Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Foot Washing and Eco-Justice
distributed 4/3/15 - ©2015

A genuinely ecological Christian theology is entwined with all aspects of the faith. It includes "nature" awareness, of course, and it reaches far more broadly to engage all questions of spirituality and ethics. During Holy Week, the central stories of Jesus' passion speak to our relationship with God and all creation.

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Foot washing during Holy Week is an ancient tradition in some parts of the Christian Church. For three years now, I have been touched and delighted by the way Pope Francis has brought fresh light to the deep meaning of this practice.

Yesterday, Francis went to a poor neighborhood in Rome, and washed the feet of 13 people -- 6 men and six women from a prison, and the child of one of the women. He told the inmates (and all those gathered to worship, and the global media) that since slaves washed the feet of their masters in Biblical times, the event symbolized service to others and spiritual cleansing.

Images of the pope kneeling before prisoners, washing and kissing their feet, are a powerful symbol of service, humility and love. But I noticed, in looking at a video of the liturgy, that the water in the bowl was sparkling clean when he was done. That was a clue to me that the symbol falls far short of the shocking act of Jesus.

To catch the full richness of what Jesus did, and to be challenged in our own lives by this part of the Holy Week story, we need to recall the messy details of the historical setting.

All four of the gospels tell of the last supper, but the foot washing part is only found in John (chapter 13). Apparently, those who had traveled with Jesus still didn't get the message that he had been preaching and enacting. Whether or not it was going on during the meal (as is described in Luke 22:24), the disciples were known to have argued among themselves, seeking the greatest honor, prestige and power. They thought that being close to Jesus imparted glory to them, and they wanted lots of it. And so, on that final evening, to hammer home the point, Jesus acts out service instead of authority. He strips off his outer garment, and washes their feet.

Try to imagine the original context. People of the time wore sandals, and the streets were full of camel dung, donkey urine, and various kinds of rotting garbage. Everybody had filthy feet. In Middle Eastern cultures, even today, it is insulting to show the soles of your shoes to others. When entering a home, any person with manners would remove their sandals and wash his or her own feet. Sometimes -- as a sign of incredible hospitality -- a servant or a member of the household might perform the foot washing.

I'm hard pressed to think of a routine activity today which is at once so intimate and so demeaning. Foot washing is in the range of emptying bedpans in the nursing home.

Foot washing was an act that took away all the washer's dignity and status. It was among the worst of all possible tasks. A Jewish midrash on Exodus says that the washing of a master's feet could not be required of a Jewish slave. In 1 Timothy 5:10, a worthy widow is described as one who has "shown hospitality, washed the saints' feet, helped the afflicted, and devoted herself to doing good in every way." As a dramatic sign of ultimate devotion, a student might wash his teacher's feet. But a teacher washing the student's feet? Unimaginable.

It is hard for me to internalize the social context and the layers of meaning that were related to foot washing. If you were fortunate enough to not have to wash your own filthy feet, the job would invariably be done by someone of a lower class or status. Those daily dynamics of power and servility are outside of my experience.

In Rome yesterday, the dozen convicts all came with clean feet. They were moved and honored by such intimate care from the pontiff. At the Last Supper, though, the disciples had filthy feet, and they were bickering among themselves about who was the most honorable, the most deserving.

What Jesus did on the night of the Last Supper is a stark reversal of his society's routine experiences of power dynamics. The act of washing the disciple's feet demolishes the entire notion of status and privilege. It invalidates any consideration of "greatness." It turns around the question about "who will admire me and serve me and meet my needs?" It asks instead, "who must I acknowledge, and how can I meet their needs?" It turns "what's in it for me?" to "what do I have to offer?"

Some churches do foot washing as a ritual, and it is usually a pretty polite and sanitary event. The challenge from Jesus goes beyond a once-a-year symbol. He tells us to make radical servanthood a way of life.

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Within religious circles, it is often said that the environmental distress of the world is, at its heart, a spiritual crisis. If we are to live in a just and sustainable way within a global community, we need a profound change in our self-understanding, in our deepest hopes and aspirations, and in the motivation for all of our relationships and behaviors.

The servant life of Jesus, symbolized so succinctly in the act of foot washing, shows us what that deep spiritual transformation looks like. And the horrified reaction of Peter shows us how radical that transformation really is.

The call of faithful servanthood is far deeper than being helpful or kind. It is more challenging than being a good manager of Earth's resources. We are called to discard all of our aspirations for power, prestige and privilege. Self-interest is to be the very least of our considerations. We are to find our life's meaning in the service of God, of our community, and the web of life.

The Jesus who picked up a basin and a towel to wash the feet of his disciples is rebuking every way in which we accept inequality, and every way in which we live with assumptions of privilege. For those of us who live within the luxury and dominance of the modern consumer class, our entire way of life is challenged.

  • When we hesitate to forego any of our luxury for the sake of our sisters and brothers who live in the most destitute poverty -- more than one billion of the world's people live on a dollar a day or less -- then we are not getting the notion of servant lives.

  • When we find it impossible to imagine a way of life that is ecologically sustainable, because we can't conceive of living without our gadgets and conveniences and our status, then we're don't understand the challenging message of Jesus.

  • When we are willing to put Earth's entire biosphere at risk from catastrophic climate chaos, because our way of life depends on fossil fuels, then we are like the disciples who completely missed the point of Jesus' ministry.

On the last night of his life, to dramatize the core of his entire message to the clueless disciples, Jesus washed their feet. His enacting of the most demeaning of servant roles was a slap in the face to his followers who still thought it was about them.

As we enter this most holy weekend of the church year, may we feel the sting of that slap, and may we be transformed by the grace and beauty of Jesus' simple act.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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