This is a panelist contribution for our upcoming webinar, “How Can Christian Socialists Build Deeper Solidarities?” co-hosted by the Institute for Christian Socialism and the Wendland-Cook Program for Religion and Justice. Register for the webinar here, which takes place on Monday, April 12 at 7:00 pm CST.
A few weeks after the Atlanta Spa shootings, I participated in a virtual teach-in with three other clergy leaders and friends. Convened as a response to the spike in anti-Asian racism, the teach-in sought to address racist, historical dynamics between Asian and Black communities. The oft-tossed word, “solidarity” came up. “Solidarity,” someone said, “is about building relationships.”
At first I shook my head, subtly. Solidarity is, for me, about locating your self-interest in another person’s fight for justice. It’s about seeing struggles as interconnected, not disparate lanes that can only be bridged by kind gestures of allyship. I felt that in action when I reported on the hunger-striking grandmas in Manhattan’s Chinatown who were protesting their landlord and uniting with several tenant groups across New York City.
I still believe that. But I can’t deny the centrality of relationships in any leftist movements. Whether I was reading Vivian Gornick’s Romance of American Communism or interviewing 70-year-old communists in my Malaysian hometown who took me to visit my Communist grand-aunt’s grave when most of my family had forgotten where it was, it’s clear to me that at the core of all these Communist movements was something that looked like family. They did not come together for the sake of building relationships, but for a common goal. If the goal was why they came together, relationships were a big reason why they fought for each other, and in some cases, died for one another.
These movements were not exemplars of equality and diversity across race, gender, and sexuality, but they certainly strove for it. In the 1930s, the US Communists instructed white organizers to teach all Communists that they must “be willing to die in defense of any Negro’s rights” if they wanted to build class unity, as reported by Jodi Dean, author of Comrade. The comrades of my grand-aunt were Chinese immigrants to Sarawak, an Eastern state of Malaysia. They were a minority group in Sarawak, which is majority indigenous. During the rise of anti-imperial communist movements across the globe in the 20th century, some chose to return to China to take up arms, but many, like my grand-aunt, were inspired by these national movements to stay and fight for independence — and then a classless society — for all peoples in Sarawak. Even today, the elderly Communist guerillas have annual ‘family reunions’ where they go on vacation together or pay respects at the graves of Communists who died in armed struggle, fulfilling the duties that sometimes biological families neglect.
While for Communist movements, politics preceded relationships, in the case of the church, it tends to be the reverse. My involvement in that teach-in came about because the pastor, Tonetta Landis-Aina, who hosted it and I were friends. She’s a Black, queer woman who grew up in North Carolina and has lived in Washington DC for the past two decades. I’m a Chinese Malaysian queer person who’s hopped around from Malaysia, to California, and now New York City. We met through Q Christian Fellowship, an organization that hosts a large annual conference for LGBTQIA Christians. It’s in that conference that many of us come out to ourselves and to others for the first time. And so these conferences feel like a “family reunion,” where we go less for the agenda and more to catch up on each other’s lives.
So we were able to trust each other with hard stories. Tonetta shared a story about a visit she once made in her twenties to a gigantic home of an Asian friend. There, she learned that her friend’s parents owned a liquor store in a Black and poor area of Washington DC. “It’s only in recent weeks that I have been able to name the betrayal I felt by Asian folx driving into black communities to make money without investing in the community in return,” she said to us. “My most regular encounters with people of Asian descent have been in the context of them as vendors often behind bullet-proof glass.” And we listened and held that, after which our friend, Erna Kim Hackett, shared a story about an Asian friend of hers in Los Angeles whose father owns a similar store, and who has been shot at while working in the store. There was no bow-tie resolution, but we got to name the stories we had been hiding or putting away.
Cultivating honest, trusting relationships is the bread and butter of the church. But to go further in our solidarity requires a robust, political analysis. One that goes beyond who the liquor store owners are and names the system of capitalism that determines who receives loans to set up shop where, who is deemed “trustworthy” of a loan, and that determines which neighborhoods receive investment while others are dis-invested. In other words, one that names the Roman empire and not Jewish tax collectors (who do, also, bear some responsibility).
We must go further and ask the questions, “Who owns the means of economic production? Of reproduction? Of war? And who doesn’t?” in examining the white supremacist logics of chattel slavery, displacement of indigenous people from their lands and suppression of femme and gender-diverse shamans, and the plundering of natural resources and raping of women “abroad.” Such an analysis and education will channel the relational energy cultivated by the church into a more organized, disciplined and sustained operation. One that will truly become the corporal body of Christ.
That is my hope for Christian socialism.
Sarah Ngu is the community director on the executive council at Forefront Brooklyn Church and cofounded ChurchClarity, a database that scores churches for how easy it is to find their LGBTQ and Women in Leadership policies on their websites. Sarah hosted the Religion & Socialism podcast, which is produced by Devin Briski and is platformed by the Democratic Socialists of America’ Religion and Socialism working group.