Being in Bonds with the Oppressed

This morning we heard a beautifully sung rendition of Kyrie Eleison (“Lord Have Mercy”). The words of this litany are powerful. It is one that stirs people into responding to the social realities that exist. One line, however, was both interesting and problematic. It read: “to empower the weak as they struggle against the bonds of oppression.”

This line caught my attention for three different reasons.
1) It assumes that the ones that ought to struggle against the bonds of oppression are the ones who are caught within that system or condition.
2) It implies that those who are not caught within that system or condition do not have to struggle against the conditions that oppress. Their role is to “empower” those who are.
3) It assumes that those able to live outside of oppressive conditions have the answers or the tools that are needed for those caught within oppressive conditions, thus “empowering them” to struggle for their own emancipation. It seems like emancipation from the top.

Such thinking is not new: it has driven much of the development and aid industry. The wealthy, comfortable, well-off, “civilized” world seeks to “empower” those who are not, so that the oppressed may someday enjoy the fruits of liberation.

Much has been written about “empowerment.” I do, however, think it might be worth refreshing our minds about it. The assumption behind the concept of “empowerment” is that it is our duty and responsibility to empower others to take control of their lives and be or become productive.

A common proverb used to talk about this concept of “empowerment” is:

Give a person a fish and he/she can feed him/herself for a day; teach a person to fish and he/she can feed him/herself for a lifetime.

The point is that instead of abetting the cycle of aid to the hungry and needy persons, who will inevitably become hungry and needy again, we can teach those persons to fish so that they can satisfy their own hunger and need. It supposedly teaches self-sufficiency.

This proverb has been very meaningful for some and has caused many to get involved in and contribute to providing aid, relief, and development. This is good. I too have seen the benefits of, and have participated in, the process of “empowerment” – teaching the necessary skills to people so that they can break out of a cycle of dependency, whether it be financial challenges or addictive substances. People have, I think, been empowered and have decreased their dependency.

However, we need to be mindful of the dangers of “empowerment” thinking.

First, the proverb assumes that the beneficiaries like fish! The ones seeking to “empower” have often assumed they know what others need and want. This process does not involve the beneficiaries and is not built around the needs they determine.

Second, “empowerment” thinking assumes that those outside of the oppressive situation have the answers which they need to share with those caught in an oppressive situation. This has the potential of being a top-down process, passing along information, aid, relief, and development. The answers and solutions in this process are found outside the context.

Third, “empowerment” assumes that the proper place to be and the end that ought to be sought is the “top” from where “empowerment” comes. This assumes that everyone should be raised to the level of the one who is empowering. It does not ask whether the one who is “empowering” should not also come down from their current level.

One concrete example can be taken from the realm of economics. North Americans are often described as wealthy, and when compared to other parts of the world they are. In “economic empowerment,” the goal, for both the beneficiary and the donor, is often that the beneficiaries’ income will rise to the level of the wealthy and become self-sufficient. In reality, however, it is unsustainable for the world to live as North Americans have lived. “Economic empowerment” fails to ask whether those who are living an unsustainable lifestyle should not lower their standard of living. It fails to recognize a two-way need: that those living in need should get more, and those living with unreasonable wealth should learn to live by sustainable means and live more simply.

These are all potential pitfalls of “empowerment” style thinking.

Returning to the litany, it says: “to empower the weak as they struggle against the bonds of oppression.”

The last part of this sentence makes a clear, and troublesome, distinction between those who find themselves in the bonds of oppression and those who are not. In my mind there is a disconnect if in fact we understand ourselves to be part of the same body.

What if we think of the church as a “body?”

In a body, pain anywhere is pain everywhere. When we stub our toe or cut our finger, our whole body is aware of the pain and is affected by it. When one of our members experiences pain or injustice it should cause us all to grieve, respond to, and be in solidarity with the member that has experienced the pain and injustice. Those who struggle against the bonds of oppression should not only be “the weak,” a designation that is questionable to begin with, but all of those who are a part of the body of Christ. We are all in bonds of oppression when one of our brothers and sisters is oppressed and suffering from injustice. Injustice and oppression affect us all because it goes against God’s desire and purpose for creation.

My brother Bryan Moyer Suderman wrote a song about this. His lyrics in “You’re Not Alone” summarize our point very well:

You’re Not Alone

You’re not alone, we are one body
You’re not alone, we stand with you
You’re not alone, your time of suffering
Is our suffering too
And I know the day is coming when we will be rejoicing anew

1. Many members in this body that we know
Some are great and some are small
Eyes and ears and hands and just a little toe
One God who activates them all (Ref)

2. One body, Spirit-formed and Spirit-fed
Men and women, rich and poor
A banquet where the least sit at the head
One body broken for the world (Ref)

3. Look close, you’ll see this body’s not a pretty sight
Ain’t gonna win no fashion show
But with the saints of every place and point in time
We are the body of our Lord… Oh Lord (Last Ref)

Last Refrain:

We’re not alone, we are one body
We’re not alone, we wait for You
We’re not alone, our time of suffering
Is your suffering too
And I know the day is coming, I know the day is coming
Yes I know the day is coming when we will be rejoicing anew

(words and music by Bryan Moyer Suderman. Copyright © 2005 SmallTall Music. All rights reserved.)