Posted by: rogermitchell | June 14, 2012

What kenarchy means for our understanding of God (iii): the cross

The first blog post on the implications of kenarchy for our understanding of God (three posts back) culminated with a statement about what was happening at the cross.

Phoebe’s recent comment on that post got to the heart of the matter as follows:
“I like it, but I’m struggling to understand your point 4 – ‘If Jesus is fully revealing God, then God is the lamb carrying in himself the cost of intimacy with sinful human beings, rather than the traditional idea that Jesus is the sacrificial lamb providing access to the intimate side of a powerful sovereign God who has been offended by our rebellious behaviour and rejected us accordingly.’ I’ve always understood it that Jesus was standing in for us and I’ve read your comments about kenotic pouring out love, but don’t quite understand how you understand forgiveness/redemption etc – and also how we can interpret the scriptures in this way?”

What follows is an attempt to answer Phoebe’s two concerns, (i) “how we understand forgiveness/ redemption etc” and (ii) “how we can interpret the scriptures in this way.”

(i) “how we understand forgiveness/ redemption etc”

The cross and resurrection is at the heart of kenarchy. They are the culmination of the incarnation, the manifestation of a totally different kind of power to sovereignty. They reveal a power that instead of insisting on its own way, takes on and sucks up the power of domination to the death and triumphs over it. The consequent resurrection is the proof of the triumph of love and mercy. The cross demonstrates the kenosis that is the heart of kenarchy, where domination and control are met by the power of life-laid-down loving. The resurrection proves the power of kenarchy, demonstrates that it works, is “the first fruits of those who believe.”

Seen in this way, the cross and resurrection is where God demonstrated the heart of his character to be a totally different kind of power to domination, independence and control. This doesn’t undermine forgiveness or redemption in any way. Rather it places them at the heart of God. So whatever sin is committed and whatever evil comes into being as a result, it is God’s nature to take the responsibility for it, suck up the effects of it into himself and forgive the perpetrator of it, whatever the cost to himself. Words like redeem and ransom are metaphors to describe what it cost Jesus, and therefore God, to give themself to stem the evil flow of personal and corporate domination and control, and carry it away in their own being.

(ii) “how we can interpret the scriptures in this way.”

Interpreting the scriptures like this is very straightforward. It is based on the principle that the gospels provide us with the essential hermeneutic for interpretation, and that hermeneutic is the testimony of Jesus. God seen in Jesus is not a sovereign ruler insisting on his own way. As earlier posts on this blog have emphasised he is positioned as a poor and illegitimate migrant, in direct contrast to the Roman emperor and his representatives. He is introduced prophetically as putting down the mighty from their thrones (Lk 1:51) and describes his kingdom as the reverse of hierarchical sovereignty (Lk 22:25-27). He describes his ransom in terms of kenotic service (Mk 10:45) and demonstrates his divinity in the same terms (Jn 13:1-5). If Jesus rules in this upside down way then so does God. If he rejects sovereign power, then so does God.

God chooses to put his creatures first, even when they choose the opposite of what he is like. He comes and takes the consequences of their domination system, and freely invites them to sit with him on his inverted throne. Paul saw this very clearly as did the writer of Revelation (Eph 2:6; Rev 1:6). So everyone is a king and all are on the throne. This is egalitarian grace. So a gospel worked out as only God has the right to dominate and we should all bow the knee, is not the biblical gospel. It’s the gospel of empire where a ghastly theological reversal takes place and God becomes the devil. So a doctrine of the cross as where God sent his son to take the punishment for our failure to submit to a dominating God is a travesty of the gospel. Rather the cross and resurrection is the time and place where Father, Son and Holy Spirit upended empire forever.


  1. I was thinking on all of this while reading about the American presidential race. The Republican candidate is clearly a patrician. He exudes the aura of someone who is very wealthy, and understands himself to be a better person because of it (those his record of bullying pranks to man and beast are quite troubling). Yet, at the same time, while remaining terribly vague on many potential policies (the better not to be critiqued) he has made clear enough that I would be terribly fearful as an American voter if he got into office. His tax and spending policies would penalize the poor tremendously and further enrich the rich. Considering that 20% of Americans control 85% of the country’s wealth this would be a recipe for further destabilizing inequality. How does that relate to this blog’s God talk?

