In 2007, a controversial painting floated around the internet of Jesus washing the feet of several public figures. The painting shows Jesus, wrapped in a towel, washing former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan's feet while other leaders, among them George W. Bush and Osama bin Laden, seem waiting their turn.
The painting was made into posters to advertise a Christian conference which was supposed to focus on the character of God. Many people found the image offensive and the posters were taken down. The controversy propelled the image to the internet where I saw it. I've thought quite a bit about that painting over the years. It is quite dated now (most of the leaders depicted are no longer in power) but the ideas around the image are still current. So, let me share my thoughts. To put it bluntly, the image stinks. Here is why.
If the artist wanted to communicate that Jesus would wash the feet of each of these individuals, then she should have depicted them as individuals. Showing a row of world leaders with flags draped behind them makes it impossible to see the leaders as anything other than symbols of their organizations or nations. Would Jesus wash the feet... all the feet of all the citizens of the United States? Would he symbolically “wash the feet” of the nation as a whole? If you see the U.S. as a force for good in the world, spreading freedom and democracy, aiding the oppressed and downtrodden, then perhaps you would see Jesus washing the President's feet as appropriate. But if you see the U.S. as an exploiter of weaker nations and a purveyor of hedonistic culture, then Jesus washing the feet of George Bush would communicate Jesus supporting that evil. Yet Jesus does NOT support evil!
But the image of President Bush did not stir things up. Controversy arose from Osama bin Laden waiting his turn. Would Jesus wash those feet? Well, Jesus would certainly want to. But it would be up to Osama bin Laden himself to repent and allow it. Practically everyone seeing that image of Osama bin Laden would see, not the individual, but what he represents. The painting was the image of the image of Al Qaeda. Would Jesus “wash the feet” of terrorism? Of course not. The suggestion is absurd. It makes the picture stink.
Jesus did not/does not wash the feet of evil men. Jesus let them nail Him to a cross in order to take the evil with Him. Perhaps a depiction of Jesus plummeting from the World Trade Centers, saying “Father, forgive them. They don't know what they're doing.” might fit the Christian vision. But Jesus washing the feet of Al Qaeda is nonsense or worse.
The artist probably wanted to make an edgy statement about God's love reaching out even to those caught up in evil (like you and me). But she got a clumsy depiction of Jesus participating in evil. Most people, quite sensibly, wanted that image erased.