I want to thank my friend and student Jasmine for pointing me toward the following article:
In the midst of national crises about gun violence, racial profiling, privacy, our role in international war and the like, we forget that we are in the beginning and in the end just human beings…not human DOINGS, but human BEINGS. The most accessible aspect of that state is our ability to touch.
This semester, I am teaching a class: In Your Hands: Spirituality, Language and Ethics of Touch at Starr King School for the Ministry. It is geared toward students in seminary, to get us thinking and open up the dialogue about touch. You see, I believe that the solution to the problems listed above is finding a way to reclaim our ability to be in physical contact with one another without it being commodified. We have stepped so far outside of our bodies and our embodied experience that we immediately associate touch with exchanges of power, particularly of a sexual nature, and although touch is intimate, intimacy does not always mean sex. The way a child breastfeeds is intimate, but it is not sex; the way we touch the hand of someone when they need help is intimate, but it is not sex; the way we embrace others in a time of joy is intimate, but it is not sex. The intimacy is determined by the emotional context that we share when we touch, not by the act alone.
Why do a graduate class on touch in seminary? Because faith communities have simultaneously done the most to destroy the language of touch and also have the most to lose by eliminating touch. There have been abuses in every religious denomination…it is not just a Catholic problem. It is an issue of power and using touch as a tool to gain that power. Inappropriate touch is the tool of people who are scared and desperate and who have no other way in their understanding, to find what they really seek. They understand that as people of the big monolithic religious body, they have certain power to direct people’s lives…yet they still feel out of control within themselves. I am no psychotherapist, but I am a body therapist and I have seen reflections of this kind of behavior in the massage room; where someone who is struggling to feel more in control of their own body is looking for something more from the massage…they never quite surrender to the experience of touch and may direct or anticipate your every move. Some will make an out and out a pass at you. Not at all to say that this is every case, but I’ve seen it first hand.
Let me be clear, I am not teaching people how to touch in church. However, I may be trying to teach people how to ask why and why not to touch in church. If faith communities can make an effort to not just enforce boundaries, but learn about and teach through our natural boundaries, we might just be able to reclaim this thing. I am not a Christian minister (though I identify as Christian within the Unitarian Universalist Church) but there are countless examples of Christ touching people, or people touching Christ (Matthew 9: 18 – 22 is chocka) and these are beautiful and inspiring examples of faith. By reacting to those who would abuse touch by saying “don’t touch” we all lose and the abusers win. Suddenly, we are agreeing with those who misuse touch and in our tacet response we are saying “you’re right, touch is bad and evil and can only be a no-good thing.” We don’t deserve that as human beings. Instead I say, don’t let the abusers win; let’s explore and thoroughly discuss the ways and the reasons why we touch in the open. Shine a light on it and leave the abusers nowhere to hide.
Already, two weeks in, my class is deeply fascinating and threads of thought and engagement are emerging that I could never have anticipated. We’ll see where it goes. At the very least there are seven future religious leaders in the world who are asking questions along with me. Its not much, but an avalanche starts when just one stone comes loose.
Thank you to everyone who has been reading my blog. My last post Heartbreak received about 1000 hits and numerous comments. Again, I am deeply grateful to those of you who read, but it is bittersweet that tragedy would have to touch us this way. I have not written, and may not write about the shooting in Virginia, because truly, my heart is too heavy with the combination of these stories. I only offer a prayer for those we lost, including the gunman, their families and for our nation to find a solution to feeling as if we need to carry around life and death in our pockets.