Empowerment Ethics: Bending Towards Righteousness and Justice

In a landmark decision, the former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was recently found guilty on three counts in the trial over George Floyd’s death. The now infamous video of Chauvin pressing his knee into George Floyd’s neck for nearly ten minutes in May 2020 has since been seen by millions and was a crucial piece of evidence in the trial. Many are hopeful that the verdict represents an inflection point that results in significant change. It’s a change that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. anticipated when he proclaimed, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” At City to City, we believe this “bend towards justice,” is embodied in the ministry of Jesus and echoed in our DNA pillar, empowerment ethics.

Ethics is concerned with what is good for individuals and society and prescribes what humans ought to do. Empowerment is a multidimensional process that helps people gain agency and autonomy in their lives. It’s a process that fosters power in people, for use in their families, communities, and the larger society. Empowerment ethics pertains to a person’s growing understanding of how the values of God’s Kingdom invert the world’s power structures, while empowering and having compassion for the poor and marginalized, calling them to the center. It includes recognizing the resources present in communities that are overlooked by the power structures of our day and inviting their voices in for the benefit of all.

Biblical Righteousness and Justice

Empowerment ethics is informed by the Bible’s conception of righteousness and justice. In the Bible, righteousness refers to a state of moral good in which you treat those around you with decency and fairness, recognizing that every human being is made in the image of God. While justice is used to talk about retributive justice, in which a person is punished for their wrongdoings, the Bible also uses the word justice to refer to restorative justice, in which those who are unrightfully hurt or wronged are restored and given back what was taken from them. The righteousness and justice that God prescribes, therefore, involves a selfless way of life in which people do everything they can to ensure that others are treated well and injustices are addressed.

As a result of the Fall, however, we see humans rejecting God’s principles of righteousness and justice and instead defining good and evil for themselves in a way that gives them power and privilege over others. Those with power take advantage of the vulnerable, both at an individual and societal level. Sadly, human beings continue to perpetrate injustice, benefiting from the oppression of those around us. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others have brought attention to racial inequities related to police practices. But access to quality healthcare, education, affordable food sources, labor practices, and housing policy are all potential instruments of oppression in marginalized communities. The net effect of these practices has too often been to benefit the few at the expense of the many, and the well-off at the expense of the poor. 

The Up-side-Down Kingdom

But God has a solution to the injustices of humanity. Timothy Keller points out that we see a reversal of values in Jesus’ kingdom (Luke 6:20-26). Racism, classism, accrual of money and power at the expense of others, and yearning for popularity and recognition, are all marks of life in the old kingdom. In Jesus’ up-side-down Kingdom, the poor and persecuted are elevated above the rich and recognized. Christ’s up-side-down Kingdom inaugurates a new kind of community, with people who live out an alternative way of being human.

Jesus’ own commitment to empowerment ethics is evident when He takes the disciples on a boundary-crossing trip in Mark 5:1-20. Christ encounters a man who lives on the margins – a man who is formerly incarcerated, unemployed, has self-destructive, violent tendencies, and exhibits behavior that would render a psychiatric diagnosis today. If there ever was someone to be apprehensive about meeting, it was this man! But Christ heals and liberates him. And in a clear display of empowerment ethics, Jesus moves the man from the margins to the center by publicly recognizing his gifts and commissioning him to be an ambassador in a ten-city region. 

The redemptive work of Christ on the cross is the inflection point that resulted in our healing and liberation. Empowered by the Spirit that raised Christ from the dead, it is now our commission to go out into the world and give this same gift to others by showing them the righteousness and justice that God has shown to us.

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