Yesterday I fumbled my way through a children’s moment (we invite the kids up every Sunday to sit on the stage and talk with them in front of the congregation) about bodily autonomy. I told them about the time I broke my leg and asked them if they had ever hurt something; one kid had sprained an ankle, another had jammed their thumb. I asked “when this happened, whom did it hurt?” It hurt them, of course. It didn’t hurt other people, because it was their body. I explained that our bodies are gifts from God, that they belong to us, and it is OK to tell people when something makes us uncomfortable.
Six months ago, I made one small change in the way I interact with the kids in our church, hoping to encourage their sense of body ownership. Before giving them a high five or hug, I started asking for permission. “Can I have a high five?” was surprising the first few times, but they got used to it. Now it’s part of what we do and it isn’t weird.
“You know how I ask for permission when I give you a high five?” they all smiled and nodded. We exchanged high fives. I told them I do this, because it’s never a bad idea to ask permission before doing something to someone else’s body, whether that’s wrestling, hugging, or just high fiving, because asking is easy and sometimes you don’t know how the other person feels. For instance, I explained, some of the older people in our congregation have pain in their hands and it hurts to give high fives, while others love it!
Then I invited them to try it out (if they wanted to) by walking around the church and asking a few people if they’d like a high five. Of course it was cute and they enjoyed it. More importantly, our congregation corporately recognized and reaffirmed, if only in a small way, that our bodies are our own and they are inviolable.
I have heard arguments during the last few weeks explaining away jokes about sexual assault, justifying actual assault, and unabashedly victim shaming on national television. Our kids are already growing up in a world where assault is so normal that one in three women are violently or sexually assaulted; the last thing they need is brazen attempts to dismiss this conversation in the name of political expediency.
The second to last thing they need is our silence. So say something, do something, even if it isn’t perfect, even if you have to figure it out as you go along.
Allen Marshall O’Brien is the pastor of a UCC church in Northern California and co-host of the Irenicast. He believes in the importance of education, peace, and ecology, spends time with his border collie Sonata, and appreciates a good cup of coffee.