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!!