One of Dr. Eriksson's areas of expertise is trauma, and she brought that perspective to her response, reading the lecture from the social location of oppression and trauma, of woman in particular. And that perspective helped problematize some of the ways I'd been framing kenosis in the lecture.
Specifically, in following the trajectory of Philippians 2, kenosis is the downward path from privilege to serventhood.
Philippians 2.4-7aThe trajectory here is from high to low, from "equality with God" to "the form of a servant." This was the trajectory I spent most of my time talking about, about how we are to move from places of privilege to the location of servanthood.
Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,
but emptied himself,
by taking the form of a servant...
But the trouble with this, as I pointed out in the lecture an in The Slavery of Death, is that our neurotic anxieties make this movement difficult. Thirsting for attention, applause and accolades it's hard to step out of the limelight and into the wings to serve unnoticed and unrecognized.
To illustrate this, I asked the question posed by Henri Nouwen: "Who am I when nobody pays attention, says thanks, or recognizes my work?" According to the hero system of our culture the answer is obvious: You're a nobody. And because that answer stings we don't want to "take on the form of the servant." We don't want to be a nobody. We want to be a somebody. So we resist the downward, self-emptying path of kenosis.
This is all well and good and is a message most of us need to take to heart. But the problem with this framing, Dr. Eriksson pointed out, is how someone already at the bottom of society--the oppressed, humiliated and abused person--is to follow this "downward path." What does kenosis look like if you're already at the absolute bottom?
What if your answer to Nouwen's question isn't a hypothetical but your lived reality? No one pays attention to you. For real. No one says thank you. For real. No one recognizes your work. For real.
And if that's your life how can you be expected to go any lower?
These are questions I've wrestled with. For example, when I argued that humility is the privilege of the privileged. As with humility it seems kenosis--the ability to go downward--is also a privilege of the privileged. You have to be on top to give you room to go down.
In short, what does kenosis look like at the bottom of society? What does it look like in locations of abuse and oppression?
We all know what it shouldn't look like. We don't use kenosis, servanthood or the cross to justify telling the abused person to stay in the abusive situation. Such advice heaps theological abuse on top of physical and psychological abuse.
And yet, we are still left with the questions. If that's not what kenosis looks like in abusive situations--submitting to the abuse the way Christ submitted to his abusers--then what does kenosis look like for the abused?
Because we can see how abused persons have been tempted (by self and others), in the face of Jesus's example, toward those tragic conclusions. This is why Christianity chaffs non-Christians who advocate for the abused and oppressed. In its valorization of Christ's suffering, it is argued, Christianity preaches "divine child abuse" and espouses a sadomasochistic ethic that threatens to justify abuse or, at the very least, puts pressure upon those being abused to suffer the abuse quietly and passively in order to "be like Jesus."
The point here is that the cross is great when preached at the abusers. If you're an abuser you need to go to the cross to stand with your victims. That is the prophetic power of the cross in a violent world full of oppression.
But what is the message of the cross for the one being abused? Carry your cross of abuse? Passively and quietly endure your abuse to be like Jesus?
We're back to our questions. What does humility, kenosis or the cross look like for those at the bottom of society, especially those in abusive situations?
These are the sorts of questions that feminist theologians wrestle with, but they should be questions we are all engaging with, as difficult as they might be. These are theological questions of the utmost practical importance. The issues involve life and death.
During her response to my lecture Dr. Eriksson said something that I think is a part of the answer, at least in regards to kenosis.
Specifically, Dr. Eriksson described a client of hers who had been filled with such toxic experiences that kenosis for her--the process of emptying--was vomiting out all the blackness within her.
There is an emptying here, but of a very different sort. In the Q&A afterwards I described this as "positive kenosis." In negative kenosis the self is emptied to descend. In positive kenosis the self is emptied to rise. In negative kenosis the self is emptied to offset the positive, the pre-existing privilege. In positive kenosis the self is emptied to offset the negative, the toxic self-images and darkness.
Pondering all this now, I don't know if "positive" vs. "negative" kenosis is the best way of describing all this. Because I do think the emptying in both instances is fundamentally the same.
Specifically, what is being emptied is the hero system--the ways we have internalized social and cultural standards of significance versus insignificance, success versus failure, worthiness versus unworthiness, light versus darkness, pure versus defiled, whole versus damaged. The "emptying" of kenosis is becoming indifferent to, dying to, this hero system. I describe this in some detail in The Slavery of Death.
The only difference is where we find ourselves within the hero system. For many the hero system places us on top. At the top, self-esteem and social respect are easy pickings. But the call of Jesus is to become indifferent to all this. That is experienced as a "descent" of sorts.
But for others, the hero system places them at the very bottom. And all too often, this is internalized. You feel that you "deserve" to be at the bottom, deserve the abuse. Because you are insignificant, damaged, unworthy, and full of darkness and pollution.
It's a toxic situation, this internalized self-loathing, but it's still the hero system. It's just the opposite pole, the shadow side. The hero system is still the way the self is being evaluated, even if it is full of self-loathing and self-destruction.
So an emptying has to occur. The hero system--that internalized filth and shit--has to be poured out. Vomited out.
Come to think about it now, this is an emptying that, psychologically speaking, looks very much like an exorcism. Demons--destructive psychological/spiritual darkness--are being cast out, emptied out.
In sum, if we think of kenosis as being an emptying that involves rejecting the hero system of the culture then we find a common thread.
Kenosis is emptying out the hero system, becoming indifferent to how our self-concepts have been shaped and defined by the culture. For good or ill.
And for many this emptying and pouring out may look more like vomiting. But it is an emptying nonetheless.