Thursday, May 10, 2012

Patriarchy and Kenosis.

I'm currently writing my last term paper and it has been incredibly difficult to quite get my thoughts and ideas together. This blog post, I'm hoping, will serve as a way to think aloud as I am still trying to think through various issues related to the kenotic self-emptying of Jesus Christ and what this means for women, specifically for the ends of feminism. I consider myself a disciple of Jesus Christ and my identity as a disciple who has been liberated by the Gospel directly informs and conditions my feminism. While my theological beliefs as well as my anthropology are quite dynamic in nature and never as linear as I just articulated, for conceptual purposes, I first and foremost confess my identity in Jesus Christ as a new creation and my identity is directly informed by what has been accomplished in the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The only reason, I believe, that I need and defend the cause of feminism is because anything that maintains distinctions and separations within society whether based on gender, race, disability, cultural or otherwise is man-made and ultimately denies the very freedom and liberation that comes in Jesus Christ. In Jesus Christ, those cultural and man-made distinctions are torn down so that all are freed to serve and love one another as Jesus Christ first served and loved us.

At times it feels as though I don't identify with a lot of the language that surfaces in feminist circles. The language of "rights" and "empowerment" are difficult for me to fully grasp, let alone accept. In my mind, the Gospel has no room for language of "rights" since the very notion of what it means to be a disciple is to deny oneself, pick up your cross, and follow Jesus Christ as Lord in life and possibly into death. You can only find your life when you lose it. The Gospel promises liberation, but only once death occurs. Sunday comes after Friday. And so the language of rights creates this space of autonomy and control that the Gospel specifically calls me to forfeit and lay down for the sake of the Kingdom of God. But what does this mean, precisely, in light of the fact that male bodies have controlled, dominated, abused, marginalized, silenced, killed, raped, and humiliated women in various ways for centuries? Is kenosis and the example of Jesus Christ's self-emptying really a word for me as a woman? How am I supposed to empty myself for the sake of the Gospel when that same emptying has been used to convince women to submit to abusive relationships like Jesus Christ Himself submitted to abuse even onto death?

I don't have a lot of answers for these questions. In fact, I often don't feel as though there are any safe places to ask these questions because so often it feels as though you are either a Christian or you are a feminist. If you are a Christian, it seems that these feminist concerns are seen as selfish and utterly in antithesis to the Gospel. But if you are a feminist, it seems that the questions about self-emptying and denying oneself onto death is only a word for men and Jesus Christ could never possibly be a true example for women to model. It seems that somehow, patriarchy has robbed women of the space to truly grapple with what it means to be a servant of Jesus Christ because we live in fear that such service will mean our very oppression. So many feminists allow patriarchy, even when it comes to the very questions that should essentially define who women are as disciples of Jesus Christ, the standard for defining our faith. But I wonder if true freedom might mean saying that despite patriarchy, despite the abuse and despite the danger of oppression, women created their own spaces where they could truly believe that the example of Jesus Christ's radical self-emptying even to the point of death on a cross was truly a word for them. I want to create such a space. I want to be a Christian and a feminist. And truth be told, I don't think it is possible for any person to be the former without being the latter precisely because of the liberation that comes for all humanity in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.


Matthew Frost said...

Good questioning. Worthy of a Barthian. We have every business doing ethics—as people conditioned by the gospel and its obligations. We have every business doing feminism and liberation—as people conditioned by the gospel and its obligations. As people, that is, who hear the command of God rightly, as freedom and permission over against every command of the world. And so there is a conflict between feminism and the gospel to the same extent as there is one between ethics and the gospel. We cannot do away with either of them for the sake of the gospel; the question is what their just shape is.

I'm going to push back on you about the language of "rights" and its relevance in precisely this frame. And the first spot I'm going to push on is whether kenosis is gospel, or law. Kenosis is certainly a form the command of God may take in its intersection with creaturely life—the form it did in fact take in the life of Jesus, as expressed nicely by the Christ-hymn in Philippians. It is certainly a valid form of discipleship. But it is far from the only one—the question is, what shape does the command of God take as it intersects your life? What is the necessary shape of your constitutive freedom-in-limitation? In what ways is it imitatio Christi? Jesus was not merely self-emptying; his humility stems precisely from a just fullness. We cannot lean too hard on "perfectly duitful servant of all, subject to all" at the expense of "perfectly free lord of all, subject to none."

As I see it, the gospel cannot be opposed to justice. We may discuss what is just, but the gospel does not promote injustice. Witness to the gospel in an unjust time may entail suffering injustice, as 1 Jn and 1 Pt certainly exhort their audiences. But justice is not universally, or even properly, deferred until post-mortem just because certain societies are unjust, and Christian communities have lived in subordination under them. These are still strategies of resistance, and they still entail efforts to change the nature of the society toward justice. And even if the society is unjust, the community has a mandate to be just as God is just. We have no mandate to tolerate injustice. We may be required to suffer it ourselves, but we have no mandate to tolerate it in the world, and we have no right to permit it in Christian community.

Remember what the creature is. This is the nature of your freedom. Remember how God values each creature in the total creation. Remember the role of human beings as the locus of the revelation of God's will for the total creation. Be empty of hubris, just as Jesus was empty of hubris, but also be full of a just humility, knowing who and what you are in Christ—and who and what your neighbor is. If rights language has a basis in Christian ethics, my hunch is that this is where it starts. What must a just society look like, in this place and time? What are we just to expect? What is it just to demand that such a society provide for God's creatures?

Unknown said...

Great work! I'm reposting on my FB page for Perichoretic Life.

dbarber said...

Interesting post, reminds me somewhat of Saba Mahmood's work. I'm wondering though, why you assume that liberation is only "post-death"? Isn't liberation something to be fought for right now? Yes, Jesus is affirming the possibility of death, but isn't this death something that one ought to be open to _as part of_ the struggle for liberation?

Kristen said...

I think the call to lay down our lives and give up our rights is balanced by other teachings. For instance, Christians are also taught to hold one another accountable and to confront one another in love when we sin against one another. There is no place in Christianity for one group of Christ’s followers to lay down their lives and their rights, while another group dominates and lords it over them. Jesus’ words about turning the other cheek were not intended to be an excuse for one Christian to repeatedly slap another while insisting that the one being slapped turn the other cheek!

The idea of being willing to not seek the highest places at the banquest was never intended as an excuse for those already in the highest places to cling to their seats with all their might and rebuke anyone who might suggest they make room, either.

In fact, the Christian call to submission can never mean enabling one another to continue to sin. Christians who lord it over other Christians are in sin and need to be told that Jesus wants them to repent.

Here’s a post I wrote on the subject, as it pertains to women seeking ministry:

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