You’ve probably heard of several cases where Christian campus organizations have come under fire for their beliefs or practices at American colleges. But this story from Savannah State University may take the cake:
According to the facts alleged in the complaint, SSU officials formally expelled from campus Commissioned II Love, a Christian student group, complaining that the group engaged in “harassment” and “hazing.” The school claimed the students’ public expressions of faith constituted “harassment”—even though the conduct in question would have had to have been a serious, unwelcome pattern of behavior to meet the legal definition of harassment, as spelled out by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in a 2003 statement.
Specifically, to legally be considered “harassment,” the students’ conduct must be “sufficiently serious to deny or limit a student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the educational program.” It is difficult to imagine that members of Commissioned II Love engaged in such aggressive and persistent religious proselytizing so as to meet this exacting standard.
All of this so far is not too unusual, but here is the clincher:
As if that wasn’t enough, SSU also claimed that Commissioned II Love members were guilty of “hazing” because group leaders washed the feet of new members in an introductory worship service. The ritual foot-washing, an ancient Christian custom said in the Bible to have been practiced by Jesus and his disciples, is a common activity among some contemporary Christian groups, but SSU claimed that it constituted hazing because it was “an activity which endangers or is likely to endanger the physical health of a student, regardless of the student’s willingness to participate in such activity.”
The obvious absurdity of claiming that foot-washing is “likely” to endanger club members’ health seems clearly to indicate a tacit institutional hostility towards the presence of Christian groups on SSU’s campus. Surely other student groups have engaged in activities equally or more likely to “endanger the physical health” of members as a foot-wash—say, for example, traveling somewhere by bus, or simply crossing a busy street.
It’s hard to know how to even respond to this. If the whole situation wasn’t so sad, then it would be funny.
I speak from experience here–I was involved with one campus Christian organization foot washing experience before. While it was a nice gesture that intended to unify the group, reflecting on it now causes me to realize that it failed to truly capture the significance and the purpose of the act of foot washing. There’s something mildly anti-climactic about placing well manicured feet in a plastic tub intended to hold sorority t-shirts to be soaked in water mixed with dish washing soap.
What’s the significance of footwashing? It’s hard to realize just how lowly this role of foot washing was in Jewish culture because we live in a day of pedicures, birkenstocks, and flip-flops. Though people are still weirded out by the feet of others, there isn’t the dirty grotesqueness today as there was then. Walking in sandals on dust-laden dirt roads was a recipe for dirt.
It was an act of respect for a host to provide this service to road-weary travelers, but it was an act of shame to be the one to do it. It was often reserved for the lowliest of servants. So, the significance of Jesus doing this could not be overlooked by His disciples.
What’s the purpose of foot washing? Jesus’ foot washing was not simply setting a pattern for good personal hygiene among his followers. Nor was it merely a bonding exercise designed to create unity. If it was, then they could have all just gotten the same tattoo or bleached their hair or watched Monty Python for the 20th time (it’s merely a flesh wound…but I digress). The purpose of Jesus’ foot washing was to model sacrificial service–a willingness to humble ourselves for the sake of the Kingdom.
The same Shepherd King who poured out water upon the disciples’ feet would just a few days later pour out water from His side as He was pierced for our transgressions upon the cross.
So, we may never reach the point when the universities understand that foot washing is not hazing. But we, as Christians, should strive to reach the point where we understand that foot washing is much more than hazing–it was part of the continued preparation of His disciples to declare war on the kingdom of darkness.
The way that Jesus humbled Himself in this act foreshadowed the way that He would humble Himself even to the point of the ultimate form of hazing–death on a cross