Monday, November 16, 2009

A Brotherly Dialogue: On Lars Justinen's Painting "Servant to the World"

Recently my brother Garrett and I got into an email dialogue about Lars Justinen's painting, "Servant to the World." Garrett, finishing up his Bachelor's in Biblical Text at Abilene Christian University and set to start his MDiv next year, found the painting on an online syllabus of Phil Kenneson's for a class on Christ and Culture. The painting, as seen below, portrays Jesus washing the feet of Kofi Annan, in a room full of various nations' flags and world leaders sitting in a row, including Angela Merkel, Tony Blair, Annan, George W. Bush, Manmohan Singh, and Jiang Zemin. Of course, in between Annan and Bush is Osama bin Laden, the controversial center of the piece. Garrett found the painting invigorating and said he was ordering it to put on the wall of his and his wife's apartment. After a week or two of reflection, I sent Garrett an email sharing my concerns, and he wrote back. Below you'll find that correspondence, and more in the days to come.

(For more information on the painting, read more here or here.)

Brad: So I wanted to share a concern with you about the Bin Laden/Jesus painting.

While I get the idea of it, and its use, as a heuristic device, something to spark conversation in a classroom of predominantly white middle-class Christian students in a university setting -- I'm not sure I think it's appropriate in a home setting. I was trying to think of analogies. Would it have been appropriate in 1944 Germany to hang a painting of Jesus washing Hitler's feet, in a row with Stalin, Churchill, and FDR? Or in 1979 Uganda of Jesus washing Idi Amin's feet, with Mao, Carter, and Thatcher? I guess I just see lots of serious issues involved in the interplay between painting, message, context, social setting, public meaning, etc. What would happen if you hosted in your apartment a family who lost a son or daughter in the WTC buildings? Or a family whose loved one is in Afghanistan right now? Or an immigrant family whose relatives suffered under the Taliban, or still do so today, or who know people caught into Al Qaeda and are rent by it?

Again the painting seems fit for a classroom discussion, but I'm confused about the message. Is it that Jesus loves each equally? Is it that each person in the row is morally equivalent? To me, if it has to do with nonviolent response, then it is disastrously bourgeois and out of connection with those who are actually suffering. I guess what comes to mind is a picture of children being tossed into the ovens of the holocaust while Jesus washes the feet of the Nazi guards. It just doesn't make sense. There is no justice in the picture. But isn't God the God of justice? Don't we not retaliate exactly because God will avenge? Doesn't the God of Jesus stand resolutely apart from and absolutely against the monstrous evil of Hitler, Stalin, Amin, and bin Laden? If so, how could he wash their feet? To wash feet cannot be equated with nonretaliation -- in my imagination, Jesus is not even in that room with those Pilates and Herods but rather with the victims of Afghanistan and the WTC, suffering with them and crying out in anger and mourning against the insanity of the Powers. But never washing their feet, never baptizing the blood on their hands. Jesus cries out against their brutality in unwavering commitment to the justice of the kingdom, willing to pray for them and unwilling to deny the image of God in them and certainly ready to die at their hands -- but never legitimating them by something as intimate and affirming as foot washing. I just don't think that is an appropriate image for perpetrators of genocide.

In my opinion, such an image sentimentalizes the phrase "love your enemies." I don't think that phrase has any legitimate meaning if it does not also entail standing against the violence of those same enemies.

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Garrett: I definitely understand your feedback about the Bin Laden/Jesus painting and you said a lot of things that I had not thought of. I think you are right about how offensive this could be to all the types of people you listed: a family whose son or daughter died in WTC, a family whose loved one is in Afghanistan right now, or an immigrant family whose relatives suffered under the Taliban or who know people caught up into Al Qaeda. You are right that it would be wrong to parade such a painting in front of them. Putting the image on my wall would probably been totally inappropriate and offensive.

