Kyriarch eleison!

An interesting concept I hadn’t come across until recently: kyriarchy. This is a concept from feminist theory – which probably explains why I hadn’t previously heard of it… – and I encountered it in this post by Arwyn at Raising Boychick. Arwyn quotes a definition of “kyriarchy” which describes it as:

a neologism coined by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and derived from the Greek words for “lord” or “master” (kyrios) and “to rule or dominate” (archein).

She then expands on this as follows:

While “patriarchy” places man (literally “father”) as the ruler/dominator, “kyriarchy” emphasizes that it is the very concept of “master” that rules us; it is the act of creating hierarchies on which we are all placed “higher” or “lower” that oppresses and damages us.

This reminded me of the Digger leader Gerrard Winstanley’s phrase “kingly power”. As Winstanley wrote in The Law of Freedom in a Platform, the problem with the English Revolution was that its leaders had executed the king, but had not removed – indeed, were now exploiting for themselves – the underlying phenomenon of kingly power:

though all sorts of people have taken an Engagement to cast out kingly power, yet kingly power remains in power still in the hands of those who have no more right to the earth than ourselves.

At first glance, kyriarchy may seem an uncomfortable concept for Christians. After all, the earliest Christian confession was “Jesus is Lord!” – which would seem to preclude us from saying that lordship is inherently oppressive.

However, one of the most helpful comments I’ve ever heard on the statement “Jesus is Lord” – I regret I don’t remember the source, though I think it may have been J.I. Packer – is that it says more about lordship than it does about Jesus. The emphasis should not be so much “Jesus is Lord!“, as “Jesus is Lord”. The Son of God who humbled himself, made himself nothing, was crucified, dead and buried: he is Lord. That is what true lordship looks like: and it’s the complete opposite of human lordship.

As Jesus himself said:

“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. 43But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, 44and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” (Mark 10:42-44)

Jesus’ death on the cross shows us exactly what he meant by this.

So to say that “Jesus is Lord!” is not to affirm kyriarchy by placing at the pinnacle of its hierarchies the Kyriarch of Kyriarchs – though we need to acknowledge that the church has frequently gone down that path, both in its own life and in its support of different forms of political power – but to demolish it, by rejecting the human conceptions of lordship, mastery and “kingly power”.

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19 Responses to Kyriarch eleison!

  1. J Random Hermeneut says:

    I think a similar inversion of reality – hill becoming a valley sort of thing – happens regarding the concept of “exousia” — i.e. privilege, authority, legitimate right. It is given to the man Christ (and by him to the church) the “exousia” to, what? Sort people out and put them in their proper place when they cock up? No. Rather, uniquely, to forgive sins.

  2. Rev. Alex Klages says:

    That, and you can’t discount the overtones in the word “Lord” as a description of his true nature as YHWH, too. (CF the Septuagint and its constant translation of YHWH as Kyrie).

  3. J Random Hermeneut says:

    Right on. And so the truly revealed God (Kurios AKA YHWH), who is Christ, in opposition to the deus absconditus, subverts all our carnal expectations and assumptions regarding deity.

  4. JS Bangs says:

    I don’t like it, because it ignores what Scripture actually says about hierarchy and power. Note the verses that you quoted: Jesus doesn’t deny that some will be “great among you”, but he enjoins that those who are great to serve those who are lesser. Likewise in the Epistles, Paul seems perfectly content with the idea that the overseers are “over” their flock, but of course that leadership isn’t meant to serve the overseer’s interests, but to allow them to protect and give their lives for the sheep. The pattern repeats in Paul’s talk about headship in marriage.

    IOWs Scripture definitely does not abolish the concept of hierarchy, but it does turn it upside down and say that those at the top give their lives for those at the bottom, with Christ as the ultimate example. That’s very different, both in theory and practice, from this talk about “kyriarchy”, though.

  5. J Random Hermeneut says:

    Scripture definitely does not abolish the concept of hierarchy,

    Of course not (though the ELCE has, which is perhaps why JH is so darn egalitarian. [*I jest*]) Hierarchy is not abolished but, from a carnal point point of view, is subverted and transfigured.

    I have no idea what this talk about “kyriarchy” is either. But I think JH’s main point stands – how the church has a long, sordid history of often confessing Jesus as Lord apart from the necessary cruciform-shape of that confession.

  6. JS Bangs says:

    But is that JH’s main point? Why did that only come up in the last paragraph, then? I agree that the Church has often lost sight of the Christlike nature of lordship. My main point is just that abolishing hierarchy and teaching hierarchs to be Christlike are very different tasks, and that I’m against the former and in favor of the latter.

