Skip to content

An “Empowered” View of Justice – by Empower Minister Wayne A. Pelly

My understanding of justice has been shaped by my experience serving in a gender justice ministry in both Africa and Haiti with Empower International Ministries. We address some of the root causes of the disempowerment of and violence toward women in countries with limited Christian influence. We do this with a three-day seminar to help Christian leaders and married couples understand a biblical paradigm that gives them a basis for bringing change in their own lives, relationships and communities.

To understand justice as empowerment, we must first understand what power is. A helpful definition is provided by MaryKate Morse of George Fox Evangelical Seminary in her book, Making Room for Leadership: Power, Space and Influence. “Power is simply the ability to cause or prevent change” (p. 42).

If you think about times you felt empowered – able to say or do something that made a difference, or disempowered – nothing you could say or do would have any effect, you can identify with her definition. She also points out that the difference between God’s power and human power is one of scale, not necessarily of quality. “Therefore,” she adds, “human beings can use power in the same way that Jesus did” (p. 42). This is especially significant for us because it means that we can empower others. We have the power to make changes in our own lives and communities, and to help others to do the same in their own lives and communities.

Injustice can be as simple to understand as basic economics. For example, saying “another mouth to feed” at the birth of a child is a statement of basic economics. But when you understand that most of  the world now is – and throughout most of history has been – a subsistence economy (barely able to survive, such as in subsistence farming) you can understand why people might say, “another mouth to feed” at the birth of a daughter, and say it with great concern because resources are very limited. On the other hand, you can also understand why they might say, “another set of strong hands to help feed us!” at the birth of a son. The causes of the problem are much more complex, of course, but this gives you a quick picture of why sons are so much more highly valued than daughters in most of the world even today. And since daughters would be married off as soon as possible (so they can bear sons in someone else’s household, not to mention to “cut expenses” for the birth family, or to obtain the brideprice often paid to the fathers of daughters), having a daughter soon feels like you are raising someone else’s child, so resources (food, medical, education, other opportunities) are increasingly shifted to sons.

The biblical paradigm with which we address gender injustice is one of Creation, Fall, and Redemption. (Those who wish to explore this further may want to read The Redemption of Love: Rescuing Marriage and Sexuality from the Economics of a Fallen World, by Carrie Miles, the founder and director of the ministry. In her book, however, she addresses our post-industrialized culture.)

Creation: When the Pharisees came to Jesus with a question about divorce in Matthew 19, Jesus responded by pointing them back to God’s creation ideal in Genesis. There we see that both men and women were created in God’s image, that God gave the mandate to rule the earth to both men and women, and the blessing of children to both men and women. In addition, the term “helper” used for woman is also used for God (“The Lord is my helper”), and never for a subordinate.

•  The Fall: So what really happened in Genesis 3? First, we look at the Fall economically – the human race goes from an economy of abundance in Eden to an economy of scarcity and subsistence resulting from the curse on the ground. Learning that God cursed the ground and not the woman (as traditional interpretations have reinforced for many Africans) opens up the possibility for real change. Then we look at this relationally – what these changed living conditions do to human relationships, particularly in shifting the value of both men and women (and their children) to their role in survival and creating an imbalance of power between men and women.

•  Redemption: We look at the teaching of both Jesus Christ and the Apostle Paul in how they address these relational issues. The Fall does not have the final word in human relationships! For example, justice can begin by doing and teaching what Jesus did and taught. With respect to women, for example, Jesus challenged the sexual double-standard in his own culture (refusing to view them as the sexual property of men, which is what you typically find in these cultures), empowered women with public roles as his witnesses, and forgave them and restored their honor even when they had been written off as irredeemable.

Justice must address the way in which those with power use it, so we look carefully at how Jesus challenged men in his day with respect to their understanding of and use of power.

 Not only does Jesus lift up women, he lifts up men!

