Empowerment Ethics for a Liberated People

Empowerment Ethics for a Liberated People: A Path to African American Social Transformation by Howard University School of Divinity professor Cheryl J. Sanders is an interesting and insightful work about African-American Christian ethics. Sanders identifies her book as a useful tool for those blacks who have already experienced liberation Sanders intends to offer these persons a practical ethical strategy to bring liberation to those blacks still suffering from oppression.[1] This focus on those who have already ‘arrived’ is refreshing and necessary. Many African-Americans in the middle class place the onus of liberation on the oppressed. Sanders’ emphasis on the responsibility to empower the oppressed is powerful, timely, and essential.

In the Preface to her book, Sanders defines empowerment as, “…the process by which an individual or group conveys to others the authority to act.”[2] Sanders bases her ethical constructions on Christian principles. In Sanders’ opinion, such Christian concepts are “a major formative source for African-American life and moral reflection.”[3] One such Christian principle is a slightly augmented form of the Golden Rule as a basis for Sanders’ ethical model. Sanders fashions the Rule as, “…treat others as you would like to be treated if you had to trade places with them.”[4] Sanders encourages those who enjoy the benefits of liberation to empathetically identify with those still in oppression. Sanders thus advocates for the pursuit of a “costly justice” rather than a “cheap justice’ in striving to empower the marginalized.[5]

Sanders suggests a seven-step process to be used to bring empowerment and liberation. Each step comprises a chapter of her book. Sanders’ overall goal in outlining these steps is to provide a “holistic vision of African-American moral progress,” informed by history, relevant to present challenges, and responsible to future generations of African-Americans.[6]

The first step in Sanders’ empowerment ethic is “testimony.”[7] In this step, Sanders explores the autobiographical narratives of ex-slaves as sources of ethical and theological understandings. For example, Sanders highlights the ex-slave testimony that espoused belief in a just God who would liberate the slaves as God did for Israel in the Hebrew Bible.[8] Besides being a source of encouragement and hope, the story of an oppressed people told by that oppressed people is the initial stage of empowerment. By telling their stories, the oppressed can claim their history and be constantly reminded of the historical structures that have worked to oppress them. Naming and facing such structures is essential for empowerment.

The second step in Sanders’ process is “protest.”[9] In discussing African-American protest, Sanders compares the “liberal” and ‘conservative’ critical approaches to problems in the African-American community.[10] As examples of African-American liberal protest, Sanders offers David Walker and Cornel West. David Walker’s 1829 Appeal indicts slavery as the obstacle to black freedom.[11] West’s twentieth century opinion blames the racist socio-economic policies of white America for black poverty.

At the conservative end of protest, Sanders offers Maria Steward and Glenn Loury as examples. Maria Steward’s 1831 essay, “Religion and the Pure Principles of Morality,’ focuses on sins within the black community as the obstacles to black freedom.[12] Loury’s twentieth century critique stresses the need for the black middle class to serve as advocates for poor blacks .[13] Sanders notes that the antebellum examples of black liberal and conservative thought are based on theological ideas, while their twentieth century counterparts exclude “God-talk” altogether.[14] In Sanders’ view, God is essential to any ethical construction of modern black protest and moral discourse.[15]

Sanders’ third step is “uplift.”[16] As a seminal example of this concept, Sanders centers on the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs motto, “Lifting As We Climb.”[17] Uplift involves working “in solidarity with the oppressed and impoverished masses” to bring empowerment.[18] Sanders offers N.H. Burroughs and Mary McLeod Bethune as notable women who worked for he interests of the poor. Also, Sanders highlights the work of the early Holiness Movement and the Salvation Army in facilitating the uplift of the poor and the empowerment of women.[19] Sanders notes that the problem of poverty is still a difficult obstacle, but she refers to the biblical directive to care for widows, orphans, and the poor as a guiding principle in empowerment ethics.[20]

Sanders’ focus on the role of women and the Holiness Movement in uplift is a message that needs repeating. The black church has failed to continue the work of uplift in recent years. Black church leadership has not made poverty a priority in ministry, and thus has failed to ensure justice for the poor in the black community.