  7. J Random Hermeneut says:

    OK, touché. JH what’s your point?

  8. John H says:

    If I’m unclear as to whether I’m advocating (a) a removal of hierarchies, or (b) a subverting of the oppressive (“kyriarchal”) nature of the hierarchies that continue to exist, then that’s because I lurch between the two positions on an almost daily basis…

    It has to be said that the number of examples of hierarchies being “subverted” without being abolished outright are pretty limited. Possibly constitutional monarchy gropes its way in that direction? OTOH, perhaps abolishing hierarchies altogether represents an “over-realised eschatology”…

  9. John H says:

    JRH: our comments crossed. My point is probably this: whether one removes hierarchies or keeps them in place, one always needs to be watchful of them – since its so easy for them to become oppressive and exploitative. A phrase I heard used in a discussion of “kyriarchy” was the need to “explore one’s privileges” – and that’s probably what’s needed on an ongoing basis.

    It’s a similar position to the political dynamic I described in this post, with a tension between “put not your trust in princes” (so rejecting an uncritical acceptance of political power) on the one hand and using political power to “defend the rights of the poor and needy” (so rejecting anarchy) on the other.

    A related thought: wouldn’t it be wonderful if the Pope really meant it when he calls himself “Servant of the Servants of God”?

  10. JS Bangs says:

    JH: Regarding examples of Christlike hierarchs, have there been no good Christian kings? No saintly bishops wielding their authority with the fear of God? No good pastors giving endlessly of their time and energy for the care of their sheep? Perhaps none of these completely embody Jesus’s admonitions, but they go a good ways towards illustrating a cross-shaped hierarchy.

    I have a problem with all attempts to abolish kyriarchy or patriarchy or what have you, because our human institutions are icons of our approach to God even if we don’t mean them to be. So any movement to abolish human lordship will ultimately find itself in revolt against the Lord Jesus, and the attack on patriarchy has to rebel against God the Father. I think that history bears me out in this.

  11. Ruth Moss says:

    Brilliant post. 🙂

  12. John H says:

    Thanks, Ruth.

    Though for someone who’s been blogging for over half a decade, I can be pretty clueless sometimes. I should have realised that Arwyn might find getting linked/discussed at a site like this a little odd! Should have left a comment on her post explaining the link. Still, live and learn… 🙂

  13. Rick Ritchie says:

    The neologisms are interesting. Looking at Arwen’s site, I have to say I am a bit leery of how jargon-laden it all was. Maybe it’s an Oscar Wilde side of my nature, but whatever philosophy I choose, it had better sound nice. My anarchist friends manage this discussion with fewer syllables. They just want less “archy” in the rulish sense.

    It is interesting that in the Septuagint, ‘archein’ is used of the sun and moon in the Genesis account. One rules the day and the other the night. I suppose I could read violence into the sun’s work if I look at a desert. Not so sure about the moon. I think the ruling probably has a more interesting definition.

  14. Pingback: Confessing Evangelical » Blog Archive » The hierarchy turned upside down

  15. SimonPotamos says:

    RR: Not so sure about the moon.

    Lunacy? Sting: “I howl at the moon, the whole night through…”

  16. Rick Ritchie says:

    Funny timing. I was just reading the chapter on Luna from “Planet Narnia” last night. You have to wonder just how broad or narrow the category of ruling was, when other cultures had such carefully worked astrological theories. How do we avoid reading too much or too little into the terms?

  17. Richard says:

    I’m a big Winstanley fan and had wanted to post a reply but the time has probably gone.

    In any case, I came across an interesting quote today in Hans Jurgen-Goertz’s “The Anabaptists”, (p. 37) in the midst of a discussion of anticlericalism in the radical reformation. In the Tauber valley in 1476 the so called Piper of Niklashausen’s anti clericalism received this response from the crowd making, I think, much the same point:

    To God in heaven we will complain!
    Kyrie Eleison!
    That the parsons cannot all be slain!
    Kyrie Eleison!

  18. John H says:

    Richard: thanks for your comment. If you do have any further thoughts on Winstanley then feel free to share them – this isn’t one of those “topical” blogs. 😉

    Fascinating story re the “Piper of Niklashausen”. I’m always interested in how ideas can remain underground for centuries in particular areas (so that the English Reformation found receptive in areas formerly associated with Lollardy, and Anglo-Catholicism seems to have taken hold very readily in many areas that had been strongly recusant a few centuries earlier).

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