Tuesday, October 27, 2009

The Importance of Empowerment

“Power to the people!” Sounds like something out of the 60s, doesn’t it? But that is the bottom line message of The Age of the Unthinkable by Joshua Cooper Ramo. As Ramo reflects on the rapidly changing and complex world in which we find ourselves, he encourages readers to consider the total picture and not to be distracted by one particular focus. He reminds us that problems that we face today—internationally, politically, or economic—rarely have one cause. Such problems may also be addressed in a number of ways and have multiple solutions. Most often, he contends, these solutions “bubble up” from creative, empowered individuals who join together in community to create change.

Empowerment is not a new idea. When Luther and other Reformers embraced the priesthood of every believer (although interpreted in various ways), they opened the door to individual and corporate actions that would go in unexpected directions. In Ramo’s book, he points out that grassroots decision-making, whether in confronting AIDS in South Africa or fighting the Israeli army in Lebanon, produces positive results that cannot be achieved from the top down. When we encourage people to take responsibility for their own needs, they often surprise us.

Baptists have long argued for individual and congregational autonomy, but we have often abdicated that responsibility. Some would argue that this was for the greater good. Southern Baptists in the 20th century had the most efficient, vertically integrated denominational structure in the United States. In many ways, Southern Baptists were the “catholic church of the South.” This produced a massive international missionary presence, booming institutions, and widely used Christian education programs. Unfortunately, such structures foster hubris and invite abuse. A changing culture would no longer tolerate such a centralized approach. The 21st century demands something else.

We have often said that a Baptist principle is “tell the truth and trust the people.” I have come to see that as being naïve because there are different versions of “the truth” out there. Whether we choose to tell the truth or not, the people are going to exercise their autonomy. Perhaps our greatest challenge is to find ways to create and sustain community in light of that autonomy.

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