Christians do a lot of things that don’t make any sense at all to non-Christians. Let me show you one of those things: foot washing. It’s beyond weird, but it’s just one of those things that (some) Christians do. And I’ve seen one of these rituals–and I’ll tell you all about it. Today, Lord Snow Presides over yet another silly, meaningless ritual that Christians do that they think accomplishes great things.
An Introduction to Foot Washing.
Once upon a time, travelers arriving at their destination welcomed a good foot washing. The phrase means, literally, to wash either one’s own or someone else’s feet with water and a cloth. I certainly understand the appeal. Even if I’m not walking through miles of unpaved dirt roads, I like a shower once I get where I’m going.
In the Old Testament, we see verses about foot washing–and can see even by those days the ritual had begun to assume a more spiritual meaning. Exodus 30:17-21 has the Bible’s god telling Moses exactly how to make basins for foot washing, and instituting rules for it. In Judges 19:21, Genesis 18:4, 24:32, and 43:24, 1 Samuel 25:41, and even in Song of Solomon 5:3 we see references to foot washing as both an everyday task and a highly-ritualized activity.
In the New Testament, we see that foot washing has become a far more ritualized behavior. It always had rules involved, but now the power dynamics stand out crystal-clear. Typically, women wash men’s feet, hosts wash guests’ feet, and servants wash masters’ feet.
That indeed is how it runs in the New Testament world. In Luke 10:38-42, we see Mary of Bethany washing Jesus’ feet–and getting praised by Jesus for doing it. In Luke 7:36-50, we see “a sinful woman” washing Jesus’ feet with her tears and her hair–and getting praised by Jesus for doing it, while the host of the evening receives only criticism for not having offered Jesus a proper cleaning-up.
A Show of Humility.
In the weird last-shall-be-first mentality of Christianity, now we see Jesus up-ending that dynamic in John 13. Just before his arrest, we’re told, Jesus hunkered down with a basin and cloth to wash his disciples’ feet. Simon Peter at first refused to allow this reversal of power, but Jesus tells him very clearly that if he doesn’t allow it, then he has “no part with me.”
Under that threat, Simon Peter acquiesces, but asks that his lord also wash his hands and head, which Jesus refuses to do. Nope, this offer applies to the feet and the feet alone! As Jesus himself tells them, once the feet are clean, the disciples are licky-clean all over.
The whole chapter reads like such a cluster of chaos, but Christians kept the idea of that reversal of power. They interpret it as being an example of leading by serving, just one of those little temporary reversals that they think helps their leaders develop and maintain a sense of humility.
It’s pure nonsense, of course. A temporary reversal of power doesn’t do anything to dismantle unhealthy power dynamics.
Don’t Get Any Weird Ideas.
And we get that jolt of a reminder straight from the desk of J.D. Greear. OMG can we get away from this guy for two posts in a row?!? Apparently not! He writes that:
At heart, I am a foot-washer and table-waiter. I just realize that the greatest way I can do that now is by focusing my attention on teaching the Word. My leadership is not posturing for privilege, it is posturing for greater service.
And then he tells us that just because Jesus washed his disciples’ feet that one time to prove a point, he didn’t become “the designated foot washer” forever. He’d only done that the one time to prove a point. In like manner, Greear himself says he refuses a lot of demands on his time, but also tries hard to “work in regular ‘foot washing’ experiences” to, I suppose, remind himself that he’s totally just like Jesus.
(It amazes me that Christians don’t see right through this guy.)
Who Even Does This?
You might be surprised by the full list of what Christian denominations go in for foot washing.
Catholics are way lots into the practice. They set aside a special day for it once a year called Maundy Thursday or Holy Thursday, which comes right before Good Friday before Easter. The term “Maundy” refers to the foot washing ritual itself. The church’s leaders all the way up to the Pope perform this ritual. They pick foot washees who are at the very bottom of the power ladder.
This past year, the Pope picked Roman prison inmates. The inmates bared one foot and sat up on a tall dais so Pope Francis didn’t have to bend over or anything. He walked down the line with what sure looks like a golden basin and pitcher and washed each bare foot. I will say that those feet look quite clean already, which meshes with my own experience.
Other Christian groups that practice foot washing include the Amish, Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and Mennonites, and then we skip over to the evangelicals: Adventists, Baptists, Pentecostals, and the United Church of God.
So foot washing isn’t a universal Christian practice, though really, nothing is. But it’s fairly common.
How to Throw a Foot Washing.
Daniel Tomberlin, in this video, describes foot washing in the most rapturous terms imaginable. He doesn’t get around to describing how one works, though.
Don’t miss the little statuette next to him–or the Pentecostal drawl that turns “sin” and “cleanse” into two syllables.
Luckily, plenty of guides exist to tell Christians how to throw their very own foot washing hoedown. In between warnings about foot fetishists, we get some general ideas about how this is supposed to work.
Usually, the whole church doesn’t round-robin each other. A few people get selected to do the washing and to be washed. Typically the people getting their feet washed are lower-status in the church, and the people doing the washing are higher-status.
Also, the washees’ feet are already clean when they arrive for the ritual. That point is universal among foot washing churches–though one Christian prince-of-a-guy sniffs that Christians ought to be seeking out filthy people to “wash” through carefully-doled out faux-charity efforts “even when they waste all their money on drugs.” Nobody I’ve seen suggests using soap; instead, they use only clean water.
