Sunday, 17 April 2016

Questioning The Religious Status Quo

My journey out of the institutional church has left me with a crazy, upside-down perspective on so much of what goes on inside that religious bubble. So when I recently heard about a 'foot-washing service' amongst religious leaders in my home town, I was not surprised that something about it made me uncomfortable. When my husband's response was even stronger than mine, I figured my instinctive recoil was worth exploring.

The ceremony itself was held in a public gathering space in the Parliament building and involved a number of leaders from different denominations performing the act of washing each other's feet. On one website it was described as "an act of reconciliation between denominations, traditions, people groups and individuals" and yet something within me felt there was a hollowness in the gesture.

I wrote to one of the people involved, and while I affirmed the idea of repentance - changing attitudes and behaviours - between leaders of different denominations, I did suggest that it seemed to be a fairly safe and 'easy' gesture to make. I also pointed out that I have never seen a similar response towards those who have suffered abuse (of all kinds) in the church environment.

However, it was not until someone on Facebook posted an excerpt from a longer article, discussing the popular notion of a culture of honour, that my thoughts and feelings on the subject crystallised. Referring to the historical context of Jesus's action it read:

"Apostle was not a title for a high status leadership position. In their day, when you said “apostle” no one would think of a manager, owner, chief executive, or someone sitting at the top of a religious pyramid hierarchy. They would think of dishwashers and busboys, or worse. In their world, the feet were considered the most defiled, unclean member of the body. In our world, we would normally associate the most uncleanness with bathroom functions and the associated organs! Not so in theirs. To wash feet was not just a “nice humble thing” to do. It was to abase one’s self to the lowest of the low, the basest of the base, the most demeaning expression of service available in their world. In the upper room we see Jesus’s apostleship (ministry) being modeled. How that gets turned into rank and privilege by creative religious minds, is quite a manoeuvre." [Emphasis added]

Suddenly, I realised what had made me so uncomfortable about the whole thing. 

That graphic (and shocking) allusion to bathroom functions stopped me in my tracks, and I was offended at the thought of enacting a culturally equivalent service. It made me realise that we have taken a private act of menial and demeaning service - which powerfully demonstrated to his disciples Jesus's call to lower themselves - and put it on a pedestal (or, in this case, a stage) as a public show of 'humility'! We've made a "nice, humble" tradition out of an act of genuine abasement by the son of God, himself.

Now, I am not suggesting that the leaders involved were not sincere or well-meaning, or that they don't genuinely want to see reconciliation between church factions. What I do want to explore is whether, despite Jesus's actions being replicated, the spirit behind that original act was somehow lost. Do we copy Jesus's actions, but by-pass the deep heart transformation it represented?

And does copying Jesus in a public setting have any impact on what happens in private? Has it changed the pervasive culture of hierarchical 'leadership' within the church? Does it give a voice to the voiceless? Are the stories of those who've been abused by the system now being taken seriously?

Or is it simply business as usual? We've done a good thing, so we can feel good about ourselves and continue to ignore anyone who sees it differently. We can perpetuate a system which damages and ignores and silences the 'nobodies'. We can continue to sacrifice our siblings on the altar of our truth, our vision, our leadership. We can insist that the only options for the sheep are to "get on board", or "get thrown under the bus".

I want to suggest that no amount of public foot-washing amongst the religious leaders is going to transform hearts or effect the change that is needed to bring about a reconciliation which unites the whole body in real love and relationship. As meaningful as it might have been to those involved, what message did it send to anyone who's been invalidated and damaged by church leaders? Is it helpful for those in power to enact repentance to one another, and yet ignore those who've been disenfranchised by the church?

Please note, these are genuine questions.

This is not an attack on any person or group in particular, or even on the use of symbolic gesture to represent a heartfelt conviction. And I am not saying I have all the answers. In fact, most days I have more questions than answers! But these questions are legitimate. My voice and my perspective are  valid. And yet, like many others who see things differently or ask difficult questions, I continue to be ignored and silenced. 

The truth is that I would love to engage, to explore, to learn & grow with others of similar as well as differing perspectives. But it seems that the christian community is closed to any voices but those which echo the leader-approved position. I'd love to meet someone in current leadership who is brave enough to see through some else's eyes, yet my experience suggests that is not likely to happen. Regardless, I will keep asking my questions...


  1. I think that it is telling that we can even refer to it as a for washing "ceremony". Sure, Jesus was teaching about deeper realities when he washed his disciples feet, but the whole point was that he was being a servant who was meeting a practical need for them... and he told them to do likewise for each other.

    Btw, pure speculation, but I bet those were some of the cleanest feet that have ever been washed. You simply don't go to a foot washing ceremony without first washing your feet... maybe consider a pedicure. ;)

    1. Spot on! Jesus was being a servant... and he called us to emulate him!

      Btw, I had a chuckle over your speculation. Do middle-aged white men get pedicures? ;)

    2. They do if they are publicly getting their feet washed :D