Pope Francis and the Beautiful Iconoclasm of Washing the Wrong Feet

wash-feet_flickr_Johnragai

Mainline churches would do some good by paying attention to the tables the Pope is overturning.

On Holy Thursday newly elected Pope, Francis I, stunned traditionalists by washing the feet of the wrong people. Yes, they were prisoners. Yes, one was Muslim. But that fact failed to raise any eyebrows. What really chapped the backsides of the keepers of the ecclesiastical keys was the fact that Pope Francis washed the feet of two teenage girls.

The scandal wasn’t that they were teenagers either (a completely different article), but that they were female. Because, you know … they weren’t men. Jesus, “on the night he was betrayed,” washed the feet of those who enjoyed the comfy advantage of having been blessed at birth with the correct anatomical equipment.

Vatican observers with a commitment to the reforms instituted by Pope Benedict—reforms that called Catholics back to traditional liturgical and social concerns—blanched at the thought that Francis may be opening the door to innovation.

Innovation, to those who care about unswerving devotion to a particular legacy, is not merely a lousy idea, but a potential threat to the faith. You can’t have people walking around chucking the old stuff, adopting new practices higgledy-piggledy. That’s a recipe for anarchy—or, if not anarchy, then a state of affairs potentially less than satisfactory to those used to calling the shots.

But then again, churches of all times and places have had to balance the competing impulses between staying the course or to striking out in a new direction. It’s easy for new (read: young) people to come in and seek to turn over—at least in the estimation of the reformers—the tables of the ecclesiastical money changers. Self-righteousness, when it comes to seeing the failures of your forbears, is easy. They’ve made many mistakes.

However, we should probably begin with the generosity of spirit necessary for reform by pointing out that many of those mistakes in building a legacy were made in good faith. That is to say, for example, the institutional behemoth of mid-twentieth century mainline Protestantism didn’t start out to build monuments to its own cultural domination. On the contrary, I take it as read that church leaders in the 1950s and 60s were overwhelmed by the pressures of trying to make enough space for all the people that came pouring in as the effects of the post-World War II baby boom began to emerge.

Young families were all there were. (Hyperbole: Don’t email me.) It was like the curse of the Midas touch. Not necessarily through any special genius on the part of existing leadership, everything churches touched turned into 2.4 children. Pretty soon, churches didn’t have room for them all. So, they built bigger and better sanctuaries and “family life centers” to accommodate the inflow.

What the average minister didn’t necessarily feel the need to build, however, was either an ecclesiological or theological foundation upon which to ground this new cultural supremacy. It came to feel almost like a birthright.

“People will come because we’re the church,” these new cultural brahmins surely thought. Church leaders didn’t often stop to ask the question about whether this growth was undergirded by anything more solid than the behavioral expectations of the culture, or if it was even healthy.1

Why not?

If you’re in a lucite booth that’s blowing $20 bills, you don’t stop to ask why somebody let you in there in the first place or whether the blower’s going to turn off at some point, you just grab the money. And when you don’t have enough room to stuff all the cash, you start looking for bigger, more efficient ways to reap the harvest of legal tender.

Unfortunately, apparently good fortune left the church with amazingly deep and well designed pockets, as well as the expectation that those pockets would always be full. So, when the air started to thin out from the flurry of $20 dollar bills, the conventional wisdom held that what was needed was not so much to figure out what to do with the $20 bills already there, but to figure out ever more ingenious ways to mimic the air circulation produced by the fan. Because the thinking appears to have been that the fan created the currency, rather than just blowing it about.

Ok. Let’s not torture that metaphor any longer. However, we should be reminded that the cultural game that brought so many people to mainline churches in the middle of the last century, wasn’t a game designed by the church. That churches adjusted their expectations and building habits to adapt to the sudden rush of suburbanites is understandable. They had to do something. We can argue about whether, in retrospect, it was the right thing; but to the extent it was an error, it was an error prompted by the need to act quickly.

Let’s torture another metaphor: The problem wasn’t that the ecclesiastical behemoth of the last century was guilty of trying to drink from a fire hose, but that it expected the fire hose would always be turned on full blast, and that its job going forward was to figure out both how to control the water pressure, as well as to figure out ever more efficient programmatic strategies for swallowing all that water.

In short, our criticism of the kingdom building taken on by previous generations of mainliners should be tempered by an understanding that they were reacting to a quickly changing cultural landscape. The issue we need to evaluate is any assertion that the ongoing maintenance of those kingdoms is a necessary function of living the way Jesus said to live.

Back to Pope Francis. What I find refreshing about his apparent pastoral presence—at least at this early stage of his papacy—is his determination to concern himself with the kinds of things with which Jesus concerned himself: Compassion for those on the margins—the poor, the powerless, the outcast, and the prisoner. Moreover, Francis’ compassion is suitably dressed in a humility that refuses to take advantage of advantage—which is to say, the perquisites associated with papal power.

Setting aside for a moment the (always satisfying) thumb in the eye of overly protective traditionalists as a worthwhile end in itself, the attractive thing about what Pope Francis seems to be signaling is a commitment to following Jesus down the dark alleys of the human journey, in spite of the fact that most of the rest of the religious world appears too busy protecting the sixteen lane super highways we built to accommodate the long-since-died-down-increase in traffic. Which protection, unfortunately and to our lasting shame, often has little to do with making sure that the last, the least, the lost, and the dying feel the hands of mercy washing their feet.

The thing is, mainline churches ought to take a cue from Pope Francis and start turning over tables that keep us from the truly important things—that is, ministry to the people the religious bigwigs have always considered at best, a distraction, and at worst, a threat to stability. In other words, we should be out in search of people who desperately need their feet washed, instead of spending our resources building elaborate foot washing stations for people convinced the only thing they really need is a pedicure.

Iconoclasm, though it makes for good cable news, isn’t worth much if the wrong folks don’t get their feet washed.

Photo credit: Flickr / Johnragai


  1. I mean, not all metastatic growth is good, right? Ask an oncologist. I’m just saying. Don’t email me.  ↩

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About Derek Penwell

Derek Penwell is an author, editor, speaker, and activist. He is the senior minister of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and a lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities. He has a Ph.D. in humanities from the University of Louisville. He is the author of articles ranging from church history to aesthetic theory and the tragic emotions, as well as the forthcoming book from Chalice Press, The Mainliner’s Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, about how mainline denominations can avoid despair in an emerging world. He currently edits a blog on emergence Christianity, [D]mergent.org, and blogs at his own site. You can also find him on Twitter and Facebook.

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