Symposium Introduction

Is kenosis a “dirty” word?

During my time working between college and graduate school, I always held a desire to go back to school for more education; the twofold challenge was overcoming my own fears and knowing what I wanted to study. I considered the gamut—law school, business, school, public health, and public policy. But it was only after I audited a systematic theology class that one of my pastors taught and encouraged me to take that I felt intuitively that I had found my calling and passion. I finally found that my desire was more than my fear and trembling; and after applying to and hearing back from schools decided that I would begin my theological education in an MDiv program.

While I received much support from friends and colleagues in and outside of the church, others—also Christians—interrogated my decision to go to seminary. Some questioned my desire to be a teacher of theology or minister of Word and Sacrament because I was a woman and their understanding of scripture prohibited my teaching men. Others voiced more practical concerns: “Don’t you want to get married?” Yes, I did, but at the time didn’t fully understand how going to seminary and that hope for my personal life might be construed as antithetical, of how certain gender and cultural expectations were destabilized just because I wanted to study theology. I was viewed as giving up the opportunity for financial success or security (as a potential partner) for something that was acknowledged as important, yes, but not so important as to give up other more seemingly pressing goals.

The broad contours of my journey through theological education, both in the church and academy, are not unique. But I share this personal experience to frame how the study of the theme of kenosis, or “self-emptying” (Phil 2:1–12), consequently held my intellectual interest as well as possessed existential force. As a Christian, I had never up to that point distinctly articulated or thought about why kenosis might be dangerous for women, about how expectations about women’s roles (e.g., being a good daughter or mother) could be reinforced by the scriptural exhortation to imitate Christ in his humility. My feminist consciousness was awakened and given expression through the study of theology, even as negotiating the relationship between feminism and faithfulness was murkier in the Korean American evangelical church context.

During my master’s program, I was introduced to a dialogue between Daphne Hampson and Sarah Coakley, a touchstone in contemporary feminist theology on the theme of kenosis.1 Others, however, have also allowed for the possibility and power of kenosis because of the ways in which it has witnessed to “the power in the blood.”2

The ongoing social and political conversation around maternity leave and parenthood, the negotiation of women’s status in the workplace, and even the popularity of Fifty Shades of Gray (something that three of the panelists coincidentally mention) indicate that kenotic themes pervade more broadly. Consequently Anna Mercedes’s book, Power For: Feminism and Christ’s Self-Giving, feels particularly relevant in such a landscape—in other words, the discussion on kenosis is far from over. While Mercedes rightly acknowledges how kenosis has been historically disempowering for women, she also recognizes how kenotic themes have also empowered her in her Christian identity. The path she chooses to explore in her work is one that holds these two realities in ambivalent tension; kenosis is about power and love, agape and eros. She analyzes classical theist kenotic proposals (both historical and contemporary) as well as creatively engages with critical discussions of sadomasochism in order to draw out the nuances of interrelationality. Ultimately, Mercedes contends, “kenosis carries one beyond balance, beyond safety, and certainly beyond certainty. It is an act of faith.”3

The four panelists engage various aspects of Mercedes’s work in ways that promise for a provocative and enlivening conversation. Just as importantly, the panelists highlight how kenotic themes have personally impacted and shaped them. I selectively highlight a few points from their responses to help frame the panel. Krista Hughes asks about how visions of beauty might help frame a broader conceptualization of kenosis as justice. Sameer Yadav critically presses the question of whether Mercedes’s proposal necessarily means that we need to leave classical theist models behind, or whether such models could more adequately offer a kenotic vision themselves. Heike Peckruhn raises the possibility of how disability studies might further nuance a kenotic model, while Teresa Delgado questions how Mercedes might better tend to the particular experiences of black and Latino/a women.

While one may ultimately diverge from Mercedes’s constructive proposal, her work opens up creative possibilities for rethinking kenosis as an important part of Christian subjectivity. Indeed, what struck me about the panelists’ responses was how they modeled kenotic discourse even as they disagreed. Kenosis is no longer a “dirty” word that has been shown to be incompatible with feminism or liberative possibilities in general, but may actually illuminate christic incarnation in startling and powerful ways. We invite you to take part in the conversation over the next two weeks.

Panelists

Krista Hughes

Sameer Yadav

Heike Peckruhn

Teresa Delgado

About the Author

Anna Mercedes is Associate Professor of Theology at the College of Saint Benedict, Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota, USA.


  1. See Swallowing a Fishbone? Feminist Theologians Debate Christianity, ed. Margaret Daphne Hampson (London: SPCK, 1996), particularly the chapters “On Autonomy and Heteronomy” and “Kenosis and Subversion.” Coakley’s expanded version of the latter can be found in Sarah Coakley, TKenosis and Subversion: On the Repression of ‘Vulnerability’ in Christian Feminist Writing,” in Powers and Submissions: Spirituality, Philosophy and Gender (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2002).[/foonote] Hampson argued that the virtue of kenosis was specifically one solely useful for men in order to counter their sinful pride; in contrast, what women needed was to achieve self-actualization. For Hampson, the insistence on kenosis for both men and women ultimately was akin to “swallowing a fishbone”; in other words, an obstacle to being both Christian and a feminist. I also gained further insight into how kenosis might be considered a “dirty” word through the work of womanist theologians. Their contributions importantly addressed the theme of kenosis through the lens of atonement (e.g., surrogacy or self-sacrifice) to highlight how kenotic themes have directly impacted the bodies of black and brown women.[footnote]See, e.g., Delores S. Williams, Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1993).

  2. JoAnne Terrell, EM CSL_CITATION {“citationID”:”Q1GTOf1a”,”e,” in Cross Examinations: Readings on the Meaning of the Cross Today (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006).

  3. Anna Mercedes, Power for Feminism and Christ’s Self-Giving (London: T. & T. Clark, 2011), 131.

Krista E. Hughes

Response

Risking Vulnerability and Pleasure

Kenosis in the Third Wave

Like most compelling theology, Anna Mercedes’s reclamation of kenosis for feminist theology emerges from autobiography. Moved from a young age by the Christian call to be generous in our disposition toward others, Mercedes’s later encounter with feminism prompted confusion. On the one hand, she felt empowered by feminist calls to agency and subjectivity. Yet she also heard feminists suggesting that the giving away of self was a sort of feminist sin. For Mercedes, however, openhearted generosity toward others was not simply a virtue she had been taught; frequently it was a genuine pleasure and indeed a central mode of her own relational, creative subjectivity. This prompted yet further confusion, for feminists were telling her both to trust her own experiences and to not too readily give of herself. Were they saying she had to choose between their way of thinking and the Christian faith that had so richly fed her and her family and community? This was more than an existential crisis for then seminarian Mercedes—it was a pastoral one. For she perceived an implicit (and problematic) judgment underpinning the forced choice between feminist values and Christian ones: feminist thinkers, wittingly or not, appeared to be blaming women for the ills that beset them, as if to say, “Yes, patriarchal Christianity is bad, but you really do have a choice about whether you embrace its tenets or not, whether you stay or go.” Power For is Mercedes’s response to the false choice between feminist subjectivity and Christian generosity. She not only claims the possibility of both, but she offers a constructive vision of how subjectivity might be abundantly, even pleasurably, achieved through a Christic giving of self.

To build her vision, Mercedes takes a lovingly critical stance toward both the Christian theological heritage and feminist thought. While interrogating the patriarchal notion of “power over,” including how even the doctrine of kenotic self-giving has been co-opted by coercive power structures, Mercedes also critiques the notion that the “power with” / mutuality model can be the only viable concept of power for feminist theology. Her critiques are appreciative and careful. Even as her goal is to excavate the virtues of a kenotic “power for” model, she rightfully acknowledges the importance of “power with,” both historically and now. Likewise, she appreciates the risks of kenosis and why it might be questioned as a legitimate figure of “power,” for it does come awfully close to the early feminist diagnoses of “woman’s” struggle—Valerie Saiving’s self-effacement, Catherine Keller’s solubility, Serene Jones’ fragmentation.1 Yet Mercedes not only illuminates the beauties and rewards of kenotic power but persuasively argues that in many circumstances, a kenotic expression of power is more viable than mutuality. She aptly observes that while mutuality is an ideal to which we might and should aim, in a world of intractable hierarchies rarely is it achieved, for we simply cannot guarantee a mutual stance from the Other. That is, we only have power over our own expression of power.

In contrast to mutuality, of which we can secure only one half (if even that), kenotic power has the capacity to act within, under, and counter to whatever coercive forces are at play, not necessarily overcoming those forces but nonetheless serving as a form of resistance—for the sake of autonomy, however limited, and occasionally survival. Chapter 5, “Power for Resistance: Abuse and Self-Giving Care,” illustrates this dynamic at work in contexts of domestic abuse, where victims may not be able to escape the abusive situations in which they are trapped but where they can counter their very victimhood through small but significant acts of resistance and care toward self and others—acts that evince their creative autonomy.

This argument incorporates a vital awareness of the complexity of power relations, breaking out of any dualistic, essentialist concepts of relationship or identity. In Mercedes’s words, she is striving to move “beyond the binary pair.” Most culturally aware scholars, acknowledging the structural complexities of power relations, would affirm that we all are victims as well as perpetrators depending on relational context. But even that perhaps states the matter too simplistically. In a world of vast relational multiplicity, far exceeding our comprehension, we do not have the time to consider our multivalent positionalities in each and every circumstance. Mercedes recovers the kenotic disposition from the Christian tradition and transforms it using feminist and postmodern theories. The result is a relational disposition bearing the capacity both to empower agency and to open us to the Other(s) we encounter, not as a substitute for “power with” but as a rich and viable supplement.

There are three particular elements of Mercedes’s proposal that incite my curiosity and that I invite her to explore further—one because it intersects with my own recent explorations; one because I harbor some concerned skepticism; and one because it may push Mercedes further in the direction she is already going, thus serving as a challenge to extend her thought.

Vulnerability . . . and Pleasure

One of the most compelling pieces of Mercedes’s argument is its profound honoring of vulnerability, ambiguity, and risk as marks of embodied, relational living. In her kenotic erotics, Mercedes strives to honor our vulnerability as profoundly relational creatures—celebrating the tender goods that arise from vulnerability while avoiding any unqualified glorification of vulnerability as a modus operandi for all circumstances. Ultimately she shows that vulnerability is more powerful then we realize. For Mercedes, pleasure empowers, at least in the moment of its arising, and in this way can engender transformation. Yet pleasure requires a sort of letting go, a relaxation, a dropping of defenses that can leave one vulnerable. Yet (again) when the standard counsel is to protect the ego at all costs, releasing into vulnerability is itself part of the pleasure. It also frees our energies for non-hostile forms of relating to others, a radical and refreshing concept in a world that still rewards patriarchal modes of relation. The positive, productive role that vulnerability plays in pleasure as well as transformation grounds Mercedes’s argument that kenotic power is indeed power-full, a genuine manifestation of creative, proactive agency rather than its suppression.

