Review of Empowerment Ethics for a Liberated People (Fortress, 1995)
by Yung Suk Kim
Cheryl Sanders in Empowerment Ethics claims that empowerment is the "process by which an individual or group conveys to others the authority to act" (2). She finds the source of empowerment in God, by affirming that "God is the ultimate source of norms of personal morality" (42). Her claim is that through spiritual, individual empowerment each individual can be a moral agent who is free to do and contribute to a larger community. The writer tries to find the source of ethical guidance available, facing the issue of African American moral progress, because she is not satisfied with a biased view of liberals who emphasized freedom from rather than freedom to do or to be. Likewise, the author is not content with liberal theologians' moral critique of the oppressing group, because liberal theology looks to others for freedom or deliverance.
This book tries to show "how the ethical frame of reference for the spiritually empowered individual can be expanded into the interpersonal realm" (7). According to Sanders, salvation is more like an experience of individual empowerment (7). But this individual empowerment is transferred to a larger community. She critiques liberals' emphasis on "freedom from oppression and discrimination"; "the moral and spiritual significance of personal formation too easily become obscured" (7).
In order to support her claim about the focus on individual empowerment, the writer presents seven aspects of empowerment ethics paradigm: testimony, protest, uplift, cooperation, achievement, remoralization and ministry. First of all, in the story of the early black converted, the writer traces the testimony of them who accepted the "divine commission to call others to participate in the new age of God's reign and restoration" (25). "For many slaves whose testimonies of conversion to Christianity affirmed their humanity before God and the worshiping community, spiritual empowerment occasioned also prayerful participation in the pursuit of freedom and justice" (25).
Second, the author points out errors of black middle class leaderships which "give too much attention to the struggle against the "enemy without," while the "enemy within" goes unchecked" (36). Furthermore, Sanders tells of serious internal enemy, "nihilism" - "the profound sense of psychological depression, personal worthlessness, and social despair so widespread in Black America" (40). She affirms the need for "self-help ethic" by pointing out the internal enemy (36).
Third, in "achievement" aspect she gives us three ethical principles: "autonomy, commitment, and love" (85). Here she uses metaphor of a wheel; "love as its hub, and three principles at its spokes" (87). Furthermore, she uses Pauline formulation of Christian ethics as faith, hope and love. Faith is willingness to move; hope as vision, and love as empowerment to move (88).
Fourth, she presents "remoralization" aspect of empowerment ethics where she says it is the "inter-relatedness of personal and social transformation (two dimensions)" (104). Finally, the writer uses the aspect of "ministry" (118). Ministry is none other than "the ministry of empowerment" (115).
With my reading of this book, first of all, my world view has been reconfirmed by the author's reclaiming of personal, communal, and spiritual empowerment within Christian faith. In retrospect, my upbringing emphasized personal conversion, but later on, during the time of academic period and even so far, I have been preoccupied by external change, that is to say, liberal approach to social, ethical issues. But through this book, I honor original personal conversion with an adjusted and more balanced sense.
Second, I like her statement that God is our ultimate source of moral guidance. Starting point is God where personal relationship with God is established. Based on this loving relationship, the converted persons are called to live out Christian life and to serve others and to empower others.
Third learning about this book is that I now can get the sense of balance in my world view. There are two dimensions of life: personal and communal. The important approach in liberating people from oppression or poverty or from whatever situations would be not "either or" but "both and." By this I mean that we need to see both personal and communal dimensions, because a community or society is not just sum of individuals. There is another dimension that cannot be solved by naïve approach of personal, spiritual formation. Thus balance between personal and communal dimension is crucial to fostering morally strong society.
However, Sanders does not give much attention to the collective power issue in reality because society too often moves in a different direction beyond each person's intention or morality. If she had shed light on evil of structures (power issue), more balance would have been accomplished.