Shaping debate on religion in public life.

A touch of love or a touch that kills?

19 Jun 2020

The Rev’d Canon Dr Sarah Hills is the vicar of Holy Island, Lindisfarne. Here, she draws on her time in both South Africa and Northern Ireland to reflect on racism, oppression and the importance of touch.

I have been feeling, like very many of us over the last few weeks, angry, sad and bewildered. George Floyd in Minneapolis died whilst being held down, kneeled on, struggling for breath.

Touch comes in different forms. George died from a touch that killed him. That touch was sustained, unwarranted, brutal and deadly. That touch of a policeman’s body was seen by those around them in the street that day. It was seen by millions on TV. And that touch has come to symbolise much that is wrong in our world: hate, racism, division, arrogance, even evil.

Donald Trump’s touch of the bible was another inversion of love. The gospel message is one of inclusion, not division: of love triumphing over death; of righteous anger, forgiveness and justice; of diversity and welcome and healing; of reconciliation. But these cannot only be words. The bible embodies these words in the touch of Jesus Christ. His touch of love for us. And he let us touch him: his cloak, his side, his hands and his feet.

In Holy Week, we recreate Jesus’s act of touching his disciples as he washed their feet, days before his own death. Touching another’s foot, drying their toes carefully, feels like one of the most sacramental of acts. An act of service, devotion and intimate connection. The feet come in all shapes and sizes: some toes painted, some misshapen and painful looking. Feet with a story to tell. Where have these feet walked? Have they had to run from danger? These are touches of love.

My father died at the end of March. I had not been able to say goodbye to him, and so I really wanted to see him at the chapel of rest. I did, but what I most wanted to do was to touch him. And I did. I held his hand, kissed him and said goodbye. Of course, that last touch was not the same, but it was a touch of love. I wonder if George Floyd’s family were able to give him a last touch of love, after the touch that killed him?

Our need for comfort through touch, through hugging a friend, through holding a dying hand, is about goodness. It is grace-filled and sacramental. It is about love being made visible. It is an abhorrent distortion of this touch of love to kill someone because of their race, or their colour, or creed, or sexuality or gender.

I am a white South African, full of privilege. I know that. Maybe I shouldn’t even be writing this piece? But I believe, as a South African who grew up in Northern Ireland during the troubles, and now as priest and reconciler living on a holy island, that I have a duty to say something. So, I offer this in humility, not because I am an expert, nor because I have experienced the racism that George Floyd and millions of others have, but because I am confused and heartbroken. Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has said that to be silent in the face of oppression is to choose the side of the oppressor. This oppression has benefitted me and all of us who look like me.

These last few weeks I have been forcibly reminded of the time of apartheid in South Africa that my parents, and countless others, fought against. And of numerous deaths because of race and colour; deaths due to the touch of blows, batons, bullets and electric shocks. As a medical student I spent time back in South Africa working in a rural hospital in the 1980s. While there, I found myself joining in protest marches with thousands of other South Africans, demonstrating against apartheid. During one of the marches, the police fired on us. I joined other medics in the back streets of the township treating those who had been shot. I touched someone’s shoulder as I fought to remove the bullet lodged in his muscle. Afterwards, with the bullet out, we exchanged the touch of a bloody and careful hug. He and I were fortunate that day. George Floyd, Trayvon Martin, Stephen Lawrence, Steve Biko, the people on the bridge in Selma, and thousands of others were not.

The touch of love is here to stay. The touch of love enables us to be angry—and so we should be. The touch of love enables us to grieve, lament and search for justice for all those suffering from racism, brutality and discrimination throughout our world. And these things—grief, lament, searching for justice and even forgiveness, we must do. Without them, reconciliation is useless. But if we can hold fast to the touch of love, reconciliation will come, for the touch of love is stronger than the touch that kills.

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