Have you ever participated in a Maundy Thursday foot washing? I find the ritual amusing. What amuses me is the awkwardness of most people, the squeamishness about touching others, the discomfort with an act so unfamiliar and so intimate. I’ve observed many people (okay, white people) choosing to pair up with a close family member for the act, apparently to render the whole thing more palatable. We are unskilled at this foot-washing. And most of us don’t even walk miles a day on dusty roads—not a lot of stinky feet and mucky water to grapple with, just clean white towels and porcelain bowls (at least in my church). Yet the whole point of the ritual is to push us outside of our comfort zones, to suggest the radicalness of what Jesus did by washing his disciples’ feet (John 13:1-17). That his action was profoundly challenging is evident in Peter’s initial refusal to let Jesus do it. Jesus goes on to explain that he washed the disciples’ feet to set an example. As their leader and teacher, he was laying aside his position and taking last place, which is what we too are to do. He was providing an icon.
Kneeling and touching a stranger and drying their wet feet with a towel in a symbolic act may be uncomfortable. But it doesn’t come close to the discomfort of what Jesus is asking of us. It is about looking at the places in our lives where we are at or near the front of the line, and making the decision to give up our position to another—to move to the end of the line, relinquishing our status.
Few people elucidate this central aspect of Christian theology as well as theologian Cristina Cleveland. For anyone with privilege to relinquish or position to share, she is hard listening. Either that, or her message is not being heard. And since she is sharing a part of Jesus’ message that is eminently clear in the gospels, Jesus’ message is not being heard. Go check her out.
We rather like the ways we stand out and take up positions at the front of the line. Status feels good. Opportunity feels good. Waiting does not. Rejection does not. Being overlooked does not. Those of us with privilege give it up with difficulty because, without a doubt, it goes against our grain. The good news Jesus proclaimed, calling attention to the “reign of God” in which the first will be last and the last will be first, goes against our grain.
It has been encouraging in recent days to see the diversity of the racial justice protests sweeping the country, with some accounts saying almost half the participants are white. But I wonder how stalwart white-solidarity will be when we are asked to “take our place at the back of the line” to promote social justice. Outrage at the murder of black people by police is easier to conjure than the willingness, even desire, to give up a job prospect so it will go to a non-white person instead of us, or for example, to give up autonomy over how our neighborhoods look. Will whites show up with as much enthusiasm when the question is whether or not to tear down an older apartment complex housing mostly people of color in order to build a new Trader Joes? Will we be willing to accept an altogether revised security structure that doesn’t provide white people with the lull of “security” that armed cops provide?
If I look at the ways I’m at the front of the line as an educated white women raised in a solidly middle-class context that afforded things like private school, private college, financial aid, connections and job opportunities, and home ownership, and if I truly want to see increased opportunity for those with less access to education, scholarships, loans, etc., then I’ll forego opportunities for myself in favor of opportunities for others. For example, I will desire to not get a book deal in favor of the deal going to someone without white privilege. That is, after all, the meaning of “equity.” I will desire to not get, say, a chaplaincy position, in favor of the job going to someone nearer to the societal back of the line. If equity is to emerge in the way Jesus envisioned it, those of us who are the first, who occupy privileged positions at the front of the line, will have to give things up in a big way. We will have to trade in our ambitions for other values.
This is what Jesus’ radical act of washing the disciples’ feet is demonstrating. And it is bloody painful. If we cannot admit that it upbraids our innate sensibilities, that it hurts and sets our teeth on edge, we are likely not telling ourselves the truth or understanding the message. We can choose to deny the message in order to protect our privilege, of course, which has been the M.O. of white Christians for millennia. We can say Jesus did not really mean what he said and did, and instead transform the gospel into a capitalist-friendly message of individualistic salvation, altogether enervating and silencing Jesus in the process. It is a well-worn script.
So much turmoil not only in the U.S. but around the world comes down to the privileged being unwilling to give things up in favor of a world with greater equity, fairer access, more broadly distributed opportunity. This unwillingness is at the heart of the refugee and migration crises all over the western world—the scapegoating and rounding up of the undocumented. Some call what fuels rising anti-immigrant, anti-refugee efforts “white anxiety.”
The term “white anxiety” could be applied to many American churches, unfortunately. As largely white churches grow older, smaller, and less financially sustainable, people say they want to broaden church, to allow the church to change and diversify, to welcome in new faces and generations. But I have witnessed the anxiety that manifests as soon as people realize these efforts require giving things up, relinquishing privilege and power over how things operate, letting marginalized peoples have the positions at the front of the line. It is almost like white Christians would prefer to see churches die out over doing the uncomfortable work of giving up their privileged positions. I have seen people who claim to want more kids in the church complain about kids’ fingerprints on the glass doors. I have seen people who claim to want greater ethnic diversity complain about the Our Lady of Guadalupe statue added to the altar. I find these petty complaints infuriating, frankly; I can only imagine how they feel to the families whose kids and revered icons are so carelessly maligned.