The greatest among you will be your servant. – Jesus
In the previous two articles, we explored the ritual of the Lord’s Supper with a focus on transplanting its timeless themes to the present age. The conclusion of this journey was a simple reclaiming of the biblical communion expression—an expression rooted in Hebraic materiality which celebrates life and its physical redemption. This expression of communion is not simply closer to the full-meal examples in scripture but also interacts meaningfully with the values of emerging generations. This means that the ritual if recast in its more archaic expression, will have greater evangelistic appeal to those who increasingly inhabit our religiocidal age.
However, the conversation on communion is not over yet. For Adventists, the ritual of the Last Supper is always accompanied by the ordinance of humility more commonly known as the “foot-washing ceremony”. This ceremony is essentially a re-enactment of Christ washing his disciples’ feet before they sat for their final meal. But for Adventists, the ritual is more than a re-enactment. It is instead an act of obedience for Jesus commanded, after having washed his disciples’ feet, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (John 13:15)
The basic substrates of this ceremony are indeed beautiful and deeply meaningful. The ritual allows us to express humility toward one another. It is a chance to seek forgiveness of those we have hurt, and to serve them in a self-abandoned way. In a sense, the ordinance of humility is the ultimate contra-egoic rite by placing both parties in a posture of submission toward one another. The final objective is to cleanse the heart of its pursuit of supremacy and to celebrate the way of Christ’s kingdom in which “the greatest among you will be your servant”. (Matthew 23:11)
With such a strong foundation as this, it would appear that the topic of foot washing is settled and final. However, there is one overwhelming problem that we must confront and that is the problem of translation. When Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he did it in a context in which washing feet was a common task performed by servants. For him, as the king, to perform this act carried incredible spiritual weight. Everyone wore sandals and walked dusty streets. Dirty feet were the norm. Cleaning them was a commonplace act of hospitality. There was nothing out of place about washing feet. The part that was out of place is that the king was doing it and then says to a room full of men fighting for political supremacy in what they believed was the coming of a new, temporal, Israel that they ought to imitate this act with one another. But today, most people (at least in the west) wear full coverings on their feet. On Sabbaths, they wear their best shoes and cleanest socks. If the service has been announced ahead of time, nail clippers and pedicures have ensured the best presentation. Therefore, by the time the shoes and socks come off, the person doing the washing is often met with a scenario far removed from what the disciples would have encountered. Instead of feet covered in the dust of ancient city streets, replete with the decomposed remains of horse urine and camel stool, we are met with the best Revlon and Sally Hansen’s footcare catalogs have to offer. So then, how much humility and self-abandonment are we celebrating here?
On top of this, the ritual has become a mere form to many. It is not uncommon to enter the hall and look around for a random person’s feet to wash—a person whom you only ever see during a 2-hour program on Sabbath mornings for whom no other energy or sacrifice is expended. In the same vein, for those who have grown up in the church the ritual does not conjure or inspire humility in any special way. On the contrary, it has become a mere form that we repeat at the given intervals before we return to our bickering and struggles for local church supremacy.
Finally, the ritual simply makes little sense to anyone who hasn’t grown up in the church. Even if explained, it never carries the same meaning it would have carried to an ancient Israelite who occupied a world in which foot-washing was an act tied to social status. Thus, in a recent poll on the Bible and Beer Consortium’s public Facebook page, a majority of the responders (atheists, agnostics, seekers) indicated that while the ritual celebrates meaningful themes, a contemporary adaptation is needed if we wish those themes to be amplified rather than lost in the proverbial ancient to modern transit. This was in stark contrast to polls taken in primarily Adventist groups where the vast majority voted to retain the ritual with no adaptations needed. Clearly, there is a disconnect between us and the people we are meant to serve.
The question over foot-washing in Adventism is not new. Adventist Today has hosted a series of articles on the topic by diverse authors questioning the ritual. Loren Seibold notes his observation in significant numbers of members repeatedly avoiding the ordinance, a pattern he refers to as the “pedilavium problem”. Steven Ciciliano defined his early thoughts on the ritual as a “strange and anachronistic” rite. After reviewing the available data in scripture, church history, and Ellen White, Siciliano concludes that the entire ritual can be best understood as “more convention than clear command”. But perhaps none hit the topic quite as brutally as Justin Dane Spady when he noted that “Foot-washing is an archaic practice with no application to our daily reality.”
However, these sentiments are not universal. In her own Adventist Today piece titled, “Foot Washing: an Irrelevant and Antiquated Ritual?” Author Cindy Tutsch commented on Jesus’ instructions to wash one another’s feet as a “pretty straight-forward injunction” complicated only by “our too-cool-for-school egotism” in which personal pursuits take precedence over scriptural foundations. Likewise, in recent polls with pastors and members, the desire to “leave it as it is and change nothing” was overwhelming. This is in stark contrast to the sentiments of my poll with a secular audience who overwhelmingly voted for a reframing of the ritual. So, in the end, we are left with three conflicting agendas: to discard the ritual, to retain it, or to reframe it.