    Well, I was reflecting on how we tend to accrue all sorts of qualities to those who make it, who appear to be winners. In the US this is bound up with the whole mythology of meritology, that you make it because you worked hard. Though Romney inherited his opportunities and much of his wealth. But we also accrue moral goodness to such people quite often. We assume they really are better than us in every way. An article I just read quoted research done in India. When low and high caste children, unidentified, were given math problems, they performed the same. When the low caste children were made known in the group they performed much worse. We internalize that we are losers even if we really are not (these studies have also been done on a gender basis and yes, women are affected negatively in them). So winners are right and good and must be the people who should have power. Losers deserve their fate because they clearly have lacked morals or the right drive or self-discipline or something intrinsic that penalized them.

    So, despite the warnings that such a man will make life much worse for the vast majority of Americans I suspect he could win the election, on their votes – because of this evolutionary tendency to ascribe rightness, goodness, and moral superiority to those in the elites. Despite the fact that most of what we know about them are carefully crafted myths meant to distract us from how they really operate. The patricians rule, and they often do so behind closed doors. Oh, and of course, his buddies intend to spend billions to get him into the White House.

    So to God talk. . . I suspect how we view God has a lot to do with this, and how we view his power and how he uses it. We often cast God as a patrician who is morally good and who has to disapprove of our moral failings. He is fit to govern because he has the power to judge us and naturally finds us wanting. If you flip that, if God becomes the one who gives away power, and now we are all kings and priests, I love your term here Roger – egalitarian grace – well then everything changes and perhaps we would be less enchanted than those self-appointed (they are always self-appointed aren’t they?) patricians. c.

  2. You gave me another chuckle with this one, Cheryl. I was thinking, mischievously, about Roger’s comment about being difficult to understand because he applies a simple lens to complex subjects. Some reading your post here might be similarly bemused, ‘how does Cheryl get to the US electoral process from a post about the effects of the kenarchic lens upon our understanding of the cross’. Perhaps we are all difficult to understand!

    But I think the link is quite direct and very much to the point. There are many ways of putting it, but to help show the link, like blowing smoke across a laser, the connection lies in the question “What do I deserve?” or “If I get what I think I deserve, does this mean that God likes me particularly?” It has been all too easy, for the prosperity gospel fans to find threads in the Bible that indicate that well-being is a sign of God’s favour towards our righteousness. As a reward or at least as a vindication of our faith.

    But what happens to such ideas when God is outside of the world-view, in a post-Enlightenment world? Over that period it was often put forward as a radical new idea, that people could make their own destiny. Meritocracy was birthed as a revolutionary idea, when in fact it was the same old idea but in the hands of a more malleable fate than that provided by the old god. But it is just as much a tyrant.

    After all, if we believe that the elite become elite because they deserve it, we also have to believe that the poor are poor for the same reason. (We’ve been here before, once or twice, but blogs have short lives so repetition is not all bad.) It does not go down well when one points out that this sensibility, common in the US brand of Evangelicalism but actually present throughout the history of religion, has more to do with Karma than Christianity.

    What is not often discussed in today’s salvation theories (although it used to be commonplace) is the way in which most of them are actually based upon economic sensibilities. This is indicated in much of the terminology that is used, but the underlying thematic economy is kept well hidden. We talk about redemption, for one, forgiveness, another. The terms for sin and debt are very closely allied.

    What the viewpoint of kenarchy does is to break these economies at their source. Kenarchic ideas break the link between favour and virtue. They do not permit ruling elites to claim merit, they deny the divine right of the king, and, most importantly, they remind the Patrician that there is another Father upon whom even he depends. It is only in this kenotic world where the creditor pays the price of restitution so that the debtor can be reinstated. The debt that is owed by all is paid by the one to whom all is owed.

    To employ more political language in the context of kenarchy we have to begin to think more in terms of being called into the purposes of God. So prosperity becomes an entrustment for giving. The gaining of power becomes a call to empower. Just as the salvation of Israel consisted in the calling to draw the world into that status. In this gospel every gift becomes an obligation by remaining a gift, to be passed on. As in Phillipians, Jesus remains the source of this economy. “Not as the world gives do I give”

    The obligation continues, without a break really. If the ruling elite, whatever its form, cannot claim status by right or virtue then we have a responsibility to not attribute to it what God does not imply by it. Our plea, instead, is that Jesus is Lord. Only the risen and ascended can be the hero of the Phillipian song and the master whose refusal to dominate must be followed.

