In a previous post I asked if Neo-Anabaptism is a ‘White Dude’ movement. The issue is that as Christendom crumbles, we who self-identify as either Missional or Neo-Anabaptist trumpet the need for a letting go of power, a kind of kenosis of the church. The hymnic imagery of Philippians 2 often stands as the central scripture for such a perspective. For, just as Jesus ’emptied himself,’ we too ought to let go of power and privilege.
In the best light, this approach is a critique aimed at the American church as is slips from the center of society to its margins. In a way, we are offering a bit of solace as Christians lose the influence we once had politically and culturally. Such a ‘self-emptying’ is an opportunity for more faithful discipleship.
In more problematic ways, however, such an invitation can be heard as a proscription telling others that they are to let go of too much. As I said in that earlier post, it should give us pause to think that just as persons on the margins of society are gaining influence and power the white guys are saying that power and influence are not that important any more. In a weird kind of role reversal, those who were in positions of power and privilege are once again telling women and marginalized men to become more like white men. We have come so far, yet have not changed at all.
This shouldn’t suprise us too much. Theologians have been warning us for some time that a theology of Kenosis– or self-emptying– can often be used oppresively. Or, as theologian David Jensen of Austin Presbyterian Seminary noted in his book ‘In the Company of Others, “the theme of self-emptying has been used in our patriarchal context as fodder for the obliteration of the selfhood of women and marginalized men.’ (19) He went on to say that ‘unless images of suffering, self-sacrifice, and emptying are accompanied by the denunciation of injustice, the image of emptying becomes simply a coping mechanism in contexts of oppression and not a prophetic critique of existing oppressions.’ (20) Instead, Jensen offered, a just use of Kenosis involves relationality and otherness, and a ‘wider, social understanding of the human being, the world, and God.’ (20)
My goal isn’t to restate Jensen’s argument. Instead, I want to build on my earlier observation that Neo-Anabaptists must explore more intently issues and theologies of power. In our current use of Kenosis, we must be aware of both its implications and its critiques. Certainly, in Paul’s language in Philippians the idea of self-emptying is a descriptor of God’s own movement. It is then in light of God’s own action that we are to respond with the same movement to others. In a way, God’s self-emptying in Christ is a movement that empowers humanity to live abundantly. It is a giving that empowers. Our own kenosis is to mirror that same empowerment.
Kenotic theologies more justly argued in the way Jensen illustrated also push us to acknowlede ‘otherness’ more fully. In that way, I wonder if a more contemporary rendering of ‘Kenosis’ might not de-emphasize the dynamics of power and powerlessness. Rather, Kenosis more aptly points us to a vulnerable crossing of boundaries. In that frame, kenosis is a matter of setting aside our ego in such a way that we can more fully engage the humanity of ourselves and others. In traditional language, we often assume that power means ‘power over others.’ When viewed in this way, power is a wedge between one person and another. Yet, when we look to the example of Jesus, the aim was not letting go so much as it was a way of reaching out. God crossed the boundary between Creator and created so that all of creation might flourish.
The typical move among Post-liberal thinkers and some Neo-Anabaptists is to redefine the terms that cause the most trouble. As I stated in the earlier post, we need to expand our definition of power. Yet, at the same time, we need to reorient our other terms so that they no longer carry the oppressive weight of keeping things as they were. Kenosis is just one such term. When we view it as a bridge building act that sets aside ego, things like stepping aside so that others might speak become not only possible but normative. In other words, creating a multi-voiced church, or a rich hermeneutical community, is made possible by actual acts of letting go. At the same time, the cultural power and privilege that persons do have by nature of their class, gender, and race can be seen not so much as hurdles but as opportunities to open spaces for others who have been culturally marginalized.
In other words, Kenosis as “acts of vulnerable boundary crossing” is a way of reclaiming the humanity of all in the midst of a culture and way of life that diminishes some for the benefit of others. It becomes a practice that raises all rather than an coping ideology that maintains systems of oppression.
For me, the greatest kenotic practice is that of washing feet. On the first Maundy Thursday of Pope Francis’ pontificate the media was astonished that he entered a prison in order to wash the feet of 12 inmates. For those used to seeing the pope guarded by cardinals, and elevated above the crowd in so many ways, it was a profound reclamation of Jesus’ own washing of the disciples feet. For those of us in traditions where feet washing is a regular practice, it was not all that shocking. Time and again we have had our feet washed, and have stooped to wash the feet of another. In that mutual act of vulnerable boundary crossing, we have found profound aspects of ourselves and our sisters and brothers. It is that mutuality of serving and being served that the greatest meaning of kenosis is lived out. No one is left washing the feet of all as a servant of the house would have done in Jesus’ day. And at the same time, we each receive the grace of the priestly act of another. What is more, there is no coercion in the act. In both washing and being washed, we each act freely. No one is forced to kneel, forced to perform the ordinance by an oppressor. And at the same time, the one being washed offers bare feet in a act of intimate vulnerability. In that moment, the boundaries are crossed. And in that shared kenosis, both are raised up. Both grant each other grace in their shared humanity.