Discarding the ritual, of course, is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Retaining the ritual though appears to be driven by the same tone-deafness that guides much of Adventism’s contemporary irrelevance. This leaves us with a call to reframe which, in turn, presents an equally insurmountable challenge. There is no modern-day western equivalence to the ancient practice of foot-washing that we can reinvent and recast within a “humility ritual”. The late modern age is an age that has lost all sense of mythology, mystery, and ordinance. Even in our everyday secular lives, customs like hospitality have become an industry, and the communal, village culture of the ancients is relegated to sitcoms that portray friendships we all long for but seldom have.
So then, without a modern equivalent reframing cannot manifest as intended. This means that rather than celebrating the primordial themes of foot-washing (the canvas) within a new frame (something other than foot-washing) we may have to, instead, take the old, worn frame and polish it with a new varnish. Much like other ancient rituals we retain with a fresh infusion of meaning (baptism, Lords Supper, Sabbath), foot-washing can also manifest as a merging of the ancient and the modern, giving it a vintage flavor. But before we dive into this exploration, I would like to quote a large portion of Reindeer Bruinsma’s article, “Adventist Traditions and Rituals” as I believe it sets the necessary stage for where we go next.
In pre-modern times Christians lived in an ‘enchanted’ world, in which all things that were not readily understood were thought to be caused by supernatural forces. Magic and superstition were closely allied phenomena. However, a drastic development occurred when pre-modernity gave way to modernity, as, in the words of sociologist and theologian Peter L. Berger, “the sacred canopy” was removed. In the new modern age of science, rational solutions were sought for the things that were as yet not understood. “Enchantment” was, gradually but thoroughly, replaced by “disenchantment.” Christian believers were greatly affected by this development, and rational thinking about religious matters was more and more valued above non-rational attitudes towards matters of faith.
In the western world during the last few decades modernity has to a large extent given way to postmodernity. In this new approach to the world around us we notice a major degree of what might be called a “re-enchantment.” Those of the younger generations, especially, do not just ask what happens in the world and what kind of things they see and experience, but they also ask “Why?” They do not just want to understand the Ding an sich, but ask for its meaning. In the process they have become much more open to the non-rational aspects of life and to spiritual things. They may dislike organized religion, but they often manifest a strong interest in rituals and symbols. For them religion is not primarily a matter of the brain, but rather of the heart. For many of them religious experience is more important than intellectual knowledge about doctrines.
Bruinsma couldn’t be more correct. In her Los Angeles Times article, “How millennials replaced religion with astrology and crystals” writer Jessica Roy states, “Today, young people still seek the things that traditional organized religion may have provided for their parents or grandparents…” However, Roy states that beyond these beliefs, younger generations are also pursuing “a sense of community, guidance, purpose and meaning [that] can be hard for young people to find… in their parents’ religions.” Roy’s conclusion of the current trends is simple. Millennials are “looking elsewhere” for spiritual fulfillment. Hannah McMullan also captured this in her article, “Millennials reject organized religion, cling to spirituality” when she reported that “While millennials are abandoning organized religion, the numbers of their generation’s feeling of spirituality have increased.” Likewise, in an article titled “Q&A: Why Millennials are Leaving Religion but Embracing Spirituality” University of Virginia contributor Caroline Newman reports on the emerging religion versus spirituality divide when she notes that “[s]pirituality allows millennials to avoid choosing one religion and instead combine elements from many.”
All of this coalesces into the main contention I introduced at the start of our journey through the Lord’s supper and absurdity—that the inclination to delete the mysterious, uncomfortable, and eccentric aspects of our faiths—that is its rituals and rites—is not a necessary aspect of reframing faith for an emerging secular mission. On the contrary, the presence of these elements—if done right—is attractive because it conveys a faith that goes beyond the intellectual, unafraid to contend with the experiential.
With this in mind then, allow me to suggest three simple ways in which the ritual of foot washing can be contemporized so that it has meaning and value for emerging secular culture without losing its primordial virtues.
(1) Do it in small groups, not large church gatherings. Just like the Lord’s Supper, the foot-washing ceremony moves from an intimate act to an industrialized form when done in large settings. In these settings, it is much more difficult to make the experience meaningful for visitors. Likewise, because the church service is often already running overtime during communion Sabbath, there tends to be more of a rush and less time is given to a proper introduction and meditation on the themes that make this rite meaningful. In Jesus’ day, the practice was so common that this was unnecessary. But today, the practice is not common at all. If we want people to connect with it, it cannot be rushed. Finally, in larger church settings it’s not uncommon for people to roam around looking for someone to wash their feet and to feel embarrassed when everyone has a partner except them. In smaller settings, a lot of this goes away. There is more intimacy, more slowness, and more intentionality in serving one another.
