“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 should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. […] A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
(John 13:12-17, 34-35 NIV)
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
(Matthew 20:25-28 NIV)
For most Christian traditions, today is Maundy Thursday, the day in Holy Week where we remember Jesus’ last day with his disciples before the crucifixion, especially the Last Supper. This was when, according to John’s Gospel, Jesus exemplified his character as a servant by washing his disciples feet. I remember very vividly participating in foot-washing ceremonies at church that were meant to remind us that following in the way of Jesus means serving others. While my tradition does not do foot washing with any regularity, my experiences of this did leave a profound impression on me.
When I reflect on what this means for Christians in today’s world, I wonder whether – especially when it comes to our political advocacy – we have a tendency to apply this principle only as far as our moral comfort zone will allow (which often doesn’t extend far beyond the church door). We worry about the infringement of our rights in a world that doesn’t seem to any longer share traditional Christian values. And so we have pastors thumbing their noses at the IRS (and jeopardizing their organizations’ tax exempt status) each election cycle on “Pulpit Freedom Sunday“, and Christians backing legislation that guarantees the rights of traditionally-minded people to refuse to do business with LGBTQ folks (Indiana is the state currently taking heat for this sort of thing, but they are by no means alone).
With the culture war reaching a fever pitch (ok, it’s been there for a while), many are concerned that freedom of speech and freedom of religion may be in peril. But whose freedom? When Christians “take a stand for freedom” in our country it almost always means taking a stand for the freedom of people like us, especially for other Christians and their freedom to stand against anything in our culture believed to be wrongheaded or sinful.
We will find ourselves more in line with the life and message of Jesus if we start by thinking about these matters the other way around, by first being concerned with the rights of those who are least like us. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote in prison: “The Church is the Church only when it exists for others…not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men of every calling what it means to live for Christ, to exist for others.” I can’t think of any better way to follow Jesus in our political climate today than “existing for others”.
There is certainly a place for standing up for our own rights, but as Jürgen Moltmann reminds us in On Human Dignity, doing so must never be an end in itself: “Freedom is no private affair, but is always freedom for others.” As a Christian, this can never be seen as a matter of balancing my rights with the rights of someone unlike me, because I must decide in advance that following Jesus means that the rights of the other are more important than my own. I must use my freedom of speech to speak on behalf of those who are regularly persecuted and derided – which (we should add in our current context) certainly applies more to the LGBTQ people in our country more than it does to fellow Christians.
It’s expected that each grouping in our world will stand up for their own: Republican for Republican, Democrat for Democrat, for LGBTQ for LGBTQ, black for black, Muslim for Muslim, Christian for Christian, etc etc. There is nothing uniquely Christian about advocating for our own; there is something profoundly unchristian about doing so on behalf of privileged Christians if the rights of others are ignored (though I feel that I should add that, properly understood, Christianity is not just one tribal distinction among many but the removal of tribal distinctions altogether). Again to quote Moltmann: “What is Christian is the championing of the neighbor’s right, the defense of the other, thus the renouncing of one’s own rights.” (On Human Dignity, 10)
If there is any way in which we must “take a stand” for Christ today, it should take the form of this existence for others, which has little to do with partisan ideology and everything to do with our witness to the triune God, whose name is at stake whenever those bearing his image are humiliated or deprived of their dignity.
Christianity understands itself as witness to the triune God who liberates human beings from inward and outward inhumanity, who allows them to live in his covenant, and who leads them to the glory of his kingdom. Christians therefore stand up for the dignity of human beings out of which emerges their rights and duties. For the sake of God they will stand up with all means at their disposal, acting as well as suffering, for the dignity of human beings and their rights as the image of God. For their service to the humanity of persons they need the right to religious freedom, the right to form a community, and the right to public speech and action.
(On Human Dignity, 35)