The Paradox of Privilege: Responsible Solidarity for Faith-Based Activism Restricted; Files Only

MacDonald, Sarah (Spring 2018)

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This dissertation articulates a constructive Christian ethic of responsible solidarity, paying critical attention to the moral complications posed by systemic privilege. Recent texts in social ethics and anti-oppression education urge privileged North Americans to engage in political solidarity by “using privilege” for good. Yet is it ethically viable to attempt to use one’s privilege on behalf of less privileged others—or do such attempts reinforce systemic inequalities? This is the paradox of privilege: that the unearned advantages of privilege may simultaneously enable and constrain efforts for justice. So how might people of faith engage in solidarity in ways that take seriously the real impacts of privilege, yet do not rely upon such privilege as the principal tool for activism?


Inspired by Traci West’s “dialogical method,” this project builds a conversation between Christian theologies of solidarity, critical whiteness theory, and practices of nonviolence. My fieldwork studied a multiracial team of faith-based solidarity activists from North America and Colombia, who together perform international protective accompaniment. In accompaniment, “foreigners” enter a conflict zone to support communities targeted by armed actors. Accompaniment appears to use the privileged status of accompaniers to increase the safety of the accompanied. However, in the case I studied, because individual teammates do not all experience passport privilege or white privilege, these accompaniers have had to interrogate how privilege gets used—or not—in their work.


From my fieldwork findings, I develop a constructive ethic of solidarity, highlighting two themes. First, the activists I interviewed display a stance I call “strategic realism,” which, similar to Reinhold Niebuhr’s Christian realism, blends idealism and pragmatism by sometimes drawing on the impure means of privilege in order to reduce immediate violence. However, these activists demonstrate greater accountability to partners and more nuanced power analysis than Niebuhr exhibited, leading them to more effectively contextualize and decenter the power of privilege within solidarity. Second, the activists consistently depict solidarity as a practice of mutuality and interdependence. This perspective does not elide genuine differences, but rather recognizes what accompaniers and accompanied partners can each distinctively contribute to nonviolent resistance and activism for social change.

Table of Contents


PART ONE: The Paradox of Privilege Within the Call to Solidarity

     Chapter One: Wrestling with the Paradox of Privilege ... 1

     Chapter Two: Solidarity and Privilege: Theological Conversations So Far ... 46

PART TWO: The Context of International Protective Accompaniment

     Chapter Three: Accompaniment Activism: Privilege in Action? ... 92

     Chapter Four: Christian Peacemaker Teams and the Double-Edged Implications of Privilege ... 139

PART THREE: A Constructive Ethic of Responsible Solidarity

     Chapter Five: A Strategic Realist Approach to Privilege and Solidarity ... 164

     Chapter Six: Solidarity as Mutuality ... 210

Appendix: Interview Guide ... 253

Bibliography ... 257

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