All the Sick and Twisted Ways Power and Victimhood Have Screwed Us Up: On Kenosis and Contemplation

I've written over the last few weeks some posts struggling with the notion of kenosis from the location of abuse and oppression.

The first post suggested that what is "emptied out" in kenosis is the toxicity of the cultural hero system, the ways in which we violently secure significance and meaning. For those on "top" of the hero system this violence is perpetrated against others, psychically (e.g., rivalry, competition, feelings of pride and superiority), systemically (e.g., privilege) or physically (e.g., abuse, oppression). In these instances the "emptying out" of kenosis is experienced as a lowering, a renunciation of pride, privilege, and oppression to stand with and among "the least of these."

Kenosis from the "bottom" looks different. In this social location the hero system has been internalized to produce a violence against the self. At the bottom the hero system declares you to be "garbage" and "waste." Kenosis in this location is emptying out these toxic and internalized messages from the hero system. This emptying is psychically experienced as a "rising up," an elevation of the self to a location of worth and dignity.

In both cases, I argued, the hero system, the violent and toxic ways we secure significance and meaning, is what is being kenotically emptied out. Emptied out to experience our identities as "hidden in Christ." This being "hidden in Christ" creates a psychic buffer of protection, allowing us to become indifferent to the ways the hero systems of the world attempt to shame us or fill us with pride.

In a follow-up post I addressed the issue of kenosis and suffering. Specifically, one misapplication of kenosis occurs when we try to "convert" the victim, telling the victim that he or she must endure the abuse or oppression to "be like Jesus." What this misses is Jesus's pronouncement of blessing upon those who are abused and oppressed. This pronouncement of blessing is a "lifting up" and an "elevation." This movement parallels the Kenosis Hymn in Philippians 2. The crucified one--the victim--is lifted up, exalted and elevated to God's right hand. And in this all "crucified ones" are lifted up and elevated.

In short, the "good news" for victims isn't a sermon asking for additional suffering and additional crucifixion. Rather, the "good news" for victims is the pronouncement of blessing, lifting up and elevation. In this the cross is a bivalent symbol: a prophetic indictment against abusers and oppressors and the pronouncement of blessing and divine favor upon those being abused and oppressed.

All of the above represents my own personal reflections on this subject. I've not had much interaction with the feminist theological literature on kenosis. So I've felt the need to do more reading in this area.

Toward that end, in this post I'd like to summarize Sarah Coakley's analysis from her book Powers and Submissions, particularly Chapter One "Kenosis and Subversion: On the Repression of 'Vulnerability' in Christian Feminist Writing."

What is interesting and provocative in Coakley's treatment is how she is critical of feminist treatments of kenosis as well as those treatments of kenosis from male theologians who use kenosis to describe the "weakness" of the "Crucified God." What is provocative in this dual critique is the general assumption that a vision of the "weakness" of God is an effective way to address the problems of patriarchal bullying in conceptions of God's "power." That is, it is generally assumed that one way to deal with the problem of God's "power" in the face of feminist critique is to reconceptualize God's power as "weakness." This is the move that I've generally embraced. But Coakley pronounces a pox on both houses. Both on the feminist critique of kenosis and upon the attempt to address that critique by reconceptualizing divine power as "weakness."

To get into this let's begin again with the feminist critique of kenosis, the problem I've been struggling with. Specifically, if kenosis is "letting go" of power and privilege--a descent into powerlessness and weakness--then kenosis is focused mainly upon patriarchy (and other forms of hierarchical power) and has little to say to the populations of concern to feminists, those being oppressed and abused by these power structures. In fact, to preach kenosis to the abused and oppressed leads to toxic outcomes, the valorization of victimhood which keeps the victims in their place.

One of Coakley's criticisms of this feminist critique is how it has implicitly adopted the patriarchal categories it is trying to subvert. Specifically, in this framing power is equated with masculinity and vulnerability is equated with femininity. But that framing simply doubles down on and reinforces the gendered stereotypes of power. What is needed, according to Coakley, is a vision of power and vulnerability that transcends these gendered notions, where both power and vulnerability are expected in equal measure from all.