    So the motto for interpreting the cross works just as well in the American electoral process. Reverse the economy of power.

    • Chris: thanks, once again for your help with an explanation. You have a capacity to take my inarticulate musings and turn them into something comprehensible and even eloquent and witty. And between us we are interdisciplinary in our approach. Since I am about to finish that Interdisciplinary PhD, I find that much to my satisfaction. Here I began with evolutionary biology and you moved it easily into theology and economics with a bit of history for flavour. Amazing. I think you did find part of the root of it all, but I also think it relates back to evolutionary issues in that we tend to ascribe qualities to those who lead, those we look up to. Perhaps that is why we are so easily disappointed when our leaders behave badly or fail us. We have given them god-like attributes because obviously, by being the leader, they are already favoured of god or the gods and then they blow it. The ultimate of this is to equate the leader with the gods as with Pharoah and later Roman emperors.

      The trouble with meritocracy (whether pre Englightenment god-rewards or post-Enlightenment rewards for hard work) is that it never addresses the collective or the systems in which we live. It focuses on the individual as the achiever, either of God’s-grace (you earned it by righteousness) or by hard work. It leaves out context and a whole eco-system of other people and situations that both aid us and can destroy us. Simple access to fresh water and sanitation will do much to enable prosperity whether you work hard or not.

      I suspect too that one of the reasons we like ledger-type political economics – I win because I’ve obviously accrued more winning points (no matter if they were written into the ledger after I won) and you lose because, well, you lack enough points to be a winner – is because it allows our brains to be lazy. Our brains love short-cuts. We love to classify and categorize other people because then our brains do less work. If we know ahead of time who are winners and losers and why, life is easier. We don’t have to think. . . literally. Adding the belief of someone deserving their fate just validates the laziness. It allows us to order our collective life with minimal fuss and then we can all get on with things.

      Of course, an economy of grace and gift would be ordered in a different way. And from the point of view of the current economy of meritocracy would look wildly disordered, perhaps a reason we avoid it, and even take the kenarchy of the cross and negate it in our theologies and praxis. c.

  3. We can find roots in most disciplines, I suspect, that link directly with the divine ethic of kenarchy (if only by conflicting with it). We are very small creatures, vulnerable alone. We breed and families become tribes. We are sentient and seek understanding of phenomena. Our gods become the heros of our need because our best heroism is too small for our questions. At root, perhaps, this is why we are worshipers. All of this, for us, expressing the lostness of one core but broken relationship.

    We could almost expect from this, maybe even at that evolutionary level, even perhaps biologically, that we both ascribe hope to power, at least when it protects us, and that we find kenarchy counterintuitive. The challenge of this remains core. therefore. to what we call mission, to our sense of meaning and purpose. We are the most collective of species, when we create problems or go astray from the care of creation, we do so in spectacularly organized ways. We create systems in order to ensure predictable processes and then invest those systems with our faith because they express our desire to control the chaos.

    We also, and for the same reason, tend to believe that only systematic answers can solve systematic problems. We have screwed the earth’s resources by depending upon an economic model that seeks to extract wealth and to sideline it, to store it and own it outside of any flow of social responsibility. I can’t help feeling that the loss described in the treasure parables, as if Jesus had a problem with barns, is not just that it expresses our fear for our survival, only to have that which we believe will protect us stolen by others who have the same need, but the fact that this storage stops the flow that could, if permitted negate the need at its source.

    And we are faced with that challenge all the time. We believe that systematic answers are required and Jesus empties himself. Solving the biggest problem on earth does not have God sending armies of beings to judge and put right, but one man lays down his life and looks enquiringly at us as if to ask, ‘Do you understand yet?’

    • In between reformatting chapters of the dissertation yesterday I watched portions of a news show led by Chris Hayes in the US (my brain just needs a break sometimes). He gathers a group of interesting and knowledgeable people around a table for a discussion on a topic or two each week. Yesterday was about corrupt institutions and how do we deal with them. He noted that in the USA, peoples’ trust in the institutions such as government, the market, academia, and the media is at an all time low. And that leads to cynicism. He wondered how a presidential election can be conducted in such an atmosphere.

