This post is a transcript of a patreon-only video (see support for details).
Thanks to Heather Lee for the transcription, and to Gareth Boyd for the edition.
One of the surprising things we saw during the George Floyd protests was footwashing rituals. Of course, these pictures and images traveled all across the Internet, creating outrage in some camps and confusion in others, while some were happy to see such an event happen. So, what I want to do here is to look at the symbolism of footwashing in Scripture, and show just how strange this version of it is, and how it doesn’t totally align with what we see in the Bible stories. Where it does align however, it does not seem to be a good sign for the message these foot washers are trying to convey.
In North Carolina there was a footwashing ceremony that was organized by one of the local churches. You can see the pictures of white people washing the feet of some of the black protesters. You can see also that the police are involved; that they’re kneeling in this ritual. The church that organized the event said that it was a symbolic demonstration of forgiveness, solidarity, and justice for all mankind.
Now, the reason why this action caused so much confusion is because it is not fully in line with what footwashing is in the Bible. The story of Christ washing feet has very little to do with forgiveness and justice for all mankind. This new version of footwashing is an act of contrition. Jesus washing the feet of His disciples was not an act of contrition. We need to look at the story of Christ washing the feet of His disciples in order to understand what it’s about.
There are several aspects to the story of Christ washing His disciples’ feet. The first aspect is the clear relationship to hierarchy in that moment. Christ is their leader. Christ is their rabbi. They are his disciples. They are following him around, He is teaching them, and He is showing them the path that they must follow. He has also given them His body and His blood. He is distributing Himself down into the hierarchy. They are receiving from Him and they are meant to come together into His identity, with Him being the head and them being the body. We can see all of this imagery throughout Scripture. It is there when Saint Paul talks about the head and the body. When you see Christ distributing Himself down to the disciples, what you have is an image of this hierarchy. So, it’s important to understand that Christ is the top in this relationship; that Christ is the head.
As I’ve discussed in other videos, the greatness or wonder of Christianity is not that it abolishes hierarchy, but that it calls upon those who are above to express their hierarchy in love, and to do it so perfectly that it actually calls those below into those above. That is, as an authority, you are lifting up those who are below you so that they actually share in your authority; that they share in your identity. You can understand that the scene when Christ gives them His body and His blood – the scene where Christ washes His disciples’ feet – is also the scene where Christ says: “You are no longer my servants; I call you my friends.”
Christ is lifting them up. And it’s important to understand that there is a difference between this lifting up and the opposite, which would be the disciples calling Jesus their friend and saying, “Hey, Jesus is my buddy!” It’s not their role to break their relationship with the head, but it’s the role of the head to call into Himself that which is below. If those that are below start to call upon themselves, and start to call themselves the friends of Jesus of their own volition, then we will see a breakdown in the communion of those different people who are below. We see this happening in the scene where the disciples argue about which one of them will be on the right and left of Christ. A desire to claim a position is making them bicker and fight.
When Christ washes the feet of the disciples, the first thing to notice is that the disciples protest. Saint Peter does not want Christ to wash his feet. Why? Because he recognizes how Christ is his master. He recognizes how Christ is his leader. And his reaction is: “You’re supposed to be above me. I don’t want you to wash my feet because I should be washing your feet. If you’re my leader and I’m your disciple; I’m your servant, I should be washing your feet.” But Christ is saying, “No, it has to happen this way.” The way it has to happen is through the filling up of the world with the Logos. The very reason why Christ said things like “blessed are the meek, blessed are the poor” is that the Divine Logos is coming all the way down, and He is there to gather all aspects of reality and bring them up into God. And so, Christ says, “I need to come all the way down, and I need to come down below you and I need to wash your feet to bring you up into God – to bring you up into the thing that unites us.”
So, Christ gets down, takes His outer clothing off, washes the disciples’ feet, to their astonishment. If you look at the image of the washing of the feet, you see Saint Peter with an attitude of shock. He can’t believe it, he can’t believe what’s happening. He’s completely surprised, and he’s disconcerted by this event.
And so, in the tradition of the washing of feet in the Church – in Catholicism and in Orthodoxy – is the traditional manner in which the ritual of washing of feet proceeded, and it followed the same pattern as in the story. Thus, once a year when we celebrate on Holy Thursday, a leader – the bishop, the abbot, or maybe the priest – will wash the feet of their sheep; of their parishioners. They will wash the feet of those who, all during the year have to submit to the authority of the bishop. They recognize the bishop or the priest as their spiritual authority, and now, in this moment, the bishop is coming down and is bringing them into the authority that he receives from God. He’s lifting them up.
One of the things this does is to show the fullness of God – how God fills the world. And how what we’re called to is a type of equality, but not the type of equality we see in the person below demanding their rights and protesting and asking to be let in. Rather, it is the responsibility of those above to care and love and bring those below them into their role – to bring them up, to lift them up so that we’re all gathered together into our common purpose; into the thing which unites us, which is God Himself.
And so, the ceremony of the washing of feet strictly happens in that manner, and it ends up also reinstating the relationship of authority. This is the reason why the bishop does it, and the reason why it’s exceptional is because the bishop is the head of the church. It’s because it’s the leader who’s doing it. That’s what makes it exceptional.
So, if you have a church that organizes a very strange ritual in which they wash the feet of black people because they’re black and because they’re protesting… It’s actually insinuating a very odd thing. It insinuates, “I, your superior, am going to wash your feet in this moment, but it reinstates the fact that I am also your superior.” Especially if it’s done by a church.
There is also another traditional manner in which the washing of feet happens, the way it happened in a normal household of the ancient world. Normally it would’ve been the servants who wash the feet of the master. That’s why Saint Peter is so surprised. That’s why you have the story of the sinful woman who comes in and washes the feet of Christ with her hair. It is an ultimate sign of making herself low; lowering herself and elevating Christ as her lord and her master.
And so, the idea that you would now do this in a way that is not reinstating your authority means that you are doing it in a way that you are actually subjecting yourself to the person in front of you? That you are actually making yourself a servant of that person and you’re elevating them to be your lord and master? Although on a personal level I can understand how monks and ascetics have done this to humble themselves, in a context of racial categories, it all becomes very odd. I don’t think that’s what the foot-washers wanted to do either.
Either way, this type of gesture ends up sending a very confused message. Whether you look at it one side or the other, it seems to give the wrong symbolic message; not the message they wanted to signify. This is in spite of the feeling, or weird catharsis that everybody was experiencing at the time and wanted to act on.
It is also possible, when considering the question of authority, unconsciously at least, there was something strange happening. We’ve heard some theories about this problem, of these types of gestures and rituals being associated with “white guilt”. Strangely enough, white guilt sometimes does seem to be a tool in reinstating the white liberal at the head of the hierarchy. Is that what they were doing, perhaps unconsciously? I don’t know, I will let you decide and judge for yourselves.