A Theology of Touch for Touchless Times

Photo by Anastasia Vityukova 

IT'S EASY FOR OUR HEARTS to somersault with anxious thoughts in 2020. We are told to stay home, wash our hands dozens of times daily, and avoid any physical contact with other people. We are told that, if we do this, we will be good citizens and that society as a whole will be better off. 

We are told that failure to socially distance ourselves enough could result in people dying. Even as civil authorities ease up a bit on this message many are still wary. Christians especially aim to be good neighbours. If not being near or touching others makes me a better neighbour, shouldn’t I, as a Christian, lead by example and stay far from others?so we ask ourselves.

To this valid question, it may also be worth asking what exactly Scripture does mean by being a good neighbour? Does being a loving person only involve doing everything in our power to minimise a physical riskwhether real or exaggerated? Is physical touch and proximity ever something we can or should set aside for a significant length of time? What do the Scriptures teach us about physical touch?

Touch: A Biblical Overview 
When God created humanity, he made us different than the angels. One of those ways is that we are embodiedwe are not just spirits. Another feature highlighted at the beginning of our creation is that ‘it is not good for man to be alone’.

Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, the importance of appropriate physical touch is highlighted as something that is part of our humanity in acts of encouragement, comfort, and affection. Sometimes, due to sin and death, the Israelites were told not to touch a dead body or a leper at the risk of one week of self-isolation.

In the New Testament, with the arrival of Jesus as the Messiah, physical touch gets taken to a whole new level. ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt among us’. What a scandal! Now the divine nature is touching people.

Jesus breaks some social guidelines in regards to touch. He touches lepers (Matt 8.3). He touches women (Mark 14.3; John 12.3). He touches children (Matt 9.13). He touches his disciples’ feet in a counter-cultural way. His disciples are sometimes embarrassed by all of this touching, but Jesus doesn’t seem to mind. He’s here on earth to love and people and he doesn’t mind going against the solid, tyrannical, and unmoving opinion of the majority to do it. 

After the resurrection, much is made of both Mary and Thomas touching Jesus and the physical sharing of bread with the two disciples on the way to Emmaus.

The apostles follow Jesus’s example. The two sacraments we are given both involve physical touch: breaking and sharing bread together and baptism. Both Peter and Paul emphasised the importance of greeting ‘one another with a holy kiss’.

Specifically, the ‘laying on of hands’ as a means of blessing and encouragement are emphasised to a much greater degree than we in the West tend to acknowledge. Look what an important category the writer of Hebrews puts this practice in:

Let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of the resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment. -Heb 6.1,2


Touch-Phobia
We in the West, with our high value on privacy and personal space, don’t fully appreciate the role physical touch plays in relationships. Brits and Americans tend to touch each other very little compared to other cultures. Even in churches, many adults are afraid to touch children lest it is misunderstood. Even under normal conditions, we are under touched and some people’s mental health suffers because of it.  

So far, so bad. But now we’ve drunk a cocktail of legitimate science, politics, pseudo-science, and anxious activism. The results? Voila, we’ve made ourselves into a society of untouchables. Not just for weeks, but for months on end. Not content to impose these weights on ourselves, we’ve also dumped them onto our children’s psychology making them believe they should not hug or touch their friends lest their grandmothers die.

Us humans tend to be very good at doing what is bad for us. What this lockdown will do to the emotional and mental health of a generation remains to be seen.  

It is hard to read the Scriptures and not get a sense that loving bodily connection and engagement is an essential part of Christian fellowship. There are, indeed, times when touch is not appropriate. There is a ‘time to refrain from embracing’ (Ecc 3.5). But how should Christians discern when those times are? We do not take our cues from a world that gets blown about by the winds and waves of media-driven anxiety. Our value systems are different. Our views on risk-taking, life, death, and the body are all seen through a different lens. Janet Sutton’s insight is helpful:

From very early on in their history, Christian communities described themselves as the Body of Christ (1 Cor. 12). This understanding of corporate embodiment is a fundamental aspect of the common Christian life, both in the way individual members feel a tangible sense of attachment to each other, and how they reach out together to the world around them.

As Christians, we are to value and guard the importance of appropriate physical touch in our communities. This includes guarding against people who would want to touch others in abusive ways. But it also includes guarding against a wider societal thought that physical touch is of little importance and something we can easily do without. 
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