A while ago I got a call, saying that someone in the jail downtown wanted to see me. I put on a tie, because I thought I should look like a professional, and I grabbed my bible, because I thought that’s what pastors brought along with them when they went to visit people in prison.
In the jail lobby an officer checked to make sure that the name on my id matched the name on the visitation list. I was led through a metal detector. An officer patted me down and flipped through my Bible. I guess it looked dangerous. I was escorted through a hall, up an elevator, and to a room, where I saw James, sitting on the other side of a wall, a wall with a thick plexiglass window.
I sat down in a chair, exchanged smiles with James (I’ve changed his name), looking at him through the glass. We talked through telephones, our voices passing through a cord, a few feet long. I could see him, but he sounded like he was miles away. We talked, but we couldn’t touch—no handshake, no hug, no human contact.
After his crucifixion, when Jesus appears, he tells his friends to touch him, to see and feel his wounded body. “Look at my hands and my feet,” he says, “see that it is I myself. Touch me and see, for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” Then, Jesus shows them his hands and feet, where the soldiers had hammered their nails, his wounded flesh, his vulnerability humanity—the marks on his body that remembered his agony, how he was hurt, his pain exposed.
That was how they knew he was human, that he wasn’t a ghost, that he was alive, full of life, full of peace, full of resurrection. “Touch me and see,” he said.
Last week Katie and I saw a friend who we haven’t seen in a while, Lisa. For as long as I’ve known her, she has always been full of excitement, full of wonder, full of life. I was happy to see her, but she was thrilled to see us. We hugged her, she hugged us. We talked, caught up on life—the best we could in five minutes, then we had to go.
As we were saying our goodbyes, she looked at us, at Katie and me, and told us that she needed to give us another hug, because it was Easter, she said, “Touch me and see that I am alive,” she said as we did one of those awkward three-person hugs, there in the middle of Cocoa Cinnamon.
What does it mean to bear witness to the resurrection? I think it means something of that sense of being together, of being for one another, being Christ’s presence for each other, a presence of solidarity and comfort, of joy and peace—the joy of finding ourselves reunited, like the joy of my friend Lisa. She calls it the joy of Easter.
You could sum up my theology of Easter with two quotes. I guess you could summarize everything I think about God and church and life in these two quotes. First, the Dominican preacher, Herbert McCabe: “Christ is present to us in so far as we are present to one another.” And second, the Benedictine monk, Sebastian Moore: “We must look forward to the moment when the mysteries of God are revealed in the clasp of your sister or brother’s hand.”
That’s what James and me were denied when I visited him in jail—the mysteries of God, revealed in a brother’s hand, denied by plexiglass, denied by prison guards.
The architecture of the jail downtown is made to let you know that you are not welcome, and that the people inside of it, hidden inside the ominous concrete block of a building—that you will never see or touch them.
It’s a structure of refusal, of refused communion, of refused touch, people denied part of what makes them human: the gentle care of a hug or a handshake, nonviolent tenderness, gestures of peace.
Several months ago, the night after we heard that the police officer who had chocked Eric Garner to death would not go to trial, I walked with my neighbor Cullen toward the drums and shouting we heard coming from downtown. A crowd had gathered in a main street, blocking traffic, right in front of the jail—protestors, chanting in unison, “I can’t breathe,” and “Hands up, don’t shoot,” and “Shut it down.”
As I stood in the crowd, I noticed others around me pointing up at the building towering over us—it was the jail. I could see in the narrow slits of windows, far above us, shadows of heads and shoulders and arms—signs of life peeking out from the massive concrete walls.
A woman beside me lifted up her hands, like Moses at the red sea, stretching her arms toward the prisoners looking down at us, from their windows, and she started a new chant, calling out, “Brick by brick, wall by wall, we’re gonna free us, free us, free us all.” She reminded me of Jesus, who told us that he was going to spend his life proclaiming release to the captives, demanding that the powers that be would let the oppressed go free. I also thought of my friend James, and how that building refuses people from greeting one another with the peace of Christ.
There, in front of the jail, standing with hundreds of protestors, a human wall had assembled around us—a wall of police in riot gear, militarized men and women. They blocked us from seeing them, from seeing their skin, their bodies, their personhood. Helmets covered their heads and plastic shields veiled their faces. From their necks down to their combat boots, they wore black uniforms, padded with armor, reinforced plastic and rubber running up their legs and down through their arms. Their hands—concealed with thick gloves—held metal clubs, warning us to stay away, to keep us from touching them. They would not be touched or seen.