For most churches, foot washing occurs once a year, though some (like the Amish) do it twice a year. Many of them segregate by gender–men wash men’s feet, and women wash women’s feet–but this isn’t a hard-and-fast rule, as we’ll see.
How It Doesn’t Help.Remember Pope Francis washing the feet of the Roman prison inmates?
One wonders, if he wants to show his concern and care for “the least of these,” why he doesn’t work harder to ensure that Italian prisons aren’t nightmares for prisoners. From what I’ve been able to tell, they are overcrowded and poorly-maintained. The situation worsens considerably with their four “judicial psychiatric hospitals,” which get “regularly denounced” for their nightmarish conditions. Prisoner suicides happen regularly throughout the system.
Similarly, J.D. Greear wants to metaphorically wash feet, but he sure isn’t doing anything to stop the rampant misogyny among his flocks.
And Pentecostals themselves recognize that the ritual doesn’t do much to improve their church-mates’ sheer nastiness.
Why It Doesn’t Help.
I found a few people talking about their dislike of foot washing services. One woman laments that she feels very self-conscious about the shape of her feet or their potential smell. Her solution has been to volunteer to be elsewhere during the washing, or to find churches that don’t practice this ritual in the first place. If she were asked to participate, she knows she couldn’t decline without getting a great deal of side-eye and criticism.
And that, in a nutshell, is why these services don’t improve Christians’ behavior or equalize their abusive power structures. If someone can’t meaningfully and safely refuse to participate, then it is based in coercion just like everything else the group does. The ritual functions as a flexing of power, just like everything else the leaders do.
These rituals exist more for the leaders’ sake than the followers’; they are a performative show of piety. The ritual itself got lifted from a document written by a culture that was centuries ago dead and buried. Without that context, it comes off as surreal, disconnected, even weird.
That Time I Found Myself At A Foot Washing Ceremony.
For all I know, my church–which was United Pentecostal Church, International (UPCI)–did foot washing every year. I only remember one of the services. This happened at the big church I first attended with Biff, and probably during a Sunday evening service (those had very few non-Pentecostal guests visiting, so we felt freer to let our freak flags fly then). Here’s how it went down.
Our church had a raised dais or stage, with steps leading up to it. Along the front of it, they’d set a row of chairs with basins beside each chair.
After the sermon, women climbed the steps (escorted by their husbands–women did not go up to the altar alone in my church) and sat in the chairs. Each woman was the wife of a deacon, pastor, or other very important man in our church. Each woman wore a nice Sunday dress and pantyhose, though those were already fading out of fashion in the early 1990s. And each woman took off one of her shoes (heels or flats–nothing with buckles or difficult to put back on).
Then, their husbands went down the line, sloshing water over each almost-bare foot and then dabbing at it with a towel, until they got to the end of the line. Then they took seats at the other side of the dais and waited. All the time, soft organ music played.
Afterward, the pastor led the church in a song, and then we had an altar call.
That Familiar Feeling.
Meanwhile, I remember watching with this screaming-meemie feeling of absolute dread and weirdness sparkling across my chest. This wasn’t normal, and not in a good way, and I knew it. All the same, we in the congregation just sat there and watched till it was finished.
I knew that we performed this ritual because Jesus had performed it. As well, I knew that it was supposed to be this hugely transformative experience–both to watch and to take part in.
But it reminded me powerfully even at the time of the hype around revival services. Pentecostals (like a lot of Christians) hold revival services in awe. All kinds of wackiness happens then. Pentecostals get rowdy. You’ll see lots of dancing, running along the aisles, screaming in tongues, tongues interpretations, people slain in the spirit, hours-long altar calls, the works. They even imagine miracles galore happening!
Then, after a few days, the euphoria wears off and everything goes back to the way it’s always been. People who were horrible before these experiences go back to being horrible people afterward. The folks who think they’ve been magically healed or “delivered of a demon of depression,” as one friend of mine claimed more than once, discover they still need their wheelchairs and medications.
And they wait for the next revival.
In like fashion, whatever humility sprouted in the hearts of the people doing these foot washing rituals, well, it withered back away shortly afterward.
Two steps forward, two steps back: the story of Christianity at its best.
And I never got away from that weirdly lurid feeling I got watching that ceremony. As sanitized and sterilized as my leaders had made the festivities, it just felt so sexually charged. It was just so bizarre. A few years later, I’d watch Pulp Fiction and hear two of the characters discussing foot massages with much the same sentiment. I wonder how many other ex-Pentecostals made the same connection I did with that iconic scene?
Today, Lord Snow Presides over the silly, inane, context-free rituals that Christians do that they think accomplish great good–but in reality, do nothing at all at their best.
NEXT UP: We look at cold reading, and how it influences Christian recruitment efforts. On Thanksgiving, by the way, look for another Super Special! See you soon!
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Lord Snow Presides is our off-topic weekly chat series. I’ve started us off on a topic, but feel free to chime in with anything on your mind. Pet pictures especially welcome! The series was named for Lord Snow, my recently departed white cat. He knew a lot more than he ever let on.