Just as Mercedes probes the relation between pleasure and transformation, in my own work I have been exploring the potential relation between beauty and justice. In both cases, an honoring of vulnerability, along with risk and ambiguity, seems to be key. Opening ourselves to the possibility of unexpected encounter makes the experience of beauty possible. Might the cultivation of beauty be a way, I ask, to practice the vulnerability of self-opening that is also necessary for transformation toward meaningful justice? Rather than doggedly pursuing the just at the expense of the beautiful, perhaps an aesthetics of compassion could nurture a more subtle, more diffuse, but ultimately more transformative web of enriching relations. I see in Mercedes’s argument a resonant move: the best chance for change, she seems to suggest, is pleasure arising, necessarily, from vulnerability and directed toward change. Reclaiming the value of vulnerability is becoming something of a trend,2 which I celebrate. Yet I tremble at the implications of this message being misheard, of falling into the wrong hands. In many ways, Mercedes’s entire book attends to the reality of that risk, all the while acknowledging that it is not a risk that can—or even perhaps should—be solved. To risk pleasure is unavoidably to also risk harm.

Risking Pleasure—and Harm

In chapter 3, Mercedes proposes “kenotic erotics” as an alternative to the traditional polarities of self-sacrificing agape and (presumably) self-involved eros. A kenotic erotics recognizes the complex textures of relational power, including the reality that the giving-away of oneself can be genuinely pleasurable. In chapter 4, Mercedes offers martyrdom and masochism as examples of kenotic erotics, where the active pursuit of passivity and even pain can be in itself pleasurable. Mercedes shows that feminist scholarship has tended to criticize and in turn reject masochistic discourse as a source of positive insight about subjectivity, power, or pleasure. By contrast, she wants to lay claim to some of its insights on precisely feminist grounds. Mercedes is correct that feminist thought in general and feminist theology specifically can only lose when they foreclose possibilities for creative insight. The provocations emerging from queer and s/m discourse offer rich possibilities for third-wave feminist thought. As Mercedes herself notes, however, questions and concerns continue to hover—and are worth exploring. Here I pose two.

While risk of pain, and possibly pain itself, are part of the point of masochism, doesn’t healthy masochism rest in a more foundational mutuality of trust? This may only prove Mercedes’s point that kenotic power works in tandem with, if also against, both coercive and mutual forms of power. But it also points up that non-abusive masochism rests upon a foundation of mutuality, even if that mutuality is performatively suspended. The recent release of the film version of Fifty Shades of Grey prompted a deserved outcry from concerned adults everywhere, self-identified as feminist or not, that its portrayal of romance was in fact a portrait of abuse. They asked, “Is this what we are teaching our young people love is?” The most compelling piece I read, however, was “Consent Isn’t Enough: The Troubling Sex of Fifty Shades,” explicating how the film gave the BDSM community and its practices a bad name.3 What was missing in the film’s portrayal—genuine rather than coerced consent, agreed-upon guidelines, safety words—are all instantiations of relational mutuality. While healthy masochism risks and even courts pain, it can only do so with integrity when the deeper context is reciprocity, respect, and trust. Thus, if we are to look to healthy masochism as an example of kenotic erotics, we must grant that the mutual precedes and makes possible the masochistic.

This leads to a second concern regarding the pairing of martyrdom and masochism. Respected scholars of early Christian history and thought have plumbed the deep resonances between martyrdom and masochism. Mercedes constructively draws on this compelling body of work, specifically on its insights that both practices court pain as pleasure, thereby performing unexpected reversals that give rise to unexpected subjectivities. Aspects of this pairing remain unconvincing however, specifically because the underlying power dynamics are distinct, especially if the focus is early Christian martyrs in imperial Rome. It would seem that such martyrs, even if they were not “pure victims,” would have more in common with those who suffer domestic and sexual abuse (as Mercedes discusses in chapter 5)—manifesting a resistance to power over—than with masochists who explore the pleasures of subjective dissolution as a suspension of a taken-for-granted power with. Granting that the martyrs’ pleasure seems to have derived from their devotion to God, from the conviction that their social resistance to empire flowed from and toward the Divine Beloved, I come back to the pastoral quandaries raised by celebrations of martyrdom, especially as they transmute into minimally informed theological imaginaries. An imperfect yet relevant analogy can be found in cutting, a disturbingly common practice among young people. The practice of cutting—not for aesthetic purposes but as a coping strategy—is a way of claiming some sort of agency in the context of perceived disempowerment (vis-à-vis abuse, social pressures, depression, etc.). If cutting is a teen’s best perceived strategy for coping because it gives her a sense of control and/or of release (dare we call this pleasure?), we certainly should not blame this young person/“victim.” But are we to encourage her to continue, much less to celebrate this form of self-“care” and resistance, or do we encourage her down another path?

“Kenosis carries one beyond balance,” says Mercedes, “beyond safety, and certainly beyond certainty. It is an act of faith” (131). As noted above, in my own work I affirm the power of risked vulnerability: its power for social change, for self-transformation, even for pleasure. Yet I still wonder at martyrdom and masochism as models. The line between “risking danger” and “dangerous” is a fine but consequential one precisely because, as Mercedes herself notes, “mimicry and mimesis may vary vastly in significance but only slightly in kind” (107). It would seem that the subjectivity of the person in question determines which it is. The pastoral question then becomes, who is the audience for a theology of kenotic erotics that advocates the possibility of pain as pleasure? How do we convey the subtle yet significant nuances here?

Subjects, Bounded & Permeable

Finally and very briefly. Among postmodern thinkers, in the wake of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, there is general consensus that as subjects we are relationally constituted. More recently, Butler has expanded upon this view in Precarious Life and other pieces, offering that the other not only establishes the boundaries of our self but also dissolves the same: even in “safe” relationships we are both created and undone in our encounter with others, over and over again. This is not Keller’s solubility, but instead a more nuanced articulation of Keller’s intersubjective relationality: much like skin itself, intersubjective boundaries are neither static nor solid; they are fluid and permeable while no less, well, bounded. If Mercedes’s postmodern portrayal of kenosis challenges the static binaries of active and passive, of sacrifice and generosity, of pain and pleasure, where might this recent, even more nuanced Bulterian insight about subjective permeability take Mercedes’s thought? Indeed, might it even complicate while possibly answering some of the questions I offer above?

Postscript

Let me conclude on my own autobiographical note as a means of disclosure, confession, and appreciation. Disclosure: Anna Mercedes and I went through our doctoral program together at Drew University, in some ways as twins. We started the same day, sat in most of the same seminars, studied under the same mentors, and defended our dissertations mere weeks apart. Along the way, we commiserated, usually over beer, about our academic challenges and our personal lives even as we competed for some of the same coveted jobs (happily, we both “won” in the end). Now in the thick of our jobs, we enjoy an email exchange about once a year, twice if we’re lucky. Confession: Even though Anna entered our program already knowing she wanted to pursue the question of kenosis and thus consistently brought kenosis into discussions, I never quite got it, perhaps because I tended toward a more second-wave feminist outlook. To me, the risks seemed too great. Clearly some of them still do. Appreciation: Yet while certain risks of kenotic erotics still give me pause, Anna’s theological vision—developed with such care, passion, and conviction—has graced my own, helping me to refine my thoughts on the role of risky vulnerability in the pursuit of both pleasure/beauty and transformation/justice, which have more to do with one another than orthodox theology has been willing to grant. “I suspect,” says Anna Mercedes, “that, even in its potent utility, passionate kenosis will be best when experienced first as pleasure: undertaken for the sake of its own hearty, gritty bliss. Then, in the currents of that pleasure, may we experience a regeneration and reorganization of power: letting go in a satisfying peal of laughter and effort, at once transcendent and embodied, feeling the tension slip, knowing that things, if momentarily, imperfectly, impurely, have been made new” (137). I’m in.


  1. Saiving, “The Human Situation: A Feminine View,” in Womanspirit Rising: A Feminist Reader in Religion, edited by Carol Christ and Judith Plaskow (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1979); Keller, From a Broken Web: Separation, Sexism, and the Self (Boston: Beacon, 1986); Jones, Feminist Theory & Christian Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2000).

  2. E.g., Kristine A. Culp, Vulnerability and Glory: A Theological Account (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010); Rosalyn Diprose, Corporeal Generosity: On Giving with Nietschze, Merleau-Ponty, and Levinas (Albany: SUNY Press, 2002); and Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (Brooklyn: Verso, 2006).

  3. Emma Green, “Consent Isn’t Enough,” Atlantic.com, February 10, 2015, http:/C:/dev/home/163979.cloudwaysapps.com/esbfrbwtsm/public_html/syndicatenetwork.com4.theatlantic.com/features/archive/2015/02/consent-isnt-enough-in-fifty-shades-of-grey/385267.

  • Anna Mercedes

    Anna Mercedes

    Reply

    Power-With or Dispossession

    I begin this reply to Krista Hughes with an ode to power with, appropriate to this exchange, in our case an exchange among friends. Hughes is right to emphasize the importance of power with, and she is generous in highlighting for readers here that I do not denounce it and in fact recognize its needfulness and, indeed, power. Power with: shared goods, less hierarchy, mutuality in love. Better churches, better marriages, better classrooms. Bring it on! In many ways the collective of students and mentors with whom Hughes and I did our doctoral work was a nurturing incubator of power with. There were a good number of hearty vegetarian potlucks around shared writing. It was at one such gathering that others pointed out to me how I seemed to be talking about kenotic power. I was heard into speech, as Nelle Morton would have it. So, here’s to power with!

    Now on to Hughes’ difficult questions to me about mutuality and s/m, and cutting and kenosis. I want to respond to these queries particularly: First, Hughes writes of the possibility of a “taken-for-granted power with” in masochistic practice: “If we are to look to healthy masochism as an example of kenotic erotics, we must grant that the mutual precedes and makes possible the masochistic.” Second, in determining the difference between mimicry and memesis, Hughes wonders if “the subjectivity of the person in question determines which it is.”

    Though setting power-with as a necessary precondition of masochistic practice makes a ton of good sense, and is probably the case in many instances, in the end it cannot fully capture masochistic energy. And this in part because the subjectivity of the person in question—whether in kenosis more generally or in its possible confluence with masochistic strategies—won’t hold still. Subjectivity shifts, along with power, in the middle of things, frustrating our attempts to rely upon it for reassurances.

