Since yesterday, I’ve been thinking a lot about hatred. How does it grow? Where does it come from? What nurtures or stops it? Why is it directed at some groups of people and not others? What hatred is in my heart that needs to be rooted out? How do we even begin to address the pain caused by yesterday’s display of hate by white supremacists? And do white Americans who claim solidarity with people of color, who condemn the actions of (overt or even covert) racists, who think we’re not part of the problem because we don’t hurl insults or bullets or other weapons at blacks or other minorities—do we have the courage to acknowledge that this is not new and we are part of the problem?
I am struggling greatly with my own silence, my own complicity in a country that has allowed hate to find fertile ground. I watched the news in awe and horror yesterday. I forced myself to watch some of what was happening in Charlottesville. Not because of a grotesque need or desire to see the spectacle. Not because it was just something happening. Not because this was another event in an America ruled by our toddler dictator Trump and I can’t close my eyes to the destruction he’s causing. No. I watched because I need to see that hate exists. That people live this every day.
A thought occurred to me last week that has only been amplified this weekend: what would happen if footwashing were a sacrament? I am struggling with Eucharist. Not the symbolism or the reality of it. I know what Eucharist means and is, and it means and is very powerful things. I won’t deny that. We go to the table together, to receive the one who died for us. We go to give thanks and praise, to receive sustenance and grace. But though we process together, we go alone. We can walk up to that minister and receive that piece of holy bread, drink from that sacred cup, and never touch or really look at another person. Our focus can be on Christ, which it should be, or on the shoes the woman in front of us is wearing, the mismatched outfit of that toddler who dressed himself, the bad hair or unironed outfit or bad music or or or. We go forward with others alone.
But footwashing? That could be a very different sacrament. The footwashing and the gospel that inspires it (John 13) are touchstones for my life as a Christian. I requested that my husband and I be allowed to have a footwashing at our wedding because marriage is as much about serving each other with love as it is about anything else. I think of that moment when I washed his feet in times when I’m frustrated with him or when he does kind things for me randomly. I think of it when we cook together or take walks together. I think of it a lot. We washed each other’s feet when we committed our lives to each other. We have the pitcher we used for this on our mantle; the bowl was a wedding shower gift that was intended for (and is used as) a serving bowl. Sacramentals used and seen in daily life.
The footwashing is not something you can do alone. It is a humbling activity. To wash the feet of another person is to stoop before them, to take their maybe stinky, probably dirty, potentially calloused feet in to your hands and hold them. It is to pour water over these often unloved and underappreciated parts of the body and cleanse them. You cannot wash someone’s feet without looking them in the eyes and acknowledging that you are caring for them.
To be on the receiving end of the footwashing is also humbling. You sit and watch as someone takes your stinky, dirty, calloused, imperfect feet in their hands, pours water over them, caresses them, and dries them. You are vulnerable in this moment. You cannot have your feet washed without watching in wonder as someone cares for you.
I don’t know how to begin to effectively counter the hatred brought to this world by white supremacy. I do know that they are wrong. And it infuriates me how often they cover themselves in a cloak of Christianity to excuse their hatred. There is nothing Christian about their actions or beliefs. And we, as a church and a society, should not let them get away with thinking they resemble Christ with their hatred. They do not.
But this hate exists, and I wonder how to turn it. We cannot merely name hatred without working actively to change it to love. That has been my problem until now: I’m comfortable saying, “That’s hate and it is wrong.” But where do I go from there? What do I do to create change? Whose feet am I washing? What would have happened yesterday if someone had taken a basin and pitcher and started washing feet? It would have been an impractical action. It’s sometimes hard to wash the feet of people you love who love you. But what of those we feel threatened by? Damn near impossible.
I’m not comfortable with what I’m writing here. It seems too tidy, too idealistic. Wash feet and all will be well! No. That’s not the case. And I’m wrestling with the idea that those white supremacists even deserve to have their feet washed. But here’s the kicker: Judas didn’t leave the Last Supper until after his feet were washed. Jesus stooped, took the feet of his betrayer, and washed them. He knew what was coming and yet he performed this most tender sacrament anyway.
Washing feet—literally or figuratively—won’t remove the hatred from this world. But it might cleanse us of some of it. The hate I saw on the faces of those white supremacists yesterday will not be something I forget easily. It’s haunting. But as I discern my role in this continuing tragedy, I hope to remember that the sacrament of footwashing isn’t merely about serving those we love. It is also about attempting to convert betrayal and hate to love.