Ethics in flight
Goldman Sachs & Reputational Risk

Holy Week

Washing-feetMillions of Christians are celebrating Holy Week, remembering a man whose singular message was one of love. So it's a little disconcerting to see how some of his nominal followers are interpreting his message.

The Wall Street Journal today carried a lovely little story about Pope Francis' decision to wash the feet of 12 prison inmates in the traditional Holy Thursday ceremony. All of the inmates were young immigrants in an Italian detention center. Some were Muslim and a couple were women.

Traditionally, the pope washed the feet of retired priests in some Roman basillica. But Pope Francis has been going out of his way to show that he intends to focus the church on the poor and the downtrodden. I think he means it.

His plan to live a simpler life by moving into a Vatican guest house may be no more successful in reforming the people who report to him than Jimmy Carter's decision to carry his own luggage. But I think his heart's in the right place.

Sadly, the online comments to the Journal story suggest that it will be hard to get everyone on the same page.

The very first comment criticized the pope for washing the feet of a woman. "Many of us are shocked and appalled," Joe O'Leary tutted. "Many of us hope the pope sees the error of his un-biblical ways and issues an apology."

Another commenter wrote: "Thank God the Pope is not a Nazi anymore."

Still another accused the pope of naivete. "The obviously well-intentioned [and staged?] gesture of a pope washing the feet of a Muslim will backfire.... with very nasty and crude remarks from mainstream Muslims, who wouldn't ordinarily acknowledge an ecumenical outreach, and couldn't tell the difference from that and one of their scimitars."

To be sure, several readers took these folks to task.

But I've noticed the same pattern in the comments section of both the Journal and the New York Times -- a knee-jerk reaction to fill the slightest partisan opening. 

The same issue of the Journal carried a story that the Obama administration may include entitlement reform in its upcoming budget. That stimulated dozens of comments. The very first one was typical: "And Lucy is holding the football," wrote Jonathan Rourke, suggesting it's all a devious trick. To which one reader replied, "Bingo!"

If Obama walked across the waters of the Potomac River, some people would say it only shows he can't swim. To be fair, some people would say the same thing of George W. Bush in similar circumstances. 

We're all entitled to our opinions, of course. There's even such a thing as justifiable anger. But those opinions and anger shouldn't become the very lens through which we see the world or they become biases and bigotry. 

As Pope Francis put it in explaining why he washed the inmates feet, "So what does this mean? That we have to help each other…Sometimes I would get angry with someone. But we must let it go and if they ask a favor, do it."


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