I have a confession to make. I am not a hugger. This doesn’t mean that I never hug. There are exceptions. I hug my wife and son, and members of my extended family. I hug some of my friends. These are people whom I have known for years, with whom I have shared both laughter and tears. I will also hug members of my parish when it seems called for during pastoral visits. If they are hurt or distressed, if they are ill, or afraid; if they seem in need of a hug (and if they are someone who would welcome one).
But I don’t hug strangers. I don’t hug casual acquaintances or people whom I know only enough to recognise them if I pass them on the street. I also don’t hug people who are not comfortable with hugging. All of this means that when our liturgy reaches the point of “The Passing of the Peace”, I don’t hug. I extend my hand in for a friendly hand-shake. I try to make this more informal by using the ‘two-handed-technique’. But it’s a hand-shake nonetheless. Some, however, force a hug on me.
A few months back, I was attending another parish. I was a visitor. It was not a parish that I knew incredibly well, which meant that this parish didn’t know me incredibly well either. When the time came for the passing of the peace, I reached my hand out to those who surrounded me. (Here’s another confession—I never leave the pew during the peace time). It is my hope that extending my hand is a non-threatening and non-obtrusive sign that I don’t want to be hugged. One gentlemen, brushed my hand aside with the words “What are you thinking?” and then proceeded to embrace me. After the hug was done he rebuked me with the words ‘Shaking hands, geez!’ As politely as I could I responded, “I like to shake hands, I’m not a hugger.’ He then mumbled ‘Not a hugger!’ and made a swatting gesture, which I can only assume meant either ‘Smarten up!’ or ‘Get thee behind me Satan!’
While I am not a hugger, hugs don’t freak me out. I am comfortable with hugs – I just prefer to shake hands with people I don’t know. Still, this event got me thinking about the way we relate to each other in church, particularly through the passing of the peace. What does the dynamic of forcing hugs on unsuspecting strangers say about how we view them? Are we truly offering an invitation for the other to enter the peace of Christ, or are we engaging in a practice that is more about our peace and comfort than anything else?
To care for the other, we need to put down any notion of individualism. This, of course, flies in direct contrast with the world around us. We live in an individualist world. We are told that our thoughts, expectations, wants, and desires are the only things that matters. We live in the world of Survivor, where ‘If I vote you out I am a good player, if you vote me out you are a back-stabber and a villain’. This may seem like a trite example, but it illustrates the underpinning individualism that states that others exist to serve our interests.
Has this dynamic subtly entered into the life of the church –primarily through the ‘Passing of the Peace’? When we hug those who do not want to be hugged – or assume that everyone in the church must be comfortable with hugs because that is what we do—are we asserting an individualism that essentially denies the other person a life beyond our wishes?
The passing of the peace is placed very specifically in our liturgy. For one, it occurs before the Eucharist. In this manner we are able to live out Jesus’ words to ‘First go be reconciled to your brother or sister; then come and offer your gift on the altar’ (Matthew 5:24). Yet the passing of the peace also goes after the general confession. Here we apologize for ‘not loving our neighbours as ourselves’. It’s sad, and a little ironic, that we instantly forget this confession in our drive to hug someone who may not be comfortable with it.
One of the strengths of the church has always been the outward focus of the community. We exist to love and care for others. Pastoral care, evangelism, missions; each and every ministry of the church has this outward, other-person focus as its basis. Individualism, however, turns our practices around. We attempt to force people to do what is most comfortable for us. The dynamic of forcing hugs onto unknown strangers conveys the message that ‘It doesn’t matter what makes you comfortable.’
Yet this is not the way of the church. Through the language of food sacrificed to idols, Paul speaks about the very dynamic in his 1st letter to the Corinthians. For Paul, the issue is not the spiritual tainting of food, but the more important issue of choosing other-focused care over individual preference. After establishing the fact that there is nothing inherently wrong with eating food sacrificed to idols, and that ‘we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do’ (8:8), he then goes on to speak about his practice of limiting his own freedom for the care of another. ‘If what I eat causes by brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.’ (8:12) Hugging may not cause someone to sin, but it can drive someone away from the community of faith. A hug can be intrusive to some and offensive to others. We simply don’t know.
I’m not asking everyone to stop hugging. Truthfully, I like when I see people in Christian community hug one another. I think it’s a sign of friendship, intimacy and care. I see hugging in the church as a modern day equivalent to the ‘the kiss of peace.’ But it should never be forced. It is wonderful if you are a hugger, but the person beside you may not be. So why not ask if you can hug someone before you go in for the embrace? At the passing of the peace, joyfully greet the stranger with the words “I’m a hugger, is it ok if I give you a hug?’ If they say yes, blessings to you both. If they say no, then offer your hand and, with a smile, extend the peace of Christ to them.
I would argue that this is more meaningful, and a more authentic expression of what it means to pass the peace of Christ to each other.