    In her Counterpleasures, Karmen MacKendrick discusses the intense strength in masochistic pleasure. She refuses to characterize masochism as the underbelly of “power over,” but also pushes against a particular “power with.”

    Masochism does not give one power over anyone nor does it provide a utopian, egalitarian “power-with”—it is instead a sense of power as strength, an extraordinary relation to one’s own self, flesh, and subjectivity, to the world as a space of possibility, an openness to the outside. (Counterpleasures, 103)

    To be fair, Hughes was not asking me about utopias, just basic preconditions. And MacKendrick isn’t speaking here about starting places so much as about resulting joys. In reading MacKendrick, I get the sense that while “power with” would be a fair outcome of the masochist’s invitation of restraint, it would be a disappointment nonetheless. And even if starting from mutual power, I hear in MacKendrick’s description of “m-powerment” a lust for the eventual deconstruction of mutual consent, a desire to no longer be the “I” that consented in the first place, no longer the “I” that could be charted as “with.” And so MacKendrick: “Consent is a vital starting point, not a final goal” (Counterpleasures, 94) or “the subject cannot exceed itself alone, and it is past subjective limits that consent, having been a vital ground or starting point, alters its meaning radically” (Counterpleasures, 107; see also 120–21).

    I find it useful to mentally uncouple the whole conversation about masochism and abuse from couples. Thinking couples, thinking about power dynamics between a sadist and a masochist, or in another context, a perpetrator and a victim, troubling parallels arise. And it would seem that the only resistance the masochist or alternatively the victim could present is against the other part of the couple. But just as the victim-survivor drawn to kenosis might devote herself not primarily for the abuser but for the wider world—for others, for the joy of care—so the masochist may be aiming, as MacKendrick has it, for restraint against subjection itself, not against the physical bond or even the applier of that bond.

    The masochist’s strength as such is best seen on her own terms. Before a designated “top,” before assurances of mutuality, uncoupled from another whom she will invite to join her, we see primarily an agent of her own desire. Here in this starting place we see her precisely not as all the things some fear in s/m: she is not controlled by another, she is not passive, she is not abused. Unexpectedly, masochism stands on its own strength—or rather, it yields on its own strength. It does not primarily submit to another’s demands as much as it makes demands of its own.

    But if the couple is too narrow a focal point, a primary subject is narrower still. As soon as you glimpse her demand, her desire, she has already exceeded herself. Judith Butler writes, “When we speak about my sexuality or my gender, as we do (and as we must) we mean something complicated by it. Neither of these is precisely a possession, but both are to be understood as modes of being dispossessed, ways of being for another or, indeed, by virtue of another” (Undoing Gender, 19). Look more widely than the couple, but also look at the breadth of the subject, because she only persists in her undoing, in her constructive interface with you and with her world.10

    Hughes rightly asks about practices like cutting. When she wonders if the difference between a wound of subversive mimicry and a wound of replicative mimesis lies in the subjectivity of the person in question, I can appreciate the pastoral desire to figure out where danger lies and how to care for others. On one hand, surely, you look at the person before you and decide if this person seems to be desperately in need of help. In that sense maybe you are looking at “who she is,” at her subjectivity, to determine the health of the situation. But of course you are not really looking at her in a vacuum, but taking into account all you know of her situated reality (including you, there with her). Relying on the subject in any more narrow sense would bring our focus to a false interior, sending us searching inside her for the pathological or normal.

    As I also argue for kenosis, it’s all too easy to analyze a solitary subject rather than the wider relationality that Hughes invokes via Butler. And this is a relationality which is not a ready-made web of safety but a matrix of disjuncture, the social world which at once makes our being possible and yet beyond us, rendering our autonomy a paradox (see Undoing Gender, 19 and 100). Stuck with a solitary subject, or a coupling of subjects, we look at a person’s actions and analyze the sanity of them. But sometimes the actions themselves throw into relief the insanity of a larger system. Analyzing only a subject, we can blame the victim, but perhaps just as importantly, we can miss the survival, a moving on where a victim should be.

    So we look not only to our sense of a subject, but to the world that subjects. “We do not negotiate with norms or with Others subsequent to our coming into the world. We come into the world on the condition that the social world is already there, laying the groundwork for us” (Butler, Undoing Gender, 32). The person we behold, cutting or otherwise, is a live negotiation with that groundwork, minute by minute. An assemblage of readily available cultural material, tethered at varying degrees of creative tension: unique, sometimes desperate, sometimes breathtakingly artistic, sometimes dullingly banal, always ephemeral but leaving a trace.

    Echoing Butler here, perhaps the cutter’s fight for a livable life has forced us to reconsider the constraints of her particular situation, have brought into light a reconsideration of her local “real.” Under what conditions would her fight for a livable life be less deadly? When the resistance strategy of another troubles you, when you see the cut and worry about survival, do affirm the drive toward resistance—see it for what it is, name it—but question the mode. Act out of your own kenotic draw toward this person, and care. What will make for a livable life?

    Hughes asks, “The pastoral question then becomes, who is the audience for a theology of kenotic erotics that advocates the possibility of pain as pleasure.” It is true that Power For does not offer a safe theology. It can even make me uncomfortable! Yet we can also ask, who is the audience for theologies that have advocated lifetimes of redemptive suffering or passive obedience, sometimes counter even to the ancient traditions used as fuel for these theologies? My goal is not to teach pain but to resonate with the kenotic strains within people’s lives and to name those strains strong, to inspire agency through the same Christian theme that has been read as passivity and subjugation. Doing so recasts for some what life in Christ can look like.

    And finally, for Hughes, I end in an ode to beauty. I worked on this response in the café I frequent, where floral designs wrap the barista’s arms. I ask if they are brands. No, she tells me, they are scarifications: the vining design comes from healed cuts. Considering the thicker flower petals, I ask her if those too are cuts. No, she clarifies, “That’s where he lifted away flaps of skin.” Despite myself, I recoil. I clutch my latte. “That’s intense,” I manage. She smiles at me straight on: “Yes, it was intense.”

    This woman’s exuberance strikes me as different from, while yet akin to, the cutting which rightly concerns Hughes. Here’s to beauty, Krista Hughes.

    • Krista E. Hughes

      Krista E. Hughes

      Reply

      A Theology of Dis/Comfort?

      Thank you for answering my invitation with some unpacking of McKendrick’s perspectives on the pleasures of masochism and of Butler’s thought on subjectivity. It is indeed helpful to “uncouple the whole conversation…from couples” and focus on the masochist’s understanding of her own agency.

      It is the latter part of your response, which identifies the dizzying relational complexity that shapes our lives—and our ever-emerging subjectivity—that is most helpful. Your clarification that your “goal is not to teach pain but to resonate with the kenotic strains within people’s lives and to name those strains strong” really expresses the heart of your project. Certainly I find this vision preferable to classic doctrines that insist on passivity in the face of either abuse or desire.

      My questions and discomfort continue to vibrate because the tensions do as well. I want to affirm with hope, with desire the possibility (as a Whiteheadian might put it) of novelty breaking into inertial patterns that are chronically abusive or destructive—whether these play out within a particular coupling or occur society-wide. At the same time, the array of forces aligned against justice for all is staggering, and one wonders if any novel glimmer has a hope of survival. Likewise, while I affirm on both theological and humanistic grounds, the agency of even the most bound or wounded person, I wonder about agential capacity: must “power for” be consciously or deliberately chosen? Does it matter? Does it make a qualitative difference?

      In sum, as I read your vision, I find it both persuasive and deeply disquieting. However, this is, I think, your intent. Beckoning us to follow, you go to places I do not feel prepared to go. In part this is because, in good Lutheran fashion, you are “naming things as they really are”—but as you illustrate with the cutting example, you also show that genuine care for the other so very often arises from the places of discomfort, even horror and may take us to yet others. What could be more pastoral than that?

      There is more to say, and I look forward to doing so within the broader conversation of all the respondents.

    • Anna Mercedes

      Anna Mercedes

      Reply

      Continuing the Conversation with Krista E. Hughes

      Thank you, Krista.  I’ll respond a little here on “agential capacity,” and then hope to continue discussing this topic together with you and Heike Peckruhn next week, because Peckruhn has challenged me to think about this also.

      I wrote in chapter six that power for “releases the aim for any return; it devotes itself for.  The pleasure of the for is its only aim.”  In terms, then, of agential capacity, might those impaired in (at least what we recognize as) their expression of agency express such a forness?  I do not mean here that such persons would be “for” as in an existence as another’s commodity, but rather, could such persons themselves offer a dedication, a giving, of the self for?  I think:  why not?  Who could say, entirely?  I’m inclined to think that such forness is being experienced today, that those impaired in their expression of agential capacity might yet offer a bending for—again, not as commodity, but as self-gift—in ways not recognizable in the abstract so much as in specific intimacies.  And I think these things are little out of my depth, that there are other people who study such self-giving, such mystical interactions in ways not readily apparent to all, due to impairment, and to the disabling effects of society.

      But as Hughes asks, is there a qualitative difference in kenotic power based on the degree of consciousness or deliberation in self-gift?  This is a pertinent question; it gets to the heart of whether there are qualitative difference in incarnational potential.  I think there must be differences in texture, in every flow of kenosis everywhere through time, because this is precisely what makes power for, or indeed, Christ, so intimately devoted for you.  The passion of countless direct second person dedications illuminates the incarnation as radically contextual.  In this sense, each kenotic current does have a different quality, not in terms of rank, or quality in a hierarchy of good, but in terms of texture, feel, and skin.

      Where then is Christ in all this?  I urge us to think about Christ, not as firmly in one person or another—a concept which could quickly lend to deliberations about who is more or less Christlike, more or less able to embody Christ’s power—but as chrism generated between.  Imagine that bits of the world are marked as christic on the fingertips of gestures for, that kenosis oils the gears of the life of the world in this particular way.  Gone when dry, like manna a day postdate, but always moving forward, mercifully, kinetically, with a momentum beyond us and yet deeply in us.

Sameer Yadav

Response

Powers, Human and Divine

In Power For: Feminism and Christ’s Self-Giving, Anna Mercedes shows us why feminist theologians have rightly worried about a traditional picture of Christ’s self-giving, as well as the kind of spirituality it has engendered. Mercedes claims that the evolution of patristic accounts of kenosis operate against the backdrop of an unjust patriarchal social formation of the self, wherein a “separative” masculine self is defined by the aggressive assertion of power over others, while the “soluble” feminine self is defined by a self-subordinating accommodation to separative selves (5). So whereas Christ’s exemplary self-emptying and his call to a similar self-effacing humility purport to expose masculine ego, it only does so by reinforcing its patriarchal assumptions. God in his omnipotence and impassibility does not share power but imposes it, and thus exemplifies a masculine identity who rewards the “feminine” solubility of those human subjects who follow Jesus’s example of self-giving, a self-abnegating kenosis enjoined upon men and women alike.

