by Florence O’Taylor, PhD student in the Dept of Theology and Religion at Durham University and is a political theologian researching with women recovering from substance addictions
In the first weeks of lockdown, COVID-19 mutual aid groups sprung up in the thousands, building a sense of solidarity that interrupted the increasingly individualized society of late capitalism in the UK. Mutual aid is where a group of people organise to meet their own needs, independent of formal charities, NGOs and government, with a horizontal structure where all individuals are equally powerful and there is no hierarchical leadership. It wasn’t long until the government was lauding the volunteer networks and celebrating the way that people were coming together. And, while local efforts and neighbourliness is to be celebrated, we must be wary of White middle-classes and neoliberal agendas co-opting mutual aid, a radical grassroot movement with a long, often Black, history.
While mutual aid might have hit the mainstream during lockdown, it has not always found such a warm welcome by those in power. Founder of UK Mutual Aid Eshe Kiama Zuri described receiving ‘a lot of abuse’ when she started the group in 2018 and that pre-COVID 19, ‘mutual aid was something to shun, something to ignore, something to attack and tear down, especially when run by Black people.’ While there is much potential in the growth of mutual aid during the Corona crisis, it is crucial to pay attention to the power dynamics at play. It demands attention and careful consideration about what mutual aid is, why the narrative has changed, and what has been lost, appropriated and damaged in the process.
We must notice where the state wishes to celebrate aspects of community action to support its own agenda, whitewashing its roots, and refusing to recognise the radical politics from which it sprung, and the demands accompanying it. Foundational to mutual aid is its horizontal mode of organising, avoiding unelected ‘steering committees’ or ‘leaders’, resisting traditional models of charity in favour of solidarity. Mutual aid is not about ‘saving’ anyone, rather its focus is on collaborating with others in solidarity, to support each other. To avoid co-opting a movement, it is crucial not to remove such community action from its historical and political genealogy and to be alert to the dangers of performative solidarity (when an individual from a privileged group professes their support of and/or solidarity with a marginalised group in order to increase one’s social capital, rather than to actually help that group).
The theological significance of paying attention to histories is explored by James Cone, the founder of Black liberation theology and Willie James Jennings, associate Professor of Systematic Theology and Africana Studies at Yale University. Both theologians draw our attention to the political reality of Jesus’ life and his death at the hands of colonial government, and the necessity of resisting separating the Christ of faith from the Jesus of History. When we recognise that Jesus was considered an outlier by those in power in his society, it becomes apparent the Christian imagination must be one situated in solidarity with those facing oppression. Through this lens, one can notice how performative solidarity might be used to disguise the co-option of mutual aid groups to fit more neatly into established models of support, such as charities and NGOs, funded by institutions that make those involve feel unsafe.
When we pay attention to mutual aid’s history, we must become suspicious of the Conservative government pertaining to support mutual aid groups, while having a history of underinvesting in populations historically involved in them. It is important to pay attention to such nuances and recognise where subtle changes will have fundamental impacts on what mutual aid could become and how it supports people.
Mutual aid has never been a form of charity to sustain communities in the short term during a time of crisis, just for things to go back to ‘normal’ as it subsides. For those historically involved with mutual aid groups, ‘normal’ has looked like oppression, poverty, affliction and even death. Rather, they have long existed to resist such oppressive forces to create supportive communities that foster transformative politics. It is a form of resistance that has its roots in a body politic quite apart from institutional government, seeking to form common spaces of solidarity and support for those excluded and marginalised by mainstream society. In its very essence, it is not charity, but solidarity. This solidarity has always been accompanied by campaigns for structural change. As Zuri wrote for Gal-dem, exploring the Black history of mutual aid, ‘performative “charity”, without challenging capitalism, is not mutual aid, it’s conscience soothing’.
That many groups with the name ‘mutual aid’ are now accepting funding from councils, being lauded by Boris Johnson and run by White middle-class communities is deeply concerning for those who have learned to treat such demographics with fear. There is nervousness that the co-option of mutual aid groups has led to the further disenfranchisement of those who had previously held and been served by such spaces. The danger is that White middle-class populations colonise mutual-aid spaces and impose agendas that marginalise. This is not inevitable but must be actively resisted to be avoided.
To avoid the church being party to such whitewashing, it must resist the spiritualisation of Jesus’ life. Jennings crucially highlights Jesus’ wounds in the imperial context of the cross; his wounds derive from being killed by state power as a political criminal. Cone links the cross to the lynching tree of Black America; while White Christianity wants to spiritualise the crucifixion, forgetting the political nature of Jesus’ life and death, it creates a theology that ‘spiritualises, interiorises or privatises the wounds’. It is vital that we firmly root Jesus’ cross in its soil, so that we might recognise both the insidious nature of racism and the theological imperative to act as allies to those fighting against it. We must not simply soothe over the wounds, offering charity while resisting systemic change, but be willing to witness them. We must recognise that White Christianity has been operating with a diseased social imagination that has contributed to the plight of Black people, and turn to act in solidarity to amplify their voices.
It is time we pierce through the illusions being painted by those in power to engage with the real, however uncomfortable. To avoid performative solidarity, we must not remove local need from the systemic injustice that leads to mutual aid being required in the first place. It is not enough to join a mutual aid group, support neighbours facing hardship, and not question the political agenda of austerity that has led to such denigration. The reality we are facing is a result of political agendas that have perpetuated systems of racial, social and economic injustice. We need to resist grass roots movements being co-opted to support the political agenda of the status quo, hoping to satisfy our desire for justice without requiring real change. Might this moment be one of hope and learning from those on the margins who have resisted oppression through mutual aid and community action. As lockdown begins to ease, and individuals are increasingly able to shop for themselves again, might we recognise that for many the crisis did not start with COVID and is far from over. Might we resist a return to ‘normal’ and use our privilege to amplify demands for action on structural racism and neoliberal agendas propagating oppression in our society.
 Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2010), p.291.