To Kenosis or Not to Kenosis

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.


Filed under Theology

6 responses to “To Kenosis or Not to Kenosis

  1. Scott Holland

    Might this post-NeoAnabaptist-Dude kenosis lead to a re-imagined theosis?

  2. Joshua Brockway

    Maybe not a reimagined theosis, but a reclaiming of theosis in general.

  3. Scott Holland

    I ask because it seems to me the lads of Neo-Anabaptism can too easily identity with Jesus as a radical young man, just like them. A kenosis Christology might become an invitation into a more mystical theosis, beyond the certitudes of ethical discipleship.

    • Joshua Brockway

      Seems to me that the two are not that easily separated. But of course, I work with early asceticism especially the so-called Semi-Pelagian John Cassian. Though the language of theosis is absent from his discussions, he is very clear that contemplation- “seeing God” in the words of the beatitudes- is a cooperation between effort and grace, ethics and spirituality. In other words, theosis has not really been set in distinction to ethical discipleship. Rather, the two are integrated, two sides of the discipleship coin.

  4. Scott Holland

    Effort & Grace is a fine combination signifying the embodiment of the spiritual life. My question was more of a mild resistance to the “certitude” of ethical discipleship that often attaches itself to “Neo-Anabaptism.”

    “Neo-Anabaptists,” most of whom seem to be recovering Evangelicals, are tempted to make the category of the ethical the essence of religion. To which, Bruce Cockburn answers in song, “Don’t tell me there is no mystery.”

    Someone should write a dissertation on “seeing God” via a cooperation between effort and grace, ethics and spirituality.

  5. Rachel

    Really glad you’re working with these issues and ideas. I bless you in that process. Your previous post on the “white dude-ness” of Neo Anabaptists made me hope you might be open to some thoughts from a different perspective. I don’t seek to change your theology, but rather to simply add to the conversation with a different perspective.

    Privilege. In your post, you seemed to equate privilege with power. They’re certainly related, but privilege is unearned power or position. You can’t give up your privilege. You can only understand it and refuse to abuse it. Any attempt to empty yourself of privilege only creates a vacuum. It doesn’t elevate or empower minorities, and the focus remains on you and what you see yourself as sacrificialy doing…which in itself underscores your original power.

    How do we equalize power and privilege, then? You touched on this when you spoke about building relational bridges and opening up to others. Understanding, embracing, and honoring others builds appropriate privilege. Your own privilege will change as the societal norms change when we all do this work of relational bridge building. Focus on giving up your privilege and nothing happens. Focus on others and good stuff begins.

    Kenosis. Yes, traditionally, this has been about emptying the self. What I would love for us to do is to round out the talk of emptying ourselves with more focus on opening ourselves to others.

    Kenotic living only has virtue to the extent that it helps us know, honor, grow with, and love God and each other better.

    One of the keys to talking about kenotic living with women and minorities when you are a white dude, may lie in less focus on giving up power and more on opening up. Done right and the emptying takes care of itself.
    Here’s where a female (in my case a straight, married mama) might provide some insight.
    Think about heterosexual sex from the female perspective. I open myself up to another person completely. I DON’T lose my personhood or my power in the process. (Not if it’s healthy, anyway.) I don’t empty myself, either. The things that are “me” shift to accommodate the other, but the focus isn’t on emptying myself, it’s on opening myself, connecting with and loving/understanding the other. Pregnancy is another good example. I harbor, nurture, am open to, and empower a whole different person. No need to try to empty myself, my body will accommodate. In sex and pregnancy, I may lose self focus and empty myself in the sense that I’m not in complete control, but I DON’T lose my intrinsic value, sense of personhood, personal power,etc. If anything, those are enhanced in the process of connecting. Kenosis can be like this. It’s a little bit different emphasis, but the difference is helpful when viewed in the context of unequal and unearned privilege. Would love your thoughts on this. Again, so glad you are working on this.


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