colorful skies

Resetting Power For The Work Of Justice

Writing this article elicited mixed emotions in me concerning issues of social injustice. Near the time of this writing, the final verdict in the killing of a young Black man, Ahmaud Arbery, sentenced three White men to life in prison. Anxiety and tensions dissipated, giving a sense of relief. But continually watching young lives brutally taken based on their skin color is heartbreaking. And we, as a society, continue to listen to the cry for justice for thousands of Black citizens who continue to face violence and who depend on a justice system that controls fairness for their very existence. Although our society confesses equal access to justice, such equality is far from realized among those at the periphery of society. Over two months after this horrible killing, no arrests were made because a complicit and biased district attorney obstructed the investigation.1 Such actions left thousands of people asking: Is there any justice in all of this? Why did the perpetrators walk free  for that long without any accountability?

In a society that dims the human dignity of Black and brown bodies and wants to “denigrate” them, injustice, brutality, and abuse of power will always be common factors. The action verb “denigrate” expresses a dehumanizing adjective embedded in systemic racism.2 Etymologically, “denigration” connotes a repudiation of darker skin or an attempt to “blacken” a person’s reputation.3

How can we speak of justice as followers of Jesus who critique this reality in our society today? In what ways do power dynamics seem to control and determine who receives justice or unjust treatment? Why do humans establish hierarchies based on material possessions, influence, race, gender, etc.?

The problem of injustice is inherent to the human condition. Labeling other humans generates a segregating mindset. It represses and stereotypes. Because of this, an essential characteristic of a system of domination and oppression devalues human lives as objects deprived of their God-given rights. Throughout the ages, injustice and the abuse of power have operated hand in hand. At the core of this destructive and elusive problem, one finds other humans’ innate “denigration.”

As people of faith, what are the barriers that prevent us from a commitment to the work of justice? Recently, professing Christians have been struggling and succumbing to a system that incites violence, power abuse, and brutality toward people of color in particular. In contrast to the words of Jesus in the Beatitudes, contemporary religion has set aside the depth of Matthew 5:3–9:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
     for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
     for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
     for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
     for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
     for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
     for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
     for they will be called children of God.”

In this article, I propose that a robust understanding of Jesus’ view on power becomes the antecedent for substantive engagement and participation for justice. Because the power equation in the Gospels prefers people on the margins, it is in this pattern that we must assess our perspectives of power so that we can participate with God in a humble downward movement from power to powerlessness.

In doing this, our witness will open practical ways to love our neighbors as we confess to love God and as we love ourselves. The practice and defense of justice for the sake of the underprivileged and dispossessed will require men and women willing to love and act justly as God’s image-bearers in mutual, interdependent, and vulnerable ways.

God’s Preference and Justice

God has a particular preference for people at the bottom of society (Luke 6:20–21). His heart always goes out to the lesser, the oppressed, the enslaved, the exiled communities (Luke 4:17–20). Simply put, the core message of Scripture meets people at their most vulnerable by revealing the power of hope even when it is not realized. God’s passionate love moves him to reveal himself to the lowly and the poor (Luke 14:12–14).4 Recognizing God’s preference for the lowly, a response to the work of justice confronts us to engage ourselves in it. Because of God’s intention and passionate love for the underprivileged, Christians should seek the ultimate freedom and fairness for every human being. And it may require a reset of individual and structural power, which civil resistance movements aim to address.

Among the many stories of people living in the between stages of power and powerlessness, I think of Moses as a prototype of a person who lived in those two places of strength by having so much and by embracing the complete opposite in weakness and poverty. God’s passionate love for freedom and justice took Moses through a resetting of his power.5 Although Moses’ own struggle for power led him to kill an Egyptian in his human attempt to bring justice, the divine plan had to take Moses through divestment of power into powerlessness so that he would become a fair legislator and humble servant.

Reframing Old Ideas into New Ones

It might seem ludicrous, in a theological seminary, to have to emphasize that every human being bears the divine image. We all confess and hold such truth in high esteem; however, we, as a society, have regressed into a mindset of xenophobia, misogyny, sexism, and racism, which contradicts the lofty and revered Christian precept. It is the existential crisis of the church in the United States, which has lost its relevance and respect in the eyes of society and culture in general. Moreover, contemporary religiosity cheapens faith practice because of its endorsement of the degrading treatment of other humans, the treatment of persons as mere objects for productivity, exploitation, domination, and all types of consumption. Often, the narrative of exclusion adds to the actual politicized division among congregants who disagree on issues of injustice.

