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Week 6: Foot washing

Reflection by John D. Roth

And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.

(John 13:3-5)

Practicing the Politics of Mutual Vulnerability

For most Christian traditions, the drama enacted by Jesus at the Last Supper focuses on the simple elements of bread and wine, and the not-so-simple mystery of the body of Christ made present in the world as the church gathers to reenact that final meal.  Yet before Jesus offered his disciples the bread and cup, he enacted another drama that has gone nearly forgotten in many churches—he poured water into a basin and knelt down to wash their feet.

Part of the reason that groups in the Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition have maintained the ritual of footwashing is simply because Christ commanded it: “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you also should do as I have done to you” (Jn. 13:12-15). But at a deeper level, washing each other’s feet is a transformative political practice that cultivates in believers a distinctly Christian way of engaging the world. 

During the past decade Christians have clashed sharply with each other on many issues, but perhaps especially over the politics of Creation care. The summits at Kyoto and Copenhagen have left Christians in the West deeply divided on how the church should respond to issues like climate change, environmental degradation, water rights and access to natural resources.  And because so much seems to hang in the balance on these questions, activists on both sides are prepared to pursue their cause aggressively within the standard framework of political engagement:  define your goals; mobilize resources; form strategic alliances; win the public relations battle; and do whatever it takes to convince those in power of your vision of the future. 

The practice of footwashing calls into question many of these assumptions. Throughout his ministry, Jesus repeatedly tried to shake the disciples loose from standard notions about power.  “If you want to be great,” he told them, “be a servant” (Mt. 20:26); if you want to enter the Kingdom of heaven “you must become like a child” (Mt. 18:3); if you want to be first, go to the back of the line. This was not a perverse admonition to self-hatred or a call to complacency in the face of oppression.  Instead, Jesus was challenging his disciples to cultivate a life of mutual vulnerability rooted in the confidence of God’s extravagant and abundant love.  By washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus offered a physical, embodied demonstration of this new kind of politics—a politics demonstrated even more dramatically in his death and resurrection in which power was “made perfect in weakness.”

When Christians kneel to wash each other’s feet, they are practicing an alternative politics—a vulnerable, yet confident, way of being in the world that challenges the very logic of traditional forms of activism, whether on the Left or the Right. In the cleansing waters of foot washing, Christians learn to seek the other’s good from of a posture of voluntary and mutual submission. In our mutual vulnerability, God’s transforming, miraculous, reconciling presence is made visible in the world.  

John D. Roth is professor of History and director of the Mennonite Historical Library at Goshen College in Indiana, USA. He is also editor of the Mennonite Quarterly Review

Together We Can Make a Difference

  • There are churches around the world which express their hospitality and caring by making available public water taps, showers for homeless people, or even public toilets at or close to churches and parish buildings. Can your church or congregation offer similar services, maybe in collaboration with NGOs or development agencies?
  • Access to water alone is not enough to ensure people’s health if there are no adequate sanitation facilities and a good awareness of health & hygiene issues. Learn “10 facts on sanitation” (World Health Organization).

Links to further information

Examples of churches providing water, showers, and even toilets:

"Preach Water” programme of the Presbyterian Synod of the West, Nigeria

Bishop blesses compost toilet

Showers of Blessing” program at First United Methodist Church in St. Charles

Mennonite Central Committee’s WaterWorks Toolkit provides a great resource for churches, schools and other groups who want to learn about water and MCC water projects. To learn more about this resource and other Mennonite Central Committee water projects go to:

Water, Passion and Betrayal” - An order of Communion for Maundy Thursday

Photo: P. Karl Wallner -

Posted By: Maike Gorsboth on Mar 22, 2010 02:46PM Add Comment