      The discussion moved to the market – specifically Wall Street and financial markets and it was noted that there is a moral hazard created when the incentives within the system promote and reward risky, immoral behaviour. The incentives create a moral hazard and a propensity to greed that overrules any care of the collective.

      So here we are. We are social critters with large brains. We create collectives and often formalize them into institutions. We have a tendency to hero worship those who are successful. As Hayes pointed out when we see someone who is successful with lots of money, the wealth alone tells us they deserved it, no matter what the real story is. In the midst of this we grapple constantly with our desire to fill our barns at the cost to others of even basic life essentials.

      Hayes also noted that climate change (and I would also suggest other actions that creation cries out for right now) is the greatest governing challenge we have ever faced. What does the kenarchy of Jesus and the cross tell us about all of that, in light of our own human tendencies? Somehow we must work collectively without falling into systemic ways of thinking that ultimately trap us. We have to have leaders who work within the collective and are not incentivized to corruption. We need to find ways to meet people’s needs and to de-incentivize greed and the need to fill barns for one’s self (though it might be okay to fill a barn for a community, at least over the winter).

      As I reflected on the discussion I watched yesterday I realized that the cause of the corruption was always greed, the love of money and the now incomprehensible amounts allowed to influence the political system in the USA due to their election laws. This love of money corrupts everything it touches there. But, the prevailing meritocracy declares the love of money both the incentive and the reward for one’s labours (fill your barns and keep filling them, build new ones, keep filling them). Kenarchy breaks that cycle of thought and action, and yes, I guess we have to do it one person, one small group at a time. c.

  4. I can go with most of this, Cheryl, except some bits in the last two paragraphs. When I question if systematic problems can only be solved systematically I do not mean to imply that the alternative is ‘one person, one small group at a time’. These are, or seem to be quite commonly, the alternatives that society gives us. You are with the system or you are on your own. We have seen a hint of the dynamic of movements in Occupy, of course. But we are faced, I feel, with false alternatives.

    Perhaps because of where we stand in the post-Christendom, post-congregational journey I think we are missing the dynamic of the body of Christ. The simple and regrettable idea is that had the principle of the human incarnation of God’s purposes been seen differently, what we would be involved in now would the the church (probably much smaller than it is today) as a counter-cultural and spirit empowered movement demonstrating to the world what heaven is meant to be like. It is tempting for the skeptical to imagine from this a sort of diaspora of the Amish. A bunch of technology rejecting legalists probably popularly described as ‘Refuseniks’ (This is not what I think the Amish are like, but how modern society might respond to them if it really noticed them).

    Had the church retained the call to be a demonstration of the kenarchic kingdom (and from time to time many expressions of the church have done something approaching this, even within Christendom) and had we avoided the conflation of political ambition and eschatological calling, the alternative community would have either been hugely influential upon the development of every part of society or it would have been persecuted out of existence. Sometimes, but rarely because it takes a lot of energy, I look at major historic developments and wonder how they might have been different had the church been more like this. There would have been no reformation because there would have been nothing that triggered its response. I tend to think that there would have been a Renaissance, or something that fulfilled its function, but much earlier and almost certainly heavily influenced by the creative dynamic of God’s kids. But it is in the post-Enlightenment world that I think the biggest differences might be found. I very much doubt that the industrial revolution would have happened as it did. And I am quite sure that the consumer revolution would not have happened at all. Greed would have had to have found a different way.

    Such speculations still have their place, but in a very different form. It is not only that they affect the stories that we build and live within. It is in the opportunities we have for raising such stories to the front of the social mind. In my little world I almost never let someone get away with a statement about business behaviour that implies ‘That’s just the way it is.’ There is always a way to make the point ‘Well, that’s certainly the way we are making it, right now, with this decision’. If someone from an older school wants me to believe that ‘It’s a jungle out there, it’s the survival of the fittest’ there is often a chance to say ‘If it were a jungle it would be a much easier and safer place to be.’ Why? Because the jungle is not greedy. No natural predator is greedy. Predators do not usually kill what they cannot eat, they do not store up the corpses of their prey in order to have all the prey or to ensure that others cannot have it. Creation is wiser than human society.

