When it comes to assisting our neighbors, vulnerability is better than ‘empowerment.’

 I remember attending a justice conference in Portland in early 2010 and taking note of my surroundings. The first thing that struck me was the ubiquity of one word: “Empowerment.” It was everywhere – on banners and posters and pamphlets. I was so intrigued by the prevalence of the word I played a little game, trying to snap a picture of each time I spotted it. There were that many!

The visual cues were just as interesting. I found myself surrounded by images of gorgeous African children. Most held goats and wore scarfs on their heads; a choice, I surmised, meant to summon biblical images of drummer boys and little shepherds. The whole scene was moving and, no doubt, well-intentioned. But I couldn’t help but feel that something was off.

Social Justice is a big priority in the Pacific Northwest. We’re home to thousands of non-profit organizations, including World Vision. Unfortunately many of our initiatives end up catering to us more than the people we’re ostensibly helping.

Unmasking ‘Empowerment’

The term “empowerment” was first used by social scientists in the 1980s and was popularized later through mainstream justice initiatives. Bono’s (Red) campaign launched in 2006, allowing us to literally purchase and wear charity as a hip badge of piety. Invisible Children made us all look like truly concerned global citizens on a righteous crusade to stop exploitative warlords. Wearing TOMS shoes made us fashionable and charitable. (Have you seen their pumps?) And while recent campaigns such as #blacklivesmatter and #not1more have forced us to look at justice in a more grounded way, there are still unhealthy dynamics at work. The ghosts of consumerism and heroism still haunt us.

Much of our activism, Fassin argues, rests on a humanitarianism that prizes moral sentiment and empathy over human rights.

Since the 1970s most welfare programs have been dominated by what French anthropologist Didier Fassin calls “the politics of humanitarianism.” Much of our activism, Fassin argues, rests on a humanitarianism that prizes moral sentiment and empathy over human rights. Such charity actually reinforces inequality. The charitable rescuer gives from a position of power. The one receiving the help, unable to return the favor, is left feeling a little less human.

Under this model, the caregiver must be moved to give. Therefore the recipients must become sympathetic figures. They must plead for their lives to conform to the values of the caregiver. Furthermore, the vulnerable must become objects of consumption that the caregivers want to buy. As comedian Sarah Silverman wryly observed, “If Africa was all labradoodles dying of AIDS, we’d take care of it in a day.” Charity is a donor-centric business, and right here in the Pacific Northwest, some evangelical groups have gone as far as to produce “menus” for church engagement in immigration justice.

So how can we avoid this approach? How do we maintain our integrity and the humanity of those in need as we respond to the needs of our neighbors locally and abroad?

A Vulnerable Position

In 2014 I was inspired by the actions of migrants at the Northwest Detention Center (NWDC) in Tacoma, Washington. Many of the migrants held in the infamous detention center (many indefinitely) decided to do something radical in response to the structural violence they faced: the went on a hunger strike, some for more than 40 days. They were already in a position of weakness because of their detainment, but they opted to step into further vulnerability in order to stand in solidarity with their fellow detainees. They decided to put themselves in even more political danger by not eating and by mobilizing for a cause that would benefit detainees in Tacoma and beyond. Many suffered serious human rights violations as retaliation, but they went on no matter what.

What I love about this approach is that it is welcoming—everybody can step into further vulnerability, especially those of us who are more privileged.

I was challenged by their example. I started to think of how I might become more vulnerable and stand in solidarity with my neighbors. What I love about this approach is that it is welcoming—everybody can step into further vulnerability, especially those of us who are more privileged. It also follows the Christian tradition of kēnosis: the self-emptying practice of losing one’s life in order to save it, or giving one’s life on behalf of one’s friends.

Practicing self-emptying and standing in solidarity with others drives out the ghosts of consumerism and heroism. We don’t save others. We don’t compromise their humanity and freedom. Under the framework of solidarity, people stand together and the agenda is set by the ones who are most affected by structural injustice.

Stepping into vulnerability isn’t easy. In fact it can be downright painful. It’s certainly harder than buying a T-shirt. It may mean leaving the safety of thinking that immigrants or refugees are “over there” to realizing they are a vital part of your own congregation or community. It may mean being at odds with donors and having to trust in the provision of the Spirit. It may mean risking your career or your savings. But it is better for the dignity of all involved and, in the long run, far more transformative.