I smiled to myself when I saw them.
It appeared to be an older sibling walking his younger sibling to his first day of school. As they passed by me, the expression of the older one communicated to me that the older sibling seemed . . . well . . . how shall I say it . . . uncomfortable. You see, the older sibling was holding the younger one’s hand. Despite the appearance of awkwardness, the older one was willing to hold the sibling’s hand, causing me to wonder if the little brother was afraid or anxious.
The power of touch.
An appropriate touch can calm the anxious soul. Communicate peace to the conflicted heart. Heal an inner wound. Provide comfort to the bereaved. Convey care to the hurting. Relate love to the outcast. Simply the holding of someone’s hand can be reassuring, stating wordlessly, “You are no longer alone and isolated. I am with you.”
Some of you who know me may be surprised that I would write about touch as it may seem out of character for me. After all, I am not a touchy-huggy-kind-of person. You may wonder, “What qualifies her to address the topic of touch?” Maybe that is precisely the reason I am writing about it: it is something on which I reflect and analyze due to the fact that I am a minimalist hugger.
For those of you who do not know me, I was raised in a family system that was not exactly the hugging type. When I speak of family system, I am referring to a system that is multi-generational, not simply one’s immediate family. As I consider my relatives, I cannot recollect a single one of them that I would label as The Hugger. I am of rather reserved German heritage with a Hutterite-Mennonite background; thus, part of who I am results from generations of relatives being less than the emotional and physical expressive types.
At the same time, I am fully aware of the healing power of touch. In an article published in January of 2017, the Harvard Health Publishing posted, “The Healing Power of Touch” in which it cites a number of studies that demonstrate how massage therapy assists in physically healing a person, such as in the recovery from surgery or an injury, in the amelioration of pain, and in the lessening of stress.
Similarly, a colleague of mine told a story of attending a seminar in which the presenter requested a volunteer to join him on the platform. The audience observed the presenter holding this volunteer in an embrace until eventually the volunteer began to weep. Such a demonstration was utilized to illustrate the healing power of touch.
And yet . . . as healing as touch can be, it can also be wounding.
- Ask Pat Baranowski, the former executive assistant to Pastor Bill Hybels. After the being sexually violated by Hybels, The NY Times reports that Baranowski eventually went from being high performing, capable executive assistant to a woman who struggled in maintaining a job, losing her condo, and suffering from panic attacks and physical difficulties.
- Inquire of the one who has experienced sexual abuse as a child, such as one of the 1000s of childhood sexual abuse survivors who were molested by any one of the 300 priests in Pennsylvania.
- Invite a client to share her story of boundaries being violated by a counselor.
- Talk to the 1 in 5 college women who were violated or read the many stories in a Washington Post article of college students who experienced sexual assault, including college students of Christian schools.
When touch becomes inappropriate, physical boundaries are violated, and wounds are inflicted.
Healing. Wounding. This is the power of touch.
As Christ-followers, it behooves us to be sensitive about the appropriateness of touch, particularly if we are desiring to be considerate of those who walk among us, be it a visitor or a long-time attendee. Behind that smile may be the wound or a scar of boundaries that were crossed. Of personal power having been usurped. Of the rules of a family system that had clear physical boundaries. Thus, in a day when inappropriate touch is in the news and an increase of individuals are surfacing around the world who have experienced the violation of said boundaries, it may be time to stress and/or examine a theology of touch. It may be time to ask ourselves, “When does touch heal and when does it wound?” For me, this includes an additional question, “Am I respecting and honoring the other’s will? Does my interaction with the other communicate honor toward the person’s being?”
I have experienced a variety of churches across the USA in my lifetime, and one quality seems to remain among Christ-followers who are huggers: They hold fast to the belief, “Everybody is to be a hugger.” Unfortunately, by their actions, and sometimes words, they force this belief on others, showing disregard for the other’s being and the other’s needs for respect, mutuality, honor, dignity, and equality. By asserting, “I am a hugger,” huggers have the tendency to violate the will and boundaries of strangers and friends alike by dishonoring and disrespecting the personal space of their intended targets.
Consider a person whose boundaries were violated in either a sexual or non-sexual manner in a relationship containing a power differential. Now consider huggers pushing their way past the clear fences that have been erected by the intended target. Instead of respect, the target is dishonored. Instead of exhibiting power with, huggers assert power over. When a hug is forced upon someone, her identity is subsumed while her power is being usurped. In essence, huggers extinguish the will and the individuality of the huggee. While they may intend to be a giving and healing agent, they are actually focusing on themselves and their own needs, and thereby communicating to the target, “You are to be like me. You are here to meet my needs.” In family systems theory, this signifies an unhealthy relationship of enmeshment that conveys, “We are to be the same. I need you to be like me in order for me to be comfortable. I need you to be a hugger like me because I cannot tolerate differences. My identity comes from your being like me.”
If we teach children about appropriate and inappropriate touch, is it time we instruct congregants and pastors on this as well? If we are to provide spaces of healing through relationships among congregants, then is it time develop a practical theology of touch that heals through respect?