(2) Make it a part of something bigger. Back in 2013, an event swept the world by surprise. News outlets rushed to publish reports and videos went viral. CNN reported, “The Pope went to jail today…” followed by a comical, “Calm down! He went to jail to wash the feet of young prisoners…” The BBC reported, “Pope Francis washes prisoners’ feet…” And according to Catholic Weekly “Pope Francis celebrated the Mass of the Lord’s Supper at the prison and washed the feet of a dozen inmates.”
Although some thought of it as a publicity stunt, many interpreted the pontiff’s act as a noble and meaningful expression of humility that broke away from tradition in the name of service and compassion. But regardless of how people reacted, one thing is true – no one was confused. Everyone understood the symbolism of the act despite the cultural distance between the western and ancient eastern worlds. But what made this particular foot-washing ceremony meaningful was not the act of washing feet itself, but seeing a highly revered political figure like the pope wash the feet of juvenile delinquents inside a prison. In other words, the foot washing was connected to something significantly larger than a ritualistic re-enactment of an ancient practice. It was connected to an act that turned social status on its head and protested societal caste assumptions. In that context, the world understood and affirmed Francis’ gesture as an act of goodwill.
I bring this up, not because the Pope is our example, but because it’s clear that when the church manifests itself in scenarios that transcend itself people get the message. Footwashing is always done as an in-house thing that is tied to nothing outside of our immediate community of faith. But what Francis showed is that tied to a larger theme, the ritual still bears an incredible impact on the cultural consciousness. This brings me to my final point.
(3) Use it as a symbolic, social bridge. Evidence that foot washing is not entirely alien to modern culture comes from two other recent news stories. In 2017 Pastor Dennis Rouse of Atlanta’s Victory World Church washed a black man’s feet during his church service as a protest against prejudice and racism. CBN News reported, “Rouse, who is white, washes the feet of a young African man to demonstrate the need for healing and humility between whites and minorities in America.” The social media response was overwhelmingly positive. Then, just this year (2020) several white police officers kneeled as white community members washed the feet of a black pastor during a George Floyd prayer walk. Both of these scenarios provided a rich demonstration of healing rooted in the humility Jesus demonstrated.
According to Metro News, a video of the event went viral with social media users describing it as a “‘powerful display of what reconciliation looks like.” The pastor involved, Faith Wokoma, herself expressed the heart behind the event when she noted, “As we look through civil rights history, the church was always such a big part of change. And we don’t want it to just be the black church or white church, or Asian church. We want the body of Christ to come together, collectively.”
What this demonstrates once again, is that attached to the right scenarios, a foot-washing ceremony can have a deep missional impact in both the humanitarian and social sphere. The culture did not respond to these events as bizarre and antiquated scenarios. On the contrary, most responded positively and were profoundly impacted by the gestures inherent in the ordinance.
The Bottom Line
But how exactly can these suggestions help? The bottom line is this: in the above scenarios there is a recapturing of the original offense of the foot-washing ceremony. When Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, what he did was vulnerable, countercultural, and offensive. Feet are dirty and gross—a thing only servants with no social status would stoop to clean. So when Jesus, the king, stooped to clean his disciples’ feet he lowered himself, emptying his social status, and deflating his image from the guy on the top, to the guy at the bottom. Likewise, in the Francis and BLM (Black Lives Matter) examples, the thing that made foot-washing meaningful (and this is the absolute clincher) is that foot-washing manifested as a protest of social status. In each scenario, those assumed to be at the apex appeared in the valley. Those privileged with royalty became servants. There was a protest, a resistance if you will, to the opulence of social status—all of this was denied and rejected in an act of lowly servanthood. And it is this offensiveness and anti-empire rage that is absent from our local church foot-washing ceremonies. In the absence of this key element, the entire ritual loses its impact and relevance.
In light of these suggestions, I would say that one possible way to perform foot washing with meaning today is to, first of all, do it less often. There is no need to do it during every communion meal. I would aim to host the ceremony once a year. However, I would aim to host it as a follow-up or catalyst for new social projects. For example, the church can engage in some project that brings reconciliation and healing in its community—a project that places it in direct contact with unchurched people. A special ceremony can be planned with an invitation for church members and leaders to wash the feet of those they have served during the previous year as a symbol of humility, equality, and servanthood. For a more direct manifestation, a local church can intentionally seek out the most marginalized communities in their sphere of influence, commit to serving those communities with humility and passion, and in due time, celebrate this through the ritual of washing the feet of those involved. Of course, these are just a few basic suggestions and multiple scenarios with diverse details can be imagined. But the bottom line is this: I believe that the ordinance of humility, expressed and manifested in this newly refurbished frame, will be of deep significance and virtue in contemporary mission. There is no need to discard it or rewrite it, but perhaps there is a large need to rediscover and re-express it in a way that goes beyond the forms and into the very heart of humility.