Empowerment used to be a weird word for me. It stood for what I saw as weak, limp-wristed, feminine, self-help hype teachers, usually visible to me through cheesy, insipid memes that meant nothing to me. I’m a man, dangit, I don’t need none of that cheerleading stuff! I got a perfectly good, worn-in set of boots with straps, and I know how to use them to pull myself up. What’s up with all these snowflakes? Who needs this stuff anyway? Now surely there’s eyeroll-worthy memes all over the internet, and many a charlatan raking in money on unqualified self-help advice and a cheery Professor Lockhart smile. But connotations aside, what is “empowerment”, really? Does it have anything to do with Christianity?
Yes. Yes, it does. In fact, I’d argue that it is inherently and foundationally Christian, even though the word doesn’t appear in Scripture. I want to compare this concept with that of another principle that does actually appear in Scripture, and which gets much more positive air-time in more conservative circles: Honor.
These terms are not in conflict. There’s no reason to play one against the other. You can do one, you can do both. Empower in this context means, “make someone stronger and more confident”. Sounds like the very biblical concepts of building each other up, helping each other measure up to Jesus, bearing each other’s burdens, and so on. Honor here means, “show respect towards”. I see no conflict here – neither is more “biblical” than the other. So that’s out of the way. I suppose I could just stop there, but where’s the fun in that?
I think it’s curious how a lot of men view honor though, specifically when it comes to their wives and women in general. Honor for them seems to mean deep down that they appreciate women as far as they perform their role. They honor a supposed biblical ideal of who women are and what they’re capable of. They value those who fit certain molds. They honor women for qualities and accomplishments within these parameters. It can be a sort of life-time achievement award as well, and one that might end up being a cage. I believe these ideas of honor are also influenced by a reading of 1 Peter 3:7 which views women as being the beneficiaries of male protection: They honor, uphold, protect, and treasure their wives, but in a way that sees “weaker vessel” as descriptive of essential created nature, rather than a historical and cultural result of the power imbalance of the Curse of Gen 3.
Empowerment subverts this limited and limiting paradigm of honor. Empowerment starts with a respect for the humanity of the individual – their worth in the eyes of their creator, their potential, regardless of what they’ve accomplished, their failures, or circumstances. It sees beyond limitations of culture or circumstance and strengthens them and removes obstacles so that they can reach their potential. It does more than acknowledge and attempt to make someone feel better about what they’ve accomplished within their societal or personal limitations, although there is certainly room for that.
So let’s expand our view of our duty towards the less privileged, or the weak, and how we treat them. We must go beyond honor and upholding the status quo for them. How can we empower those around us to reach their potential? How can we help them break down walls in their way? This is our responsibility as Christians.