Foot Washing and the #Humblebrag, Part 1

Maundy Thursday, Year C
(To be continued in Part 2, which will show up here this evening!)

One of the reasons that I am an Episcopalian is that I believe most whole heartedly in critical inquiry--an inquiring mind and a discerning heart being key qualities that I pray for in others and myself.  I am not one to accept things without question and I have enough of a stubborn streak in me that I sometimes question things that have always been so--not because I wish to change them, but because I want to be sure that we understand the why of them.  

So tonight, as we share in the ritual act of foot washing, I found myself going through the process of exploring my own feelings about it and going further in order to explore what I hope we receive and understand through participating in it.  

The foot washing, at its best is an act of care taking of the other, of those with less power than us.  It is an act of mutuality and consensuality--I care for you and you allow for that care.  As is most commonly practiced, with those “higher up in the hierarchy” washing the feet of those “below” them, it is usually cast as an act of humility on the part of leaders.  But this has always struck me as a bit of what some might call a "humble brag"--a term I learned from reading the comic “Doonesbury”--it refers to the use of self deprecating statements when the true intention is to point out how fabulous the speaker is.  And, my initial aversion to the act of foot washing, as it is sometimes practiced, I think comes out of the potential this act can have in perpetuating unhealthy power dynamics. 

Now, this may seem strong, but my concern is that  while this liturgical action is ostensibly about leaders accepting the role of servant, it really becomes a process in which those getting their feet washed are objectified...objects for the use of others.  This is troubling to me, this tendency to see each other as props in our own dramas...and this is the reason that my initial reaction to Pope Francis' decision to break from tradition (that of washing the feet of 12 priests) and wash the feet of children in a juvenile detention center was one of disgust.  Not, at the children, but at a system in which children are used and addressed as a symbol rather than as fully embodied human beings.  

Now, I don't wish to cast aspersions of malfeasance upon the Pope--and I do think there is a potential for great good to be brought about through the process of drawing the world's attention to the marginalized of our societies.  And, I would like to think that the young people sharing in this experience will find their encounter with the Pope to be one of encounter with the divine--and likewise I will pray that the Pope’s encounter with these young people will be one of encounter with the divine.  But, the potential for objectification that sidelines the powerful possibility of transformation and reconciliation is most certainly there.  

In college I fell in love with Martin Buber’s book “I-Thou” as a treatise.  A treatise for the importance of mutuality and consensuality in all relationship--because in the theology of Buber, when we objectify others we lose the ability to see the divine in their presence, the “thou” as he puts it.  And, while I do believe my concerns about the liturgical use of foot washing are valid, I do think that in practice it CAN be a vital way of embodying our love for each other and our willingness to serve as Christ in the world.  

But, how are we to move beyond objectification and incorporate this ritual into our lives and our liturgy in a manner which reflects an adherence to the teachings of Christ? 

Little baby footprints


Manisha said…
This is so very interesting. It reminds me of the last time I was in India, in a small Gujarati town where the custom to honor elders is to bend down and touch their feet. In response, the elder touches the head of the person bending and offers a blessing. I have always felt uncertain about this until I actually did it and understood for myself the purpose of showing this respect and receiving in return.

I also appreciate the comments on the Pope. You help me understand the dynamics and the gaps better. Thank you!
Joy said…
I love when customs from varied cultures overlap...thanks for sharing the commonality!
Beth said…
I'm quite impressed with Pope Francis and what seems to be a real humility. There is no way to know his sincerity, but I pray it is real. I've heard a lot about servant leaders in churches, this is the first I've seen it in action at all, certainly on this level. It encourages me and challenges me.
Joy said…
Beth, I agree and share in your prayers!

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