A review and response to Dennis R. Edwards, Might from the Margins: the Gospel's Power to Turn the Tables on Injustice (Harrisonburg Virginia: Herald
As every year draws to a
close, Lake Superior State University issues a list of words that should be banished from use.
I watch for it with generally fulfilled hope that we might find respite from
banal, overused, and oxymoronic language. But one word that stands high on my
personal list has yet to make it to this esteemed group: I’ve long been tired
of “empowered.” It’s not the idea of empowerment that bothers me, it’s the
paternalistic and hypocritical way in which the word is usually used. Only rarely are pronouncements
about it accompanied by true empowerment—usually it means that responsibility
for things that go wrong has shifted down, but not the authority to change the
patterns that caused the problems.
So I rejoiced when, early
in the book, the author stated “I no longer use such language. The power of the
Gospel comes from God, not from other humans—particularly not from those who
fear losing control and influence” (31). It is those who fear losing control
who use these tactics the most, as a soporific to make others think they’re
This book explores
various aspects of power within the gospels in relation to the church. Edwards
focuses on racism as an African-American, but notes that many other abuses
exist: he explicitly extends its reach to patriarchy, wealth, and being physically attractive or able-bodied. This group includes the people who typically are at the top
layers of social stratification, and they also typically view their position as
resulting from their own work or strength, or flowing from a sense of divine
right. Later in the book, Edwards extends the traits to include charisma
and extroversion, which work together to create an atmosphere of
self-promotion. This is a close relative of social Darwinism, a self-justifying
ideology that turns away from the idea of adaptability as a virtue in favor of
survival of those who label themselves the fittest. It’s odd that those who champion the use of Darwin as
a social phenomenon are often those who deny Darwin’s thoughts elsewhere, but
such is how things often go.
The gospels call us to
freedom. But too often, the gospels are used to construct misleading readings that justify our prejudices and the systems that support them. The
gospels are a story of empowerment, but have been turned from a story of outreaching grace into a series of
propositions and rules that one assents to. Did you dance? Out. Did you go to
the movies? Out. Were you born with a disability? Oh, my, what sin are you
hiding? Did you give someone a quarter? Oh, good. Did you think about the
reason why that person needed the quarter? We won’t talk about that.
Into this breach between grace and practice step the
prophets, who see behind the world's glamor and status symbols. Prophets point out
injustice as they call people to hear God. They call for action, because the
well-being of God’s children is endangered, and they are angry, because things
are not right.
Prophets call to us across the ages. The Negro spirituals are a historical example: they connected slaves to the biblical story, and found a way to live in faith with a God who promised deliverance for those who lived as chattel. Their songs still offer hope to everyone who is marginalized. In this light, I think of the ability to discern a different, more honest reality during this “Autism Awareness Month.” These prophets have a message that we comfort ourselves with that “awareness” that
tries to avoid “acceptance.”
Prophets offer hope. This
includes hope for many whose disabilities mean that their “bodies struggle in
environments not designed for them” (139). Those who are disabled, whether
physically or otherwise, along with others who experience suffering, are the
ones who can truly understand hope. Hope is not, as Edwards reminds us, a
vision held by an affluent teenager in some bedroom community who hopes for a
Lexus on her birthday. Hope comes from those who live with the painful
realities of life, those who are also the ones who can understand what renewal
is like, what it is like to be where God intends.
If this idea strikes a
chord and you see this in time, the Methodist Federation for Social Action and the Association of Ministers with Disabilities are sponsoring a discussion with Kathy Black, one of the first theologians to take on ableist misreadings of the gospels in her book A Healing Homiletic. It's on April 17, 2021, and you can check it out here.
Disclaimer: I borrowed this book from the Indianapolis Public Library, with the understanding that I would return it in three weeks, which is exactly what happened. I also notice that they have now ordered six more copies. Empower on!