    This week I have to deliver an advocacy statement for a hearing on banking practice. I am in the fortunate position of being the ingenuous outsider in this process. What I say does not have to make sense in terms of modern banking practice, but it does have to make sense as an ethical appeal. History helps me in this is by reminding me that banking was once, believe it or not, a highly principled profession with a profound sense of honour and social responsibility. I have to avoid the polemic, at least at the surface, that any commercial organization that does not give its social responsibility as much weight as it’s responsibility to stakeholders is already a danger to society.

    One of the more difficult points that I have to make is that the bank’s leaders seem to believe that they are not accountable until they are held to account. While this might describe the way that banks do business today, it is certainly also a description of a moral vacuum. This ends with a question, “What have you already lost if your customers have become your conscience?”

    I have not fully worked out yet, not by a long way, the thought that lies behind such statements. We are discussing here the nature of God in relation to power and dominion. It has come up frequently that God’s people are God’s people because God has invested his purposes in them and they have embraced that fact, usually in covenant form. This implies a calling to become a particular form of community, that we know as an eschatological community. The metaphors of the New Testament lead us to understanding the church as being the continuation of that process beyond AD 70 when the judgments begin to be outworked. There is, in this, a call to community that centres around the figure of Jesus, and has to carry the kenarchic expression of the cross at its heart, in the power of the Spirit of the age to come. (Wow, what a mouthful!) What I am trying to explore is that there is a vast palette of possibility when it comes to the proclamation of such a community. Far from being the privatised, individualised mysticism of the modern gospel, the calling is from the community of God to the world to become part of God’s purpose. Specifically what I am asking is how, given this as a purpose, do we issue that call today, to the various communities that we encounter?

    • Chris: I was not implying a privatized faith. That has been a problem hasn’t it. Not only because it doesn’t influence much, it also doesn’t influence the person practicing it much. . . usually. If faith is private then I am not even accountable for that in my life. So faith is a social and collective effort, a communal task but how that relates to the larger society and collectives is the question. Part of the problem is the way we define words and understand things. Is governing a system of thinking, a formalized way of doing things, and/or a collective that has agreed to respond to a particular set of circumstances in particular ways? And the problems come when there are unexpected consequences and the circumstances change but the approach does not.

      Banking may have been a moral and honourable task at one time but the context in which banking takes place has changed dramatically. To regain the connection to the collective the system that governs banking has to change too. I trust you read the article in the Guardian today by a person who acts as a coach to bankers. The headline: “Finance is an amoral world, bordering on the immoral”.

      Here’s the URL:

      I find we who struggle with the implementation of the realities of a kenarchic God struggle most with the meaning of large and small actions. Is it significant, in the kingdom, that I have a garden? No one else really sees it much. I do all the work. The wee critters love it and so do the insects and plants but does it matter? Is it a good use of my time for the kingdom? Or teaching at college? I enjoy the students, and hate the topics I am hired to teach. I find no meaning in them. Is my time there useful, significant, meaningful, achieving something for the kingdom? Or should I push to be in a higher position, one with more influence, more in keeping with my abilities and skills, more meaningful, with more power so that I can change an organization more easily? But kenarchy implies that I simply seek to do what I see the Father doing even if it is lowly and unnoticed by others. The easy answer is a privatized faith, then none of these questions arise, private piety becomes sufficient. But that too negates true kenarchy. I have no answers, I just know this earth, this creation is desperate for a way of life that does not demand control and power but gives and gifts and loves. How that gets worked out, especially on a planetary scale, is still quite beyond me.

      Shalom on your adventure with the bankers and banking. I trust you will shake them and encourage them all at the same time. c.

      • Thanks for the link, that’s helpful, I have been catching up only on the reaction to the Greek election so far today. And thanks too for that last though, to shake and encourage… that’s the idea!

        There’s much here for pondering, Cheryl, as ever, thank you.

  5. I am trying to wrap my mental fingers around some of this, and the thought occurs to me regarding some of my own adventures in soteriology of late where I am grappling with the punitive model of the atonement vs. the ransom model and the early church fathers approach to the whole “angry God” thing…(try very hard not to imagine a divine angry birds game here please!).

