By Sarah Ngu
This strangely feels like church, I thought. I was at a Democratic Socialists of America meeting in Brooklyn. People all around me were singing, with lyric sheets in hand, “Solidarity forever… for the union makes us strong.” Many of us were trying to keep up with the words and match, however haltingly, the tune. People were, I’d guess, like me: at their first-ever DSA meeting, awakened by Bernie Sanders’s championing of democratic socialism and galvanized by Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States
I’d never encountered collective singing before outside of a religious space. But, looking back now, I see that it makes perfect sense in a socialist space. Singing fosters solidarity. It gets everyone literally on the same page and connects singers not just to one another, but also to a tradition that goes before them. (“Solidarity Forever” was written by Ralph Chaplin of the Industrial Workers of the World, who self-consciously linked the song to the earlier abolitionist movement by using the tune to “John Brown’s Body” and “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”)
Because most organizing spaces tend to splinter off by identity or issue, it seems to me that democratic socialism’s great political promise is in its emphasis on solidarity, a solidarity that encompasses but is not limited to particular identities. “Solidarity” is what enables union organizers to rally workers of all identities to fight for what they deserve. At its best, it provides the organizing foundation for people to better understand the experiences of different identities, rather than to paper over them.
The idea that we are all bound up in a shared struggle is not just a common trope within socialism, but also within certain traditions of Christianity—it certainly goes beyond it, but I’m speaking from my own religious tradition. The idea of solidarity extends beyond humans to include God, who took on human form in order to be with us. Liberation theologians go further and argue that God’s death on the cross should be seen as an unjust execution by the State. The cross, then, becomes an empowering symbol of “God’s loving solidarity with the ‘least of these,’ the unwanted in society who suffer daily from great injustices,” as theologian James Cone writes in The Cross and the Lynching Tree.
In that book, Cone makes a case for the parallels between the lynching of black people in the United States and the killing of Jesus by the Roman Empire. But he doesn’t stop there. He discusses how both blacks and whites who share a common religious heritage are joined together by the “blood of the cross of Jesus.” Reflecting on how God’s solidarity on the cross can transform ugliness into a kind of beauty, Cone writes, “No gulf between blacks and whites is too great to overcome, for our beauty is more enduring than our brutality. What God joined together, no one can tear apart.”
Of course, religiosity at its worst can morph into an arrogant zeal, one that has damaged and still continues to damage others, all in service to a supposedly greater cause. Socialists should understand this, for socialism at its worst can become a “true faith” that we are not to question, only follow.
Blind zeal has no place in either religion or socialism, but both need hope. Earlier this year, I was back in the same venue—Mayday Space, a social justice organizing center—that hosted my first DSA meeting, this time for a national Young Democratic Socialists conference. José La Luz, a seasoned trade unionist and vice-chair of DSA, took to the stage. After talking about his work with César Chávez’s United Farm Workers of America, he put down the microphone, stepped off the stage, and led the standing-room crowd in an electrifying chant of “¡Sí Se Puede!” for several long minutes. It felt like the socialist equivalent of an “altar call,” as La Luz held out to the enthusiastic crowd the hope that one day our broken earth will be transformed.
Sarah Ngu, a freelance writer in Brooklyn, NY, is a member of Forefront Church, a progressive evangelical church, and the Religion and Socialism Working Group of DSA.
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Democratic Left magazine.
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