This video from Homeboy Industries came across my Facebook timeline the other day. If you don’t know about this amazing ministry in Los Angeles started by Father Greg Boyle, you can check out their website.
In his thought of the day, he dropped this fantastic quote. “The measure of our compassion lies not in our service to those one the margins, but in our willingness to see ourselves in kinship with them.”
At some point we need to drop all this talk about service. For Brethren, I am probably nearing the line of outright heresy, but hear me out.
For the early Brethren, the idea that we care for one another was not based in the language of service, but in mutual aid. Sure, this made sense in the days of our more sectarian past. We did care for our sisters and brothers of faith. It wasn’t until the 20th century that this core idea shifted into the language of service. In my more generous moments, I can see how this shift in terminology helped the Brethren claim a role within the world. Talking about service in essence broke us out of the me and us view of care for others.
However, we must come to terms with how the language of service continues to separate us from others. Basically, those who “serve others” are often working from a significant position of privilege. Whether it is economic or social privilege, those who can take time off for service projects locally or around the country do so because they can. While we rightly acknowledge that those who have privilege should use it to care for others in need, the very idea that we serve them has an overtone of condescension. We literally come out of our privileged social location so that we can minister to “those in the margins.”
An interesting thing happens, however, as people go on service trips. Inevitably, they return with a bit of cognitive dissonance. I hear it most often expressed like this: “I went there to offer something to them, but they gave me so much.” In the midst of the relationship building with those whom we “serve” the lines between those in need and those from privilege blur, and uncomfortably so. Here we are, the ones who are to care for others and we find ourselves ministered to.
This is why we must finally let go of the service interpretation of feet washing. Put another way, washing feet is NOT about serving others. In John’s account, Jesus does name the roll he takes as a servant, but that is only half the story. When Peter chastises him for doing what is not appropriate for teacher, the conversation turns to washing, and alludes to baptism. “If I don’t wash your feet,” Jesus says, “then you have no part with me.” Brash as always, Peter responded that if that is the case, then he should be completely washed. “You have bathed,” Jesus said, “and are thus clean except for the feet.”
This exchange with Peter is a clear reference to baptism, sin, and grace. And when Jesus says that we are to do this for one another, he highlights the priestly role we offer one another. There is no privileged place since all must wash and be washed. All must confess to one another and all must receive grace from others.
This is why I think people are so put off by washing feet. Some say that it is the idea of feet alone that turns people off. However, when we talk about “serving others with the basin and towel,” it is much easier to kneel down and wash another person’s dirty feet. It is when we must receive the grace of having our feet washed that we get weirded out. In the language of service, it is always better to give than to receive.
This is why we don’t know what to do with the gifts we receive when we are on a service trip. It is why we feel so guilty about coming away with so much more than we actually give.
If we can finally recover the mutuality of feet washing I think we can finally move towards what Father Boyle called “kinship with those on the margins.” We can go out from our houses of privilege and finally enter the cycle of grace upon grace where we finally see Jesus in one another.