Human lives became objects of exploitation in the tragedy of slavery across the ages and cultures globally. The reduction of divinely indwelled humans as enslaved persons only benefited those with more wealth, privilege, and power. Unfortunately, in today’s reality, the justice system continues to give preference to people in positions of power and/or privilege at the expense of those at the margins of society. The trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, a 19-year-old White man, was a vivid example of such inequity of justice in America. In fact, this trial marked the climax of a deteriorated system and the rule of law.6 A question, however, remains unanswered: If Kyle Rittenhouse were a Black or brown man, would justice have favored him in his acquittal?

Rich and Guilty vs. Poor and Innocent

Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), refers to a truth rarely supported: “We have a system of justice in [the US] that treats you much better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent. Wealth, not culpability, shapes outcomes.”7 This statement shows what I want to invite you to reflect on today. According to Stevenson, wealth is a determining factor that measures a person’s value. A justice system built on such value only serves those who can deliver gains (profits) back to the system or a private power broker. History attests how easy it was for Christians to fall short of seeking justice for enslaved persons or those seeking a fair trial.8

A correlation between an unequal justice system and the mass incarceration crisis shows a pattern of power imbalance. The cash bail system is one example of a system built on a power imbalance. Attorney Robin Steinberg describes it as an unjust system for those who “cannot afford to pay the price of their freedom, and that price is called bail.”9 This systemic issue of power imbalance in the justice apparatus of the United States is wrong. I cannot believe it happens in the world’s so-called beacon of light and hope.

Power-Seeking and the Struggle for Justice

At the core of our common struggle for justice, the root of the endemic power-seeking mindset crawls within the human heart at every level of existence. The inherent dignity of every person depends on one’s value, whether by the color of one’s skin, one’s possessions, or what one can afford. Devaluing other human beings as mere objects is the beginning of most conquests and colonization leading to domination and exploitation.

The I and Thou Encounter

Martin Buber, a Jewish philosopher, wrote a treatise, “I and Thou,”10 proposing that human relationships with others mirror the relationship between a human being and their creator. The evangel-centric invitation “to love one’s neighbor as ourselves” reflects the “I and Thou” relationship initiated and lived out in the coming of God in Jesus Christ. The “I and Thou” encounter becomes the stepping-stone for mutual, vulnerable, and thriving connections with others. Jesus taught it and embedded his life among the suffering people of his time. Such mirroring in the “I and Thou” encounter becomes an insight to value another human as God’s image-bearer. It is a radical commitment as we seek to engage in the work for justice—to strive to contemplate God’s image not only in the suffering people but also in those who cause the suffering. Indeed, the invitation to love our enemies speaks loudly of God’s image even in those who do not deserve it. Certainly, it is a sacred and mysterious act of divine love.

Unfortunately, the human condition distorts the “I and Thou” encounter into an “I and It” encounter, thus fomenting the objectification factor. In other words, the objectification factor is the dehumanization of people created in the image of God. It reduces humans to 1) objects available for the benefit of profit and 2) objects whose given value makes them unworthy of receiving justice. 

The I and It Encounter

The “I and It” encounter finds fertile ground in the abuse of power. Abusive power never seeks the flourishing of others; on the contrary, it instills hierarchies of domination, slavery, segregation,11 and most social injustices in the world. Grappling with social injustice must lead us to a deeper self-reflection of how interpersonal relationships happen and become a means to an end rather than mutual, vulnerable, and thriving interactions. Power dynamics demonstrate how these encounters occur in one’s life and values system. In a subtle way, the “I and It” encounter can lead a person to set a transactional value even in their relationship with God. This action provides a basic definition of the mindset of an endemic consumerist faith. Likewise, human interactions have become transactional and conditioned by the selfish interest of the powerful.

If other humans are only objects, it influences one’s perception of deeming them unworthy of attaining justice. So how is it possible that sincere Christians support unjust systems such as racism, sexism, and mass incarceration? Perhaps the “I and It” encounter has settled deeply in our consciousness as people of faith, unable to discern and critique its flaws. In what ways could we begin a path of liberation from this pervading and subtle distortion?

