Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Brotherly Dialogue, Part II: On Foot-Washing, Violence, Jesus, and Justice

This is a continued dialogue between me and my brother Garrett based on the painting by Lars Justinen entitled "Servant to the World. You can read Part I here.

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Brad: I think I'm interested in a general way with what you conceive of "foot washing" as a practice to mean or convey. As a visual or rhetorical image, it seems to me to be uniquely intimate, personally connecting, and radically servant-like. So when the Master bends to wash the feet of his followers in John, he is modeling for them what they are absolutely not beneath, and indeed must practice after he is gone: bow to the lowest position in intimacy and connection with others, and serve them. And when Jesus comes to Judas, he even washes Judas' feet because, though he knows what is to come, Judas remains one of the twelve and is one of the men who has walked with Jesus these last weeks and months. Does he wash the feet of "the betrayer of the Son of God"? Yes, but as the one betrayed, and not only that, but before the act is committed! It seems to me that those two facts mark a central distinction between Jesus the foot-washer of Judas and Jesus the foot-washer of bin Laden. Although we might be able to posit a theological account of how Jesus is and was "with" those who have suffered under bin Laden such that he is actually one (as God) that is wronged in bin Laden's evil actions, that seems an abstract end-around the simple fact that the murderous consequences of bin Laden have oppressed and killed particular human beings on behalf of whom we may not have the right to posit a Jesus washing their oppressor's feet.

Does that make sense? The image is not the father or mother of a man or woman lost in the towers or on one of the planes, or of one abused and oppressed in Taliban Afghanistan, but of a towel-wasted first century man in a United Nations-esque room washing the feet of a mass murderer who claims the sanction of God for his actions. Is there fundamentally a "same-ness" in the cross and in foot-washing? To me, the latter involves a radically different image and message than the former.

I guess part of the issue here has to do with being alive, yet also being unrepentant. The painting does judge me as not flinching at the notion of Jesus washing Bush's feet, however much I find myself in absolute disagreement with his decisions as a President (and of course, uniquely as one who claims to be a Christian). And it succeeds in disarming me to the extent that I'm just not sure what to do with him. Which raises the question for both men: what difference would it make if they were dead? Because being that they are both still alive, does enemy-loving foot-washing entail the possibility of conversion and thus repentance from having perpetrated mass violence? Again, I feel the judgment: it is actually (however distantly so) a possibility in my mind that Bush could, in his lifetime, come around to see the wrongness of his actions. But I more or less view bin Laden as a static case: as a murderous and hateful terrorist arch-leader who is and always has been and will be the same thing, utterly judged by God and fixed in his moral stasis. Undoubtedly that is wrong simply because of the example of Paul, the Christian-killer. So I'm open to being wrong at this point.

But how would we deal with this picture if both men were dead? How do we deal with evil posthumously? Traditionally, Christian doctrine affirms a radical openness of grace unto death -- that is, God's judgment enters unreservedly into the picture after the "chance" of life. For an unrepentant murderer, traditionally that would then entail the justice of God as unleashed in hell. Of course I don't know how to go near that faithfully or with integrity, but the very question implies two things: first, that death changes something in the way we envisage Jesus' loving (our) enemies, and second, that at some point divine justice is revealed. So what should we do with it with regard to figures, whether living or dead?

I guess my final question has to do with conceptualizing, on the one hand, God's enemy-love in the present, and on the other, God's visible and decisive justice for those who are oppressed. If an abused woman cries out to God night after night and her husband is arrested and convicted and forever taken away from her, there is nothing available to me able to understand the image of Jesus washing her husband's feet in response to (that is, coterminous with) her crying out for deliverance. In the same way, bin Laden has not been apprehended or punished. Should we pray that he be? May Jesus only wash his feet in concert with corporal justice? I don't know -- it all seems to get bizarre at that point. I guess the in-the-middle-ness of the whole situation problematizes everything. What comes to mind is God hardening Pharaoh's heart or striking Herod dead in Acts. If Jesus is Israel's God revealed in a human life, however we comprehend God's equal treatment of evildoers, we also have to find a way to deal with his justice toward them on behalf of those who suffer.

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Garrett: I agree with your definition of foot-washing. Nothing to argue about there. I do not think that it matters whether Jesus washed Judas' feet before or after his act of betrayal, especially in John! Even when Jesus is washing their feet he says "And you are clean, though not all of you," and John follows with the commentary, "For he knew who was to betray him." When Jesus washes his disciples feet, Judas' betrayal is at the forefront. And importantly, Jesus washing Judas' feet does not clean Judas, and yet Jesus still does it!

You said, "the simple fact that the murderous consequences of bin Laden have oppressed and killed particular human beings on behalf of whom we may not have the right to posit a Jesus washing their oppressor's feet." I just can't agree with you here. Your assumption seems to be that Jesus would not wash the feet of anyone who has oppressed or killed particular human beings. Is that correct? If so, Jesus would not wash the feet of any soldier in the American military who has killed another human. Would you go that far? If not, why not? If your basis for Jesus not washing bin Laden's feet is that he has oppressed and murdered other humans, how is that different than those who have killed others in war or are a part of a system that oppresses other people?