This allegedly redemptive humility—the “Great Inversion” of exaltation in humility, empowerment through weakness, gaining life by suffering its loss, etc.—is in fact for women neither an inversion of their social location nor is it redemptive. For while men receive Christ’s call to self-giving from a subject-position of separative “over-against” power, women receive it as a reinforcement of their self-subordinating identities as soluble selves. We need only consider the steadfast deferential love of the victim of domestic abuse to see what is wrong with this picture. Far from being redemptive, her soluble self-giving empowers her abuser while serving only to be personally disempowering and disintegrating for her. In the face of this challenge, how can we appropriate Christ’s self-emptying as redemptive rather than oppressive? Many feminist theologians have answered simply: we can’t. The burden of Mercedes’s book is to show us that we can reformulate rather than abandon a kenotic Christology. In this preference for critical retrieval over outright repudiation, Mercedes stands in agreement with feminist theologians such as Sarah Coakley and Kathryn Tanner, and I too wish to cast in my lot with them.

Where Mercedes parts company from Coakley and Tanner (and, from me, too, as we shall see) is in holding that a feminist reformulation of kenosis requires us to reject a classical conception of God as immutable, impassible, and omnipotent. Instead, she holds that we must embrace a God who meets us in Christ as a self-emptying and passible God, one whose desire for us moves God into a willing dependence on us for God’s own becoming, and thereby calls upon us to be likewise moved into a similar sort of self-emptying in relation to others. This divine self-emptying, Mercedes claims, is an empowered and self-interested kenosis and as such it can resist the separative/soluble relations of “power over” characteristic of patriarchal social formation. Approaches such as Coakley’s (and I wonder whether Mercedes would include Tanner here as well?) that appeal to a more traditional and classical conception of God to ground a liberating kind of self-giving—one that resists patriarchy—necessarily fail because they can only offer “some nullification of the self in the name of another’s power” (128). This contest of strategies for achieving a feminist doctrine of kenosis is the rhetorical frame for the entire argument that follows.

It is thus the irremediable failure of the patristic picture in chapter 1 that sends Mercedes looking for the alternative she subsequently develops. But it seems to me that Mercedes fails to demonstrate that classical theism necessarily entails patriarchal “power over,” and this leaves those of us sympathetic to the liberative potential of the classical picture with insufficient motivation to embrace Mercedes’s alternative. In pressing this objection below, I hope to prompt further discussion around two questions: first, in what sense does classical theism necessitate an expression of patriarchal power? Second, if a patristic doctrine of kenosis could subvert rather than reinforce patriarchal power, then what reasons might we have to prefer Mercedes’s picture over a feminist retrieval of a classical Christology?

Mercedes demonstrates in this book that she is willing to take big risks in advocating for a kenotic Christology of empowered self-giving. She boldly confronts the “complications” of masochistic desire in search of “creative uses of willed and pained self-abandon” as a means of “subversive pleasure,” recognizing that this “remains a delicate challenge” for feminist appropriation, given the danger of legitimating self-destructive behavior and abuse (109). Recognizing that “expression of kenotic desire often walks a fine line between subversion and suppression” (136), Mercedes is committed to a principled need for nuanced discernment: there is no clear line between a “good” vs. “exploitative” kenosis, for otherwise she would “be setting up the same over-and-against postures that kenosis itself has a capability to productively confuse” (153). It is puzzling therefore, that she should encourage us to risk exploitative misappropriation and enjoin upon us the responsibility of such delicate and nuanced discernment in order to retrieve the benefits of a masochistic God who meets us passibly in Christ’s subversive care for others, while at the same time being so risk-averse to classical theism and so principled in her rejection of classical theists who attempt to walk the “fine line between suppression and subversion” in their own feminist retrievals of the tradition. So what reasons are we given to be so risk averse to the impassible, immutable, and omnipotent God of Coakley’s retrieval? And how can Mercedes coherently ask us to resist an “over-and-against posture” in managing the risks of her own picture even while asking us to give up on risking the retrieval of the classical picture as Coakley does?

As far as I can see, the primary charge is that Coakley (and presumably, the classical theist per se?) is insufficiently critical of the classical understanding of divine power as a kind of separative “power over” (32, 35). Like Paul’s appeal to kenosis in Philippians 2 to exert his ecclesiastical power, or the imperial appeal to a purely human kenosis to justify its compensatory use of divine power, Mercedes claims that Coakley’s doctrine of kenosis “can be used to reify concepts of God’s power over us” (30). The modality of this claim is significant: we need not dispute that a classical understanding of God can be abused and appropriated for patriarchal power—we’ve just seen above that Mercedes says as much about her own doctrine of kenosis: it unavoidably risks the possibility of misappropriation. If she wants to induce us to set aside the classical picture, therefore, she would have to show something much stronger, that it must be used to reify concepts of God’s power over us, or perhaps that it is somehow more intrinsically prone to misappropriation than her own picture—and I wonder whether Mercedes could say something more about how she might establish the grounds for that stronger claim.

There are points at which Mercedes describes Coakley’s retrieval of a classical picture of God as entailing the concept of a separative self, such that it “implies that God’s virility thrives when hovering over the disarmed, submissive human” (36) and posits a “cosmic contrast between power and vulnerability” (37) with “omni-power” being understood as a typically patriarchal “total control over everything” (38). But leaving aside for the moment whether Coakley would herself would avow these characterizations as a recognizable gloss on her views (I suspect she wouldn’t), they are in any case caricatures of the classical understanding (although they seem to be caricatures oft repeated in the literature upon which Mercedes draws). In particular, this reading of God’s “omni-power” fails to capture the classical conception of divine power as transcendent, which is not to say that the ultimacy and limitlessness of divine power is remote, but that it is of a categorically different sort than creaturely power, even in its non-coercive nature. Mercedes misses this point precisely in characterizing Coakley’s conception of the non-coerciveness of divine power as “gentle” (30). God’s power is neither hard nor gentle, neither invulnerable nor vulnerable, but rather that mysterious and inscrutable power that makes all creaturely power possible. Kathryn Tanner has summarized the classical picture well by describing divine power as “non-competitive”: it is not party to the push and pull of creaturely exercises of power, where the exercise of one person’s power must edge out or impose an external limit on the exercise of another’s. On classical theism, as for Tanner (and, I suspect, for Coakley), God’s omni-power is not limitless because of its total domination over creaturely power, but because it is the non-competitive metaphysical ground of creaturely power.

Can God meet us in the human kenosis of Christ, on this picture? Yes, because Christ is God’s transcendent or non-competitive power manifest humanly—in a manner appropriate to our creatureliness. In Christ we see that human manifestations of God’s own non-competitive power are non-violent, non-coercive, and resist any bids for domination. A proper use of that sort of power refuses to diminish others in its exercise. Moreover, this imaging of divine power in its human form is taken up freely under conditions of personal autonomy and retains an element of self-interest: “For this reason the Father loves me,” Jesus says, “because I lay down my life that I may take it again. No one takes it from me but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down and I have power to take it again” (John 10:17–18 RSV). On the classical picture, transcendent divine power manifest in the immanence of human agency is a self-giving nourished by a recognition of divine love and aimed at one’s own flourishing, a self-giving in which the interests of self coincide rather than compete with the interests of others. Like Mercedes’s picture, the proper appropriations of a Christlike kenotic agency is a matter of discernment, and it is therefore compatible with patriarchal misappropriations. Such misappropriations are in fact well-attested in the patristic and medieval church, but so are the liberative uses of this picture. Gregory of Nyssa, for example, insists that the human imaging of divine freedom is precisely what precludes any form of human domination over one another.

More could be said on behalf of the liberative potential of divine impassibility and immutability on the classical picture, but perhaps I’ve said enough to indicate that perhaps its wholesale rejection is not particularly well-motivated. To suppose it is invites a further and more substantive argument from Mercedes than the one she has given. But if we can in the absence of such an argument provisionally admit something as modest as the mere possibility of a non-patriarchal construal of God on a classical Christology, then this is enough to put such a picture on a liberative par with that which Mercedes has recommended. For recall Mercedes’s concession that her account at best gets us the mere possibility of a liberative appropriation, not any guarantee. So in the absence of any good argument for the claim that a classical understanding of God necessarily reinforces a patriarchal social formation of separative/soluble selves, we have at best a standstill in deciding between feminist retrievals such as Coakley’s or Tanner’s and feminist revisions such as the one Mercedes has offered.

This sort of situation prompts the second question I’ve mentioned above, that of whether we have any reasons other than moral-practical ones to embrace Mercedes’s Christology. For while a particular sort of process metaphysics is required by her Christology, Mercedes does not anywhere in the book offer us any rigorous explication or defense of that metaphysics as true or coherent. Does she hold that a morally adequate account is sufficient to establish the metaphysical adequacy of that account? If so, then her only way of advancing her Christology would be by breaking the stalemate of liberative potential between her position and those classical positions she rejects. What sort of considerations does she suppose might tip the scales in that way? But if she instead takes the theological metaphysics requisite to her Christology to be preferable to a classical metaphysics independently of its possible moral (mis)use, then this could give us further, non-moral, grounds upon which to break the stalemate. But then we seem to be owed a fuller account of the metaphysical backdrop for her Christology and some reasons why we ought to prefer it to the classical package. Determining which of these routes, if either, Mercedes is inclined to take might prove interesting for further conversation.

Suppose that Mercedes accepts my critique of her argument strategy: she might well turn that critique back on me and ask why we should break the stalemate in favor of the classical picture, when in fact its liberative potential for women (and people of color, for that matter) has for so long failed to be realized. I would have two main lines of response. First, while the project of leveraging the classical tradition in this way is still in many ways in its infancy, I would contend that it offers a richer reservoir of moral-practical conceptual resources upon which to draw than those offered by its rivals (although it has much to learn from them as well). Second, I would argue that where the theological metaphysics of the classical tradition is incompatible with more recent accounts (such as those offered by process theologians), the classical picture remains on the whole more clearly coherent and defensible than its rivals. I may well be wrong on both counts—that is something I am very much willing to take up in further discussion with Mercedes. The primary point of this essay, however, has just been to suggest that whereas it seems to be a primary burden of Power For to show that I (as a classical theist) am mistaken on both counts, I can’t see that this burden has been met.