The fourth step in Sanders’ empowerment ethic is “cooperation.”[21] Sanders describes “cooperation” as blacks within churches working together across racial, gender, and class lines.[22] Sanders lifts up religious groups of Holiness/Pentecostal traditions such as the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) and the Church of God in Christ as examples of ecclesiastical cooperation. However, Sanders notes that while each of these churches worked across gender lines, “…none was able to sustain structures of interracial cooperation.”[23] Such interracial cooperation remains a challenge for empowerment ethics.

Sanders’ fourth step is “achievement.’[24] Sanders focuses on the achievements of black women who took advantage of such traditional institutions as the church to seek empowerment and advancement.[25] Sanders surveys the work of prominent Christian and womanist ethicists to explore why black women achieve and advance beyond their black male counterparts. Sanders roots the black woman’s ethical impulse towards achievement as autonomy, altruism, and adoration.[26] In essence, black women unselfishly strive to achieve in order to liberate themselves and others out of Christian love.[27]

The sixth step in Sanders’ empowerment ethic is “remoralization.”[28] In her discussion, Sanders juxtaposes the ethical vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. with the unfortunate experience of police brutality endured by Rodney King.[29] Sanders explores the ethical need for black men to remoralize others in the black community including women. Sanders records the womanist criticize of Martin Luther King concerning his support of female leadership. Sanders writes that King, “…did not seem to give them (women) much credit or respect as leaders.’[30] However, Sanders notes that she appreciates Martin King’s ethical connection of Christian love and justice.[31]

Sanders defines “remoralization” as restoring moral status to those demoralized.[32] Remoralization involves personal and social transformation.[33] Sanders refers to the biblical scholarship of John Gammie on the themes of social justice, personal piety, and intellectual purity as a biblical foundation for her definition of remoralization.[34] For Sanders, remoraliation is needed for reconciliation among black men.[35] Black men must remoralize black women, the poor, and one another in order to facilitate reconciliation and empowerment in the African-American community.

Sanders’ insistence on the need for black male remoralization and reconciliation is poignant and relevant. Black men have failed to be sources of empowerment for each other. Attempts such as the Million Man March of 1995 have failed to make such empowerment a lasting reality. Black men must accept responsibility as agents of transformation within the black community.

The seventh and final step in Sanders’ empowerment ethic is ‘ministry.”[36] For Sanders, the ministry of empowerment in the black community involves clergy, laypeople, women, and the poor.[37] Sanders grounds this stage of empowerment in the concept of empathy. According to Sanders, empathy is that moral quality that will allow those who have been liberated to identify with the oppressed, instead of ignoring and distancing themselves from the oppressed.[38] Empathy is the driving force of an empowerment ethic that seeks to engage those who have already “arrived” to work to liberate those who are still suffering in oppression.

Empathy is lacking in much of Christina ministry. Sanders correctly diagnoses the problem that those who experience liberation tend to separate themselves from the problems and needs of the oppressed. Christian leaders must continue to develop ways to engage all segments of the black community in the empathetic ministry of empowerment.

Cheryl Sander’s book is an enlightening and encouraging example of Christian liberation ethics. Sanders has presented a historically valid, theologically sound, and extremely relevant method for doing ethics. Sanders has helped me understand the practical dimensions of ethics in a Christina context. Sanders has also inspired me to utilize the seven-step method of empowerment ethics as a useful tool in life and ministry.

Thomas Grinter


1. Cheryl Sanders, Empowerment Ethics for a Liberated People: A Path to African-American Social Transformation (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1995), 1-2.
2. Ibid, 4
3. Ibid, 3
4. Ibid, 4
5. Ibid, 8
6. Ibid, 5
7. Ibid, 10
8. Ibid, 18
9. Ibid, 26
10. Ibid
11. Ibid, 28
12. Ibid, 32
13. Ibid, 35
14. Ibid, 42
15. Ibid
16. Ibid, 43
17. Ibid, 43
18. Ibid
19. Ibid, 54-55
20. Ibid, 58-59
21. Ibid, 61
22. Ibid
23. Ibid, 78
24. Ibid, 80
25. Ibid, 82
26. Ibid, 87
27. Ibid
28. Ibid, 95
29. Ibid, 96-97
30. Ibid, 99
31. Ibid, 100
32. Ibid, 104
33. Ibid, 105
34. Ibid