Consider the following reflections with me.
- If a church encourages people to greet one another in the congregation, is it only sufficient to express welcome and love through touching? May the elements of welcome and love be communicated without touching while respecting the other’s will?
- If we are sitting with one who is crying, do we assume the person longs for a hug? Or is our desire to give a hug more about our uncomfortableness with the other’s tears than it is about us comforting a person? At times, when I am crying, I desire someone to embrace me; however, I have also experienced moments when I am crying that I do not want to be touched. Tears in the presence of the other means one is emotionally exposed, vulnerable. Security is of the utmost importance and to violate the other’s space during such vulnerability can hinder, if not abruptly terminate, the healing impact of tears. How many times has our own uncomfortableness with the other’s tears motivated us to hug someone, secretly hoping that the hug will heal—that is, the tears will stop? In such moments, we neglect the reality that tears have their own healing power, as “emotional tears also contain stress hormones which get excreted from the body through crying.”
As a Christ-follower, I am actually a member of a tradition that underscores touch. As you can imagine, belonging to such a group as a minimalist hugger elicits many opportunities for reflection on the relationship between touch and respect. Pentecostals have a practical theology of touch, meaning they demonstrate their theology through action. We may not openly discuss it in our services, but we believe in embodying our faith through touch.
- People are frequently anointed with oil in prayers for healing.
- People pray for one another by placing a hand on them and verbally offering up requests to God.
These types of practices demonstrate how touch is associated with faith in our circles.
We often note how Jesus Christ touched people and how people touched Jesus in order for healing to occur. Recall with me the woman with the issue of blood (Mk 5) who believed, “If only I touch his clothes, I will be healed.” Mark records:
“Jesus knew at once that power had gone out from him. He turned around in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’”
It is evident that touch was an embodiment of faith, particularly when Jesus says to her:
“Daughter, your faith has made you well.”
I also suspect that there was something about Jesus that drew people to him, specifically those who were labeled as sinners or unclean. It would seem they trusted him, for why else would they spend time with him? These people were people who were unclean. Some were rejected and shamed so that they became accustomed to people avoiding them, such as the lepers or even the woman with the issue of blood. Yet, something about this One said, “He is one to be trusted.” His very presence, then, for these individuals fostered trust.
Yet, there is one more thing about Jesus: his embodiment of touch is healing.
Consider with me for a moment the theology of the hypostatic union in which Jesus Christ is completely divine and completely human. In the person of Jesus and in the theological construct of hypostasis, one could say that God touches humanity completely—embodying humanity—so that there is a relationship between the divine and humanity within the person of Jesus. That is to say, the divine relates to humanity in the very body of Jesus Christ. Touch cannot be more intimate than that! The divine is forever connected to humanity. This is the touch, this embodiment, that heals humanity. As Christ-followers we speak of the day when God will be all-in-all so that all of creation will be healed—that is, reconciled. We have a taste of this when Jesus is completely God while being completely human. This is a portrayal of healing through embodiment.
It is significant to note that while God longs for a relationship with humanity, Jesus does not violate human will by forcing his will on us. Instead, although Jesus reconciles all of humanity to God, Jesus is also one unique human; thus, he honors the will of other humans, respecting their individual choices. It would be my assertion, based on my last blog, that we are able to participate in Christ’s ministry through touch and also through non-touch while honoring the will of the other. We respect the other’s will by offering an opportunity to touch through such words of inquiry as:
- Would a hug be helpful?
- Would it be helpful if I held your hand?
- Would it be appropriate if I prayed for you by touching you on the shoulder or hand?
Since we do not always know who walks among us who has been wounded by the inappropriate crossing of boundaries, we empower that person who may have been robbed of her power when we use the language of invitation. By respecting the will of the other, we are being healing agents through the power of the Spirit. We are trusting that if the other says “no” to being touched, he is saying “yes” to something else very vital to him, such as security. When we learn to invite and to embrace the possible difference of the other through our inquiry, we provide an opportunity for healing.
 “The Healing Power of Touch,” Harvard Health Publishing Harvard Medical School, January 2017, https://www.health.harvard.edu/alternative-and-complementary-medicine/the-healing-power-of-touch.
 Laurie Goodstein, “He’s a Superstar Pastor. She Worked for Him and Says He Groped Her Repeatedly,” The New York Times, August 5, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/05/us/bill-hybels-willow-creek-pat-baranowski.html
 Nick Anderson and Scott Clement, “1 in 5 College Say They Were Violated,” The Washington Post, June 12, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/sf/local/2015/06/12/1-in-5-women-say-they-were-violated/?utm_term=.601329cc7cfd.
 Nick Anderson, Emma Brown, Steve Hendrix, and Susan Svrluga, “Sexual Assault Survivors Tell Their Stories,” The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/local/sexual-assault/.
 Judith Orloff, “The Health Benefits of Tears,” Psychology Today, July 27, 2010, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/emotional-freedom/201007/the-health-benefits-tears.
[The above picture is provided by pixabay.com]