This transcendence also has important ethical implications as it chastens the "will to power" Coakley discerns in some feminist critique. Framed another way, if victims are motivated by a "will to power" what prevents them from becoming the new abusers and oppressors when they finally do gain power? Social life in this instance reduces to various groups trying to wrest power from others. Everyone is buying into the hierarchical power arrangement seeking to knock someone off to become the new King of the Mountain.

This goes to one of Coakley's main points, the implicit rejection of vulnerability in feminist critiques of kenosis. According to Coakley, for both power and vulnerability to be redemptive what is needed is power in vulnerability. We need both. Both genders need both. But it's hard to get to that place when gendered visions of power and vulnerability are pitted against each other with "male power" set against "female vulnerability."

This brings us to Coakley's criticism of theologians who have used kenosis to redefine God's power as "weakness."

On the surface these systems seem to be a positive and helpful response to the feminist criticisms of kenosis. If we worry that God's "power" makes God an oppressive bully then we can envision kenosis as Christ "emptying" God of patriarchy. God's "power" is found in the loving weakness, vulnerability and self-donation of the cross. And again, these are notions I've greatly resonated with.

Coakley's concern with all this is when we start sliding from the ontological (God's being) to the ethical (our being like God). Specifically, while the motives behind using kenosis to redefine God's power as "weakness" are well-intentioned, problems come when we try to unpack this vision ethically. If God is "weakness" what does it mean for us to "become like God" or "be like Jesus"? Answer: we are to become "weak" like Jesus.

But suddenly the feminist criticism snaps back into view. If "being like God" is stepping into "weakness" that seems to be a perfectly fine message for oppressors and abusers. But preaching "weakness" to the abused and oppressed, it is argued, is intrinsically abusive. What the abused and oppressed need is empowerment, not sermons about "the weakness of God."

I think this is a powerful point. What Coakley is saying is that all our conversation about "the Crucified God" and the "weakness of God" isn't as helpful as we think it might be in thinking about God's power and vulnerability. The motives behind these efforts have been praiseworthy and they work well when the conversation stays at the level of abstract theology. But these visions struggle, ironically, when they are imported into locations of abuse and oppression.

If God is "weakness" how is an abused and oppressed person supposed to "be like God" in their situation? Remain "weak"?

What is going on here, according to Coakley, is the exact opposite of what is going on with the feminist critiques of kenosis. Where feminists are squeamish about vulnerability the "weakness of God" theologians are squeamish about power, divine power in particular. Power, for these theologians, is a dirty word. And that creates a problem when empowerment is what victims need the most.

Again, for Coakley what is needed is both power and vulnerability.

So, how do we get to that place?

In what I think is a fascinating move, Coakley finds answers in the patristic debates about the dual nature of Christ. Specifically, a great deal of patristic debate was how Christ could be both fully divine and fully human. How did those two "natures" get along in the same psyche?

One way some of the Church fathers dealt with this question was to argue that kenosis referred to Christ's human nature. Christ's human nature "emptied" itself of divine attributes like omnipotence and omniscience. And yet, while Christ's human nature had experienced kenosis, Christ's divine nature fully remained.

Now, how all that worked out psychologically for Jesus is a bit of a mystery and a puzzle. (As a psychologist it puzzles me greatly.) But Coakley finds wisdom in this approach in light her criticisms of the "weakness of God" theologians. Specifically, the problem with the "weakness of God" approach, according to Coakley, is how it pushes into the divine nature. Kenotic weakness is taken to be a divine attribute, God is emptied of all forms of power. And while this might seem to be a good move (I've always liked it), it raises the specter of the feminist critique regarding the need to empower victims. For some people power is a good thing.

In contrast to the "weakness of God" theologians, the patristic thinkers didn't allow kenosis to seep into the divine nature. Kenosis was restricted to Christ's human nature. Christ's human nature became "weak" but his divine nature remained "strong."

And that, for Coakley, is the key and fundamental point.

Specifically, according to Coakley the problems we are having with kenosis in these discussions is that we think that the vulnerability of kenosis is a vulnerability before human power. That's the problem when kenosis is preached to victims, that kenosis is encouraging us to submit to more human abuse. To keep taking slaps to the face.

But for Coakley kenosis isn't about vulnerability before human power--opening yourself up to get another smack in the face--but a vulnerability before divine power.