But the police did touch several people. I saw one officer plunge into the crowd to pull out an African-American woman, throwing her to the ground, face first, thrusting his knee into her back as he yanked her arms behind her and bound her hands together with a zip tie. The officer touched whomever he pleased, and he touched with violent force, yet he and his colleagues made it clear that they would not be touched by us. Human touch happened only on their terms—and when touch did happen, it was violent.
“Look at my hands and my feet,” Jesus says, “see that it is I myself. Touch me and see, for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” The Easter gospel is an invitation to see Jesus, to see Christ, in flesh and blood, to know the mysteries of God as we pass the peace of Christ, with our hands, with our care, with our gentleness.
A couple years ago, in a class I taught at the federal prison in Butner, the men started talking with me about the officers and staff who would shake their hands, and who wouldn’t. To shake hands was a sign of respect, of mutuality, they told me, of acknowledgment, of recognition that they shared at least one thing in common, their human flesh. They all agreed that they were grateful for the new chaplain who had started that week, because the chaplain looked them in the eyes and shook their hands. I imagine them saying the words of Jesus, “Touch me and see.” Shake my hand and discover that I am human like you, that we are human together.
After the resurrection, the disciples don’t recognize Jesus as fully human, as human as they are. “They were startled and terrified,” it says, “and thought that they were seeing a ghost.” They see him but they don’t see him. They recognize him as Jesus, but they are convinced that he is not the human Jesus, not Jesus fully alive, not flesh and blood like their own flesh and blood.
At first, for the disciples, Jesus is a ghost, a haunting presence, an unclean spirit from the grave — Jesus undead in their midst, like a zombie from The Walking Dead. Jesus is other, he is strange, he is a ghostly figure, provoking fear in the people in the room.
“The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon.” That’s what St. Louis officer Darren Wilson said about Michael Brown, whom he shot and killed. In an interview, officer Wilson said that Michael Brown looked like a demon—“it” looked like a demon, not “he.” Wilson calls Michael Brown an “it” three times in the interview—an impersonal pronoun for someone officer Wilson considered a non-person.
The disciples, in Jerusalem, when they see Jesus’ ghostly presence, it says that they are “startled and terrified.” The disciples experience Jesus as terror, as threat. But Jesus calms their panic with words of reassurance: “Peace be with you,” he says. I imagine him with his hands up, showing that he’s weaponless. “Hands up, don’t shoot!” I picture Jesus with arms outstretched toward his friends, reaching out to shake their hands, to exchange a touch, mutual recognition of their shared humanity.
“Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself,” he says. I myself. Jesus is emphatic, emphatically alive, desperate for them to see him, to recognize him, to know that he is human, not a ghost, not a demon, not an “it.”
“Peace be with you.” “Touch me and see.” I want a world transfigured with the peace of Christ, with resurrection pulsing through our bodies, inviting us to touch and see Jesus as we encounter one another. The touch of Christ, disarming people like officer Wilson. The hands of Jesus in Michael Brown’s hands. The touch of Christ, full of grace and mercy—not the threat of a police baton, not the violence of a chokehold, not abusive touch, not deathly touch, but the life-giving and life-affirming hands of Jesus, gentleness made flesh in us, all of us.
The gospel of Christ’s peace happens in our touch, where gentleness is made flesh. To trust in the resurrection of Jesus is to believe in the transfiguration of all flesh, that God comes to us in the other.
“Touch me and see.” “Don’t shoot.” See my body. See my life. It’s like yours, human flesh. Jesus invites his disciples, Jesus invites us, to see him as a stranger who is a friend, an other who is the same—to recognize Jesus’ flesh in others, to discover that our neighbor’s hand offers us the fellowship of Christ.
I haven’t been there in a while, but whenever I join Joyce and Paul Munk, and Dave Nickel, and others, on Tuesday nights in the Hillsborough prison, I’m always stuck by how we end our hour of fellowship. At the end, just before the visitors have to leave and the prisoners have to return to their bunkhouses, all of us form a large circle—prisoners and visitors. Sometimes we sing for someone who has a birthday that week, or we’ll celebrate with someone who will be released soon. Then we pray.
While all of this is going on, we are holding hands; we hold hands for a long time. I never hold hands with someone for that long—not even with Katie. We’ll hold hands everyone once in a while, but not very long, because our hands get sweaty and sticky, and who wants that? But with the men in prison, for those last minutes of our time together, we don’t let go, despite the awkwardness, because our hands are signs of companionship, signs that we are present, that we are there for one another, that we are Christ’s body—vulnerable and wounded, yes, but also trying to welcome the joy of life together, the joy of being together, of discovering that we are alive with God.
What does it mean to bear witness to the resurrection? It has everything to do with opening our lives to be there for one another, being Christ’s presence for each other, a presence of solidarity and comfort, of joy and peace. My friend Lisa calls it the joy of Easter.