A Humble Use of Power for Equal Justice

An Old Testament text commonly quoted in this type of reflection is Micah 6:8, which becomes a standard reference for a prescription toward a redeemed sense of justice. “He has told you, O mortal [’adam], what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Walter Brueggemann asserts that in Micah, “justice concerns precisely a right reading of social reality, of social power, and of social goods.”12 I mentioned Moses earlier in this article, and I want to integrate a few final thoughts with Brueggemann’s point along the way. First, Moses had to be stripped of his distorted view of power, which led him to kill the oppressor—a clear example of the cruel way of the “I and It” encounter. His view of justice relied on violence and backfired. Fleeing persecution, he ended up in the desert, so the work of God began and humbled him and restored him anew. The social reality at the time of Moses displayed oppression and abuse of power. This account reminds us of the futility of our human efforts to attain justice in violent, vengeful, and reactive ways. A reading of Moses’ social power proved that he had a reputation and positional power but was denounced by those he wanted to protect; in his desperation, he fled. Then, the “I and It” encounter paid him back and sent him to the hands of the Living God.

Micah’s text warns us of the intoxicating pattern when one’s positional power can destroy God’s image in others by our biases, actions, attitudes, and words. The admonition of Micah blends justice and loving-kindness as a signpost and testimony of a humble way of power. Assessing our perspectives of power—in the way we treat other people as God’s image-bearers or not—will help us embrace a new proposal for justice. The “I and Thou” encounter will empower us to love and renew us as agents of change. It will heighten the way of a prophetic imagination worth pursuing. It will give us a robust pathway to work and engage in the work for equal justice.

Let us reset our hope as we think of power in our work for justice—a humble use of power. As in the words of Howard Thurman: “to make justice where injustice abounds, to make peace where chaos is rampant, and to make the voice heard on behalf of the helpless and weak.”13

Written By

Wilmer G. Villacorta is associate professor of intercultural studies. He has served for over 15 years in pastoral positions in Paris, France, and for Latino congregations in New Jersey and California, and he has launched job development programs in the North Hollywood and Pasadena communities through World Vision’s US Division. Cofounder and co-chairperson of the Network of Developing Latin Leaders (NDLL), he is the author of Unmasking the Male Soul: Power and Gender Trap for Women in Leadership (2019) and Tug of War: The Downward Ascent of Power (2017), and has translated into Spanish several books on theology of mission, leadership development, and mentoring.

Writing this article elicited mixed emotions in me concerning issues of social injustice. Near the time of this writing, the final verdict in the killing of a young Black man, Ahmaud Arbery, sentenced three White men to life in prison. Anxiety and tensions dissipated, giving a sense of relief. But continually watching young lives brutally taken based on their skin color is heartbreaking. And we, as a society, continue to listen to the cry for justice for thousands of Black citizens who continue to face violence and who depend on a justice system that controls fairness for their very existence. Although our society confesses equal access to justice, such equality is far from realized among those at the periphery of society. Over two months after this horrible killing, no arrests were made because a complicit and biased district attorney obstructed the investigation.1 Such actions left thousands of people asking: Is there any justice in all of this? Why did the perpetrators walk free  for that long without any accountability?

In a society that dims the human dignity of Black and brown bodies and wants to “denigrate” them, injustice, brutality, and abuse of power will always be common factors. The action verb “denigrate” expresses a dehumanizing adjective embedded in systemic racism.2 Etymologically, “denigration” connotes a repudiation of darker skin or an attempt to “blacken” a person’s reputation.3

How can we speak of justice as followers of Jesus who critique this reality in our society today? In what ways do power dynamics seem to control and determine who receives justice or unjust treatment? Why do humans establish hierarchies based on material possessions, influence, race, gender, etc.?

The problem of injustice is inherent to the human condition. Labeling other humans generates a segregating mindset. It represses and stereotypes. Because of this, an essential characteristic of a system of domination and oppression devalues human lives as objects deprived of their God-given rights. Throughout the ages, injustice and the abuse of power have operated hand in hand. At the core of this destructive and elusive problem, one finds other humans’ innate “denigration.”

As people of faith, what are the barriers that prevent us from a commitment to the work of justice? Recently, professing Christians have been struggling and succumbing to a system that incites violence, power abuse, and brutality toward people of color in particular. In contrast to the words of Jesus in the Beatitudes, contemporary religion has set aside the depth of Matthew 5:3–9:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
     for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
     for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
     for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
     for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
     for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
     for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
     for they will be called children of God.”

In this article, I propose that a robust understanding of Jesus’ view on power becomes the antecedent for substantive engagement and participation for justice. Because the power equation in the Gospels prefers people on the margins, it is in this pattern that we must assess our perspectives of power so that we can participate with God in a humble downward movement from power to powerlessness.

