Friday, November 04, 2005

A Meditation on Feet

One of the worst things about growing up in the Ozark hills for me was the fact that the children went barefoot. For poor folks who live down south, going without shoes used to be a way of life. While my feet remained tender and unsuited to the sharp stones and cockleburrs, the unsuspecting copperheads and rattlesnakes that hid in the rocks, my younger brother liked nothing better than going outside and stomping in the mud. During this time of year, the teens at camp all trudged the trails without shoes and socks. Sitting there in the big tabernacle on the campgrounds, children would build whole cities with their bare feet out of the sawdust that lay four or five inches thick on the ground. Feet would swing in unison between young lovers and, even occasionally intertwine.

There is something very human about having your feet exposed. Our feet reveal our humanity. They get dirty and dusty and smelly. And, when you think of it, feet are really quite unattractive. Whenever I worked the graveyard shift and would venture down into the morgue during my hospital days, feet were always the first thing you saw. You would open the door to the refrigerated area and there you would see rows of corpses covered with sheets from heat to ankle with only the feet protruding. And, just as you see in the movies, on the end of the big toe would hang a tag with the person’s name and identification number on it. Those tagged toes come as close to representing our mortality as any other image I can conjure up.

But, after all, feet were not created for their beauty. They are, also, the most utilitarian of our body parts. Feet were made for walking and the scientists tell us that our feet and our ability to walk erect are one of the few distinguishing characteristics that separate us from the rest of the animal kingdom. Our feet are made to take us from place to place—nothing more, nothing less. I have yet to be in a crowd of teenage boys whose eyes pop out of their heads and to hear one of them say, “Wow! Look at those! Doesn’t she have great feet!” Or, when I ask a group of adolescent girls what they look for in a man to hear, “I want a man with attractive feet—well-shaped, firm, strong feet. If he’s got great feet, then I know that he’s the man for me.”

No. We all know such talk would be ridiculous. When teenage boys refer to measurements, it’s probably not shoe size they are thinking about! Nor is there a great stink yet being made over the transportation of pornographic images of bare feet over the internet. In fact, most of us take great care to keep our feet covered. The entire shoe industry is built around the fact that we want to show off, not our feet, but what covers them. Instead of being an image of health and sexuality, the naked foot is a term of derision, as in the phrase, “barefoot and pregnant.” The blunt reality is that nobody gives much attention to feet unless they start to cause problems. We simply take them for granted, cover them up, and put them to work.

In biblical times, feet received more attention. For one thing, people walked much more than they do now. It was not unusual for an average person to walk five or six miles every day. If you wanted to go somewhere, you didn’t jump in the car or take a bus—you usually walked. And because Nike, Reebok, and Adidas were not around then, you usually had to settle either for the standard issue sandal or for no shoe at all. So, when a guest would come to your home, one of the first acts of courtesy that you would show would be to have your servant remove the shoes and wash the feet.

Jesus was to take this act and use it as a way of illustrating what it means to be one of his followers. To wash a person’s feet was the supreme act of love and submission. When the first century Jews spoke of being “under the heel of Rome,” they did so in a derogatory manner. But Jesus suggests that as Christians we are to voluntarily assume the role of a slave, to place ourselves at the lowest and most vulnerable of positions. As usual, this is quite "counter-cultural" and stands in stark contrast to the American way of life where we are all about a pecking order and determining exactly who fits where on the ladder of success--and the last thing we want to do is get down on our knees before "the least of these." According to current American foreign policy, we should never show our weakness and be about flexing our muscle for the sake of "truth, justice, and the American way." The domestic scene is no different. Let's make sure the wealthiest are cared for and pray that the "trickle-down effect" will ameliorate the masses.

I was thinking about this some yesterday during a faculty meeting where some were concerned that we are not doing enough to "change American society." I guess I'm with the apostle Paul and Stanley Hauerwas on this one. I think it is our task to simply emulate Christ, to faithfully announce the coming of the Kingdom, and to get on board with what God is already doing in our midst. In the end, I think this is our true calling--to simply be about the business of washing feet. Whether "American society" ever gets this or not, I don't have the foggiest. I don't think "Roman society" ever really "got Jesus" either; after all, they wound up putting him to death. Should we expect anything different?