Should I Wash a Black Man’s Feet to Atone for Historic Racism?

I tell my story: Not my racism, but my ancestors owned slaves. Most importantly, what do the Scriptures say about atonement?

So many commentators don’t understand the biblical background to the act of kneeling and washing feet.  (Ignorance about the Bible is killing our society by slow moral rot.)  And of course the religious left takes Scripture out of context.  As the old saying goes, a text without a context can become a pretext.

First, a little recent historical background.

Back in the 1970s, during the Jesus Movement — the right kind of cultural revolution, not the one today led by anarchists and neo-Marxists and their destruction, an evil counterfeit — we did some wonderful things.  In Southern California, at home Bible studies, which sprang up everywhere, we occasionally did a foot-washing “ceremony.” We got a basin of water and a cloth and towel and knelt down and washed each other’s feet and dried them, or at least the feet of the person sitting next to us.

Where did we get the scriptural support for our childlike and sweet and well-intentioned activity?  From here:

Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.  After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. (John 13:3–4, NIV)

That passage was written regarding the Last Supper, which gets an extended treatment in John’s Gospel.  The whole scene is personal and expresses humility — the right kind.  The leader (Jesus) voluntarily, to set an example, knelt and washed the feet of his disciples, even those of Judas, who left shortly afterward and betrayed him.  The entire context shows that there was no coercion or guilt-tripping.  It was not done to expiate perceived guilt or to make amends for past wrongs.

In John’s Gospel, that first sentence appears odd until we compare it with verses in the Gospel of Luke, also written in the context of the Last Supper, as follows:

A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors.  But you are not to be like that.  Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.  For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves?  Is it not the one who is at the table?  But I am among you as one who serves. (Lk. 22:24–27)

In briefer terms, the disciples of Jesus are to serve each other in the kingdom community.  Outside, in the kingdom of Caesar, the kings and governors lord authority over people.  They demand that people obey them.  They are pushy and have the full authority and power of the state behind them.  In comparison to right now, they are like the neo-Marxist anarchists who demand that people humiliate themselves before them.  “Kneel down and confess and renounce your white privilege!”  No, they don’t have the authority and power of the state behind them, but they are powerful manipulators with violent mobs–especially twitter mods–lurking in the background.

Back then, I was willing to kneel and wash my neighbor’s feet in the context of a home Bible study.  There was no virtue-signaling.  The context was right.

Fast-forward two decades.  In the 1990s, Promise Keepers emerged and filled stadiums, led by Coach Bill McCartney of the University of Colorado, Boulder.  It took a coach like that to lead millions of men.  One of the highlights of the movement was racial reconciliation.  It was needed, I thought, but then the movement fizzled out (it’s starting back up again, however).  At the time, I wondered what the measurable outcomes were for the move toward reconciliation.  If everyone was happy with hugs and Pugs (not drugs) and friendly handshakes and good vibes, then so be it.  If I had attended a meeting, large or small, to wash someone else’s feet — those of a black man — and the context and motives were right, and I would have done it.

So Timothy Dalrymple, now the boss over at Christianity Today, was shortsighted when he wrote: “Likewise, it’s time for white evangelicals to confess that we have not taken the sin of racism with the gravity and seriousness it deserves.”  The problem with this statement is, when does this self-satisfying, self-flagellating call to racial reconciliation ever be satisfied?  When will it end?  Twenty-five years from now, will people look around and say there is not enough “gravity” and “seriousness” about the sin of racism and demand another round of kneeling and foot-washing and reparations? Historical context is needed, without the endless navel-gazing.

Now, what about guilt-tripping me for “white privilege”?  My ancestors owned slaves.  Should I feel guilty?  Should I wash their descendants’ feet?  Do penance of some kind?  Pay reparations?  No.  The Scriptures teach me that I do not have to pay for the sins of my ancestors:

The word of the Lord came to me [Ezekiel]: “What do you people mean by quoting this proverb about the land of Israel:

“‘The parents eat sour grapes,
    and the children’s teeth are set on edge’?

“As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, you will no longer quote this proverb in Israel. For everyone belongs to me, the parent as well as the child—both alike belong to me. The one who sins is the one who will die. (Ezek. 18:1-4, NIV)

When the father foolishly bites into sour grapes, his son will not be affected. That means that everyone will pay for their own sins. No more are the children responsible for the sins of their fathers.

“For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Heb. 8:12, NIV, quoting Jer. 31:34 and establishing the New Covenant).

The New Covenant and the gospel liberate everyone from their past, and especially from the past that they never lived–back before the Civil War (1861-65). Have I benefited from their owning slaves? You wouldn’t reach that conclusion if you knew my lifestyle. Nor has my working-class family.

Further, if I were to meet someone who claims with documentation to descend from William Wilbourn (my maternal grandmother’s maiden name was Wilbourn), a man who in the 1820s had had a relationship with Lucy, a slave girl, and had three children by her (so says his last will and testament), then I would be glad to meet that person and give him a hug and handshake and swap stories.  As a matter of fact, I yearn to meet my distant half-cousin. Would I kneel and wash his feet?  Probably not, but who knows? It is a sure thing that I would not do it if he insisted out of his neo-Marxist, pushy demands.  Such arrogance violates the spirit and context of those two big passages about service in the kingdom.  Once again: Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, voluntarily.  They did not manipulate or guilt-trip him in order to expiate perceived past sins and make amends.  No one is supposed to lord it over someone else in the kingdom of God. The gospel does not allow me to be guilt-tripped, and I stand firm on it.

And white privilege?  I don’t see myself in those terms, and I don’t let anyone else box me in, in those coercive conditions.  I see myself as a kingdom citizen first.  I value kingdom living over obsessing about race.

The Neo-Marxist, violent counter-revolutionaries do not deserve to have anyone kneel and wash their feet.  Instead, we need to deploy the National Guard against them.  When all the violence and the unilateral, no-discussion toppling of statues is over, the ringleaders are arrested, particularly the ones in the ironically named Antifa, and people calm down, I will then consider the biblical, childlike, innocent, informal ritual of washing someone’s feet — and even then, I would have to study the context and motives first.

The key word in the title of this post is “atone.” The gospel and the New Covenant does not allow anyone but Jesus to atone (expiate or wipe away) sins. He did that only on the cross. As the old hymn says:

Jesus paid it all,
All to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.

But washing feet in an act of love without atonement or public virtue-signalling is perfectly biblical. But can I atone for anyone’s sin? The gospel says no, and I stand firm on it.

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