I definitely believe there is a fundamental "same-ness" in the cross and in foot-washing. Is your contention that Jesus would die for someone whose feet he would not wash? It seems contradictory to me to say that Jesus would die for someone but not serve them. Why not? The cross and foot-washing, in my mind, serve as paradigms for the way Christians should act in the world: always adopting a posture of humility, servanthood, and self-sacrifice. You have argued that I have "sentimentalized" the phrase "love your enemies" by suggesting Jesus would wash the feet of a murderer. I see just the opposite happening. On an abstract level you are willing to say Jesus would die for bin Laden, but yet, on a concrete level you are not willing to allow Jesus to wash his feet. To me, Jesus' feet-washing is what the cross looks like in every day life.

What difference would it make if they were dead? I get your point here, but I don't think it takes away from the truth of the painting. Even if they were dead, the painting is representing them as alive. It is a representation of what Jesus would be willing to do to a sick murderer. It is not an eschatological painting of Jesus washing their feet in the kingdom of God. It is not a statement about what will happen to these men and women on the day of judgment. It is a statement about the one who knew "that the Father had given all things into his hands," and yet was willing to get on his knees to wash the feet of 12 sinners, one of whom would betray Jesus himself. It is a statement about the willingness of Jesus to serve any person, regardless of the sinfulness of their life. Jesus does not condition his serving other people by whether or not they are repentant. Surely Jesus would hope for the conversion and repentance of both men from having perpetrated mass violence, but he does not wash their feet solely for that purpose. He washes people's feet because that is what it looks like for one human to love another human, and to recognize that even the most despicable murderer is created in the image of God.

How is it that you draw such a fine distinction between the two? How can you assume that bin Laden is a hopeless case, while Bush is not? How can you assume one is callous, while the other might possibly change? God has hardened bin Laden's heart, but not Bush's? Surely God will judge them both and surely God knows their hearts, but how can you? To designate some as lost causes and others as reachable seems to me like you are playing God. There is no way you can know. All you can do is hope that the power of God is strong enough to overcome the hardness of any heart.

How do we deal with evil posthumously? We leave the judgment of the living and the dead to God. It is not ours to decide. God will judge rightly and I believe we can trust him in that. But until Christ returns, we must go on loving others, even murderers, with the love shown by Jesus, manifested in the entirety of his life, including the cross and the washing of his disciples feet.

Again, I have to emphasize, the poster is not a picture of God's judgment. It sounds like you want the picture to represent the entirety of who God was, and is, and is to come. It cannot do that and it does not try to do that. It is a picture of what God looked like when incarnated as the man Jesus. It is a picture of what Jesus' love looked like in action. It is a picture of what that same love would look like today. It is not a picture of the day of judgment. It does not give the whole story. It can't. It is one picture. It can't say everything.

1 comment:

  1. There is something that rubs me the wrong way as I look at this painting and I've been trying to figure it out since I read these posts. Here is where I am:
    In this conversation we cannot forget the good news of the Kingdom of God and the Lordship of Jesus Christ. These were intimately tied to the life and ministry of Jesus and I think we should not separate kingdom ethics from the proclamation of God's kingdom. Jesus came proclaiming those things and we cannot understand feet-washing nor the cross outside the context of Christ's proclamation. The good news Jesus' Lordship is inherent to his teaching to love our enemies. The downward trajectory of a servant finds its logical place in, and only in, the kingdom of God.
    So when you ask if the cross and feet-washing are different or similar I say: Yes! They are the same in that they find their impetus in the self-emptying way of our God, our Christ, our Kingdom. But they are also different. Christ's proclamation of kingdom to fallen human beings requires that he incarnate the kingdom for us. For his disciples this meant feet-washing because they were notorious for trying to crown him with their own political aspirations. By washing their feet he demolishes the idea that the kingdom of God is characterized by taking and using power and authority. Thus we read in John 13:3-4, "Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist." The response (and misunderstanding) of the disciples' to the proclamation of God's kingdom is the context in which Jesus washes feet. On the other hand, the proclamation of God's kingdom is heard as a threat to those in power. Therefore: the cross. So we read in Matthew 26:63-66, "The high priest said to him, 'I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.' ' Yes, it is as you say,' Jesus replied. 'But I say to all of you: In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.' Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, 'He has spoken blasphemy! Why do we need any more witnesses? Look, now you have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?' 'He is worthy of death,' they answered."
    It seems to me that the Cross and Feet-washing both begin in the proclamation of the Kingdom but are two different of expressions of this proclamation as it finds human ears.
    It seems clear to me that those in the picture should be counted among those in authority and pits them in opposition towards Jesus' Kingdom proclamation. To me, It is not that Jesus wouldn't wash their feet - it is that this picture portrays a Jesus deprived of authentic proclamation of his Lordship.