 This comes across most clearly in the passage about Jesus washing the disciples’ feet (John 13) and, in the first three gospels, in the passages describing Jesus’ response to the disciples’ competition with one-another over greatness (such as Mark 10:35-45). Greatness in that culture was measured by how much power you had over other people – and therefore how much honor you received from them. So being at the right and left hand of the coming judge of the world was a big deal! As an illustration of Jesus’ response, imagine two circles – one above the other. The top one is labeled, “Lord” and the bottom one is labeled “Servant.” In the study entitled, “What Does it Mean to be Lord?” we use this illustration to bring this vital point home as follows – even as Jesus did, with his own life given in sacrifice for others:

“The earliest Christian confession, that Jesus is Lord, cuts two ways: First of all, you say that Jesus is Lord. What this means then is that anybody else is out as lord. That means the emperor [or president or pastor] can’t be lord, that means that my daddy can’t be lord, that means that a husband can’t be lord. Jesus is Lord. That’s the first thing to get straight. The second thing to get straight is that Jesus is Lord. Now the only way in which lordship can be defined properly . . . within the Christian community is the way in which Jesus carries it out: Jesus fills up the entire lordship space, doesn’t allow anybody else in there, and then comes down and operates out of the servant space. He invites all of the rest of us to join him there, male and female. Ithe Lord is Jesus, egitimate power seeks not to control others and things but to empower the powerless, to lift up the fallen, to reconcile, to create healing opportunities, to encourage maturity and responsibility, and to restore community. Note: In contrast to dominating power, this kind of power exists in unlimited supply.” (New Testament historian S. Scott Bartchy, quoted in New Man, New Woman, New Life, by Carrie A. Miles [the Bible Study Guide that we use in Africa, Haiti, etc.])

This is aptly illustrated by Beverly Bell’s Walking on Fire: Haitian Women’s Stories of Survival and Resistance, a collection of oral histories of dozens of Haitian women compiled by the author. (Disempowerment of and violence toward women in Haiti is pandemic.) In her chapter entitled “Resistance Transforming Power,” she summarizes the personal stories in the chapter by pointing out how the shift from a vertical understanding of dominating power to a horizontal understand of power opens the possibility for a humane society where, instead of a “zero sum” understanding of power (if I gain some, you lose some), power is experienced as a “positive sum” (if I gain some power, I can use it to increase yours, too). This is the very paradigm shift that Jesus conveyed to his earliest disciples.

The ultimate question, then, for us as to whether we are both pursuing justice and living justly is to determine whether we are operating in the “Lordship Space” or, with Jesus, in the “Servant Space.”

The world, however, is not the “servant space,” which we can sometimes forget due to the influence of Christianity in Western culture, where even corporate, political and military leaders often speak of “servant leadership.” For example, the result of the gender discrimination against girls described earlier, according to Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn, the two New York Times reporters who wrote Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide, is that at “least two million girls worldwide disappear” every year. The authors go on to describe how, in contrast to the gender discrimination in developed countries, gender discrimination against girls (resources being shifted to boys) in much of the world is actually lethal (page xv ff).

What Empower ministers encounter in traditional African cultures where we conduct our seminars could be seen as the “tip of this iceberg:” Masculinity is expressed in very self-centered and even violent ways (e.g., heavy drinking, spending family money on personal consumption rather than on needs of children, sexual promiscuity, and wife-beating, all of which are culturally expected as “manly” things to do). Even among Christians, a man will typically tell his wife, “You speak once; I speak twice,” reflecting the disempowerment of women. According to customary practices, women tend to be viewed as the property of their fathers or husbands. If they do not bear children – particularly sons – they can be sent away or supplemented by an additional wife (one of the origins of polygamy). Not only this, but women do 70-80% of the farm work in Africa, in essence a reflection of their status as “beasts of burden.” In addition, cultural taboos often restrict women from access to the more nutritious forms of protein.

In this situation, “justice” means bringing the empowering message of the gospel to bear on the lives of those we seek to impact and transform. Not just the “good news” that they can be “saved to go to heaven” but the “good news” that the life-giving values of heaven – of God himself as demonstrated in Jesus Christ – can become a reality right now in the lives, relationships and communities of the women – and men – of Africa and anywhere else where Empower International Ministries is invited to bring this message.


A Christianity that does not harm women

    “What are they saying?” I asked my translator. My audience in the Anglican cathedral in Burundi, Central Africa, had been responsive but generally quiet as I took them through the Creation account in Genesis 1 and 2. Now, in the midst of the discussion about the Fall in Genesis 3, suddenly they were buzzing among themselves.

    “They are saying,” he replied, looking puzzled himself, “‘Does she mean that the woman wasn’t cursed?’”

   “That’s right, the woman wasn’t cursed,” I repeated to my audience. The idea that God cursed the woman is a common misperception, and not just in Africa. “Look carefully at the text. The word ‘cursed’ is used only about the serpent and the ground. Nothing else.”

   I continued my talk but the buzzing continued as well. 

   “Now what are they saying?” I again asked my translator.

   “They are asking, ‘Do you really mean that woman isn’t cursed?’”

