65. Ibid., par. 66. Massaro, Catholic Social Teaching, p. 8. John Paul II, On Social Concerns (Washington, D.C.: USCC Office of Publishing and Promotion Services, 1987), par. 38. U.S. Catholic Bishops, Called to Global Solidarity: International Challenges for U.S. Parishes (Washington, D.C.: USCC Office of Publishing and Promotion, 1997) 4. Ibid., p. 8. Vatican Council II, The Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Washington, D.C.: USCC Office of Publishing and Promotion Services, 1965) par. 26. Ibid., par. 26. See for example, John XXIII, Peace on Earth (1963); U.S. Catholic Bishops, Economic Justice for All (1986); and John Paul II, Respect for Human Rights: The Secret of True Peace (World Peace Day Message 1999), all of which are published by the USCC Office of Publishing and Promotion Services.
19John McKnight, The Careless Society: Community and Its Conterfeits (New York: Basic Books, 1995) 178-179.
20Joy F. Patterson, Christ, You Call Us All to Service (Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing Company, 1994).