Daring to Reach Out

Post author Lynn Casteel Harper is an interfaith chaplain, Alliance of Baptists minister, and writer living in Greenville, South Carolina.  She is currently working on a book about spirituality and dementia. 

On May 17, 1968, in front of the Selective Service Offices in Catonsville, Maryland, nine activists burned draft files, using homemade napalm, in protest of the Vietnam War.  Among the Catonsville Nine (all of whom were arrested) was Daniel Berrigan—Roman Catholic priest, peace activist, and poet.  As he walked in handcuffs on his way to trial, a young nun, Berrigan’s close friend, reached out her hand to him in a gesture of solidarity.  A federal agent descended on them, in what Berrigan describes as “a swift, reptilian move,” and crashed down between their hands with a karate blow.  “Don’t touch!” the officer barked.  Reflecting on the episode, Berrigan writes: 

It was the epitome of the system…Don’t touch—make war.  Don’t touch—be abstract about God and death and life and love.  Don’t touch—make war at a distance.  Don’t touch your enemies, except to destroy them.  Don’t touch…

Forty-seven years later, the “don’t touch” system persists.  It permeates our lives through all the forces that suppress whatever is true, honorable, and just.  Don’t touch—keep a safe distance from problems.  Don’t touch—violence toward women and people of color isn’t that big of a problem.  Don’t touch—keep your faith personal and private, nice and quiet.  Don’t touch—leave well enough alone.  Don’t touch—leave undisturbed the powers and principalities of the status quo.  Don’t touch—you can’t change much anyway.

“Don’t touch” rears its defeatist head in our faith communities.  True, churchgoers are probably not karate-chopping joined hands with swift, reptilian moves.  Rather an ethos of apathy toward injustice weaves its threads through the fabric of our communal lives.  Seemingly benign forms of “don’t touch” abound in the church, especially with respect to race and gender.  Maybe some of these lines sound familiar:    

  • Most people in our church support women in ministry, but we’ve just always had male pastors.  
  • We ordain women.  They serve as deacons in our church and as guest preachers on occasion. We do more than other churches in our town.
  • Our church is mostly white, but we welcome everyone.  Race is not a problem here.
  • Our worship styles are too different, so it just wouldn’t work to come together.
  • Race and gender aren’t topics of conversation at our church.  Those issues were settled a long time ago.  
  • We don’t want to get too political here.  It’s not worth creating controversy or losing members. 
  • If we just focus on following Jesus, injustices and inequalities will resolve themselves.
  • We’ve got bigger fish to fry.

These sentiments—which are often tacitly held rather than directly expressed—function to keep intact the status quo.  They reduce the rolling, rushing waters of justice to an anemic drip. They do nothing to counteract the underrepresentation of women in pastorates and pulpits; they do nothing to undermine de facto white privilege.  To do nothing, to risk nothing, is the essence of “don’t touch.” 

In the midst of such moral-ethical-spiritual stagnation, a new vision is emerging: Equity for Women in the Church, Inc. is an ecumenical movement to facilitate equal representation of clergywomen as pastors of multicultural churches in order to transform church and society.

To the forces of “don’t touch,” Equity for Women in the Church responds, “REACH OUT!  Risk touching and transforming faith communities and society!  Dare to imagine a new way of being the church!”  While the vision may seem idealistic at first blush, it makes good sense.  How natural (though not easy) for those who have been historically pushed to the edges of community life—women and minorities—to come together and forge faith communities across denominational and gender and ethnicity lines.   

In the Gospels, the woman who had suffered from hemorrhages serves as a good guide on this “reaching out” journey.  In the midst of a large crowd that pressed in on Jesus, she fights her way to him and dares to touch him, if even the fringe of his robe.  To receive healing, she reaches from the fringes to the fringes.  Feeling power “go out” from him, Jesus calls the woman out from the multitudes.  Instead of scolding her for her audacity, he holds her up as exemplary: “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace.”  This woman’s bold faith compels her to reach out, to hope for restoration, and to take hold of healing.  She defies the “don’t touch” forces that seek to hold her back.  Might we be so courageous?

This gospel story shows the healing power of touch, but we know that not all touch is life-giving.  We are painfully aware how touch can turn violent and violating, which is why we need just visions that seek to restore the sanctity of touch.  A just vision calls us to reach out in compassion, to extend the self in the service of truth and love, and to make ploughshares of swords.  The vision of Equity for Women in the Church calls us to touch in an effort to heal—to make well the sicknesses of thought and deed that prevent a more global, more complete vision of the gospel.  It is a touch that ultimately communicates peace.

The challenges to implementing such a transformative vision are many.  It means resisting a cheap unity, which flattens out real differences and silences discomforting voices.  It means developing relationships—not by avoiding the tough stuff—but in and through the dangers, toils, and snares.  It means approaching my own wounds and the wounds of others with equal reverence.  It requires “diving into the wreck”—to borrow a phrase from Adrienne Rich—and entering deeply into the stories (and histories) of our messy lives.  And especially for persons in dominant groups, it means serious, unblinking self-examination and critique—undergirded by an acute historical awareness of the legacy of white supremacy and male privilege.  

If all this seems too daunting, too impossible—well, that’s because it is.  It is a kin-dom vision, which means it is impossible to manage or administrate into existence.  It is impossible to contain or control—which is what makes the vision one of faith and not one of corporate expediency.  After all, the wind of the Spirit blows where she pleases.  

But let us make no mistake: while the vision cannot be micromanaged and bullet-pointed into reality, it does require intentionality, spiritual discipline, and good practices.  It calls on individuals and communities to make real commitments and to take concrete actions.  Without such intentionality, it is far too easy to default to a comfortable church-social club hybrid…and to roll back out the same ole “Don’t Touch” signs.

For Berrigan, the karate-chopping officer’s “don’t touch” epitomized a violent, impersonal system.  As I search for models for a transformed church and society—marked by courage, justice, and the pursuit of healing—Bree Newsome comes to mind.  On June 27, ten days after the terrorist attack in Charleston, Newsome scaled the 30-foot flagpole at the South Carolina capitol and cut down the Confederate flag.  “We removed the flag today because we can’t wait any longer,” she said.  “We can’t continue like this another day.”  

She refused the status quo.  She defied the “don’t touch” forces that say “just be patient,” “don’t rock the boat,” “wait another day.”  She dared to reach out (quite literally!), to cut down injustice, and to claim a greater vision.  May we possess a similar clarity of vision and audacity of action. 

Connect with Lynn at: lynncasteelharper.wordpress.com.