When We Can Touch Again

I’ll be honest, I had a hard time titling this piece. (My first for Misfits. Greetings?)

Each iteration of a title involving “touch” towed the line between sounding perverse, or like the title to a 90s R&B bop. You can see I went with the latter.

But the awkwardness is the point. I want to talk about touch, in the middle of a pandemic. Right now we associate touch with danger – rightfully so. At the same time, I’ve come to believe that theology is best practiced with our bodies and among those whose bodies we are the closest to. In the last year I had committed, as an introvert, to more physical touch and physical presence than I’d ever been comfortable with: shaking hands, a supportive hand on the shoulder, reciprocating hugs, etc. And then, well, you know what happened.

I want to talk about touch, right now, because I hope that we will come out of this with a longing to be embodied again – to cultivate a sense of sacredness toward our bodies. Over time in Christian history, because of the influence of Greek philosophy, we started to believe that our bodies are bad, at war with our purer “spirit.” But our bodies are not just dirty, sinful husks that hold our spirit, but beautiful, sacred things themselves. The very fact that God took bodily form in Jesus, then used that body to heal and ultimately die for us, bestows a sacredness to the body that we can’t ignore.  

When we do, it has disastrous consequences, and not just for ourselves. Liberation theologians, who study theology from the point of view of oppressed peoples, point this out as one of the most dangerous ways we justify doing so much harm in the name of God. Christians are willing to commit atrocities to physical bodies, or implicitly allow injustices to happen, in favor of some spiritual good. Even more, our emphasis on a “spiritual” faith means we have a free pass to disconnect from one another, and from issues affecting the vulnerable.

Despite this, my belief and experience is that connection breaks through. There’s a phenomenon I’ve witnessed time and again that I call the “connection exception.” It goes something like this: someone, a friend or family member, feels a certain way about a group of people (undocumented immigrants, LGBTQ people, currently or formerly incarcerated people,) but then they meet someone in their life who falls into that category, and something interesting happens. That person doesn’t meet their expectations, and that friend will talk about them like they’re an exception. Truly, in fact, the exception is the connection – they­­­ see them as a full person. Often times, if they allow it to happen, it can have this beautiful way of opening them up to a new way of thinking: if this person is a unique individual who deserves compassion and empathy, perhaps everyone in that group does.

But that never happens without connection, without sharing space with people we did not filter or curate for ourselves like we do on social media. It happens when we see, and meet, and are close enough to touch people.

“Touch” is a dirty word, and there are good and bad reasons for that. Many of us grew up in a purity culture where all touching was hyper-sexualized, and we all grew afraid of touching one another for fear of the implications of that touch. At the same time, churches and institutions of all denominations and creeds harbored, raised up, and covered up for leaders who touched those under their care inappropriately, and non-consensually, and often got away it. Leaders have misused touch to take power away from others. Touch, for many, is a trigger.

Touch is also, I believe, a sacrament of the gospels. Thomas touches the risen Jesus to recognize him. A woman rubs oil on Jesus feet. Jesus touches lepers and sinners and heals them. A bleeding woman gets healed when she touches Jesus. Jesus washes his disciples’ feet.

And there’s one exception, a “disconnection exception”. In Luke 7, Jesus heals the servant of the centurion from multiple towns away, the only healing Jesus performs without touch. The common interpretation of this story marvels at how Jesus is so powerful that he could heal from far away; the healing power of God is not confined to physical proximity. Amen to that.

But because it’s such an outlier, it also demonstrates that Jesus prefers to heal through touch. This story is the exception that demonstrates the rule. If this story shows that Jesus didn’t have to, then we must infer that Jesus preferred to touch and be physically present with people for the sake of healing.

Right now, in the midst of COVID-19, we are like Jesus and the servant in this one story, learning how to heal and be healed from far away. As beautiful as that is, (and it truly has been beautiful,) I hope that, like this story, it’s remains the exception. Just because we can connect this way doesn’t mean that we always should.

When we can, I hope we will rededicate ourselves to physical presence and to Christian touch – that we come out committed to sharing intimate space with people who we don’t know or even don’t like. I hope we can learn to touch in ways that give each other power, so that we do not lose touch with one another.

When we can touch again, I hope we do. And I hope that it is healing for all of us. We are going to need it.

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