Kenosis: A Response to a Stratified, Self-Centered Society

Eight rich men possess as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion people. It was also found that, since 2015, the wealthiest 1% have owned more than the rest of the entire globe combined. [1] These statistics reflect the current global economic trend that the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. [2] This wealth gap is cause for alarm, as such extreme economic stratification is fuel for abuse of the poor majority. This gap enables the mass consumption of cheap goods while concealing the high human cost of producing such goods. As a car runs on gasoline, the systemic inequalities are fueled by squeezing the workers at the bottom. By minimizing labor wages, profits for chief executives are maximized. [3] The success of such ruthlessness is disheartening. In a world of inequality, where the powerful are free to exploit the poor, one might wonder if there is another way to live.

Broadly, the industrial revolution of the late 18th century to the mid-19th century was a global turning point in the triumph of production over people. It saw a transition from family-owned artisanal making of merchandise to mass production of standardized goods in factories. This shift led thousands to sacrifice safety, sanitation, sleep, decent wages, and a meaningful work environment: lower class men, women, and children worked brutally long hours for meager wages, often in unsafe conditions doing monotonous tasks. [4] In his work, The Stones of Venice (1853), art critic John Ruskin warned against the dangers of this apparent “progress:”

And the great cry that rises from all our manufacturing cities, louder than their furnace blast, is all in very deed for this,–that we manufacture everything there except men; we blanch cotton, and strengthen steel, and refine sugar, and shape pottery; but to brighten, to strengthen, to refine, or to form a single living spirit, never enters into our estimate of advantages. And all the evil to which that cry is urging our myriads can be met only in one way… It can be met only by a right understanding, on the part of all classes, of what kinds of labour are good for men, raising them, and making them happy; by a determined sacrifice of such convenience, or beauty, or cheapness as is to be got only by the degradation of the workman; and by equally determined demand for the products and results of healthy and ennobling labour. [5]

For Ruskin, work ought to be about more than mere money. Ruskin is correct that the human component of labor is ultimately more valuable than turning a profit. Work bent around maximum production can create a menial, even hellish work environment.

Should individuals seek to transform systems so that they center around people before profit? Unfortunately, Ruskin’s dark picture is still a relevant depiction of many modern societies, and it is a tragedy that there are millions of enslaved peoples today. Because Americans are privileged beneficiaries of the societal stratifications, we may be tempted to ignore this horror and continue to live comfortably and ignorantly. Or, we may be moved to try and change the world. We are finite beings, and the magnitude of human suffering at the hands of systemic oppression is enormous. Trying to change the world can be like trying to put out a forest fire with a squirt gun. Sadly, some of the most dedicated, compassionate people become exhausted in their efforts to combat the oppressive systems of this world. Human empathy has limits; it is seemingly insufficient to transform global inequality. [6] Yet, for Americans, the choice remains either to resist inequality or to ignore it.

For those who choose to honestly face the world’s injustices and yet hope for justice, harmony, and the universal recognition of human dignity, first seeking an infinite source of compassion is the most logical way forward. A Christian answer is that we must allow ourselves to be transformed to be like Christ before attempting to transform the world. One way to be transformed in such a way is by experiencing and practicing kenosis. Rooted in Philippians 2:7, [7] kenosis is a process in which Christians metaphorically emulate the death and resurrection of Christ. According to orthodox Christian tradition, Jesus Christ, being fully divine, emptied Himself in becoming a human, even to the point of submission to a humiliating death. [8] Thus, theologically, kenosis is the act of emptying one’s individual will in order to be receptive to God’s will. In this way, emptiness may be transformed into fullness. Kenosis is not a doctrine to be blindly followed, rather it involves a mental reorientation that results in action.

Kenosis is the antithesis of society’s attitude of self-promotion. This mindset invites us to seek the good of others, rather than cling to our own power, privilege, and status. This self-emptying may strike some as weak or apathetic, but I would argue the opposite. A kenotic attitude negates and overturns the very patterns which seek to assign human value according to riches, or intelligence, or good looks. It acknowledges a deeper Reality, one that views human beings as equals. In his letter to the Galatians, Saint Paul radically wrote: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” [9]

20th century creative writer C.S. Lewis captured a kenotic attitude in his work The Screwtape Letters (1942). In the book, a fictional experienced demon advises a younger demon on how best to tempt and try humans. Lewis uses this unusual context to reveal truth about human nature. For example, his literary version of hell is a bureaucracy, chosen to be a mirror for the systematic atrocities that took place during his lifetime. [10] Lewis’s senior demon, Screwtape, imagined that a “philosophy of hell” would rest on the axiom that one thing is not another, and therefore to be is to be in competition. Screwtape’s philosophy involves putting one’s self first, at the expense of all other selves: “My good is my good and your good is yours. What one gains another loses.” Screwtape goes on to observe that love is a contradiction in that, “things are to be many, yet somehow also one. The good of one self is to be the good of another.” He elaborates on the mindset desired by God:

The Enemy [God] wants to bring the man to a state of mind in which he could design the best cathedral in the world, and know it to be the best, and rejoice in the fact, without being any more (or less) or otherwise glad at having done it than he would be if it had been done by another. The Enemy [God] wants him, in the end, to be so free from any bias in his own favour that he can rejoice in his own talents as frankly and gratefully as in his neighbour’s talents–or in a sunrise, an elephant, or a waterfall.

According to Lewis, relinquishing individual willfulness frees us to realize the beauty by which we are surrounded. If we can release our own concern about whether we are important enough, powerful, or secure enough, we can be renewed by the bliss that already exists. From this sink of infinite love, we may be moved and empowered to transform the world.

Finally, we may consider the words of contemporary theologian Hak Joo Lee, “Society and its institutions cannot be functional without a constant infusion to even a minimal degree of kenotic spirit among their members. To build a community, we need to move beyond individualism and invite others into our hearts through self-emptying.” [11]



1 “Oxfam Briefing Paper” Jan. 2017

2 Between 1988 and 2011, the income of the poorest 10% increased by $65, while the income of the richest 1% increased by $11,800, 182 times as much (“Oxfam Briefing Paper” Jan. 2017).

3 The International Labor Organization estimates that the forced labor of 21 million people generates $150 billion in annual profits (“Oxfam Briefing Paper” Jan. 2017.)

4 For example, the regimented bell system, a product of a quantity motivated environment, left no room for conversation.

5 Ruskin, John. The Stones of Venice., 1853

6 Compassion fatigue, a form of secondary traumatic stress, arises from exposure to the suffering of others with no power to relieve it. It is suffered by many caregiving professionals, including doctors, social workers, and  psychiatrists (Babbel, Susanne. “Compassion Fatigue.” Psychology Today, 4 July 2012.)

7 “[Jesus] emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness,” (Philippians 2:7, NRSV.)

8 Philippians 2:6-8 (paraphrased)

9 Galatians 3:28, NRSV

10 Lewis, Clive Staples. The Screwtape Letters. 1942.

11 Joon Lee, Hak. “Kingdon and Kenosis: The Mind of Christ in Paul’s Ethics.” Theology, News and Notes, 2013,


Lydia Anderson is a 2017 graduate in Environmental Engineering at Cal Poly. Originally a student-athlete, Lydia now uses her free time for backpacking, glass-blowing, and hanging out at the Front Porch. After a short internship in India, Lydia will be joining the Peace Corps.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,