  • Anna Mercedes

    Anna Mercedes

    Reply

    On Omnipotence and Modality

     

    On the way to summer camp a few weeks ago, I picked up a friend’s daughter to ride with mine. This was four days after the shooter in Charleston, South Carolina, killed nine people in their Bible study. Standing in the driveway, my friend told me that her household had been reeling with the shock of that shooting. She felt unable to answer her daughter’s persistent question: “Why would God let that happen? They were at church.” My friend sheepishly admitted that I should be ready for questions on the drive: “I told her she could ask you.”

    I drove off knowing I owed my friends an exploration of ways to think about God’s power, God’s “letting happen” or otherwise. I’ve been working on it in my head ever since. And so Yadav’s questions to me about classical theological models, and particularly on omnipotence, are most welcome.

    Meanwhile churches in the South have been burning. In the Washington Post’s June 29 article “Five Predominantly Black Southern Churches Burn within a Week; Arson Suspected in At Least Three,” I read Rev. Bobby Jean Jones’ response to his church’s burning: “Everything is gone—books, robes, all my pictures, all my degrees . . . All the history is gone.” Yet Jones speaks hope: “It’s all for the good, because God is in control and not me . . . That’s why I’m calm, because I know who is in control, to tell you the truth. I’ve been knowing the Lord for a long time, and I know how he works. He will turn bad to good in a minute.”

    Yadav asks for discussion of two questions: “First, in what sense does classical theism necessitate an expression of patriarchal power?” Second, if it does not (as I have already acknowledged here), “what reasons might we have to prefer Mercedes’s picture over a feminist retrieval of classical Christology?” On this second query I would look to the kid in the back of my van struggling in her own way over the omnipotence of God, and her mom and all those with a similar struggle. I needn’t persuade them to my side of any theological contest; in meeting them where they are, I offer them the theological trajectories of Power For.

    Thus in response to Yadav writing that “the classical picture remains on the whole more clearly coherent and defensible than its rivals,” I will not describe the diverse expressions of classical theism as “rival” to my own theology, though they do pointedly differ from the theology of my book. It really was not a primary burden of Power For to put down classical theists. Where Yadav sees in classical theism a deep “reservoir of moral-practical conceptual resources,” I wish him well with it, especially in his articulation of its liberating powers for women and people of color. I would also agree with Yadav that classical metaphysical pictures offer a good deal of coherence and defensibility, but with the postmodern slant from which I work, coherence and defensibility are, while present, lower on my list of priorities. Complexity and generativity, for example, rank higher. For me scripture offers a good deal of those latter, without as much coherence as the classical picture.

    Yadav has read my book as being more adverse to some strains of Christian tradition than is actually proven by the book. For instance, when I say on page 128 of Power For that “recognizing self-giving only as some nullification of the self in the name of another’s power, one fails to focus on the many resistance strategies of the incarnate Christ,” I am not indicting, as Yadav has claimed, “a more traditional and classical conception of God” (and at no point in that chapter have I discussed Coakley or Tanner, both of whom see empowerment in Christ). That fifth chapter and that statement are a response to any feminist theologians who would see in kenosis no power at all for human people. This is an important distinction, an example of how my book seeks to demonstrate a different kind of power in self-emptying, and to resist, but precisely not to overpower, “power over.” Similarly, I offer no charge of an “irremediable failure of the patristic picture in chapter 1,” in my selection on the “power over” dynamics of Athanasius of Alexandria’s theology in the first chapter, or anywhere in the book itself. To the contrary, all of chapter 4 revolves around a decidedly not caricatured reading of early Christian and patristic themes (including Gregory of Nyssa, whom Yadav mentions), via Virginia Burrus, Karmen MacKendrick, and Judith Perkins.

    And so, on omnipotence. While it may be impossible for God to be both omnipotent and differently abled, it also, by some veiled mystery, might not be. I allude to this on pages 36–38 of my book. What if the very meaning of all powerfulness, of omnipotence, is truly beyond us? What if the way in which God relates to us, looking in many instances rather non-omnipotent, involves a redefining of power so profound that we don’t even know omnipotence is at play? I’m willing to allow that possibility. And I’m therefore not willing to argue completely against omnipotence. I will avoid much affirmative use of the word itself, however, because people will hear something I don’t mean at all, hearing the old patriarchal picture, when what I really would mean in speaking of God’s all power would be some big kind of “Wow!” Some big kind of awe, a motivating force beyond our deepest imaginings. I feel, oddly, like I insult this power by using the term “omnipotence.” In its all-ness, it’s somehow not enough. Certainly not intimate enough. It lacks the direct second-person address I discuss in chapter 2.

    So where omnipotence is understood as “a typically patriarchal ‘total control over everything’ (38)” (quoting Yadav, partially quoting me), I think people are missing some of the—well—potential potency of omnipotence. And so I write that “we may be able to move away from the traditional understanding of omnipotence without yet suggesting that God is devoid of it” (37).

    Thus I can only cheer Yadav on as he finds that such a “total control” “reading of God’s “omni-power” fails to capture the classical conception of divine power as transcendent, which is not to say that the ultimacy and limitlessness of divine power is remote, but that it is of a categorically different sort than creaturely power, even in its non-coercive nature.” As I wrote, “It is possible that the feminist critique of omnipotence is focused on the patriarchal idea of what power is, as power over, while divine, all-encompassing power might manifest itself in different ways such that God’s omnipotence is almost unrecognizable to us” (38). But I do argue Yadav’s claim that “Mercedes misses this point precisely in characterizing Coakley’s conception of the non-coerciveness of divine power as ‘gentle’ (30),” because there I am not characterizing but rather directly quoting Coakley.

    In using the phrase “gentle omnipotence” (Powers and Submissions ), Coakley is explaining how, for her, God is empowering: omnipotent, but not exploitive, in human contemplative practice before God. She writes: “Here, if I am right, is ‘power-in-vulnerability,’ the willed effacement to a gentle omnipotence which, far from ‘complementing’ masculinism, acts as its undoing” (Powers and Submissions, 37). For Coakley, masculinism is undone because all of humanity, regardless of gender, is shown to be properly kenotic before God. Despite the fact that I am not motivated toward kenosis by the same image of God as Coakley, I readily acknowledge that her kenotic practice can inspire and empower (as it has in her prison prayer group, see p. 32 in my book). Which brings me to modality.

    Yadav notes rightly that all I say it is that a theology like Coakley’s “can” reify “power over,” and he writes that “the modality of this claim is significant.” Yadav has here hit upon a major key to the hermeneutics of writing power for. It seems to me that the metaphysics of kenotic chrism should come into writing with somewhat kenotic prose. Modality does matter. We do metaphysics, in part, with words. Thus though Yadav asks me for a defense of particular metaphysics to break a stalemate he construes, what my book seeks to offer is a different way of breaking stalemates (a little “power for”). Those wanting to explore more of the metaphysical discussion in Power For could see pages 42–45 (on Frascati-Lochhead’s reading of Gianni Vattimo on the kenosis of metaphysics), pages 52–59 (on Luther and Melanchthon’s critiques of scholastic theology), or pages 137–45 (on incarnation).

    Indeed, the modality of God’s power in the world is significant. If God holds omnipotence, perhaps it comes directly, and intimately for you: a particular you in real time. And that modality already goes a long way toward retexturing much of what has been taught about omnipotence.

    Yadav writes, “On the classical picture, transcendent divine power manifest in the immanence of human agency is a self-giving nourished by a recognition of divine love and aimed at one’s own flourishing, a self-giving in which the interests of self coincide rather than compete with the interests of others.” I like this whole sentence. For this description of divine power can be found in the classical pictures, yes. And in Scripture. And in many contemporary theologians; as here, in Yadav. And in my book, especially chapters 2, 3, and 6. To echo Krista Hughes, “I’m in.”

    • Sameer Yadav

      Sameer Yadav

      Reply

      Two Kinds of Christology: A Rejoinder to Anna Mercedes

      Among the virtues of Mercedes’ response to me are its non-defensive and generous consideration of my criticisms and its collaborative spirit that emphasizes our shared theological commitments. But I worry that she has conflated two matters that ought to be distinguished. On the one hand, there is the virtue of openness as a posture we ought to take toward one another’s views in the mode of our dialogue. On the other hand, there is the viability of taking a “both-and” approach to the differences between those views. It is surely important to appreciate one another’s reasons and aims in our advocacy for different Christological frameworks. She may even approve of views such as mine that differ from her own, insofar as, e.g., she sees them as appropriate or fitting given my accepted starting points, or insofar as my views evince values she holds, or insofar as they are put in service of ends that she shares, etc. All this is perfectly consistent, however, with acknowledging that what Mercedes is claiming about God and the nature of divine power present in Christ is not merely “different” than what a classical picture claims about those matters, but contrary to it. What puzzles me about her reply is that she seems unwilling to acknowledge this.

      Instead, she refuses to “describe the diverse expressions of classical theism as ‘rival’” to her own theology, stating that “it was not a primary burden of Power For to put down classical theists.” This is just one expression of the conflation mentioned above: why think that acknowledging the mutual incompatibility in what each of us is respectively claiming (i.e., our “rival” views about Christ’s divinity) needs to involve a “put down” or any sort of mutual hostility or stridency in our approach to one another? Why not instead recognize the incompatibility and advocate for her view over against the classical picture?

      Clearly such an incompatibility exists. On the classical picture divine power is eternal, immutable and impassible, while this power is manifest in creatures in a temporal, mutable, and passible way. Christ manifests divine power in a creaturely perfect way, which he revealed to be a way of self-giving love. This is what Coakley has in mind (on the reading I offered) by describing God’s power as a “gentle omnipotence” in Powers and Submissions (37) – namely that God’s transcendent power (i.e., a power neither gentle or rough in relation to creatures, but rather as non-competitive ground of all creaturely powers) is manifest as gentle in Christ. In other words, God’s power, transcendent of creaturely expressions of gentleness or strength in itself, is made immanent to us in Christ as gentle, yielding, and vulnerable. She therefore goes on to caution us against equating God’s power per se with God’s power as it is manifest to us in Christ’s human nature (38). But this is not because, contra Mercedes’ reading, Coakley wishes for divine power per se to retain the kind of “strength” of a patriarchal “power over” human weakness. That would be to think of divine power as the opposite of human power, rather than as transcendent of it. The classical concern that Coakley represents, however, is to imagine divine power as being of a categorically different sort than creaturely power. The point here is not, as Mercedes’ reply seems to suggest, that God’s power is “beyond us” in a merely epistemic way (“who could possibly know what it is like?”) but rather that God’s power is beyond us in an ontological way (“imagine creaturely power. God’s power is not like that!”). Such a divine difference is precisely what early Christian theorizing of God’s eternality, immutability and impassibility were about. “Kenosis” therefore names not the nature of divine power but the vehicle of its expression – God is able to reveal God’s eternal, immutable and impassible power by way of Christ’s temporal, changeable and passible humanity. It therefore seems to me that Mercedes fails to properly get this classical picture in view as the target of her critique of Coakley in Chapter One. Nor does her appropriation of Burrus, MacKendrick or Perkins help on this score, since their (very interesting) readings of the early Christian figures in question are used primarily to describe the manifestation of divine desire in Christian ascetic practice, and not early Christian beliefs about the divine nature per se.

