The celebrations that surround the nativity of our Lord often seem to bring a mix of joy and sorrow. While one family enjoys the holidays with a new child, some parents endure the season having lost children during the previous year. Some folks find themselves surrounded by loved ones, while others feel the weight of loneliness, or of a broken family, most intensely. The joy of Christmas cannot but be alloyed with some sorrow when people with whom we are in relation are experiencing a bit of the very darkness that the Light of the World came to dispel. Conversations with friends who recently returned from volunteering with the Missionaries of Charity in Kolkata have had me reflecting on solidarity. What does it mean to be in solidarity with those who suffer? How can the suffering of another become my own, or is it presumptuous to think that I could truly enter into solidarity with the sufferings of another?
A few weeks ago, my friend Josh Brumfield contributed a post to Vox Nova about hell. His post is worth reading, because he is raising the important question: what does hell have to do with the gospel? One approach to this issue may be helpful for thinking about solidarity. Hell names the depths of darkness into which the saint is willing to descend for the sake of others. In other words, to be in solidarity with others is to suffer with and even for others. The idea of vicarious suffering appears in multiple strands of Catholic theology, from the neo-Thomism of Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange to la nouvelle théologie of Hans Urs von Balthasar, and it is often connected with Mariology. Perhaps most importantly, it is an idea rooted thoroughly in Scripture. After Israel makes the golden calf, Moses asks God that his own name be blotted from the book of life so that the nation may be spared. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul wishes that he might be cut off from Christ if it would mean that Israel could be saved. Perhaps this way of thinking about suffering does not quite get at my original line of questioning, but neither is it wholly unrelated, since Paul and Moses are seeking to take on the burdens of others. They are willing to make the potential sufferings of others their own, and in this sense, they stand in solidarity with those whose burdens they seek to accept.
While being willing to suffer, to sacrifice oneself, for others appears at first to be noble and a supreme form of charity, I must confess that the idea also troubles me. It troubles me because it seems to present a basis for idolatry. Does the Apostle love the nation more than God? In his recent book, On Sacrifice, Moshe Halbertal raises this very point, claiming that if one is willing to sacrifice oneself for others, then one might be willing to sacrifice one’s conscience for others. This is exactly what German SS officers did, and by sacrificing their consciences, they believed themselves to be taking on the ultimate burden for the sake of the nation. If I am willing to go to hell for my friend, then perhaps I am willing to perform an evil act, an act contrary to the will of God, for the sake of kith and kin, or of the patria. Would such an act not put others in the place of God and thus constitute idolatry?