Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Heidegger's Shoes and Beautiful Feet: Ritual Meaning and Cultural Portability

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Heidegger's Shoes and Beautiful Feet: Ritual Meaning and Cultural Portability

Article excerpt

How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, "Your God reigns."--Isaiah 52:7 (NRSV)

After he had washed their feet.... he said to them, "Do you know what I have done to you? ... [I]f L your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet."--John 13:12-14 (NRSV)

I must admit, I was a little uneasy When she bent down to tie the laces of my shoes.--Bob Dylan, "Tangled Up in Blue" (1)


"Beautiful feet." What an odd phrase it is. We cover our feet, as we do various other parts of our bodies, in cosmetic and modest as well as protective ways. Although bare feet may suggest freedom and ease, they also suggest hygiene problems: "No Shirt, No Shoes, No Service!" We would tend to think of our modern feet as obviously a good bit cleaner than the first-century feet washed by Jesus in the Gospel of John. If we wash feet today as a ritual action, as a symbol (a word that bears a heavy weight, as we shall see), we do it not because our feet are literally dirty. We know that when Jesus told us to do it for each other, what he really meant has little or nothing to do either with feet or with dirt.

But the literal practice of footwashing still persists in some Christian contexts, notably among the Amish, Brethren and Mennonites. Even in Anabaptist-related groups that have not actually adopted the literal practice, the washing of feet arguably provides one of the most pervasive symbolic touchstones for the understanding of accountability and service, both individually and corporately. It is an appropriate focus not only as paradigmatic and unifying for Anabaptists, but also as controversial and potentially divisive, certainly as exclusive as well as inclusive. It has been celebrated among contemporary Anabaptists, but also questioned.

Consider, for example, the suggestion that sometimes arises among contemporary Mennonites--especially those whose rumspringa brings them under the shadow of higher education--that footwashing would best be replaced by some other ritual action, one which would presumably be more meaningful in contemporary society. Why not shine each other's shoes, or wash each other's cars? More seriously, there have been experiments by members of some Mennonite congregations with washing each other's hands. The concern is that footwashing is no longer a part of our everyday world; hence, it is no longer meaningful to us in the appropriate way. When Jesus washed his disciples' feet, the very commonness of the action was what made it powerful. The bread and wine of communion remain profound symbols, we might suggest, precisely because we continue to eat and drink in order to live. Footwashing is now a foreign and exotic thing. It requires too much explanation.

This sort of thinking is far from universal among Mennonites, of course, and there are various ways of rebutting it. One of the impulses behind this inquiry is to argue in favor of footwashing, but this is certainly not unique or daring in Anabaptist-Mennonite circles. The concern, in fact, is not with whether Anabaptist congregations actually hold footwashing services, but with the question of the meaning of footwashing--and not so much the well-worn question of what footwashing means, but of how it means.

The questioning of footwashing has sometimes emphasized that it becomes too familiar when practiced as a ritual, thus weakening the impact of the symbol at the individual level. At other times, the questioning has emphasized that footwashing is no longer familiar enough in modern contexts, thus weakening the impact of the symbol at the cultural level. Behind this general distinction regarding familiarity, it appears that the basis for questioning footwashing has usually been one of (or sometimes a combination of) two general ways of understanding ritual that are common in contemporary Western culture. …

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