      But while Mercedes thus does not provide a fully representative picture of classical Christian thinking about the nature of divine power, the picture she commends as an alternative nevertheless stands in marked contrast to it. For on her view divine power is precisely not transcendent of creaturely power in the way required by the classical picture – it is not beyond time, change and passion – but divine power is itself becoming in time, changing in relation to creatures and suffering a lack that stands in need of their exercises of agency. Christ’s kenosis therefore is not a manifestation of transcendent divine power in and through distinctively creaturely limitations. Instead, Christ’s kenosis is the manifestation of divine power that is itself kenotic. Kenosis is for Mercedes not merely a creaturely vehicle for revealing the divine nature, but a model of the divine nature.

      Given this diametric opposition between Mercedes’ Christology and the classical framework that I espouse, what could warrant her breezy acceptance – not of my posture and approach as a classical Christian theist, but of what I hold – of my classical Christian theism? I suspect that her reticence to take on the burden of argument implied by her kenotic Christology – namely that classical Christologies are mistaken – stems from a second and distinct sort of conflation. This is the conflation between a Christology and its practical consequences. Whatever beliefs we might hold about the presentation of God to us in Christ, those beliefs will of course serve as norms for what we think, say and do. But Christological beliefs are not always identical with the normative role they play for us, as evidenced by the fact that Mercedes and I can hold two distinct Christological beliefs while they nevertheless play the same normative role for us. So, we can imagine that my belief in God’s transcendent power manifest in Christ’s weakness might require me to advocate in some way for victims of domestic abuse, while Mercedes’ belief in God’s kenotic power in Christ might require her to advocate for them in the very same sort of way. But of course this does not go to show that our Christologies turn out to mean the same thing or describe God’s relation to Christ in the same way – they remain contrary to one another in all the ways catalogued above.

      In her reply to me, Mercedes equates my criticism of her “wholesale rejection” of the classical picture of God as impassible and immutable with a wholesale rejection of “classical theism’s diverse legacy.” But the classical picture and its legacy are not the same thing, and while she may be able to cheer on those classical theists who put the tradition to use toward the end of liberation, this is not tantamount to escaping the contestation between the contrary images of God represented by traditional Christology on the one hand and her kenotic Christology on the other. In one sense, therefore, the sentence of mine that Mercedes says she likes at the end of her response is one she should not like – at least not entirely. For there I appeal precisely to the relation of divine transcendence to human immanence that characterizes the classical position that is ruled out by Mercedes’ commitments to a kind of process theology. If Mercedes is truly “in” with respect to what that sentence asserts, then much of what she commends us to believe about God in her book must in fact be false.

      Mercedes observes the distinction between a Christology and its normative consequences at one point by noting that she is “not motivated toward kenosis by the same image of God as Coakley.” Still, my initial question remains as to how she negotiates the contrastive difference between these two pictures. As I’ve just argued, recognizing that they can be put to the same normative ends does not answer the question, but changes the subject. All Mercedes offers in support of her own image is the claim that she has offered “a different way of breaking stalemates” via her conception of “power for.” This is cryptic – I’m not sure what to make of it. Her conception of “power for” seems to primarily function as a name for the normative consequences of her Christology, but if the distinction between Christological beliefs and their consequences is right then no appeal to normative consequences alone can militate in favor of the underlying Christological beliefs that motivate them. So how can the notion of “power for” serve to break the stalemate? Any claim that it can seems to involve the conflation between beliefs and their normative consequences sketched above.

      The critiques above entail a significant critical claim about Mercedes’ argument, namely that the normative consequences of traditional vs. kenotic Christologies discussed in Power For do not afford us any persuasive reasons to reject the former and endorse the latter. It therefore fails, in my view, as a persuasive argument against a traditional Christology and for a kenotic Christology. But that is decidedly not to say that it fails tout court. On the contrary, for those feminist theologians who antecedently accept the premises about God’s relation to the world represented by the process metaphysics espoused by Mercedes, she makes a powerful case for the coherence of wedding that picture to a kenotic Christology not necessarily subject to patriarchal appropriations. Alas, I am a feminist theologian of a different sort – one who rejects the antecedent premises in question. So maybe the critiques I present here are just an unfair request for a book other than the one Mercedes has written, addressed to an audience in my theological neck of the woods. If so, then much of what I’ve said should be read less as a substantive critique and more as a clarification of the rhetorical boundaries and scope of Mercedes’ work.

    • Anna Mercedes

      Anna Mercedes

      Reply

      Clarifications

      I wish Yadav well in finding his next books to read, and send him my thanks for giving so much time along the way to mine.

      Several weeks passed before I saw that Yadav had offered his rejoinder, and in this time I returned to the fall semester of teaching. Thus it is with my students in my mind that I write again now. I write to clarify for readers my book’s emphases in regards to the exchange here.

      On Diversity in Classical Theism

      When claiming in my earlier reply that the classical legacy is diverse, I meant indeed: the whole of the legacy, without a moment of primary crystallization from which all else follows. Sources vary; figures vary. In that variance is room for conversation between classical theists and theologians in my “neck of the woods” (I rather like that ecological metaphor, offered by Yadav, for our theological distance. I write at present in a library under an enormous concrete tree.)

      On the Nature of God, and Desire

      In his rejoinder, Yadav finds the work of Burrus and MacKendrick somewhat beside his point. He hears them discussing desire more than the nature of God. But I find in their work fuel to resist this distinction. I really enjoy Catherine Mowry LaCugna’s God For Us and its exploration of how this distinction becomes problematic.

      On Sarah Coakley

      Those reading this exchange who are curious about Sarah Coakley’s work on kenosis will need to go read her elegantly detailed essay for themselves. Coakley contends that any conflation of kenosis with feminine gendering—causing feminists rightful weariness—misses the way in which in Christ, human nature—not female nature or male nature but human nature itself—is revealed to be rightly kenotic. And as Yadav emphasizes, I argue in contrast for a kenosis in divine nature, as others have before me.

      On Transcendence

      In a God who becomes and desires, Yadav sees a contradiction to transcendence. I do not. For a different understanding of transcendence than the one offered by Yadav, I recommend Mayra Rivera’s The Touch of Transcendence.

      On Verbal Essence

      In both of his replies, Yadav has asked me to come down on one side or the other of his insistent distinction. But the distinction itself misses a message of my book. Rather than an ontological claim and then a normative role, a metaphysics and a morality, I have written of Christic emptying with emphasis on its verbal nature. In the book I talk about the kinetic energy—something Peckruhn’s response highlights. I talk about kenosis for the pleasure of the motion itself, rather than an aimed for result. Elsewhere I have discussed Luther’s reading of “the form of God” in Philippians 2 as a doing rather than a being (see my chapter in Transformative Lutheran Theologies). Thus Yadav is correct that, presented with his distinction, I will change the subject, trying to push our focus into the doing or action inherent in the thing itself: a verbal nature to being. Essence is on the move. With God, kenosis makes that ever more clear (see Frascati-Lochhead on Vattimo, in Power For).

      This is a strong conflation of two things Yadav wishes to keep apart, and a very sharp contrast to Yadav’s classical theism. My work will not translate into Yadav’s distinctions between belief and normative ends. I offer Power For as a doing of kenotic theology as much as an argument for it. The notion of “power for” does not break stalemates. Power does, mobilized for. Sometimes with words.

      On Modality and Difference

      When we do theology, the manner of our doing speaks as loudly as the words. Thus, you have the way Power For is written (though it leaves Yadav wanting clarification of my metaphysical position) and the way I have sought to reply to Yadav (though it can come across to him as cryptic). Yadav wants me to get the classical picture properly in view as my “target,” wants me to argue “over against” it, and yet questions why this would be a putting down or a hostility.

      I find very little that is “mere” about difference. Doing difference well remains a major challenge and potential pleasure of our time. Difference can and does hold the contrary, the oppositional—and it holds us all in relation. So I acknowledge most heartily the contrast between Yadav and myself, but not therefore, a need to find the right and the wrong, the true and the false, even when we’re talking about God—most especially when we’re talking about God. I have written of Christ as chrism, dripping through the interstices of our difference, christening body of Christ, on the move, between. Christ as fluid potency, given for you. So what, indeed, could possibly warrant my (“breezy”) acceptance of positions not my own?

Heike Peckruhn

Response

Self-Giving for the Living Kinetics of It All, of Us All

Growing up, I heard stories of my grandmother’s WWII ordeals, fleeing to a refugee camp with three young children, resettling in a new place after the end of the war, and fighting to provide a home for her family as a single mother. These stories were marked by endurance and sacrifice in the face of oppression and discrimination, and often entailed a narrative that all suffering was done for the children—self-giving acts for the sake of others. My mother also has stories of self-sacrifice and endurance in her life, charting her own survival in the midst of bullying, discrimination, and marginalization in our family and wider community. In the rare moments she talks to me about her experiences, she frames her decision to remain in such painful situations that made her feel powerless about her fate in terms of giving herself for the children, for the family—suffering abuse so that those she loves might thrive. Submission, sacrifice, agency, voice, resistance, becoming, vulnerability, relationships, risk, faithfulness . . . how do we understand these stories of self-giving as a feminist who is also concerned with agency and empowerment?

Anna Mercedes points out that these issues are often approached from a perspective that maintains the exclusive tension between self-sacrifice and self-assertion. The theological solutions offered then reinforce concepts of power in which one will have to give for the other to emerge. But how do you follow a faith and theological trajectory that emphasizes sacrifice, taking up one’s cross, and—if necessary for the sake of following Christ—a subjugation to the powers that be (an Anabaptist theological value), while also recognizing and resisting the harm done in the supremacist systems of Christian, white, heterosexist patriarchy?

Mercedes constructively takes up kenosis where feminist critiques have abandoned it, or where reclaiming attempts need to be expanded/nuanced in order to avoid domineering concepts of power. She beautifully and skillfully weaves together biblical, historical, and contemporary theological voices along with lived experiences as she critiques and critically expands and employs her sources. Her vision of kenosis, or self-emptying, is productive and generative, communal and self-incarnating; a reorganization and perversion of power in its risky and confusing embrace of desire and pleasure in our lives despite or because of the tragic contexts of our lives. It is a kenosis that is a practice and (im)pulse for the other that always also sustains in its vulnerability.