Kenosis is the human emptying to become vulnerable before God.

The key practice in this regard, for Coakley, is contemplative prayer. In contemplation the human ego is unraveled and deconstructed before the divine allowing us to let go of all the ways power and victimhood have screwed us up, both oppressed and oppressors alike.

Let me repeat that: kenosis is letting go of all the ways power and victimhood have screwed us up.

In contemplation all our twisted human visions of power and vulnerability are unraveled and deconstructed before the divine to reveal all the ways we've used power coercively or seek it out vengefully. All the ways we've neurotically twisted vulnerability into co-dependency, passivity, enablement, and the Stockholm syndrome.

In contemplation all our twisted gendered visions of power and vulnerability are unraveled and deconstructed so that power is no longer "male" and "good" and vulnerability is no longer "female" and "bad," where empowerment and loving self-giving are allowed to find their proper union and balance.

In contemplation all our twisted human visions of justice and mercy are unraveled and deconstructed before the divine so that justice is seasoned with forgiveness and reconciliation and mercy is seasoned with truth, justice and prophetic resistance.

In short, all human conceptions of power and vulnerability have to be "emptied out" before God so that "the will to power" is chastened with love and the call to vulnerability does not valorize victimhood and self-abasement.

In kenostic contemplation before the divine human visions of power and vulnerability--all the twisted and sick ways power and victimhood have screwed us up--are undone and remade in the image of God.

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16 thoughts on “All the Sick and Twisted Ways Power and Victimhood Have Screwed Us Up: On Kenosis and Contemplation”

  1. I really appreciate your thoughts on kenosis, Richard. I think it's inextricably linked to love in a very deep way, and that love probably has to come first. And, I think that learning to increase our love is empowering and something most of us need to learn how to do effectively. As someone who has studied Mahayana Buddhism extensively, I find it a bit strange how we Christians preach about loving more, yet have nothing concrete to tell people to do in order to learn how to love more. It's easy for us to empty ourselves for the ones we truly love, so I think that for us to move into a kenotic life, we have to learn how to really feel a real love for everyone else.

    This makes me think about a recent Sunday morning class I was at where "speaking the truth in love" was tossed out about what to do about sin. I spoke up and said that unless you truly love the person, you don't get to do that. Maybe spiking the grape juice with oxytocin should be considered. ;)

  2. I agree. The trouble with the conversation about sin is that it's always about other people's sin. And you just have to wonder: Have Christians not read the Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector? Yes, we must talk about sin, but it's your own sin, the sin of how you are not loving others.

    Yes, there is a call to holiness:

    Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Romans 13.10)

  3. " it's your own sin, the sin of how you are not loving others."


    It's funny and sad how we have such a strong tendency to think of holiness in terms of the external things, actions, and people about us, and completely miss that it's our own internal work. Plus, our all-too-great tendency to only focus on sin in terms of the sins that aren't the ones with which we're personally struggling.

  4. A text that has caught my imagination in this regard (I haven't yet gotten around to blogging about it) is 1 Peter 1.22:

    Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart.

    What I like is how purity (and above in 3.16 it's the command to "be holy") is connected to the capacity to love. Purify yourself, be holy, so that you can love each other deeply.

    Holiness is cultivating the capacity to love.

  5. I think there is something here that speaks to what I have found helpful when experiencing abuse. Part of what is so damaging about abuse is that it traps me in a false dichotomy--if I grasp power, act self-protectively, and try to manage/ control the situation, those responses deeply damage me. If I am vulnerable, let go, and trust, those responses also deeply damage me.

    The only solution I have found has lain in my own pitiful, inadequate contemplative prayer. There--even in the situation of abuse--I have found ways to be vulnerable and trusting before God's power, precisely as an alternative to giving in to the human abuse. Only when standing before God's power (with the help of a praying community) can my forgiveness, mercy, and reconciliation take place within a context that does not involve self-abasement. Only when standing before God's self-emptying weakness can my truth, justice, and prophetic resistance take place within a context that does not involve self-aggrandizement.

