Social Issues

Star Wars on generational trauma and redemption: why Kylo shouldn’t be saved

I took Introduction to Spiritual Formation, ironically, during my last semester at United. The course had been introduced as a requirement after I’d started in 2016, but it was still required in order for me to graduate and it only fit during those last few months. I’m grateful to United for making me take it, though, because it was one of the most rewarding and personally enriching classes I’ve ever had. Some of the coursework and reading assignments will stick with me forever, but none as much as the family genogram.

Briefly, a family genogram is essentially a family tree that tracks more than just who married who and who your cousins are– different genograms can be focused on a variety of elements like medical history or geography. For my Formation class, my professor asked us to go back four generations and examine how that history has shaped us– how has my family culture, our religious and social beliefs, molded me into who I am today? I called up different family members and spent some time talking about those questions– who was Catholic, when did they convert, who deconverted? Where did this person live, what were they like, what do they remember about my great-grandfather? Once I had all those stories and bits and pieces of facts and recollections, I sat down to draw the familiar tree framework I could tie all those bits to.

It took me three, four, maybe five tries. Just to get the basic structure on a piece of posterboard. Visually explaining my family history in that chart seemed like an impossible task, and eventually I had to get creative. The primary problem was: everyone was divorced and remarried, going back three generations. There were children and cousins and ex-wives and aunts and uncles that just didn’t fit neatly onto that simple wire frame. Once I’d managed that, though, I felt something stir in my gut that recognized there was more to the abstract-looking tree I’d sketched than lines and breaks and names. This tree looked broken. It looked painfully pruned and splintered and grafted. There were absences, blank spaces, and dotted lines representing happiness and heartache.

I looked at that tree and saw trauma, reaching back generations. On one side, there was an offshoot where six siblings had gone unnamed– the second they could get away from their monster of a father who’d beaten them and abused their mother, they fled. In my family, they fled from all our collective memories, too. Some figures had every possible symbol, carefully explained in the accompanying legend, and other spaces were empty. I don’t know my great-uncle’s religion because he stole all my great-grandmother’s money and skipped town. Some relatives needed multiple icons next to their name to represent a myriad of conversions over the years as they desperately searched for a faith to comfort their pain.

Making that tree was messy and hard– and far more painful than I expected. How did this make me who I am? the assignment asked, and searching for an answer in all those tangled branches took time.

***

In my classes on biblical interpretation, notably Interpretation as Resistance: Womanist, Feminist, and Queer Readings of the Bible, we talked a lot about generational trauma and how it affects families, how it affects how we read and what we believe. Working on my family genogram, the generational trauma became blatantly obvious– you could trace it down through the ever-shifting geography of my family, the lost connections and blank spaces. For a while, it seemed like suffering was my family’s only legacy. See all these fractures? See all the rage and hurt behind the missing answers? No one wants to remember the lightning that split this canopy.

Eventually, though, a different image took shape: alongside the trauma was resolve. Determination. Perseverance. Grit. After everything we had been through, each generation picked up the pieces and tried again. We loved, we married, we had children, built lives. It didn’t always work and sometimes ended disastrously, but the family that made me who I am is, in some ways, a miracle. We’ve fought every step of the way to be here, and while there were missteps, most generations did their best to be better than their forebears. My great-grandmother, abused in a Catholic orphanage and forced to raised her children as a single mother in a time where few supports existed for her, brought some incredibly kind and hardworking people into the world. My own mother, a latchkey kid whose personal story is still one of the most harrowing I’ve ever heard, refused to make the same mistakes as her parents and every day showed her daughter how precious she was. My father, from a broken home, kicked out of multiple schools and left with few options besides joining the military, worked his entire life to keep his family safe and whole in a way his home had never been.

I’ve vowed to do the same. I don’t know what my own family will look like, but I will leave behind something worth remembering.

***

So what in the world does all this have to do with Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker and Kylo Ren?

My history is why I don’t think Kylo can be redeemed. To be frank, I’ve never wanted redemption for his character– that xenophobic, brainwashing torturer with masturbatory fantasies about the glories of fascism? Hard pass. I don’t need him to finally choose the Light after slaughtering planets and parents. Some people really are irredeemable, and there are some choices you can’t come back from. This has been a truth at the heart of Star Wars since Return of the Jedi came out in 1983: Darth Vader could kill the emperor, but there was no saving himself. Or, as Yoda told Luke: “Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.” Forgiveness is possible, yes. Anakin reached out for the Light in the last few minutes of his life and found peace. But not absolution.