There are a few points in her work where I would love to engage in a discussion with her. In her fifth chapter, Mercedes employs studies and stories of persons surviving abuse to show how the resistance that sometimes emerges comes in the form of care, an active and creative kenosis that is also a reemergence into one’s full emotional life (123). Because Mercedes takes such care to tune into lived experiences, the creative responses to pain and suffering and their psychological framing here, I am curious where her explorations could go if lived experiences would have joined the conversation in chapter 4 as well. There, Mercedes explores (sado)masochism, desire, and self-giving pain as productive, and provides a much needed feminist theological exploration of masochism. Drawing on Karmen MacKendrick, Mercedes elicits a relational, subversive, agentic kenosis that may manifest in an erotic sharing of power, and a powerful eroticism in which empowerment is in the active desiring, seeking, and creating pleasure in dependence, subjection, and restraint (108–9).

Mercedes puts into conversation discursive constructions of the Christian self in interpretations of masochism in Christian asceticism, the emergence of Christian identity as the suffering self in early Christian accounts, and contemporary feminist critiques. She presents the seeking out of pain as giving over of the self but on one’s own terms, for the sake of redemption in self-realizing transgression. Kenosis then is the invigorating, pleasurable release of power, a release that is desired in vigorous enactments of submission. This kenotic dynamic challenges dominating “power-over,” and instead reveals power as fluid and ungraspable, which as desire as well as act of faith navigates the slippery line of oppression, victimization, subversion, and agentic pleasure (131).

I believe Mercedes would find the theological and ethical explorations of BDSM emerging out of kink communities relevant and, well, sexy theological material (and no, I’m not referring to Fifty Shades of Grey). Patrick Califia, in the essay “Sadomasochism and Spirituality,” also joins the critique of Heyward’s link between sadomasochistic practices and domestic/sexual abuse which may circumvent a liberatory, sex-positive, and agentic perspective on self-giving (and) pleasure in sexual pain. Califia highlights dimensions of lived experiences in a BDSM encounter that may enrich Mercedes’s exploration of kenosis, such as preliminary negotiations, clarification of limits and desires, continuous conversations, community expectations of continued affirming relationships and aftercare (as well as actual BDSM techniques, which have an affinity with sacred ceremonies cross-culturally).

Mutual validation and striving towards transcendence are part of sexual encounters that involve pleasurable pain, and in such encounters sexuality, spirituality, and religion overlap. In terms of our conversation on kenosis, Califia and other perspectives might bring constructive contributions, as in the observation that simulation and replication are not the same; that is, BDSM is not a replication of a patriarchal structure (as Heyward and Harrison would have it) but rather a simulation, a performance a staging of a scene in which emotional dynamics and erotic activities that bring about appropriate levels of risk, safety, and control are willfully and consensually engaged in. The lived experiences Califia describes—of connection with other living beings, respect for life and love, confrontation of fear, experiences of generosity and compassion, truth-telling of desires and longings, and growing in self-love—are experiences Mercedes also invokes in her construction of kenosis. She goes a different route to get there. But I believe that these connections with lived experiences and voices from the sexual margins—and the theological emergences in them—could lend concepts like kenosis, which already always need translation and filled with everyday speech and applications, useful traction.

The field of disability studies is yet another area in which subjectivity and agency are theologically explored via lived embodied experiences and with an eye towards power with and for in relationality. Here I believe another productive conversation could take place, especially since disability perspectives constructively challenge and explore self-giving, care, mutuality, and facets of power in personal and political relationships. For example, Rosemary Garland-Thomson’s exploration of “staring” vs. “beholding,” conceives of the embodied and relational exchanges between persons in visual encounters, exchanges that carry interests and power and may shape the relational dynamic into domination, curiosity, wonder, hostility, love, etc. In disability performance art, the artist manipulates the stare and gives oneself over to be stared at, yet on controlled terms of the encounter, demanding a reconceiving of what it means to be human. Resonant with Mercedes’s kenosis, “beholding,” then, may become a productive, mutual becoming into humanity through the giving-over of oneself to the other.

Theologian Deborah Creamer in Disability and Christian Theology also points out that the embodied subject, with her desires and agentic actions, is always already presumed to be whole in body and spirit, so that a person with disabilities often already enters the conversation as less than whole or lacking subjects, if she enters as subject at all (more often than not she might be rendered as object). Creamer reminds us in her limits model of disability that we as humans are all, unsurprisingly, limited and (connecting here to the fluid self-emptying and evocation of Mercedes’s wet, kenotic chrism) leaking bodily subjects. To begin theological reflection from this perspective (which includes Mercedes’s construction on kenosis) might keep us grounded in and always bring us back into our embodied, living, fleshy experiences. Attending to the disruptions, unruliness, leaky messiness of our actual bodies might evoke dimensions of kenosis that involve our everyday self-emptying as living, leaking bodies in their productive, generative, sustaining, and resisting dimensions. Kenosis, as Mercedes conceives of it, is indeed embodied. So what do our limited and bodily experiences tell us about reorganization and perversion of power, about the risky and confusing desires and pleasures in our lives that sustain us?

These are two of the many possible entry points of conversation with disability studies, but in this constructive space, I would like to hear Mercedes speak to her understanding of subjectivity and agency—because it seems implicit that her kenotic subject, who engages in self-emptying for others out of / towards passionate desire, risk-taking, and transformative becoming, is in many ways a self-aware agent—that is, a physically but also very much cognitively able subject. And I keep wondering if self-giving kenosis, this “power for,” might depend in some ways on a concept of agency that presupposes, and thereby values and necessitates, capacity for goal-oriented reasoning and conscious desires.

At stake here is a conception of kenosis that might render one more Christ-like than the other, as in the caregiver more so than the “other” with a disability, in which kenosis enables the already more agentic subject to enter into ever more transformative becoming through acts of self-giving. Certainly, Mercedes’s conception of kenosis is set up in a way that is critical and mindful of self-righteous and charitable kinds of self-giving, and she frames it in ways that highlights local desires and the for-another of those to whom we are passionately drawn as well as the dismantling of power over other lives. But how would this feminist kenosis emerge from and within persons with disabilities, especially those with profound cognitive impairments, without rendering their lives and relationships into the already stereotypical and marginalized existence of being “for us” (as in, we become better humans through the lessons we can learn from the spectacle that is “them”)? Is kenosis a possibility here, if it is not willfully chosen by a desiring agent? Would the desire that is part of kenosis be more difficult, or better, be more nuanced, and the dimensions of self-exploration and development become messy, fluid, “wet” because this self is differently able?

In appreciation and eagerness I look forward to a continued conversation.

  • Anna Mercedes

    Anna Mercedes

    Reply

    Impulse for the Other

    First, a thank you to Heike Peckruhn for this insightful commentary, and most especially for describing the “power for” of kenosis as “a practice and (im)pulse for the other that always also sustains in its vulnerability.” This “(im)pulse” perfectly carries the kinetic energy of Christic self-giving: a “pulse,” signaling the continuing survival, or the resurrection, of the self, and an “impulse,” signaling a vector, a direction toward, an eccentricity, or as Hughes had it in her commentary, a “disposition.”

    I think Peckruhn is right to see connections begging to be made between a theology of kenotic power and lived experience from both kink communities and disability studies. Such an exploration would, as Peckruhn writes, lend specific and needed traction to a discussion of kenotic power. For now, in this reply I want to stay with the (im)pulse of kenosis, and affirm an impulsive possibility in kenosis, a self-giving not charted out cognitively ahead of time.

    Peckruhn asks pressing questions to me about cognitive ability and kenosis: Can persons with profound cognitive impairments themselves be agents of power for? Must kenosis be “willfully chosen by a desiring agent”? While I suspect that my book puts forth a strongly cognitive bias in discussing agency, I want to avoid that in the future, honoring a wide kenotic power which flows from the gut as much as from the mind.

    A leaning toward another, a passion that gives of itself, can emerge and is emerging in various places today, without cognition. I think of all the energy surrounding life that seems to transcend the cognitive, and of the people I know who are deeply attuned to currents of connection and expression between us. I think of the ways unconscious persons near death are sometimes sensed as reaching out. I think (so much cognition!) of the power of uterine muscles, giving birth, with a power far outpacing the mind.

    Peckruhn highlights an important concern about whether the strength of agency in self-giving renders caregivers more Christ-like than those they care for. If so, the result would be a kind of counter-kenotic caring, where self-aggrandizement takes place more than self-giving. And as Peckruhn has written, the converse would also be a problem, where the cared for is seen as more Christ-like, perhaps naively so, and as existing passively “for another” to enable that other’s practice in generosity. This problem in locating Christ led me to begin discussing Christ as chrism: wet, fluid, on the move, and given away. I expanded on that theme from Power For in an article for Dialog 53:3 (fall 2014), “Christ as Chrism, Christ Given Away.”

    And though I love to explore kenosis, I don’t image our own kenotic passions as the only way to participate in Christ. My own Lutheran background comes out in my suspicion that persons are wrapped up in the life of God, and can become embedded in a pulse for the sake of the world, most primarily by God’s own impulse of covenant loyalty, of God’s own enduring attachment. As I trip over my own cognitive fixations, I’m grateful that affiliation with God’s power does not firstly rely on the state of our minds or our guts.

Teresa Delgado

Response

Wading into Dangerous Waters

Just last week, as I was returning from a theological gathering in Dallas with the Forum for Theological Exploration, I did something I otherwise—typically and intentionally—avoid: I engaged in conversation with the woman sitting next to me on my flight to New York. I don’t know what compelled me to initiate what started as casual, superficial small talk but what transpired over the next three and a half hours was, in retrospect, remarkable. In that liminal space in-between where I was coming from and where I was going, something happened to me and, I venture to guess, to her: we shared our stories and discovered uncanny commonalities, despite our differences in age, ethnicity, and profession; we experienced the adventure, risk, and vulnerability of disclosure without judgment; we saw ourselves anew through the eyes of another. There was an energy between us that radiated across and collapsed the space of the empty seat between us; there were tears and laughter in a beautiful combination that seemed simultaneously to make time stand still and proceed at rapid pace.

In our sharing, I told her I was delving into the provocative theological analysis proposed by Anna Mercedes in Power For: Feminism and Christ’s Self Giving because it made sense to bring it up: we were talking about women and power, sexuality and trauma, and the healing arts of ancient Taoist and Tantric practices. I was fascinated to hear her perspectives on sexuality and spirituality, pondering how these have been so distorted and bifurcated in the dominant narratives of Christian doctrine. Mercedes provides her reader with a thoroughly researched account of the literature on the kenosis of God, particularly how such interpretations have served to bolster the God-human relationship as one circumscribed by “power-over.” But our mile-high conversation led me back to reexamine Mercedes’s chapter on “Power for Ourselves: Kenotic Erotics,” particularly the critical lens offered by Marcella Althaus-Reid who invites us to consider how “human passions lure the kenosis of God, drawing God into the bedroom of queer desires, helping God to explore new identities” (80).

What/who would God be, what/who would we be, if we were to consider the possibility of God’s transforming subjectivity in relation to our own? I am fascinated by such a consideration, as proposed by Althaus-Reid and placed in nuanced conversation with others by Mercedes, because it blurs the lines of power and place; in fact, it transgresses, or queers, the lines of power and place of kenosis as “coming out, letting go, shifting subjectivities” (78). This proposition stands in sharp contrast to both the traditional Christian understanding of kenosis as “power in weakness and submission” as well as a Taoist affinity to dualistic energies of yin and yang, where the feminine is revered as the receptive principle, from which the energy of the Tao, through lowliness, is obtained. Mercedes’s analysis of kenosis seeks to rupture such dualistic modes of considering God-human subjectivity in relation; she pushes us toward a new understanding of kenotic passion that holds eros and agape in creative tension, which is simultaneously “self-effacing and self-interested . . . its generosity is generative” (83).

To be honest, a part of me resists such a movement, based on feminist and womanist critiques of self-sacrifice by women, differentiated by race/ethnicity, sex, gender, sexual orientation, class, and age. I know all too well the damaging effects of hearing the words of institution—“this is my body given up for you”—as license for a woman’s body to become the means to an end that is not of her choosing. Yet, Mercedes’s chapter on “Beyond ‘Power With’: Martyrs and Masochists” challenges my assumptions about pain and pleasure, and leads me to ask—as a womanist who prioritizes the experiences of black and brown women’s bodies that have been hypersexualized and commodified—can I ever venture into a space where pain is pleasurable and reflective of kenotic passion/compassion? This seems like dangerous waters in which to wade, and reminds me of the intrigue and interest in films like Fifty Shades of Grey or television shows like “Scandal” which blur the boundaries of pain, pleasure and subjectivity.

Mercedes’s work is definitely comfortable with the messiness and complexity that is third-wave feminism. There are no neat categories here of either kenosis or feminism. Part of me is uneasy about the messiness of such categories, given the impulse of theological scholarship to be systematic and precise. I know that I have inherited and internalized a “colonized” theology—discourse on God that perpetuates “power over” relations—while simultaneously resisting distinct categories through a postcolonial lens that recognizes and welcomes blurred boundaries. My own experience of healing through sexual trauma tells me something very different from the systematic theology I’ve inherited and internalized, leaning me in the direction of Mercedes’s proposal to “tap the kenotic power flowing from the broken side of Christ” (152), because we understand Christ’s brokenness as our own, and our own brokenness is of Christ. As a survivor of rape when I was a teenager, I did not identify what had happened to me as rape until I was in college and became conscienticized to feminism. Still, I didn’t talk about the experience until many years later—in therapy actually—as I was trying to come to terms with the extreme violation of my body in the past while pregnant with my first child. Somehow, in ways I’m still quite challenged to articulate, the direction of my energies toward this new, vulnerable, and precious creation did not distract me from the process of healing from the trauma; instead, it amplified my own power in the recognition of vulnerability, reflected back to me in the eyes of my daughter. In other words, I could be the fierce protector of my child, safeguarding her life at every stage while nurturing her growth and independence, and in doing so recognize that I was not a powerless victim that the experience of rape had thrust upon my identity for so long.

Many years later, I had a similar recognition as I decided to (finally) speak about the experience of sexual trauma in public spaces, specifically to undergraduate students at Iona College. In those venues, I told the story, my story, of violation and the silence that came after; in the self-giving of my own disclosure, the shame and blame that had haunted me for so many years gave way to a greater, more compelling sense of compassion toward the young women who hung on every word. “I don’t want this to happen to you; I’m telling you my story so it doesn’t become your story.” This now makes sense to me as I read Mercedes’s words: “Though we may also be victims, we are, with Audre Lorde, ‘responsible to ourselves in the deepest sense,’ and in the fierce pleasures of this responsibility, the passionate Christ survives” (152). I know this more now than I ever have. It was not in the way my story, my subjective self, was received or reciprocated that mattered; it was in the offering, the giving, for the sake of others, that “kenosis garners strength from its own gesture, and not by the final outcomes of society’s (mis)appropriation of it” (136).

Still, society’s (mis)appropriation of women’s self-giving and emptying must not be so easily dismissed because such kenosis does not occur in a vacuum. I believe we must make a full and complete accounting of the societal structures and intersections of racism, sexism, heteronormativity, homophobia, class disparities, and all categories of repressive power. While Mercedes attends to the feminist and womanist critiques of atonement theories and redemptive suffering, using Kathryn Tanner’s understanding of incarnation and the entirety of Jesus’s life, along with the cross, as the locus of salvation, I don’t believe Mercedes’s analysis pays sufficient attention to the particular embodied suffering of black and brown women whose resistance to abuse and exploitation, individually and systemically, can produce even greater suffering.

I am also left wondering where the community is present in the exercise of kenotic power. I am informed by a womanist insistence on the community, not simply the individual, as the locus of power through the expression of love: “A woman who loves another woman, sexually and/or non-sexually . . . She is committed to the survival and wholeness of an entire people, male and female. Not a separatist, except periodically for health . . . loves the spirit . . . loves struggle. Loves herself. Regardless” (Walker, In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose, xii). Mercedes describes beautifully the generative, kinetic flow of outward energy toward others as the fullness of erotic and agapic love: “Christ is a gesture given away, power for. We ourselves cannot fully claim the incarnation of Christ; rather, Christ becomes between us and the ones with whom we are prodigally drawn, forgetting ourselves as we pour out our anointing oil, and perhaps also realizing ourselves in the exchange, our own skin wet with chrism” (148). This relational anointing has, for me, been realized and embodied—through the collective resistance of communities to undo structures of oppression. In other words, in the “thick of things” that social justice movements are often embroiled, the self-giving kenotic power for others and ourselves may be experienced. I have seen and felt this anointing in the collective work and struggles of black and brown women working for justice and dignity for our communities. As such, I long for a deeper analysis of community as an expression of power for resistance, a generative process that extends beyond the singular victim/survivor of abuse toward the collective power for resistance.

As I sit with the uneasiness Mercedes’s consideration of feminism and kenosis has created within me, I am drawn back to my chance meeting in the skies between Dallas and New York. There was something cosmological that occurred in that liminal space that was neither here nor there; something about that experience seems to approach the same discomfort I felt while sitting with Mercedes’s insistence on kenosis flowing “from fissures in the thick complexity of our present circumstances” (153). She refuses to settle on the inherited “either/or” nature of Christ’s kenosis and, in doing so, has thoroughly troubled already turbulent spaces. Perhaps we are in agreement: there is creative power in the cracks, crevices, and empty spaces in-between.

  • Anna Mercedes

    Anna Mercedes

    Reply

    With “Energy between Us”

    I think we are indeed in agreement, and I thank Teresa Delgado for her own deeply kenotic reading of my book. She has named in her review several experiences—from the mile-high sharing on an airplane, to the activism of sharing her testimony of survival, to the healing grown amid pregnancy and parenting—that give vivid shape to the kind of Christic self-giving I want to honor. She writes beautifully of the kind of power and strength of self she experienced in the flow of self-giving, and it is that unexpected synchrony that I sought to highlight and celebrate in my book. I am moved by the resonance she found with parts of the book, and by the vulnerability she offers us as readers.

    I also agree with Delgado that I could explore much more deeply the risks for black and brown women whose resistance to abuse is often met with more abuse. Delgado expresses these compounded risks as she wonders, “As a womanist who prioritizes the experiences of black and brown women’s bodies that have been hypersexualized and commodified—can I ever venture into a space where pain is pleasurable and reflective of kenotic passion/compassion?”

    My gut response is that I wish that no one, having read Power For, would have to wonder, “Are these passions open to me?” because it was surely the opposite I was intending. I saw the tendency in some other theological writing to encourage different theologies for more vulnerable persons (as in: socially advantaged persons, “take up your cross,” but targeted persons, self-sacrifice should not be one your strategies) and wanted to say no to that. I wanted to make sure that kenotic paths were recognized as dignified and strong even and especially in people who might otherwise be suspected of passive obedience to what culture has taught them. I wanted to highlight the dignity of those whose resistance might otherwise be read as an enculturated self-abnegation, a lack of self-respect, a lack of ability to defend oneself or stand up for oneself, a focus on community needs or expectations instead of a focus on self.

    I think here of a chapter I read with students from A Reader in Latina Feminist Theology: Religion and Justice (where, by happy convergence, Delgado also has a chapter). In “Perception Matters,” Anna Adams demonstrates a perhaps unexpected empowerment among Pentecostal Latinas in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Adams found that, although the local Pentecostal theology remained patriarchal, some Latina women found it empowering precisely “as women” (see p. 102 in the reader). What may have looked like further oppression was in actuality more complex and potentially liberating. This example is not necessarily one about kenosis, but it does show how empowerment can be misread. In writing Power For, I wanted to highlight a current of empowerment that is too often read as lack of power. Oppressive stereotypes can render resistance invisible. Even theorizing the impact of oppression on targeted persons can cause an underestimation of their power for change, blocking, as Traci West writes in her exploration of black women’s resistance, an “acknowledgement of the creative and healthy cultural resources and strategic responses that blacks draw upon and develop” (Wounds of the Spirit, 153).

    So I want to emphasize the great capacity for kenotic power that even deeply vulnerable persons may tap. But it remains deeply unjust that, because of racist, heterosexist, and classist structures, some face much greater risk than others in following their kenotic passions. I want to be part of a kenotic and, yes, communal current that erodes those structures and emboldens the amazing kenotic currents of others.

    Traci West’s Wounds of the Spirit: Black Women, Violence, and Resistance Ethics influenced my writing in Power For, and her Disruptive Christian Ethics: When Racism and Women’s Lives Matter has influenced my teaching since. The book project I am working on now is aiming for a disruptive ethic, carrying forward kenotic Christology into a more developed political theology. I want to articulate more deeply how kenosis might make for political change. And I will keep Delgado’s charges to me about the thriving of black and brown women, and about communal activism, with me as I write.

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