    This is one of the reasons, by the way, that I find all anthropocentric (rather than theocentric) approaches to be such a dead-end. If I were a healthy person with the potential for healthy relationships, I could go about practicing love for neighbor without (perhaps) worrying too much about God. But I am a damaged person whose attempts at healing are problematized by continuing damage from unhealthy relationships. Love for neighbor, in my messed-up contexts, consistently looks either like self-aggrandizing or self-abasement. Love for God is also problematic, but somehow it's always been a source of healing and hope.

    And just as a personal aside: the stylized way your sources use "male" and "female" to mean (respectively) "abuser" and "victim" tend to sting for those whose stories include being male victims of female abuse. The speech patterns of our church culture, influenced by psychology and by theology, tend to marginalize these stories. Since you are are a skilled reader of psychological and theological literature, I'd be interested in your take on this issue.

  6. That's an interesting move, but it will struggle to make peace with the seminal, halakhic stuff in the SotM, all of which are squarely in the domain of human/human actions, not least the very "turn the other cheek" teaching to which you allude.

    Still, it has long troubled me that we (speaking of my traditional home in the CoC, as it stood in the '90s before our exile) debate "women's roles" within male-only elderships, thus creating the asymmetry in which men are the gatekeepers who "allow" women to do [more and more] things. The language, both explicit and tacit, is such that women must go through men to obtain their rightful places in the local church. Nay, I say, nay!

  7. I wonder if a more intersectional approach would help relieve some of the gender problems that Coakley is struggling with? (I say this having not read the book; maybe she deals with intersectionality.) That is, when you conceive of people as generally being male/female (and therefore empowered/disempowered), you are going to imagine people as being either empowered or disempowered. But, in truth, people are usually both empowered and disempowered, and this becomes obvious when you remember that people also have power in relation to race, sexuality, economic class, religion, education, mental and physical development, anatomy (usual or unusual), health, etc. Pretty much everybody is empowered in some relationships and situations and disempowered in other relationships and situations; its not so much that there are populations who fall into one or another, as that there are people who have more situations of empowerment than disempowerment, and vice versa.

    I suspect that remembering this will help rather than hinder the issue, but I suppose it does, at first, make it more complicated.

  8. Thanks for sharing this. It's a poignant and intimate description of what I think Coakley is talking about.

    And thanks for your comments regarding the gendered framing of abuse. I have all sorts of blind spots and have been mainly focusing, pretty intensely, on feminist critiques of patriarchy, which causes one to miss the fuller picture. But I have tried, across all three of these posts, to say "he and she" when speaking of abuse victims.

  9. I think it would would help. I don't think Coakley is taking aim as feminism generally, but at a particular impulse, and an understandable one, that emerges in all locations of oppression: how to you fight for the oppressed and not come to hate the oppressors? It's the classic moral tension at the heart of all liberation theologies. That's the spiritual struggle Coakley is trying to point toward.

    And I think her point is very important in light of insectionality. Empowerment and disempowerment is so tangled and complicted, and we are all so blind and complict in various ways we don't want to acknowledge, that we can only glimpse our true selves, especially in our sin, through the full and raw exposure of our ego to the loving judgment of God.

  10. Coakley is always excellent and challenging.

    Richard, it's been a bit since I read Powers and Submissions. Does she engage/address womanist theologians as well? There have been some interesting conversations (re: privilege and race) among feminist/womanist theologians.

  11. Last week, for the first time in many years, I decided that I wanted to go to "confession" - the formal sacrament of the Catholic Church. I wanted to actually name my sins to another person in a somewhat formal "rite" set aside for such a thing. It was a simple thing and turned out to be a good experience on many levels. The priest, whom I did not know, was a large black man exuding great deal of humility. He reminded me of some of the prisoners that I know.

    Anyway, reflecting on the experience, I realized that the priest had not given me a "penance" but only said something to the effect of - "pray that you will be able to name the sins that you have not been able to confess today". Wow. I am beginning to realize that this sin stuff goes a lot deeper than what we can grasp in our usual self reflective and egoic agendas. Sin is very deep in our unconscious.

    Yes, it's internal, personal work. But I'm not sure that it can be totally gotten at alone, by ourselves. At some point the only way we can do our personal internal work is through others, loving others, cultivating the capacity to love others. And let the rest - our deep inherent sinfulness - be.

