It is not an artful photograph but the image is all the more potent for its simplicity. In the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower disaster, Jeremy Corbyn visited the survivors and was pictured hugging a man in a red baseball cap. Corbyn clasps the man tight, eyes closed; there is a sincerity there, a concern for human suffering that transcends the politics of photo ops.
The informality is subtly striking. Twenty years on from the Diana moment, public expressions of grief are commonplace, but the embrace of an apparent stranger and the unselfconscious intimacy between men from more reserved times carries special meaning.
The fact that the man is Mushtaq Lasharie, a former Labour councillor in the area and perhaps known to Corbyn before the day in question, does not diminish the impact. The message is clear: Corbyn cares.
Theresa May cares too but the Prime Minister’s instinct was to rush instead to the emergency services – the firefighters who fought to save desperate souls trapped by the flames and the police managing the site of Britain’s deadliest disaster in generations. It was an act of no less sincerity but it failed to capture the public mood and the importance of touch.
Touch matters. It tells those struck by catastrophe and the millions watching that you care. You may be a prime minister or a president but you are not remote from the struggles of those on the bottom rung. Corbyn’s hug touched the public in a way that the most eloquent speech never could. In an age of fleeting images and rolling timelines, it made us stop and take notice.
Corbyn is not the first leader to appreciate the value of physical contact. Touch is central to the ministry of Pope Francis.
Much time and temper is spent scrutinising the Holy Father’s real views – on gay people or celibacy or capitalism – and some conclude in frustration that he is inscrutable. In truth, the Pope becomes less mysterious once we grasp the importance he places on worldly embrace.
As he said at a general audience in 2013: “The Church is not a charitable, cultural or political association, but a living body, that walks and acts in history.” He ended the address with a simple but telling prayer: “Help us to be living members bound to each other by a single power, that of love, which the Holy Spirit pours into our hearts.”
The Pope’s squeeze offensive has seen him embrace his gay former student Yayo Grassi – and Grassi’s boyfriend – and caress Vinicio Riva, a man severely disfigured by neurofibromatosis. Five-year-old Sophie Cruz, the daughter of illegal immigrants facing deportation from the United States, received a papal enveloping after she ran the cordon as the Pope’s motorcade cruised through Washington DC, boldly informing the police that she wanted to enlist the Pontiff’s blessing for her parents’ plight.
If you reckon these are benign gestures of sympathy or politeness, consider Francis’s comment upon welcoming and, inevitably, wrapping arms around Ahmed el-Tayeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, in April: “Our meeting is the message.”
Catholicism is a tactile religion. The clutch of rosary beads, the cherishing of relics, the corporeality of the Eucharist … Christ’s Resurrection was bodily. The Pope’s theology of touch is the living embodiment of the unity of grace and good works. The Pontiff’s critics – a pastime to which I am not averse – may be unsettled by his approach but they cannot fault its consistency. The Church can hardly preach caritas from the pulpit and sola fide in the streets.
Jeremy Corbyn’s detractors – more a vocation than a pastime for me – must confront a similar truth: that social justice is more than wealth redistributed and inequalities softened. This is not to suggest a comparison between Corbyn and the Pope – the Jesuits may be the Trotskyists of the Catholic Church to some conservatives but Francis’s past dissents from liberation theology carry greater force than most traditionalist tracts.
Where the Vicar of Christ differs from the leader of Britain’s secular faithful is in substance. Corbyn’s tactility is selective. He is relaxed about clasping a distraught survivor or slinging his arm around a Glastonbury reveller; it is difficult to imagine such an easy embrace of a soldier or an IRA victim or the Chief Rabbi.
And while the Pope’s hug is part of a practical priesthood, Corbyn’s hold comes from a socialism that prizes sentiment over the material – his “left-wing” Labour party is committed to a hard Brexit, limits on immigration, implementing Tory welfare cuts, and has alienated Jews and tolerated misogyny.
Sometimes we need a hug but more often we need more.
Stephen Daisley is a columnist for the Scottish Daily Mail
This article first appeared in the June 30 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here