2.17 John -- Washing the Disciples' Feet
John 13-17 forms a unit known as the Last Discourse, which contains Jesus' teaching during the Last Supper. These chapters are unique to John, and contain some of the most quoted and beloved passages from the New Testament. We will not attempt an exegesis of these chapters, but merely focus on teaching that bears on our topic.
At the beginning of the Passover, Jesus got up from the meal, took a towel and washed his disciples' feet. Peter understood that this was servant's work, and objected emphatically. Jesus replied,
"Unless I wash you, you have no part with me" (Jn 13:8).
This sign was a type of the future sacrament of baptism -- that each member of the New Covenant must be cleansed of his sins and worldly past by Jesus. This is the way one is "born from above."
But Jesus' act of footwashing was also intended to be a model of Christian behavior:
"I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you" (Jn 13:15).
The Gospel of John does not contain the incident of the dispute among the disciples as to who should be greatest in the Kingdom of God (Mat 20:20-28). At that time Jesus told them,
"whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant" (Mat 20:26).
That is also what Jesus was saying in this chapter of John. Even though the occasions were different, the message was the same.
Jesus called the disciples to follow him, without any formal structure or hierarchy that we know of. Based on their personalities and levels of commitment, each developed his relationship with Jesus and with each other -- in other words, the group structure sorted itself out as they lived together. Peter, James and John became part of an inner circle -- they witnessed the Transfiguration, and Jesus committed his mother to John's care. And we know that Catholics believe that Peter was made the supreme authority of the church. Nevertheless, Jesus promised that in His Kingdom all of them would judge the tribes of Israel:
"I tell you the truth, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel" (Mat 19:28).
In other words, they all had a destiny and a common purpose, but they were doubleminded. Unlike the Three Musketeers, it was not quite "all for one and one for all." Not only were they concerned for their own relative position, as we saw in Mat 20, but there were also family ties among some disciples that could easily have caused factions to develop. Peter and Andrew were brothers, and James and John. Jesus knew that this bickering and self-promotion was opposed to the Kingdom he was establishing. If the disciples could not live as Kingdom people with each other, then they had no message for the outside world. And it was an issue of such importance that he dealt with it at his last meal with them, and also in his final prayer:
"I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.... May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me" (Jn 17:20-23).
Where is the racial teaching in this? It is in the fact that racial prejudice is peculiarly like the rivalry of the disciples and their competition to be Jesus' BFF. The same spirit of self-seeking dominance and the forming of ingroups based on nationality, skin-color or cultural similarity that characterizes racist thought and actions. It may be malignant racism: National Socialism, Japanese expansionism in the 1930's and 1940's, 18th-19th Century slavery in America and French colonies. It may be benign racism: colonialism and the uplift of "backward" races. It may not even be active racism at all, but a self-satisfied attitude of superiority towards foreigners, immigrants or outsiders. Racism is not merely discrimination on the basis of external appearances, it is an expression of dominance and a demand for obeisance. It is not only the exercise of power over a weaker group, but an assertion of moral justification in the exercise of that power. African colonizers not only had power over native tribes, they had a religious or at least an ideological mandate to civilize and modernize primitive peoples -- so they believed. This mandate justified in their eyes the use of troops, the establishment of western forms of government, and the expropriation of natural resources.
However expressed, racism and the Kingdom of God are opposites. They cannot coexist. Where they mix, racism corrupts and perverts relationships among believers. This is why Jesus made this act of footwashing and its accompanying prayer such a priority, because it is the key to handling differences and conflicts within the community of believers. Primarily, it starts with a right concept of the self and of one's own nationality. The Jewish disciples were not unique in their upbringing: nearly every person is subjected to ingroup indoctrination from his earliest years. Racism is pre-rational, it is emotional and visceral, its roots are beyond the individual in his or her family, neighborhood and country. Becoming a believer is not merely accepting certain religious doctrines, it is also about unlearning self-identity, and a re-positioning of the self in relation to others. Little did the disciples realize that what Jesus had just done to them -- wash their dirty feet -- was going to be required of them in a few months' time. However, the feet they would be washing would be those of the despised Gentiles, and probably even some Samaritans -- not literally washing their feet, but receiving them into their housechurches, having a meal with them, telling them about Jesus' life and teachings, baptizing them, and eventually permitting intermarriage (?). None of them had associated with non-Jews before, it was FORBIDDEN by the Law. And now, in the Kingdom of God, it was going to be required.
Jesus' act annihilated racism. This is because he reversed the polarity of the flow of power between the two parties. Racism demands that the lesser serve the greater. The Kingdom of God and the presence of the Spirit require that the greater serve the lesser. This reversal does not come as a demand of the lesser for "justice" -- this modern dynamic of the civil rights movement is no more than reverse coercion. It contains both of the toxic elements of power and moral self-justication that are found in racism itself. The reality was that the disciples had no right, moral or physical, to have their teacher wash their feet. Rather, Jesus himself chose to lay aside his privilege and status, and lower himself to meet the need of the lesser parties. This was a free act on his part, it was not compelled either by the disciples or a greater Authority. His motivation was love -- for the good of the other party, not for self-profit.