   In many societies, people believe that words pronounced as a curse will come true. If a father says to a child, “You will never amount to anything,” or if someone hires a witchdoctor to curse a neighbor whom he envies, everyone expects those cursed to sicken, lose their possessions, fail their exams, and otherwise wither away.

   So when Genesis 3:16 is believed to be a curse from God, women appear doomed to fulfill its words: Woman must bear children in sorrow, serve the man, and become his sexual property. Further, being cursed means that woman no longer shares in the blessings given to both man and woman in Genesis 1–dominion over the earth and every good thing for food. If any particular woman has access to more than the necessities of life, it is entirely at the pleasure of her husband. But how hard should men work to increase the welfare of women when even women believe that God has cursed them?

   Half the Sky, by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, depicts the oppression and abuse that is the lot of women and girls in developing countries. In a January 9, 2010 column in The New York Times, Kristof quoted former US president Jimmy Carter in decrying religion’s part in reinforcing that oppression, particularly by endorsing the idea that women are inferior to men.

   My experiences in Africa lead me to agree with Carter and Kristof.  Customs disadvantageous to women existed prior to the introduction of Christianity in Africa, and Christian missionaries fought many of them. However, the theology they brought with them of women’s inferiority—based in part on the same misunderstanding of the curse of Genesis 3— allowed other harmful customary beliefs to continue with a new biblically-based authority.

    However, the story of Christianity in Africa does not end there. A Christianity true to Jesus’ teachings has enormous potential to increase the welfare of women in developing countries. The Burundi’s reaction to hearing that God did not curse the woman was only  the  first  of  many  liberating biblical surprises that my colleagues, American and African alike, and I are discovering in studying the Bible together through Empower International Ministries.

    Bible study may seem like a low priority for a continent wracked by ethnic violence, poverty, and rape used as a weapon of war, but our experiences tell us that the Word of God is urgently needed there. Some of the biblical surprises that have great practical (and woman-affirming) meaning for our African colleagues include: God blessed woman equally with man with dominion of the earth (Genesis 1:28). Jesus taught that woman’s worth transcends her customary functions of child bearer (Luke 11:27), household servant (Luke 10:38-41), and sexual property of men (Luke 7:38-48 and others). Husbands are commanded to love their wives and sacrifice themselves for them, not to rule them or use them as beasts of burden (Eph 5:25-33).  Moreover, Jesus frees men from the burdens of seeking to dominate each other (Mark 10:41-45) – burdens that lead to ethnic strife and war.

   Interestingly, the surprises  come not because our African partners do not know the Bible. Not only the clergy, but many of the lay people with whom we work know the Bible better than the average American Christian. They also take it far more seriously. Rather, the surprises come because Africans, like many of us, were taught to read the Bible through the lens of gender bias. Our job at Empower is to help our partners  remove those faulty glasses.

    The greatest surprise for us Americans is the eagerness with which our African colleagues have received the Bible’s liberating message. When the Burundi group asked for the second time if I really meant that women are not cursed, I explained that the bad things that God predicted would happen in Genesis 3:16 were not a curse on women, but rather his description of the consequences of the curse on the ground. If your toddler is reaching toward the fire, I asked, and you say, “No, don’t touch – that will hurt you,” have you cursed the child? God did not curse any of us but waits patiently to restore us all, male and female, to the unity and equality for which we were created.

   I wondered if they accepted that explanation—even with crackerjack translators, the language difference is always an obstacle—but there was no more buzzing in that morning’s session. 

   I got my answer after lunch. As we reassembled, a choir sprung up and sang in the local language. There was not a choir scheduled, but I thought nothing of it. Then my translator leaned over and whispered, “They are singing about when King Balak sent Balaam to curse the children of Israel.” Do you remember the story? God sent an angel to block Balaam’s path, but no one saw it except the ass Balaam was riding. Balaam, impatient with his balking beast, beat the animal until it finally turned and spoke to him. The song’s refrain captures the truth of women’s status in God’s eyes, a truth that, it turned out, Africans are eager to embrace: “You can’t curse what God has blessed.”

 Carrie A. Miles is executive  director of Empower International Ministries and author of The Redemption of Love: Rescuing Marriage and Sexuality from the Economics of a Fallen World (Brazos Press, 2006) and New Man, New Woman, New Life (Empower International Ministries, 2010).

Empower International works alongside existing ministries in developing countries to promote biblical teachings on the equal worth and potential for unity among all human beings in Christ, regardless of gender, age, race, social, or family status. For information about Empower, visit