However, I think you are wrong to say that Jesus wouldn't wash Bin Laden's feet. If he died for Bin Laden, why would he not wash his feet? If he would wash Judas' feet, why not Bin Laden's? Furthermore, why is Jesus washing Bin Laden's feet more offensive then Jesus washing Bush's feet? Because one says he is a Christian and the other says he is a Muslim? Both murder; both do so in the name of God, religion, truth, justice, and "the right;" and both deny immorality of what they do. The value of the painting, in my opinion, is to challenge a perspective that looks at Bin Laden as the Son of the Devil, while looking at "our" leaders as good people who have just misunderstood the call of Jesus (or worse, who think what "our" leaders do is good).

I agree with what you had to say about justice. There is not justice in the picture. But that makes sense to me. Jesus did not come to demonstrate for us what the justice and the wrath of God look like. He demonstrated for us what it meant to love our enemies and two of the most prominent images for that, in my mind, are the crucifixion and Jesus on his knees washing feet. Now surely Jesus would also take other postures towards the leaders in the pictures, perhaps speaking judgment and woes on them, but I do not see why that would keep him from serving them as well. You said, "Doesn't the God of Jesus stand resolutely apart from and absolutely against the monstrous evil of Hitler, Stalin, Amin, and bin Laden?" Absolutely true. But just because Jesus stands apart from against someone or something, doesn't mean he won't wash their feet or die for them. The God of Jesus stands resolutely apart from and absolutely against the monstrous evil of Judas, who betrayed the Son of God, but Jesus still washed his feet.

"To wash feet cannot be equated with nonretaliation -- in my imagination, Jesus is not even in that room with those Pilates and Herods but rather with the victims of Afghanistan and the WTC, suffering with them and crying out in anger and mourning against the insanity of the Powers." I think you are probably right here. Perhaps this contradicts everything else I said, but I do think you have a point about this. Jesus probably wouldn't be in that room, he would be with the victims, suffering, crying out, and mourning with them, and prophesying against the powers. I guess my only contention is that, if he were to find himself in that room, Jesus would not be vehemently opposed to washing their feet.

"But never washing their feet, never baptizing the blood on their hands." This assumes that washing someones feet baptizes the blood on their hands? When you serve the poor, does that thereby baptize all of the sinful actions they have committed? I do not follow your logic here and if anything, this logic would force you to give up serving anyone with sin on their hands.

Finally, I will just say that I think there is a difference between what I believe to be the truth of the painting and the appropriateness of it in our context. Although I think the message it gives is true, I agree that it is entirely inappropriate to put in our home and to show off to guests. I appreciate you calling me out on this. I wouldn't have thought about almost any of these issues if you hadn't.

2 comments:

  1. At first, the painting seemed completely out of line with the passage in John 13. Jesus washed his disciples feet in order to subvert the master/servant power construct. Symbolically, the painting represents the leaders of the world as the masters and Jesus as the servant without any subversion, though, for Christians, this power construct (Jesus as a stronger representation of power than world leaders) does exist. For a secular audience, this would take on a different and perverted meaning from what we understand as Christians because Jesus is not more powerful than current world leaders in their eyes. I would argue that the Biblical meaning portrayed in the painting is extratextual and distorted, especially for a secular audience (though over 2000 years, Christianity has seen its share of distortions, many of which we probably can't distinguish from true meanings). However, if the piece were used as a "heuristic" for understanding the Christian symbol of washing feet in relation to how we should view power structures in religion, I'm all for it, though I still don't think "W" would understand.

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  2. Jesus washed the feet of His closest group of friends, not His enemies. Good friend or bad friend, Judas was still friend. At Peter's protest, Jesus said that if Peter didn't let Him wash his feet, then he would "have no part in Me". This gesture was intended for those who have a part in Jesus, just as Communion is intended for baptized believers. It was symbolic of them allowing Him to cleanse them on the inside. The people in this painting have not yet been cleansed by Him on the inside, therefore I don't think this gesture of Jesus' is extended to them. That's not to say that if they were to sincerely repent, He wouldn't forgive them - He would - but similar to Communion, Jesus' washing of disciples' feet is for disciples only. He loves the people in this painting, but they can have no part in Him until they accept Him as Lord first. Just my take on it.

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