In doing this, our witness will open practical ways to love our neighbors as we confess to love God and as we love ourselves. The practice and defense of justice for the sake of the underprivileged and dispossessed will require men and women willing to love and act justly as God’s image-bearers in mutual, interdependent, and vulnerable ways.

God’s Preference and Justice

God has a particular preference for people at the bottom of society (Luke 6:20–21). His heart always goes out to the lesser, the oppressed, the enslaved, the exiled communities (Luke 4:17–20). Simply put, the core message of Scripture meets people at their most vulnerable by revealing the power of hope even when it is not realized. God’s passionate love moves him to reveal himself to the lowly and the poor (Luke 14:12–14).4 Recognizing God’s preference for the lowly, a response to the work of justice confronts us to engage ourselves in it. Because of God’s intention and passionate love for the underprivileged, Christians should seek the ultimate freedom and fairness for every human being. And it may require a reset of individual and structural power, which civil resistance movements aim to address.

Among the many stories of people living in the between stages of power and powerlessness, I think of Moses as a prototype of a person who lived in those two places of strength by having so much and by embracing the complete opposite in weakness and poverty. God’s passionate love for freedom and justice took Moses through a resetting of his power.5 Although Moses’ own struggle for power led him to kill an Egyptian in his human attempt to bring justice, the divine plan had to take Moses through divestment of power into powerlessness so that he would become a fair legislator and humble servant.

Reframing Old Ideas into New Ones

It might seem ludicrous, in a theological seminary, to have to emphasize that every human being bears the divine image. We all confess and hold such truth in high esteem; however, we, as a society, have regressed into a mindset of xenophobia, misogyny, sexism, and racism, which contradicts the lofty and revered Christian precept. It is the existential crisis of the church in the United States, which has lost its relevance and respect in the eyes of society and culture in general. Moreover, contemporary religiosity cheapens faith practice because of its endorsement of the degrading treatment of other humans, the treatment of persons as mere objects for productivity, exploitation, domination, and all types of consumption. Often, the narrative of exclusion adds to the actual politicized division among congregants who disagree on issues of injustice.

Human lives became objects of exploitation in the tragedy of slavery across the ages and cultures globally. The reduction of divinely indwelled humans as enslaved persons only benefited those with more wealth, privilege, and power. Unfortunately, in today’s reality, the justice system continues to give preference to people in positions of power and/or privilege at the expense of those at the margins of society. The trial of Kyle Rittenhouse, a 19-year-old White man, was a vivid example of such inequity of justice in America. In fact, this trial marked the climax of a deteriorated system and the rule of law.6 A question, however, remains unanswered: If Kyle Rittenhouse were a Black or brown man, would justice have favored him in his acquittal?

Rich and Guilty vs. Poor and Innocent

Bryan Stevenson, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), refers to a truth rarely supported: “We have a system of justice in [the US] that treats you much better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent. Wealth, not culpability, shapes outcomes.”7 This statement shows what I want to invite you to reflect on today. According to Stevenson, wealth is a determining factor that measures a person’s value. A justice system built on such value only serves those who can deliver gains (profits) back to the system or a private power broker. History attests how easy it was for Christians to fall short of seeking justice for enslaved persons or those seeking a fair trial.8

A correlation between an unequal justice system and the mass incarceration crisis shows a pattern of power imbalance. The cash bail system is one example of a system built on a power imbalance. Attorney Robin Steinberg describes it as an unjust system for those who “cannot afford to pay the price of their freedom, and that price is called bail.”9 This systemic issue of power imbalance in the justice apparatus of the United States is wrong. I cannot believe it happens in the world’s so-called beacon of light and hope.

Power-Seeking and the Struggle for Justice

At the core of our common struggle for justice, the root of the endemic power-seeking mindset crawls within the human heart at every level of existence. The inherent dignity of every person depends on one’s value, whether by the color of one’s skin, one’s possessions, or what one can afford. Devaluing other human beings as mere objects is the beginning of most conquests and colonization leading to domination and exploitation.

