The Cult of Seeking to Serve
In some instances, Christian behavior is as misunderstood today as it was in the ancient world.
Matt Taibbi has a thought-provoking edition of his newsletter where he ponders whether journalism is destroying itself with its changing mission of asking hard questions to one of trying not to offend. He makes some good points, although some of his examples of cancel culture might not be entirely accurate.
What struck me, though, was a particular paragraph listing situations where people were trying hard to show their respect for the African American community.
Each passing day sees more scenes that recall something closer to cult religion than politics. White protesters in Floyd’s Houston hometown kneeling and praying to black residents for “forgiveness… for years and years of racism” are one thing, but what are we to make of white police in Cary, North Carolina, kneeling and washing the feet of Black pastors? What about Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer kneeling while dressed in “African kente cloth scarves”?
Each year, during the worship service that starts the season of Lent, Forgiveness Sunday, Orthodox Christians go one by one requesting forgiveness of one another, usually hugging as they do so. This doesn’t sound a whole lot different that the situation Taibbi describes in Houston. I live 5 minutes from Cary, NC, and I didn’t hear about the officers washing the feet of pastors. However, I met some of those officers when they did a session on race relations a couple of years ago at the Cary church I attend. They were serious about improving race relations, before the death of George Floyd, working with the community they serve to make sure that was a priority. One might say it is a particular mission of the Cary PD. In this instance, though, the report of the officers washing the feet of the pastors was not even true. The officers were there to support white pastors washing the feet of black pastors in a show of solidarity and request for forgiveness.
I’m not sure if Taibbi is aware, but feet washing has been a part of Christian practice, since Christ did it for his disciples (John 13:1-17), before what is commonly known as The Last Supper. It is emblematic of the faith of one who came, not to be served, but to serve (Matthew 20:28). No less than the king of France (in the age where kings held absolute power), Louis IX, used to wash the feet of his subjects, so zealous was he to show his Christian faith.
Louis was renowned for his charity. Beggars were fed from his table, he ate their leavings, washed their feet, ministered to the wants of the lepers, and daily fed over one hundred poor.
The Pope washes the feet of prisoners and refugees. When he does so, he is just contributing to a long Christian/Catholic tradition of humility and service.
Fred Rogers made a similar gesture with Francois Clemmons, playing the role of an African American police officer, as they placed both of their feet in a small pool to make a point in a time when many swimming pools were not integrated. His point in doing so was to focus on racial reconciliation, much in the same way the Cary police officers have done for the last few years.
But here in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, only five years later, a quiet Presbyterian minister and an African-American police officer show the world how to integrate swimming pools. Rogers invites; Clemmons accepts. As Clemmons slips his feet into the pool, the camera holds the shot for several seconds, as if to make the point clear: a pair of brown feet and a pair of white feet can share a swimming pool.
In referring to Christian practices as cultish, Taibbi comes off as sounding a bit like one of the ancient Romans, many of whom didn’t understand the religion. I expect we will see more of this type of thing as we move into a post-Christian period. Foot washing has been practiced in many different contexts, to show love and service for one another in the manner of Christ. While some of Taibbi’s points land with chilling implications, his ignorance about certain traditions and his readiness to jump on unsubstantiated Twitter rumors somewhat damage the credibility of his claims.