A friend and fellow Disciple, Jay Deskins, has some thoughts on hugging–check out his blog. I was inspired to respond on this seemingly simple encounter between two people. I think its a pastorally complicated act that requires careful relfection and intentionality. I encourage you to read his post. Here was my response:
Thanks for this thoughtful post, Jay. As a pastor who has given many hugs, and who has seen hugs “abused”–not in any sexually inappropriate ways, but as a form of false authenticity or intimacy–I find “hugs” a tricky social act. I experienced a pastor who gave everyone they met or knew a hug. And when that was coupled with a lack of effort to develop relationships apart from ministry “tasks” (will you serve on this committee?), the hugs grew to feel shallow and manipulative.
I don’t believe our first physical act with a person, especially someone we just met or don’t know very well, should be a hug (prior, established relationships of trust allow for the vulnerability of physical interaction manifest in a hug).
I don’t think hugs are absolutely off limits, either. They should not be entered into lightly, but neither should they be with-held when needed or called for (so long as hugging is something a pastor feels comfortable giving–some pastors may not be comfortable with that physical intimacy for various reasons, not the least of which might include physical/sexual abuse).
I do think a handshake is a good first act (pick your jaw off the floor). I also think asking someone “can I give you a hug” or (more playfully) “are you the huggin’ type?” is a pastorally wise approach. And when in a conversation that involves tears or other deep emotional responses, various forms of touching (moving near, taking a hand, place your hand on the shoulder) may also be comforting, an expression of support, and a symbol of hope.
I especially love and agree with your musings on a theology of fear/hope. I do think that Jesus draws us into communities of vulnerability where intimacy arrises. However, I do not think that Jesus is interested in creating intimacy for the sake of intimacy, or communities defined by how much hugging they do (which is why the rhetoric of “authenticity” can get on my nerves).
No, Jesus draws us into the abundance of new life, and thereby orients what intimacy means in its various contexts. As a theologian and ethicist I admire puts it (I’m paraphrasing), “Intimacy, like authority, is an indirect good. It is not something we should seek out for it’s own sake, but something that comes about when we pursue what is true, just, and beautiful.” When we care about people, when we love and lift up people, we might find that hugs are called for and needed–and, like you, I believe we are faithful in entering into that vulnerable physical space with others.