The I and Thou Encounter

Martin Buber, a Jewish philosopher, wrote a treatise, “I and Thou,”10 proposing that human relationships with others mirror the relationship between a human being and their creator. The evangel-centric invitation “to love one’s neighbor as ourselves” reflects the “I and Thou” relationship initiated and lived out in the coming of God in Jesus Christ. The “I and Thou” encounter becomes the stepping-stone for mutual, vulnerable, and thriving connections with others. Jesus taught it and embedded his life among the suffering people of his time. Such mirroring in the “I and Thou” encounter becomes an insight to value another human as God’s image-bearer. It is a radical commitment as we seek to engage in the work for justice—to strive to contemplate God’s image not only in the suffering people but also in those who cause the suffering. Indeed, the invitation to love our enemies speaks loudly of God’s image even in those who do not deserve it. Certainly, it is a sacred and mysterious act of divine love.

Unfortunately, the human condition distorts the “I and Thou” encounter into an “I and It” encounter, thus fomenting the objectification factor. In other words, the objectification factor is the dehumanization of people created in the image of God. It reduces humans to 1) objects available for the benefit of profit and 2) objects whose given value makes them unworthy of receiving justice. 

The I and It Encounter

The “I and It” encounter finds fertile ground in the abuse of power. Abusive power never seeks the flourishing of others; on the contrary, it instills hierarchies of domination, slavery, segregation,11 and most social injustices in the world. Grappling with social injustice must lead us to a deeper self-reflection of how interpersonal relationships happen and become a means to an end rather than mutual, vulnerable, and thriving interactions. Power dynamics demonstrate how these encounters occur in one’s life and values system. In a subtle way, the “I and It” encounter can lead a person to set a transactional value even in their relationship with God. This action provides a basic definition of the mindset of an endemic consumerist faith. Likewise, human interactions have become transactional and conditioned by the selfish interest of the powerful.

If other humans are only objects, it influences one’s perception of deeming them unworthy of attaining justice. So how is it possible that sincere Christians support unjust systems such as racism, sexism, and mass incarceration? Perhaps the “I and It” encounter has settled deeply in our consciousness as people of faith, unable to discern and critique its flaws. In what ways could we begin a path of liberation from this pervading and subtle distortion?

A Humble Use of Power for Equal Justice

An Old Testament text commonly quoted in this type of reflection is Micah 6:8, which becomes a standard reference for a prescription toward a redeemed sense of justice. “He has told you, O mortal [’adam], what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Walter Brueggemann asserts that in Micah, “justice concerns precisely a right reading of social reality, of social power, and of social goods.”12 I mentioned Moses earlier in this article, and I want to integrate a few final thoughts with Brueggemann’s point along the way. First, Moses had to be stripped of his distorted view of power, which led him to kill the oppressor—a clear example of the cruel way of the “I and It” encounter. His view of justice relied on violence and backfired. Fleeing persecution, he ended up in the desert, so the work of God began and humbled him and restored him anew. The social reality at the time of Moses displayed oppression and abuse of power. This account reminds us of the futility of our human efforts to attain justice in violent, vengeful, and reactive ways. A reading of Moses’ social power proved that he had a reputation and positional power but was denounced by those he wanted to protect; in his desperation, he fled. Then, the “I and It” encounter paid him back and sent him to the hands of the Living God.

Micah’s text warns us of the intoxicating pattern when one’s positional power can destroy God’s image in others by our biases, actions, attitudes, and words. The admonition of Micah blends justice and loving-kindness as a signpost and testimony of a humble way of power. Assessing our perspectives of power—in the way we treat other people as God’s image-bearers or not—will help us embrace a new proposal for justice. The “I and Thou” encounter will empower us to love and renew us as agents of change. It will heighten the way of a prophetic imagination worth pursuing. It will give us a robust pathway to work and engage in the work for equal justice.

Let us reset our hope as we think of power in our work for justice—a humble use of power. As in the words of Howard Thurman: “to make justice where injustice abounds, to make peace where chaos is rampant, and to make the voice heard on behalf of the helpless and weak.”13

Wilmer Villacorta

Wilmer G. Villacorta is associate professor of intercultural studies. He has served for over 15 years in pastoral positions in Paris, France, and for Latino congregations in New Jersey and California, and he has launched job development programs in the North Hollywood and Pasadena communities through World Vision’s US Division. Cofounder and co-chairperson of the Network of Developing Latin Leaders (NDLL), he is the author of Unmasking the Male Soul: Power and Gender Trap for Women in Leadership (2019) and Tug of War: The Downward Ascent of Power (2017), and has translated into Spanish several books on theology of mission, leadership development, and mentoring.

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Fuller students reflect on God’s good intentions for creation and on our responsibility to pursue justice for the whole created world.