Revd Canon Dr Sarah Hills, Honorary Canon for Reconciliation at Inverness Cathedral writes…
A touch of love or a touch that kills?
I have been feeling, like very many of us over the last week, angry, sad, bewildered. George Floyd in Minneapolis died 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. And then Donald Trump touches the bible in front of an Episcopal church. Another touch – calculated, shocking, sinister. The bible is a book about love. The gospel message found within it 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 are not only words. 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 feet.
In Church in Holy Week, we recreate Jesus’s act of touching his disciples as he washed their feet, days before his own death. I find this act of foot washing on Maundy Thursday one of the most moving and poignant services. Touching another’s foot, drying their toes carefully, feels like one of the most sacramental of acts. An act of service, of devotion, of 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? Who with? Why? Have they had to run from danger? Or made prints in the sand on the beach? 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 sitting on a parent’s lap, through holding a dying hand, is about goodness. It is grace filled, and in theological language, 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. Or for any reason.
I am a white South African, full of privilege. I am a mother and wife, delighting in our two boys and our Labrador. I am also Vicar of Holy Island, Honorary Canon of Inverness Cathedral and Canon of Reconciliation for the Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church. As a reconciler, it seems no accident that I find myself on Holy Island, a liminal place straddling the land and the sea, a beautiful place where pilgrims come to have their hearts and souls touched. A place founded by St Aidan in 635AD, an Irish monk sent from Scotland as a peacemaker.
My life is full of privilege. I know that. Maybe I shouldn’t even be writing this piece. But I believe that as a South African who grew up in Northern Ireland during the troubles, now priest and reconciler living on a holy island, that I have some duty to say something. And so I offer this in humility. Not because I am an expert. Not because I have experienced the racism that George Floyd and millions of others have. But because I am confused and heartbroken. I feel the need to offer something of myself through writing this in order to work through what is going on around us, and in case it resonates with anyone else. 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.
This last week I have been forcibly reminded of the time of apartheid in South Africa that my parents and countless others fought against. Of numerous deaths because of race and colour. Deaths due to the touch of blows, of batons, of bullets, of electric shocks. I was born in South Africa, and my parents were both involved in anti-apartheid activities. We left when I was a young child and went to Northern Ireland where I grew up. As a medical student I spent time in back in South Africa working in a rural hospital in the 1980’s. 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, 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, Ahmaud Arbery, Belly Mujinga, Steve Biko, the people on the bridge in Selma, and thousands of others were not.
My dear friend Glenn Jordan died yesterday. He was a true reconciler, a brave and beautiful man. Funny, hopeful, deeply humble and one of the most profound and poetic thinkers I have known. I remember him sitting on our sofa here on Holy Island, glass of whisky in his hand, touching my heart, and all of ours there that evening. I suggested a swim off St Cuthbert’s beach below our garden the next morning. The touch of the icy water, then the touch of our frozen hands as we high fived afterwards. The touch of love. I never got the chance to hear what Glenn would have to say about the situation we find ourselves in this week. In the USA, and if we are honest, everywhere in our broken world. We have lived, we continue to live with conflict, violence, and the touch of death. But I know that Glenn would not want me to stop there. Nor would my father.
The touch of love is here to stay. The touch of love enables us to be angry. And so we should be. To grieve. To lament. To search for justice. For all those suffering racism, brutality and discrimination throughout our world. For our children and our children’s children. 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. Maybe not today. Or tomorrow. But it is there in the hope that Jesus Christ brings us. The touch of love is stronger than the touch that kills. Always. And forever.
I end with a prayer from the ‘father of reconciliation’, Desmond Tutu
Victory is Ours
Goodness is stronger than evil;
Love is stronger than hate;
Light is stronger than darkness;
Life is stronger than death;
Victory is ours through Him who loves us.