Tag Archives: Mutuality

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.

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Socialized Risk: The Economics of Anonymity

It is no secret that the debates about health care have been heated and acrimonious. Even the fact that the Affordable Health Care Act received a six hour series of hearings before the Supreme Court should tell us that there is much to discuss. I am not so much concerned about the discussion of legislation or policy. Yet, I think the realities of our insurance system present the Church with an interesting look into the ways we are defined by economic practices. In short, we have come to accept the practices of the insurance industry as definitive of our relational practices. That is to say, in more simple terms, that we prefer the anonymity of insurance over the deep relational work of being the Church. Mutuality asks too much of us, both in giving and in receiving.

Insurance works on the principle of socialized risk. In essence, the idea is to gather money from a pool of customers in diverse categories of age and health conditions. It is this range that helps distribute the risk across the the pool. For example, if my dad and I were in the pool together we would pay the same premium, yet I would not be expected to use the full amount of my contributions because of my age. The assumption, based on huge algorithms and statistics, is that my dad would use more cash than he contributed. The payouts would, in a perfect pool, not exceed the money collected from each customer. Yet, some would pay more than they use while others would withdraw more than they contribute. The risk, then, is said to be distributed or socialized.

It should be disturbing that the whole process is based on anonymity. We never fully know who is in the pool and we never know who is withdrawing funds for any number of reasons. What is more, we barely know the full extent of need. A person’s health and thus crises are hidden in a system of socialized risk which seeks to privatize any benefit. Each person and their need is concealed in a series of identification numbers and balance sheets. The system is based on the best of social networks without any of the responsibility demanded in true social support. Basically, I need you, but I don’t need to know you. Just give me the money.

Such a practice should sting our Christian sensibilities. When we read of Jesus’ compassionate ministry it is clear that healing and faith are relational categories. The hemorrhaging woman touched the hem of his robe (Luke 4:43-48). The blind man was healed with spit, dirt, and a touch of Jesus’ hand (John 9:6-7). The multitude was fead by the giving of real food and the public giving of thanks (Mark 6:41-44). Even the centurion whose son lay ill sent someone to encounter Jesus and tell the family’s story (John 4:46-54). These acts are not done in isolation. Healing is not privatized gain, nor is it the product of anonymous socialized risk. Hence sharing is the root of word compassion- a co-passion, a sharing of suffering and want.

Luke tells us in the book of Acts of a couple in the Church who tried to socialize the risk and privatize gain. Ananias and Sapphira, forever known for their deceit and death in shame, tried to have all the benefits of the Christian community without assuming any of the risks (Acts 5:1-11). By keeping back some of the capital from the sale of their land, Ananias prefigured much of the individualism of our current economic system. Instead of risking the hard work of true community he hedged his bets by only giving some of the proceeds to the common treasury. His effort to privatize the gain subverted the sharing described earlier in the idyllic portrait of the first Church: for they would “distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need” (Acts 2:15).

The practices of modern insurance have shaped us into a people who value the maxim of anonymous social risk. Today we assume that our needs are private matters yet we expect the help of others. We want assistance, primarily in the form of money, without having to ask or without having anyone know we are struggling. The prospect of naming our needs in the presence of others, even those closest to us, is simply too humbling. We would rather submit to anonymous systems of exchange than submit to the requirements of true community.

Our discomfort with the rite of feet washing reveals the problem. When we speak of the practice as service, it is rather easy to wash another’s feet. By tying the towel around our waist, we say to the other “here let me help you.” Yet, when we are seated and waiting for someone to wash our own feet, the discomfort rises. We’d rather not reveal how dirty we are. We don’t want someone else to stoop before us. To say we need help runs counter to every social value we pick up in our wider lives. Our unease with washing feet is not about serving others, but in the mutuality of receiving service from a sister or brother.

This is often the case of playing Church. It is too easy to dismiss the portrait of the first Christians in Acts as fanciful or unrealistic. So, we expect the standards of socialized risk and privatized gain as the modus operandi of being the Church. Here, the values of individualism trump any vision or practice of mutuality. What is more, we prefer that the community not place and expectations or demands on our way of life. So we practice Stewardship Drives concealing our finances so that others might not question how we live outside of our Sunday gatherings.

Our lives are just business as usual, in all meanings of the word business. It is as if the Easter event had never happened. What is more, it is like our baptism has had little effect on the ways we live, move, and have our being. Instead, we assume that the markets are just the way things are, and live without questioning our economics and social interaction.

But as we see in the book of Acts, the Resurrection changed everything. Language and cultural barriers were overcome. Economic stratification was eliminated and needs were met. We often forget that Resurrection changes how we live and how we interact with one another. When we continue the practices of cultures that have yet to know the Resurrected Christ we continue to shape our actions, hearts and minds in ways contrary to the very Resurrection we proclaim on Sunday.

Insurance, and the anonymity of socialized risked, continually subverts the Easter vision we celebrate in this season. While Americans have debated the policy of health care based on inequality or theories of individual freedom, we as the Church have set aside the Post-Easter vision of community. We have forgotten that the practices and values of Christ’s body counter the very principles of anonymity and socialized risk. Inequality exists as people isolate themselves one from another, expecting support without compassion. When the so-called boundaries of individual freedom are overcome through mutuality, the community cannot help but take care of one another in body and in spirit.

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