  12. Coakley is an immensely intelligent and capaciously learned theologian (and Powers and Submissions [2002] is an astonishing book debut - God, Sexuality, and the Self [2013], the first volume of her nascent systematic theology, I'm glad to say, is getting near the top of my in-tray). No doubt about it, Coakley brings something potentially logjam-breaking new to the table. And her project, while issuing from the academy, has a life-giving practical thrust. But ...

    Yes, the "but"! While remaining in a a suspended state of challenge, I have real problems with her two-natures
    solution to the power/vulnerability conundrum. My thinking deeply informed by the likes of Forsyth, Barth, Moltmann, and Jüngel (as different as they are, there are definite family resemblances among them on the matter of the Suffering of God), knocked for six (sorry about the cricket expression, baseball fans!) by Alan Lewis' haunting Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday (2001) (IMHO, one of the theological highlights of the last two decades), and more recently impressed and influenced by the work Bruce McCormack, a Chalcedon-bound theology that affirms the divine immutability but denies the divine passibility, for me unacceptably leaves God's
    Godness untouched by the passion and death of Jesus. I will certainly continue to wrestle with Coakley's input, and the traditionalist thinking of, e.g., David Bentley Hart, D. Stephen Long, and Thomas Weinandy - viz,, that God suffers only in his humanity - but I still think that theology remains too bound to its patristic metaphysical inheritance, and that we do need to claim that, in some sense, in Christ God's omnipotence is redefined in terms of weakness, that weakness is an expression, not a denial, of the divine omnipotence; and that it's within that theological framework that we must struggle with the psychological, social, and political realities of the manifold forms of oppression.

  13. I thoroughly enjoy your responses Kim. I think that you and Richard make excellent conversation partners. Of that I'm happy to be an observer.
    (Yes, I started a sentence with a preposition)

  14. I agree. I posted a summary of Coakley's position with "no comment" to let it stand on it's own, though I did hint throughout that my affinities were with the "weakness of God" approaches. I wrote the post to make myself uncomfortable. (I'm weird like that.) Because I'm with you, I think in Christ something about the "power" of God was decisively revealed and made manifest. What I like about Coakley's analysis is that it made me think a bit harder about it all as I think she raises an important point. And if you're going to hold on to a position you want the best criticisms out on the table.

    What I do very much agree with in her proposal is the role of contemplation, unraveling how our egos have been warped and twisted by power and victimage. I think this connects well with the notion of an "eccentric identity," a term coined by David Kelsey that I use in The Slavery of Death (for those who haven't read the book). Contemplation is how we come to form an eccentric identity, an identity "hidden in Christ."

    In this sense, "empowerment" for victims is having their identities extracted out of the cycles of victimage--the cycles of hate/revenge and passivity/enablement--so that their prophetic "No!" to their abusers is firm and clear but seasoned, if not initially with forgiveness, than with non-violence. And this non-violence is not that of a cowered and fearful person, but Gandhi's satyagraha ("truth fource," "soul force," "instistence on truth"). As Gandhi described it, "satyagraha is a weapon of the strong." And the strength I believe he is referring to is an internal spiritual strength, rooted in a felt sense of dignity, worth and power. This is the strength the victim finds in an eccentric contemplation of God's love. To borrow from Brene Brown, this eccentric experience of love and grace allows the victim to transcend the label "victim" to experience an unassailable sense of "worthiness" allowing him or her to "dare greatly" in non-violently extracting themselves from oppressive situtions. As the contemplatives of all faith traditions tell us, the prerequisite for true physical liberation is spiritual liberation.

  15. @Phil Smith
    Thank you, Phil. Richard makes conversation both inviting and challenging, a real gift (he must surely be a remarkable spiritual counsellor, not to mention a wonderful table-talk companion), and blogwise we've known each other for, gosh, it must be over 7 years. His combination of psychological (and sociological) insight and theological acumen is a rare gift, and that he makes it available to us all is a wonderful blessing. One of the boons of my "retirement" is that I can spend more time here at ET (whose preternaturally talented author might very well be!).

    Btw, the preposition with which you started your kind comment is actually the beginning of a nicely placed objective prepositional phrase, and therefore entirely grammatically acceptable!

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