“We have many experts on the terrain of conflict, but not many leaders. Good Christian leadership radiates a very different presence in a broken world.”
I came across these words by Emmanuel Katongole and Chris Rice—from their 2008 book entitled Reconciling All Things—the day after Pope Francis raised the Christian practice of foot-washing to new heights. No doubt you’ve heard, or seen, the news. In an astonishing literal piece of leadership, with even more symbolic potency, Pope Francis took Holy Week to the streets: the Casal del Marmo detention center in Rome—where he washed the feet of twelve prisoners, including two women, including a Serbian Muslim woman.
Naturally the media buzz—religious and otherwise—has already faded into the next big thing. But I wanted to dwell on this big thing, a small thing really, because of how it might serve generally as a culture-making artifact, particularly in the arena of Christian-Muslim relations, with reference to the subject of power. God knows, and God help us all: In a current global context framed by urgencies, ignorance and fear between Christians and Muslims, we must audaciously create new artifacts in our textured, often tortured, relationship.
Make no mistake: what Pope Francis did on the Thursday within the first Holy Week of his promising papacy was an extraordinary act of power. Only, this power was unlike the dominant disposition attached to the kind of power we often see displayed so loudly and boldly in the world we’ve come to know. It was very much not according to politics as usual. In fact, this power ran severely counter the power desired and often expressed by the visible Church itself—Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant (including, with a notable mention: American Evangelicals). And it certainly cut against the grain of the power desired and often expressed by some Muslim-majority countries and their under-girding and motivating Islamic religious leadership.
I thought: Can you imagine, in a moment, a US president washing the feet of the president of the Islamic Republic of Iran? That would be a cold day in hell, right? For that matter, can you imagine the Grand Mufti of Egypt washing the feet of the presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, whose name begins with Katharine? Not a chance in hell. Both imaginings are absolutely politically scandalous—to say nothing of the direct or associated religious implications.
In his 2010 book To Change the World James Davison Hunter has reminded us—from Christians to Muslims to the wildly popular “nones”—that for those with power, powerlessness is a fiction. Hunter makes the case that divestment of power, in this case, is not possible. On the other hand, re-appropriating power is. We reclaim God’s original mandate for humanity, Hunter says, when we “use power in the world in ways that reflect God’s intentions.”
In the Christian vision this is precisely why Pope Francis’ action was, in the end, so powerful: it was full of (brimming over with) rightly-intentioned and justly-expressed power. Power indeed had happened among the powerless—but in the name of genuine service to others, from love, and without distinction on any basis whatsoever. Put that image on your church or mosque bulletin board and encourage your community to live by it, even for a week.
During his homily to the prisoners at Casal del Marmo, the pope said that “among us the one who is highest up must be at the service of others.” This is, of course, a non-worldly tables-turning image cut from the same cloth as Jesus’ famous and shocking statement before Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). Jesus’ orientation toward the usual politics of power was defined by an otherworldly power: serving and loving the other, without any distinction on any basis whatsoever. It is supposed to be the definitive Christian way to live—and the model Christian way to lead in a tense, hostile and divisive world.
Significantly, Pope Francis’ hands-on act was equally as powerful because of how he re-appropriated his unique power in an unprecedented and unbecoming manner.
According to custom, popes do not wash the feet of non-Catholics or women. In one motion, then, the man who became the first pope from the Americas, or from the Jesuits, broke with custom regarding the foot-washing ritual—and during the most sacrosanct week in the Christian liturgical calendar. That one of the prisoners happened to be a Muslim woman can’t help but lead the symbolism into uncharted territory. Of Christian witness in our time and place, the renowned South African theologian David Bosch has said: “[Christians] should…with creative but responsible freedom, prolong the logic of the ministry of Jesus.”
Pope Francis’ logic of becoming the servant of everyone dignified this Muslim woman, a Serb. And by offering grace to her and blessing her through the act of foot-washing the pope was ministering to her multifaceted marginal identity—in the lengthy shadow, no less, of Christian-Muslim Balkan brokenness. Earlier in the day, the pope had preached to priests that they needed to get out, “to the outskirts.” “It is not in soul-searching or constant introspection that we encounter the Lord,” the pope said. By receiving and encountering this Muslim woman, we can only interpret him to mean—by this logic—that he was receiving and encountering Jesus Christ.
So as essential as inter-religious dialogue and other such initiatives are for our historical moment, here the pope used his particular power to model the priority of actual relations over conversations or discussions. Not to mention: he highlighted deeds before words, in the Franciscan tradition. Here, too, there is a logic.
Not to be outdone by the unprecedented, Pope Francis also did the remarkably unbecoming thing. I say “unbecoming” mostly related to our own human, cultural and religious expectations surrounding power and its actions. No matter how much we sincerely appreciate and even advocate a humble and self-giving spirit within our leaders, more often than not we would still prefer our leaders to stand up tall and wave from a distance, not to kneel down and serve from up-close.
Before the election of Pope Benedict’s successor, David Gushee, professor and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University, passionately urged: “The new pope needs to offer a renewal of evangelical-gospel Christianity.” I dare say: there it is—with a deep and wide flourish. In this small leadership act we received a glimpse into the good news of Jesus Christ, of what he brings to earth from on high, of what he offers to us from himself freely, of how he asks us to belong and to participate in the mission of God for the sake of (for the blessing of) the nations.
What would it honestly and authentically look like for Christian communities to kneel down before their Muslim neighbors, and vice versa? What does it mean to serve each other from up-close—in Indonesia, Nigeria or Great Britain? For both Muslims and Christians, depending on the context, what is the analogous thing to cleaning each other’s feet, tenderly wiping them, kissing them, and then whispering words of peace to the other? My guess is, in Pakistan as in America it would be rather unbecoming.
Then again, we desperately need unprecedented, unbecoming artifacts in leadership along this fractured, ancient landscape.