A few weeks ago, I got a pedicure. Hardly an event that I expected would impact my world. A few days ago, nine people were murdered when a man opened fire at their church. An event that, God willing, cannot help but impact my world.
What does a pedicure have to do with a massacre?
First, let me tell you about pedicures. If you’re not familiar with the process of pedicures, let me fill you in. When you arrive at a nail salon, you climb up into a huge comfy armchair that massages your back while you sit in it. Meanwhile, you soak your feet in a basin at the foot of your throne while someone seated on a stool at your feet provides you with a pedicure. It is quite luxurious.
Now, imagine a row of these pedicure thrones and an accompanying row of pedicurist stools. Imagine that you are seated in one of these thrones, and you look down the row from your seat at the end, and you realize that every single woman getting a pedicure is white. Then, you look at the row of women scrubbing and massaging feet, and you realize that every single woman giving a pedicure is Asian.
This, I might be tempted to say, is a “coincidence.” I just happened to be there when several other white women went for pedicures. I just happened to pick a salon that just happened to employ only Asian women. After all, I don’t get pedicures often, so my sample size isn’t very big. I am tempted to say that there is nothing racist going on here, of course not, and it isn’t like I look down on women who give pedicures or anything like that.
While I attempted to rationalize my experience in a way that excuses me of any prejudice, I remembered a story from the Bible. It’s a passage that, in my Lutheran tradition, is read during Holy Week every year. After the Last Supper, before his crucifixion, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. This makes them uncomfortable, as they believe that only a lowly person would wash another person’s feet.
Jesus, however, says, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” (John 13:12-15)
I was, quite literally, doing the opposite of what Jesus commanded. I paid money to set myself up above another child of God, in an industry that has been demonstrated to exploit its workers. I did not “wash one another’s feet.”
And then, not so long after my pedicure realization, nine people were murdered in an inexcusable act of hatred for the simple fact of being black women and men gathered together. A white man with ties to hate groups joined a worship service at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, and, after sitting for about an hour, opened fire, killing nine people.
In the hours and days that followed, some of my white friends reacted with outrage, with pain, with compassion for the victims of this terrible act. Most did not. Most of us white people said nothing about this murder, about the legacy of racism in our country, about the ease with which we distance ourselves from the lives of our black sisters and brothers. Some of us even tried to suggest that this wasn’t racism, no, this was an attack on the church, that these people were the martyrs of an attack on Christians everywhere.
I was reminded of another Bible story, a passage that also comes from the narrative of Jesus’ crucifixion: when Jesus Christ is brought before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, Pilate is uneasy about fulfilling the Jewish leaders’ demand for crucifixion. When the Jews insist, Pilate has water brought out so that he can ceremoniously wash his hands before the people, declaring, “I am innocent of this man’s blood.” (Matthew 27:24) Then, to meet the crowd’s demand for death, Pilate hands Jesus over to his own soldiers, who take Jesus to be crucified.
When I think of the murders at Emanuel Church, I cannot help but think of the murder of the one Christians call Emmanuel, Jesus Christ. The excuses that I have made, not to take a stand against racism, not to even say to friends or family that the prejudiced comment they made was inappropriate, are simply iterations of my own efforts to wash the blood from my hand.
Brothers and sisters, we are guilty. Instead of washing others’ feet in service, we have washed our own hands in self-righteousness. This must stop. We must become people who see the face of Jesus Christ in every person, black and white and every shade in between. We must not excuse ourselves because others are more racist. When we pray, “Christ have mercy,” we must see that we are praying for mercy on our own sin, too.
And God, who is rich in mercy, will forgive all our sins and make our wounds whole, not at the price we demand of human lives, but through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Come soon, Lord Jesus.