Thursday, April 2, 2015

Foot Washing, The Golden Rule and "Religious Freedom"

In just a few hours, many churches, ours included, will gather together for Maundy Thursday services.  Most scholars are in agreement that the name Maundy comes from the Latin word for commandment, “Mandatum”, which comes from the traditional reading from John for this service in which Jesus says that he is giving the disciples a new commandment, that they love one another just as he has loved them.

A commandment, by definition, is a divine rule that is to be strictly observed.  It is not something that people get to choose whether they are going to follow or not.   While we as Christians might, and do, argue about which of the rules from scripture that we are supposed to follow, I don’t think this one is really negotiable for two reasons.  The first is because it comes from Jesus, and the second, directly related, is that Jesus also tells us it is a commandment.

But then the hard part becomes how do we live out this commandment, and that’s where the practices of Maundy Thursday worship come into play.  The first is that of foot washing, which is recounted in the same passage from John just before he gives this commandment.   Jesus gets down and washes the disciples feet, taking on the lowliest of tasks left to the lowliest of servants.  Jesus is living out this commandment long before he gives it to the disciples.  They can’t really ask Jesus what this commandment looks like because he has just demonstrated it to them.

The second part of most Maundy Thursday services is the celebration of Holy Communion, which is what we find instituted on the last night in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke).  There is something radical about eating a meal with another person and table hospitality, because in sharing a meal you open yourself up ways that other things do not.  And who you dine with says a lot about you.  Indeed one of the things Jesus is routinely criticized for is not just the fact that he associates with tax collectors, prostitutes and sinners, but that he has the temerity and indecency to dine with them.  Table fellowship says a lot.

The third part of Maundy Thursday we need to remember is not just these practices, but who is there, and that is all of the disciples including Judas, who is about to betray Jesus.  People often overlook this fact, but Jesus doesn’t skip Judas when washing feet and he doesn’t wait until Judas is gone before he institutes what we now practice as communion.  Jesus does these things in Judas’ presence.  He washes Judas’ feet and he shares a meal with him.  Jesus knows what Judas is about to do, maybe even who Judas really is, but he doesn’t shirk away, he still loves him, even as despicable as the act that he is about to commit is, Jesus still loves him, and still serves him.  That is the example that is set for us.  It doesn’t matter who it is or what we think of them, we are called to love and to serve.

All that leads me into the debate currently swirling around the law recently passed in Indiana and one pending in Arkansas which portends to give “religious freedom.”  The Indiana law is very different from other states which have religious freedom laws.  The first reason is because the other states have strong anti-discrimination laws already on the books, or they wrote anti-discrimination pieces into the legislation, which Indiana has not.  The second reason it is different is because it is the only law which is not about the individual versus the state, but which sets up conflicts between two individuals (which in Indiana’s law also includes corporations and businesses).

That means that if I, as a business owner, have religious objections to someone else, I can refuse to serve them.  That might not have been the intent of the law, but it is the de facto result of the law.  I personally think the intent of the law was to discriminate as well, and the biggest piece of that belief is the timing, which immediately follows the federal appeals court throwing out the laws outlawing homosexual marriage, and that the backers of the bill, in the words of the minority leader for Indiana, were the “who’s who” of those opposed to gay marriage.

There are several problems with this law and its ability to discriminate.  The first is that while everyone is making it only about the LGBT community, it’s much broader than that, because businesses can refuse to serve anyone who they think is doing something which goes against their religious belief.  That means Christians could deny service to Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims or atheists, just as a start, just as those groups could deny service to Christians.  They could refuse to serve inter-racial couples, or inter-faith couples.   They could deny service to people with tattoos, those who are divorced, those who sow two different seeds in the same field, women wearing pants, and people wearing clothing made out of two different types of materials, which are all forbidden by scripture.  They could refuse to do business with a Methodist since we allow female clergy, and they could refuse to do business with us because we allow clergy to be married.

But another problem, and here is the crux for us as Christians,  is that nowhere in Jesus’ teachings does he say that we get to discriminate against others, that we get to refuse to serve others simply because we don’t like them or disagree with what they do or who they are.  In fact, we see exactly the opposite, from his dealings with Samaritans and Canaanites and Romans and tax collectors and prostitutes and even the Pharisees.  We are called to love and to serve regardless of who they are, because that is the commandment given and the example shown.  Jesus does not ever say, serve them unless… or love them unless…. He says love and serve regardless.

And the final piece to this puzzle is also a fundamental misunderstanding of the golden rule.  Jesus says to do unto others as we would have them do unto us.  That is the golden rule, and it should really be said to those who want to support this bill, because if they tried to apply it they would realize that they don’t want to discriminate because they don’t want to be discriminated against.  But instead they have come to see the golden rule not as Jesus taught it, but as the world wants it to be which is “Those with the most gold rule.”

As Christians I believe we should be appalled by these laws, not the least of all because they continue to give us a bad name to large portions of the population, but more importantly because they don’t abide by the very teachings of the person we claim allegiance to who told us that the first shall be last and the last shall be first, that we must serve, that we must love one another as he has loved us, and that whatever we do to the least of these so we do to Jesus himself. We should be known because of our love and how we serve, not because of who we hate and discriminate against.

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