Foot-Washing Baptists in To Kill a Mockingbird
In this wonderful interaction with a neighbor-turned-friend, the widow Miss Maudie Atikinson, Scout Finch tries to understand why some Baptists, called “foot washers” in the book, seem to shun most of those around them. Maudie does her best to describe the reasoning in language a child can understand. This excerpt has the potential for a multitude of illustrations.
There is the divisions that we bring to the church, denominationalist schisms, scripture reading, friendship, judging, both by the foot-washers and Scout, and then there is the legalism of the foot-washers, and finally how we understand joy and God’s creation. There’s probably plenty more, but each of those themes could be illustrated by this excellent passage by Harper Lee.
“Arthur Radley just stays in the house, that’s all,”’ said Miss Maudie. ‘Wouldn’t you stay in the house if you didn’t want to come out?’ “Yessum, but I’d wanta come out. Why doesn’t he?’ Miss Maudie’s eyes narrowed.. Miss Maudie settled her bridgework. ‘You know old Mr. Radley was a foot-washing Baptist—’ ‘That’s what you are, ain’t it?’ ‘My shell’s not that hard, child. I’m just a Baptist.’ ‘Don’t you all believe in foot-washing?’ ‘We do. At home in the bathtub.’ ‘
But we can’t have communion with you all-‘ Apparently deciding that it was easier to define primitive baptistry than closed communion, Miss Maudie said: ‘Foot-washers believe anything that’s pleasure is a sin. Did you know some of ’em came out of the woods one Saturday and passed by this place and told me me and my flowers were going to hell?’ ‘Your flowers, too?’ “Yes ma’am.
They’d burn right with me. They thought I spent too much time in God’s outdoors and not enough time inside the house reading the Bible.’ My confidence in pulpit Gospel lessened at the vision of Miss Maudie stewing forever in various Protestant hells. True enough, she had an acid tongue in her head, and she did not go about the neighborhood doing good, as did Miss Stephanie Crawford.
But while no one with a grain of sense trusted Miss Stephanie, Jem and I had considerable faith in Miss Maudie. She had never told on us, had never played cat-and-mouse with us, she was not at all interested in our private lives. She was our friend… “That ain’t right, Miss Maudie. You’re the best lady I know.” Miss Maudie grinned. “Thank you ma’am. Thing is, foot-washers think women are a sin by definition. They take the Bible literally, you know.” “Is that why Mr. Arthur stays in the house, to keep away from women?” “I’ve no idea.”
The Curse of Living Under the Law
To have Abraham-like faith brings blessing (v 9). The result of living by the law is that we are “under a curse” (v 10). This “curse” has two aspects. Theologically, anyone who says-. I can be saved by obeying the law must then be prepared to really look at what the law commands. To love God wholly, we would have to obey the law wholly.
To be blessed by God instead of cursed by Him, we would have to look at the law and satisfy its every demand. And that cannot be done. Objectively, attempting salvation-by-law-observance means we are cursed. This means that, psychologically, everyone who is seeking to save themselves by their own performance will experience a curse subjectively.
At the very least, attempting to be saved by works will lead to profound anxiety and insecurity, because you can never be sure that you are living up to your standards sufficiently, whatever they may be. This makes you over-sensitive to criticism, envious and intimidated by others who outshine you. It makes you nervous and timid (because you are unsure of where you stand) or else swaggering and boastful (because you are trying to convince yourself of where you stand). Either way, you live with a sense of curse and condemnation.
The Problem with the Human Race
Imagine you have an invisible recorder around your neck that, for all your life, records every time you say to somebody else, “You ought.” It only turns on when you tell somebody else how to live. In other words, it only records your own moral standards as you seek to impose them on other people. It records nothing except what you believe is right or wrong.
And what if God, on judgment day, stands in front of people and says, “You never heard about Jesus Christ and you never read the Bible, but I’m a fair-minded God. Let me show you what I’m going to use to judge you.” Then he takes that invisible recorder from around your neck and says, “I’m going to judge you by your own moral standards.”
And God plays the recording. There’s not a person on the face of the earth who will be able to pass that test. I’ve used that illustration for years now and nobody ever wants to challenge it. Nobody ever says, “I live according to my standards!” This is the biggest problem of the human race. We don’t need more books telling people how to live; people need the power to do what they don’t have the power to do.
The Religion Shop Has Been Closed
[For Christians] the entire religion shop has been closed, boarded up, and forgotten. The church is not in the religion business. It never has been and it never will be, in spite of all the ecclesiastical turkeys through two thousand years who have acted as if religion was their stock in trade. The church, instead, is in the Gospel-proclaiming business.
It is not here to bring the world the bad news that God will think kindly about us only after we have gone through certain creedal, liturgical and ethical wickets; it is here to bring the world the Good News that “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.” It is here, in short, for no religious purpose at all, only to announce the Gospel of free grace.
Wear it As Long As You Can
George Fox (1624-1691) was the founder of the Quakers, a Christian movement, in seventeenth-century century England.
Two of the great Quaker contributions are their teaching on pacifism (refusal to use violence) and equality (abolishing class distinction). William Penn (1644-1718) grew up in the upper class and had the best education available.
At the age of twenty-three, Penn became a Quaker, and soon after everything began to change. It was common in Penn’s day to wear a sword, which was not intended to harm anyone one but was a sign that the wearer belonged to the upper class. After becoming a Quaker, Penn struggled with whether he should wear the sword. After all, it was a symbol of war as well as class distinction-two two things Quakers stood squarely against.
So Penn went to Fox, his mentor, to seek guidance on the matter. “May I continue to wear the sword?” he asked Fox. I would have expected Fox to say, “No, you must get rid of it. Turn it into a plowshare and never wear anything like it again.” Instead, George Fox offered a response that is a touchstone for me in the area of Christian living. He said, “Wear it as long as you can, William, wear it as long as you can.”
Fox was laying out an important principle in the Christian life. When it comes to our practices and behavior, we need to avoid making rules and laws, and trust the leading of the Spirit. Fox did not say, “Don’t wear it,” nor did he say, “It’s all right to wear it.” He trusted that Penn would make the right decision in time. Had Fox given him a command, he would have robbed Penn of the opportunity to listen to the Holy Spirit, and he would have put in place a rigid standard, which almost always leads to later problems.
Taken from The Good and Beautiful Community: Following the Spirit, Extending Grace, Demonstrating Love by James Bryan Smith, Copyright (c) 2010 by James Bryan Smith. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
See also illustrations on Judging