Authored by Parliament Staff Molly Horan, Director of Communications, and Austin Sisson, Executive Coordinator
The Parliament of the World’s Religions was privileged to co-host Dr. Larycia Hawkins on April 26, 2016 in Chicago for a challenging, sometimes uncomfortable, but always inspiring lecture about “Embodied Solidarity.” Joining us as co-sponsors were SCUPE, a Chicago-based seminary consortium led by Parliament Trustee Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana, and Arise Chicago, the labor justice organization which represented Dr. Hawkins during her recent employment negotiations and ultimate separation with Wheaton College.
During those difficult months, Parliament representatives stood with Dr Hawkins in support of her calls for "Embodied Solidarity" that started on a December day when Dr. Hawkins made an announcement on Facebook. The posting of an image of herself wearing a headscarf was captioned to explain why she would observe the Christian season of Advent by dressing in a way that “embodied solidarity” with her Muslim sisters. Her theological commentary - that Muslims and Christians worship the same God - would spark rampant debate within the Wheaton community and quickly escalated to her suspension from the college.
As this news story exploded across the world, many Christians and Muslims expressed feeling bonded by this show of unity, and Dr. Hawkins’ stand was commended by news commentators and social media users. However, the same viral image of Dr. Hawkins wearing a headscarf that many were celebrating was also perceived as too intimidating a gesture for many influential Christian public figures who voiced being disturbed and offended by such overt interfaith symbolism. This public debate abruptly exemplified how rapidly views of American Muslims have deteriorated from poor to worse. This is in large part created and then exacerbated by the current U.S. presidential primary campaign’s use of Islamophobic rhetoric (and broadcast on loop in every media platform) - a crisis Dr. Hawkins sought to alleviate.
Throughout two emotional press conferences concerning the discipline she faced at her now former employer, Wheaton College, Dr. Hawkins advanced a view of social justice heavily informed by her own Christian faith, and beyond that, drew inspiration from a variety of the world’s religions in her attempt to change the way that we define and discuss our shared humanity. It was obvious that her vision, coupled with her public actions, courageously model the Parliament's own mission statement.
The “Embodied Solidarity” meeting co-hosted by the Parliament was an enlightening opportunity for the public to hear Dr. Hawkins lecture, and to also contemplate responses to “Embodied Solidarity” from an esteemed international, interracial, and interfaith panel of Jewish, Christian and Muslim speakers. Representatives from Bread for the World, the World Council of Churches, the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago, Northwestern University, the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Conference, and several Christian and Jewish congregations around the Chicagoland area were on hand to voice agreement and raise difficult questions to consider going forward.
After the dialogue, all attendees and speakers (who were permitted by their organizations) were asked to endorse a new "Solidarity Pledge" to transform the community of support around Dr. Hawkins' ideas into a community of action implementing those ideas.
The discussion was framed around how "Embodied Solidarity" provides a faith-based alternative to divisive political rhetoric, often inflaming division between people on the basis of labels which work to separate people: race, religion, socioeconomic status and other matters of difference. Dr. Hawkins chose to structure her lecture around human suffering. She explained through a philosophical framework why we need to stand by our neighbors in their suffering, a framework flavored with Christian theology and Buddhist philosophy.
Moreover, Dr. Hawkins invited the audience into her passionately-charged, provocative classroom to learn what is embodied solidarity, to understand its roots, and importantly, how to put into action. These three points stood out the most:
Or, more broadly, to live is to experience a certain level of dissatisfaction. This assertion that living beings are united by suffering is not new; in fact, it is commonly associated with the first of the Four Noble Truths in Buddhism, but it also shows up in faith traditions and philosophies around the world. In our world of ever-increasing class separation, characterized by a vast gap between the deeply impoverished and the financially comfortable, the ubiquity of human suffering is a truth that is often forgotten. Those who occupy a position of privilege minimize their own suffering and, in doing so, fail to let the less privileged walk with them in times of need. Those who occupy the bottom rungs - who experience the most oppression on a daily basis - don’t get a chance to see the suffering of others because they themselves struggle for survival.
“Rights” dialogue, especially in the United States, has a tendency to turn inward and focuses on 'the self.' One such hot-button “rights” talks concerns gun ownership, a conversation that has lost all semblance of collective concern and has dissolved into “how do I protect what is mine” (both philosophically and literally).
Compare this with the movement for LGBTQ rights, a conversation which concerns the deprivation of certain privileges that other citizens receive simply on the virtue of their humanity. Dr. Hawkins suggests that we then shift into a conversation of “human dignity.” When we talk about dignity, we expand our view out from ourselves. We also make room for suffering, which is very different than rights deprivation.
Consider the example of a family living on the Southside of Chicago; while their “rights” are arguably upheld (although, even in 2016, this is up for debate), this family experiences suffering that arises from systems that ignore their dignity based upon their geographical location and, often, the color of their skin. Their relative lack of access to good schools, to quality healthcare, to healthy food options, as well as their greater risk of arrest, random violence, and infant mortality, are often ignored in "rights talks" because their rights are technically not being violated. But when you start from a place of dignity - from the premise that there are opportunities and amenities that people deserve access to based on no more than their humanness, a quality that they share with the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor, the healthy and the sick, and people of every race - the injustice that weighs upon this South Side family is illuminated in a way that is impossible to ignore and deplorable to disregard. Rights are important, but “they must be moored in a more robust anthropology and philosophy of dignity.”
When we embody solidarity - when we literally stand with one another with our bodies - we experience one another’s suffering. This action stretches beyond empathy (a very necessary component) and into the realm of sacrifice. We chain ourselves to one another; we stand between our neighbors and their oppressors and utter the proverbial “if you want to hurt them, you gotta go through me first,” with full expectation that our ultimatum will be accepted and that we will be hurt.
The fact of the matter is this; even if we run away from oppression, if we turn our backs on the oppressed, we are effectively inflicting self harm. The same dignity, the same experience of suffering, links us as humans in a way that is both intangible and inextricable. When we separate ourselves from our human neighbors, the same suffering that afflicts us as a species - the same suffering that we seek to avoid - will eventually find us and we will be alone in it. Dr. Hawkins exhorted the audience to tap into a collective conscience, that is, what affects one of us affects all of us.
This is where Dr. Hawkin’s Christian faith comes through. To live is, indeed, to suffer, but there is hope when we suffer together. The commandment to love one’s neighbor, a cornerstone of the Christian faith, is typified by the person of Jesus Christ, who descended from heaven to join humans in struggle and suffering to the point of torture and death. John 15:13 says “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” The parable “The Good Samaritan” sees the titular protagonist put himself at great bodily risk to save the life of a man who, culturally, couldn’t have been more different than him. If it is suffering that unites us as a species, it is the ability to share and shoulder the suffering of others that defines us as human beings.
There is more to embodied solidarity than being “briefly appalled” by situations like the water toxicity crisis in Flint, Michigan. It is a difficult, consistent action that starts with the understanding that everyone you know, everyone you see on a daily basis, is dealing with some form of oppression.
Once we’ve accepted that fact, it isn’t enough to acknowledge it and move on; that is, when the hard work of placing our own bodies beside those of our brothers and sisters begins, only from that can we experience real reconciliation and unity.