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.
YOU wouldn’t know it from most Sunday sermons but there’s considerable disagreement among New Testament scholars about just what faith means. Christians generally assume that faith means believing something to be true when you can’t know it to be true. In Paul’s letters, there’s that famous turn of phrase, which became the sticking point during the Reformation, in which he says we are “justified” by our “faith in Christ.” The truth is, the phrase is ambiguous, and even New Testament scholars don’t know for sure what it means. You’re likely to hear faith talked about as belief in Christ, and because of your belief in him your sins are forgiven. It can just as well mean, though, Christ’s own belief. And that’s just the problem: belief is not the right word at all here.
Faith in the New Testament, and all the other Greek words that are closely associated with it, means something more like loyalty. It’s talking about a relationship. Even loyalty doesn’t quite get at it, because it means something that a person does, a stance that a person takes in relationship to others; it’s the kind of stance that defines who you are in that relationship. Nijay Gupta gives a helpful example from Plutarch, describing the men who refused to turn over Odysseus to Polyphemus:
Even when they were dragged about and dashed upon the ground by the Cyclops, they would not denounce Odysseus nor show that fire-sharpened instrument prepared against the monster’s eye, but preferred to be eaten raw rather than to tell a single word of the secret—an example of self-control and loyalty which cannot be surpassed.
The word loyalty here is the same word as faith in the New Testament. Others have suggested that it might mean allegiance, like that of a soldier’s. It is not that the men believe in Odysseus, nor that they trust him, though they certainly do. What matters is that they stand with Odysseus; they don’t betray him. By standing with Odysseus, they not only sustain their relationship with him, but they deepen it, expanding its horizon of possibility.
Judas Iscariot is the figure in the New Testament whose actions epitomize the opposite of this allegiance. With the striking exception of his women disciples, all of Jesus’ apostles abandon him, and in doing so show a lack of faith. But Judas goes much farther and does not merely deny his relationship to Jesus but, unlike Odysseus’ men, betrays him in the hope of saving himself.
Betraying his relationship is exactly what Jesus does not do. His ministry began with a public pledge of allegiance to the most vulnerable of the world: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Faced with Rome’s promise to crush that mission, Jesus remains loyal, allegiant, faithful to it “to the point of death—even death on a cross,” as Paul writes. There are many ways to might imagine what his resurrection means, but it certainly means that we live now in the extraordinary reality in which Jesus continues to be loyal to that mission, on the other side of his death. Death cannot crush it.
I know of no better English word than solidarity to capture the reality expressed in the New Testament. “Faith” comes close because there is trust, even hope in this action, but the most fundamental aspect is that of uncompromising commitment. More vital, though, is that the New Testament is not talking about devoted allegiance to a moral ideal, but to a concrete social reality and the kind of life with others that sustains it. Jesus’ solidarity with the most vulnerable is so complete that he can say, “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matt 25:40).
The Apostle Paul, then, later says that it is this solidarity that justifies us, that sets us in a right relationship with God and others. In fact, the word justified means justice. Solidarity creates justice. What the New Testament scholars disagree about is whether that justice is created by Jesus’ solidarity with us (while we were still sinners) or by our solidarity Jesus, but both of these options come down to the same things: that the justice that God desires, a justice for which even now the nonhuman world is crying out in agony to be born, takes root in the world through solidarity with the most vulnerable, for whom Jesus gave away his life. It is to say that Jesus’ solidarity is identical with God’s solidarity, and our solidarity with Jesus, our faith, is identical to Jesus’ solidarity with the most vulnerable. That solidarity is how we love God with all our heart, soul, and mind; how we love our neighbor as ourselves; it is our own participation in Jesus’ mission to establish God’s justice on earth.
The Christian’s faith means deep solidarity. This is a spiritual solidarity that is all the more material because of its share in the deepest of mysteries; a political solidarity that is all the more mystical because it is material. This is not the shallow solidarity of the rightwing. The right’s appeal to solidarity is always implicitly authoritarian because it requires uniformity, the preservation of racial, sexual, gender, imperial, and ecological hierarchies and the repression of egalitarian diversity, which is imagined to be a menace. This is exclusion, not solidarity. It is an idolatrous politics, the ideological spirituality of betrayal. When we at the Institute for Christian Socialism talk about the “socialism of the gospel,” we mean just this spiritual-political mission of deep, emancipatory solidarity. We are not in solidarity with Jesus if we are not in solidarity with the most vulnerable among us, and we are not in solidarity with the most vulnerable if we are not working to overcome capitalism. That means being where God’s justice is embodied — in solidarity.
Joshua Davis is the executive director of the Institute for Christian Socialism and is an Episcopalian theologian and educator who has taught at several universities and seminaries, including The General Theological Seminary. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama.