Kenosis, Cruciformity, and Feminism

When I think about feminism, I refer back to the simplest definition of the movement that I know.  Feminism, as I understand it, is primarily about establishing and defending equal rights for women in the social, economic, and political spheres which in turn leads to the empowerment of women.  There is certainly a lot more that goes into feminism, a rather kaleidoscopic movement with a complex history.  However, at its most basic level, feminism is about affirming the equality of women and men and thus advocating for women and women’s rights so that this equality is actually lived out.

Today, many see feminism as an enemy of the Christian faith, or vice-versa.  In many ways this is downright odd considering many of those involved with the early feminist movement were Christians.  And yet there certainly are variations within feminism that are ardently opposed to the Christian faith and message, as well as those within the Church who are zealous for the eradication of even the mere whisper of the word feminism.  In terms of theology and biblical studies, traditional theologies of the cross and suffering have been found lacking or to be destructive to the lives of the oppressed, women being an historically oppressed people group.

While feminism is largely about empowering women, the Christian life is described by Paul as Christlike suffering and self-denial.  To borrow a term from Michael J. Gorman, the Christian life is one of cruciformity.  Gorman describes cruciformity (as demonstrated in the incarnation and crucifixion of Christ) as “the rejection of selfish exploitation of status in favor of self-giving action” (Michael Gorman, “Paul and the Cruciform Way,” Journal of Moral Theology 2:1, [2013], p. 69)  This cruciformity should then characterize the believer’s participatory life ‘in Christ’.  To be Christ-like is to be “radically self-giving.” (p. 70)  This idea of cruciformity is most evident in Philippians 2.1-11 in which Paul exhorts his readers to be like Christ who ‘emptied’ (εκενωσεν) himself.

Cruciformity, then, is cross-shaped existence in Jesus the Messiah. It is letting the cross of the crucified Messiah be the shape, as well as the source, of life in him. It is participating in and embodying the cross. (p. 67)

If feminism is about empowerment and the establishment and defense of equal rights for women, can it at the same time be cruciform?  If the Christian life is a call to reject “selfish exploitation of status in favor of self-giving action” how does the Christian participate in (what I would argue is) the necessary work of feminism?

For a while now I have been thinking about this question: can feminism be cruciform?  Gorman’s book, Cruciformity: Paul’s Narrative Spirituality of the Cross (2001), has a section discussing some objections to cruciformity, including those from feminist and womanist theologians.  Gorman explains:

Many feminist and womanist theologians have drawn the conclusion that because the doctrine of atonement and the corollary call to “take up one’s cross” have been used against women, these remnants of an oppressive, patriarchal Christianity need to be abandoned. (p. 373).

Furthermore, feminist theologians have pointed out how the call to imitate Christ-like suffering has been used to force women to endure domestic abuse.  Obviously, this is a valid and important concern.

So, I’m working on a paper for my Paul class in which I aim to describe what a distinctly Christian and cruciform feminism looks like.  I’ve had this (rather broad) question in mind for a while, wondering how I can be actively working for women’s rights while at the same time laying my own rights down.  I’m still working on my thesis but you’ve probably already guessed that I think the answer is “yes.”  Feminism can be cruciform.  In fact, I hope to argue that feminism (namely, a distinctly Christian and thus cruciform feminism) is necessary because the world at large is not (yet) cruciform.

In researching the question, I’m pulling from a number of different topics and authors.  I’ve been reading books and articles from the likes of Sarah Coakley, Beverly Gaventa, Richard Hays, Elsa Tamez, Rosemary R. Ruether, and of course Gorman.  Confession time: though I’ve always considered myself a feminist, until recently I just hadn’t read a lot from authors who specifically identify themselves as feminist theologians.  A few semesters ago I read some articles by Mercy Amba Oduyoye, an African Womanist theologian (whose work I really enjoyed), for a hermeneutics paper but since then I’ve not read much else.  I am learning a lot, which includes discovering areas in which I actually do not identify with other feminist theologians.  Nevertheless, I certainly appreciate their work and find myself asking a lot of the same questions.

I’m particularly interested in what Sarah Coakley, a feminist theologian, has to say in her book Powers and Submissions.  Yesterday I read one of the essays, titled “Kenosis and Subversion”, in which she argues,

kenosis [is] not only compatible with feminism, but vital to a distinctively Christian manifestation of it, a manifestation which does not eschew, but embraces, the spiritual paradoxes of ‘losing one’s life in order to save it’. (p4)

Truth be told, I need to reread the essay a few more times to get a better grasp of her argument but I’m looking forward to learning from her on this subject.  Hopefully it will help me with this paper!

I’m sure some of you out there have thought through this subject before.  Do you have an comments, questions, or helpful insights to share?  Are there any sources you would recommend?  I look forward to sharing more in the next couple of weeks as my paper (hopefully) comes together.  Most of all I look forward to learning more and being challenged in the way I think.  Paper writing is a very strenuous process for me but after all the agony and pain I have always come out on the other side thankful for what I’ve learned.  Godspeed to all you who have papers due this month!  And especially for those who are gearing up for presenting at SBLAAR!!

29 thoughts on “Kenosis, Cruciformity, and Feminism

  1. Jessica:

    This is a subject that needs to receive more attention. I look forward to hearing more about your own research. I would suggest that feminism can be cruciform because it is not about the individual alone, but about representing people who are marginalized not only in-spite of who God made them to be (women) but because of it. So when a feminist theologian reminds the Church that women should not be marginalized this is not necessarily someone saying, “I should have my way!” But instead it is someone prophetically reminding others that their oppressive behaviors are contrary to the Gospel of God, much like Israel’s prophets could remind their pagan oppressors that their behavior will be judged.

    Another thought that comes to mind is that we must not allow cruciformity to be used by the privileged against the oppressed. Paul’s language to fellow Christians is one oppressed, persecuted person encouraging other oppressed, persecuted people or in the case of situations like that in Corinth where the wealthy were abusing the common meal by marginalizing the poor we find Paul standing with the marginalized in a cruciform way to call for justice. There are many women—often because of other factors like racial and class inequality—who have no platform to speak for themselves. In this sense feminism can be very much aligned with the Gospel preached by Jesus and Paul when a woman who does have a platform uses it to challenge those who would oppress other women.

    These seem to be two approaches to reconciling cruciformity with feminism that make sense to me. I hope this comment wasn’t too long winded!


    1. Thanks for your input, Brian! I think you are right on both points. You’re comment about women being marginalized “not only in-spite of who God made them to be but because of it” is especially insightful.

      I’m particularly interested in exploring what it means for the church’s involvement in feminist issues outside of the church. I tend to have Anabaptist leanings in regard to the church and politics but I also feel it’s necessary that the church be involved in social activism and establishing justice. I think that is where the need for a prophetic voice from the church as a whole comes in.

      Thanks again for joining the conversation – I appreciate the feedback.


  2. I’ve asked the same question: could I live a cruciform life AND self identify as a feminist? Thank you for this wonderful post. I’m glad I stopped by from RHE’s blog. I’ll be following to learn more from you on this topic. Blessings, Osheta


    1. Thanks, Carolyn! I actually have a copy of The Gospel of Ruth but haven’t gotten to read it yet. I will definitely check it out this week as I continue my research. Thanks for the heads up!


      1. I think you’ll find it helpful. The book of Ruth settled a lot of these kinds of questions for me. I was raised on the Cinderella version, so didn’t see it coming. Total game changer for me.The chapter on “The Three Faces of Submission” is key, but the whole story supports your case.


    2. Carolyn, I was not aware of your Ruth book and am looking forward to reading it. I love it when God opens our eyes to new ways of understanding the biblical narrative, especially as it relates to faulty conclusions made about women in history.

      Rebekkah is another example of someone we have sorely misunderstood. I believe Rebekkah’s actions on behalf of her son were motivated by the same love as Bonhoeffer, the apostle Paul, and Jesus himself and that she was NOT the manipulator and deceiver the Church has made her out to be. Rebekkah, Jesus, and Paul were the only people in the Bible who are recorded as being willing to “take the curse” so that Israel (Jacob) would receive the blessing of God.

      I’m in the process of rewriting this piece in the form of an argumentative paper but the gist of my thoughts can be found here:

      Jessica, thanks for the work you are doing on this necessary subject. I look forward to reading more on this.


  3. any knowledge i have of the cruciformity as a concept is secondhand, but it generally sends up red flags for me, particularly the ways i’ve seen it employed by men against women and abuse survivors, even in spaces that self-identify as progressive/feminist. despite that, i’m curious to discover where your research leads.

    i certainly believe that christians are called to deny our selves, pick up our crosses, and follow Jesus into suffering, but my feminism and faith both are rooted in resurrection and the Kingdom of God making all things new. the christian story doesn’t end at the cross, and at this point, i don’t really understand the desire to emphasize cruciformity apart from resurrection.


    1. Thanks for your comment, Suzannah! One reason I am writing this paper is to think through those concerns you mentioned. I think this is one reason why the church as a whole needs to be mindful of feminist concerns. It’s my feminism that has caused me to reevaluate and refine how I understand suffering and the call to cruciformity. Self-denial and suffering cannot be applied flatly across all situations.

      And I agree that we can’t emphasize cruciformity apart from resurrection. I think the reason we can willingly lay down our rights and at times endure suffering is because we have the hope of resurrection. I also think cruciform living and love is necessary because we live in the yet/not yet of the Kingdom. It’s here, but it’s not fully realized and so the church lives and loves cruciformly to participate in the coming Kingdom. Alas, I am still learning! 🙂

      Michael Gorman (in his book Cruciformity) responds to some these concerns (including abuse) but I’m still working through the book and haven’t fully formulated a conclusion. Hope to share more thoughts soon. Thanks for being a conversation partner in this – I appreciate your thoughts!


  4. Great topic. My two cents:
    1. We must chose cruciform. It can’t be forced upon us.
    2. It is done in the name of Jesus. Not to maintain status quo.


  5. Whatever Jesus meant by “deny yourself,” he can’t have meant that (using his parable of the banquet) those in the top seats at the table should hold tight to their seats while calling “deny yourself!” to those at the bottom.


    1. Thanks for your comment, Kristen! I definitely agree. I think the call to cruciform living is especially addressed to those “in the top seats.” I also think it is largely a corporate responsibility of the church body as a whole. The call to deny ourselves should act as an equalizer in the church. We’ve got big problems when those who are in high positions are unwillingly to become low… this is a sad reality for a lot of churches, perhaps especially in the West (?). Our rugged individualism and self-sufficiency gets the best of us.

      I like what Marius Victorinus says about Phil 2.4: “We are truly acting for ourselves if we also have a concern for others and strive to be a benefit to them. For since we are all one body, we look out for ourselves when we look out for others. (Epistle to the Philippians 2.2-5)


  6. My good friend Dr Richard Goode @richard_goode pointed me to your blog. We have been having a conversation about kenosis recently as constituting the the true path to finding our True Self. I want to say that I entirely agree with your comment that it has been used/abused all too often by church leaders sending women back to abusive relationships. The process for dismantling the defences erected by those who suffer abuse has to be very careful indeed. I don’t think that it is my work as a pastor to de-construct defences but to seek to offer a non-possessive friendship that can give some space for the work of the Spirit of God.


    1. As I’m working through this I’ve come to think (with help from Gorman and others) that cruciformity, while being paradigmatic, is not uniform. We cannot apply cruciform love to every situation in the exact same way. It may look different depending on the situation — I think this might help with situations like abuse. The call to be cruciform does not mean someone should be ordered or even asked to stay in an abusive situation. I think for a situation like that cruciform love would be the obligation of the church community to step in and risk suffering for the sake of liberating the one oppressed, if that might be possible. Still thinking through all of this. Thanks for stopping by!


      1. I like that phrase “paradigmatic but not uniform” and I agree with you that it is the community that is called upon to share in the suffering of the one who has been abused. When Jesus calls on us to take up our cross and to follow him it is literally that, to “follow”. He never asks anyone to carry anything instead of him. He is there with us every step of the way. That is a big challenge to anyone with pastoral responsibility and is perhaps what lies behind Paul’s injunction in what is one of the most clearly cruciform of his letters, Galatians, to bear one another burdens and so fulfill the law of Christ.


  7. As much as Helene Cixous might dislike the topic you’re writing about, I did think about this idea of cruciformity recently when reading her “The Laugh of the Medusa” and some corresponding notes in Toril Moi’s Sexual/Textual Politics. I feel like Cixous argues that a part of women’s power is their capacity for gift-giving made possible by a lack of defense mechanisms (as opposed to men, whose defense mechanisms prevent them from love and nurture). I wonder if this moment in her work is a hint that secular feminist theory, in spite of occasional admitted antagonism toward scripture, does sometimes come back to biblical ideas in spite of itself.

    I’ve only recently delved into a study of feminist epistemology myself, and I appreciate what you have to say in this article. A friend referred me to your blog recently because of our shared interests.


  8. I just ran onto this blog entry today. I wrote a piece a few years ago on this topic – roughly speaking. My emphasis was more on where we find our center – and the tendency of feminism to replace the false god of the other with the false god of the self. Centered | Jerusalem to Jericho
    Now having read your post, I’m thinking of how I would position these thoughts vis a vis cruciformity. I wonder if this kind of language might not make it difficult to understand ourselves as ones in need of redemption, rather than as redeemers ourselves.


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