Tag Archives: Neo-Anabaptism

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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Meet the NuDunkers

In the past week a series of blog posts have introduced a collective called the NuDunkers. This group has taken shape through the conversations between Dana Cassell, Andy Hamilton, Brian Gumm, and myself. Each of us is posting a take on the project. 

In the early 18th century a group of German Radical Pietists gathered together to study scripture together. Though it is often assumed that Pietism was rooted in Enlightenment individualism, these folks gathered together to explore the inner workings of the Holy Spirit and the outer words of the scriptures together. Eight of them decided that their discipleship to Jesus Christ called for them to baptize one another. Soon, they became known as the Neu Tauffers, or New Baptists. Those of the imperial churches, however, categorized them with disdain as Anabaptists, or Re-Baptizers.

In our day, many theologians and church leaders are returning to these Anabaptists thanks in part to the work of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas. These Neo-Anabaptists seek to articulate a kind of Christianity not beholden to the magisterial thought and practice of Christendom traditions. Yet, Yoder’s vision of Mennonite theology and Hauerwas’ idealized community only speak of one segment of the Radical Reformation traditions. The denominations that emerged from the Dunkers of the 18th century, The Church of the Brethren and The Brethren Church among them, present a form of Anabaptism that differs noticeably from that presented by readers of Yoder and Hauerwas.

It is this synthesis of Radical Pietism and Anabaptism that we as NuDunkers are seeking to articulate. The NuDunkers are a collective of practitioners who are seeking to understand our context and faith together. Our method of theological reflection is first dialogical across the miles using digital media as a vehicle for conversation. As partitioner theologians we speak from our experiences in ministry by working systematically through traditional categories and specific questions. In our desire to understand our faith lived out in these days, we are necessarily interpreters of scripture, experience, and heritage, all the while remaining missional in posture.

Four things are important to fill out here:

Theology is a Conversation– Whether we are continuing the dialog through the ages or are working out our faith today, we engage in a conversation. Just as the original Brethren gathered around the scriptures to discern their faith, the NuDunkers seek to make the conversational nature of theology explicit. By gathering a few “organic intellectuals” to reflect publicly about a question or topic, and then extending the conversation through blogs, we hope to encourage the conversation. With digital media we have an opportunity to model a vision of the church as a “multi-voiced” tradition.

Theology is Contextual– The greatest danger to theology or doctrine is the temptation to elevate it beyond the experiences of life. While truth is not relative, our understanding is. Just as the first Christians gathered in Jerusalem to recount the acts of the Holy Spirit among the Gentiles, it is important for the partners in the conversation speak from their experiences of ministry. As we gather across the miles we seek to follow the pattern of testing our experiences against the outer words of scripture and the gathered community.

Theology is Seeking Understanding- The conversation then, is hermeneutical in method. By bringing together our contextual experiences we seek to understand what God is doing in the world. Following the maxim of Anselm, our faith is seeking understanding.

Theology is Missional– The Anabaptist witness through the ages has been to question the Christendom model of being the church. Though some elements of the Anabaptist traditions have adopted an Enlightenment vision of Christendom, the NuDunkers seek to be explicit about the Missional nature of the church in whatever context it resides. The church’s acts- both of peacemaking and evangelism- emerge out of the Missio Dei. Rather than assuming cultural hegemony is the means of change, the NuDunkers take seriously formation of persons in the Upside Down Kingdom of the church.

These are the NuDunkers. Join us in the conversation.

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