    At any rate I am discovering that our western models tend to fall back into some of the distilled Greek interpretive philosophies and we are usually unaware that we have have “understood” from the wrong century…the context of a covenant model where God as a Hebraic negotiator who does ALL the heavy lifting to make a covenant with Himself on the cross and then include us by fiat/faith in the resurrection allows for a “kenarchy” model.

    The cross then becomes both the invitation and the rsvp when we step into our truest identity which is ALSO an rsvp from the resurrection…phrases like “In my Fathers house are many mansions…” lend to an understanding of a “God shaped space” created for us in the Kingdom…and the way in is to empty ourselves so we can truly be ourselves…

    Seems like a rather painful healing in the long run…what started in disaster in eating and transferring freedom and the right to rule as God ends in a party where we eat the one who rescued us and returns to us the right to rule as God does…

    • I think that your reflection on the salvation process in the final paragraph may be skewed by our tendency to see the gospel as just that, a salvation story. Or why Scot McKnight refers to evangelicals in his latest book “The King Jesus Gospel” as soterians. A problem so great that in my view he remains entrapped by it himself. If we understand the story as revealing the character of God and those he created in his image and their relationship with each other, the wonder remains without so much of the pointlessness.

  6. Is then then God revealed in the Gospels through the life of Christ plan A or Plan B?

    Because isn’t the God revealed under the old covenant very different to that Revealed by the Gospels?

    If God revealed by the gospels is plan A, then what is the purpose of the old covenant? Surely the old covenant reveals a powerful soverign God.who often does dominate?

    I had previously thought that the Old covenant was plan A , so to speak, and that God as revealed by tyhe gospels and the death of christ on the cross was Gods ultimate back up plan to reconcile man with God.

    Should I be statring to re-think this?


    • As I respond to Mark above, too much emphasis on plans may be unhelpful. The narrative of an adventure, a love story, a loving Trinity multiplying themselves in love out of their very nature. This is the marvel to me!

      • I second this, enthusiastically. We can’t entirely escape, or even fully know, the constricting effects of vastly over systematized schemes. The creeds themselves are frequently as notable for what they omit as for what they describe. But the net result is to constrain the scope of the biblical story frequently in unbiblical ways.

        We need to consider much more open language now. This is our adventure and our responsibility. For those coming to your posts from the familiar turf of modern evangelical conservatism without, for example, taking a side tour through the open theism of Pinnock and Sanders, or the critical realism of Wright, or the social realism of Witherington (i.e. the representatives of those schools that remain firmly within evangelicalism) are going to find the shift a bit scary.

        But I think we can overstate these things. What do we lose, for example, if we begin to loosen the grip of predetermination implied by the hard edges of God’s plan and begin to think instead of God’s desire, God’s hope, his endless creativity in the face of our contrariness? Not much, I think, but with an awful lot to gain.

        And in particular how can we be threatened by lifting the obsessive privatized individualism of the modern western gospel if instead we gain a place within the universal desire of God to make heaven and earth anew and find our place within that great ambition?

        We can stay inside the locked sanctuary and hope that the post Christendom storm passes us by without ripping the roof off, or we can put on our wellies and try a little puddle splashing!

    • I don’t think I’m getting this yet, I’ll look and think again.

      • It may help to consider that revelation is progressive, rather than simply corrective. And that the Old Testament, including the terms of the covenant found there, shows the way in which God cooperates with us when we get things wrong, rather than condemns us. He then uses our inadequate or sinful preference for substituting law, monarchy and temple for loving relationship with the trinity and each other in order to lead us back into the fulness that the incarnation consummates.

      • In other words, he starts with us where we are (in terms of the way we behave and understand life) and then moves us forward through progressive revelation over time? Ummm, that kind of sounds like both discipleship and what I do with my students in terms of education. In terms of brain function you can only start with something people already know, otherwise, whatever you are trying to teach sounds like gibberish to them.

  7. Roger this sounds very like Moltmann’s Crucified God ….. is that where you are going with this ?

    • Great to hear from you Alasdair. I don’t think I have a problem with Moltmann’s concept of the Crucified God, as far as I recollect and understand it. But I’m not heading in anyone’s particular theological direction, but rather attempting to be truly incarnational and argue from Jesus to God.

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