Me Versus We: Part 2, Kenosis

It's one of the most famous moral exhortations in all of the Bible. From Philippians 2:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,

but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,

he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,

so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Because of this text, self-emptying--kenosis--has been taken to be at the very heart of Christlikeness, the defining Christian virtue.

And yet, kenosis has been hit pretty hard in the last few decades in light of feminist scholarship. Specifically, it seems both toxic and dangerous to expect a woman to practice kenosis if she's dealing with an abusive spouse. And the same goes for any other oppressed person. Should someone at the very bottom--victims in particular--be expected to go even lower in the name of "being like Jesus"?

What makes this even worse is that women have, in fact, been given pastoral advice guided by that sort of theology, that by being "submissive" to her abuser the woman is "following the example of Jesus."

There's a whole lot to be said here, about how to read Philippians 2 in light of these concerns, but for this post I want to make a simple observation.

Again, to the point of this series, kenosis goes off the rails when we think in terms of "me" rather than "we."

Let's back up and look at what Paul is encouraging with his appeal to Jesus' self-emptying:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
The point should be obvious. Kenosis isn't about me, it's about we. "Be of the same mind." "Having the same love." "Being in full accord and of one mind." "Do nothing out of selfish ambition or conceit." "Regard others as better than yourself." "Look to the interests of others."

Kenosis isn't a part of your moral self-improvement project. Kenosis is forming a community.

Let me say that again: Kenosis is forming a community.

The problem with both the feminist critique of kenosis and with the toxic advice for victims to submit to abuse is that both are focusing on "me" rather than "we," seeing kenosis as something an individual does in isolation from the community. And when viewed as an isolated, individual practice, yes, that can produce some toxic situations. Kenosis practiced in isolation can produce some pretty dysfunctional asymmetries. Kenosis finds it proper and healthy home when it is being practiced by an entire community, where your self-emptying for me is being matched by my self-emptying for you. Kenosis is an economy, it's not an isolated act of self-mortification. Jesus empties, but the Father and Spirit are there to ennoble and exalt. That dance of mutuality in Philippians 2 isn't what we're seeing in an abusive situation. And that's why Paul aims his sermon on kenosis toward those who were not looking after the interests of others. Kenosis punches up, never down.

In short, kenosis is a classic example of how reading the Bible as being about "me" rather than "we" can create some toxic, dysfunctional outcomes.

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