This was the lesson Rey had to learn in The Last Jedi. When she comes to Acht-To, she came to see the Luke who had willingly submitted himself to an audience before the emperor out of love and compassion for his father– as well as the belief that goodness can prevail even in the blackest of hearts. She believed she could do the same for Ben, cross the same divide. What she found, instead, was a Kylo killing his master not as a Jedi defending the helpless, but as a Sith dethroning his master and taking his place. “Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to,” he says to her. Rey chooses Light and life and belonging and resistance over the temptation toward revenge and control.

Looking at the Skywalker family genogram, it also doesn’t make narrative sense for Kylo’s entire story arch to end in him turning back to the Light. For me, at least, redemption narratives have two basic options: the villain or anti-hero inhabits this place in the plot because of trauma, especially generational trauma. Overcoming that, resisting it, redeeming it, involves being honest about your life and what’s shaped you. It means seeking love, wholeness, and healing. The other narrative option is the villain seeks redemption by committing themselves to the work. An excellent example of this is Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender.

The problem with both of these options? They take time– time Kylo Ren in the last film of the trilogy simply does not have. A character coming back from what he’s done in 155 minutes could only be cheap and shallow and horribly unearned.

But for me, the biggest problem is that we don’t see either of these impulses in Kylo’s character, and neither does he have the background justification for the plotline he was chased away from the Light by betrayal or abuse. There’s plenty of both in the Skywalker family genogram, but it’s like he looked at his tree and decided the great-uncle who stole all the money and skipped town was the example worth emulating. His entire life is a calculated decision, not the unaware choices by someone deeply informed by trauma. He’s hungry for power, zealous to destroy any legacy of happiness and healing in his family.

And most troubling to me: his pain is invented.

Leia and Han both agree it’s not their son, Ben, who is making these choices. Not independently. Instead, they believe he’s been twisted by Snoke. In The Force Awakens, we could possibly see that reflected in his emotional instability and rage. However, by the conclusion of The Last Jedi, we know this isn’t the truth. He deliberately kills Snoke not to escape from his influence and manipulation and turn back to the Light, but to assert he is no longer dependent on Snoke and is now ready to assume control of the First Order, which he immediately directs toward his personal vendetta.

The saber duel with Luke on Crait is not revenge for a painful betrayal, but motivated by the same impulse behind killing Snoke: he is outraged any person in the universe exists who would dare tell him what to do. They would deny him power, and that’s all he craves. His self-justification for this is how “wrongly” they’ve treated him, how miserable they made him … denying him power and anything he wanted, trying to steer him away from the Dark Side.

This isn’t the trajectory of a character who yearns for redemption. This is a person deliberately setting the family tree on fire.

Artwork belongs to Lucasfilm and Walt Disney
Feminism

getting over modesty culture: a step-by-step guide

One of my first-ever blog posts here is about the first time I ever bought jeans for myself. That day was so impactful I can still vividly see myself reflected in a dressing-room mirror at Aeropostale, listening to my friend and one of the employees chatting outside about my situation and the extreme demands I’d been under as a Christian fundamentalist woman. I can still recall the dread and panic I felt, desperately trying to feel any sense of liberation or joy in what I’d decided to do in a fit of gleeful rebellion. I want to wear jeans, I told myself. I want to be normal. I will not feel ashamed for wearing pants. There is nothing wrong with pants. There is nothing to feel afraid of.

Much, much easier said than done.

While I never experienced the same intensity of emotion again, and I did leave the mall that day with a pair of discounted GAP boyfriend jeans (hmm I wonder why a pair of baggy, unflattering jeans were on clearance?), the process of rejecting fundamentalist modesty culture was a journey of infinitesimally small steps. Looking back over the road I’ve traveled, though, I can see five clear steps I took that helped me escape the shame and abusive self-talk I was taught to feel about my body and how I dressed it. These steps, of course, may not work for everyone and they are not meant to be a replacement for self-discovery (and therapy!), but they did help me so maybe they can help you.

***

1) Wear the styles you like.

A few months after I wrote about the Aeropostale dressing room, I told a story of how my grandmother took me shopping for my birthday and I kept pushing myself away from any of the “worldly” styles I actually liked and toward the drab and “modest” clothing I knew I should want. There are a multitude of reasons why I so carefully steered me and my grandmother away from fashionable styles, and one of the biggest I’ve never delved into here was why I forced myself into colorless, shapeless sacks all the time. Yes, clearly those items were the most modest by the rules I’d been given, but I was also harassed and bullied by nearly all the women at church for my body.

I became an adolescent in a small church where every other girl was willow-like. Painfully thin (largely because of malnutrition and starvation, I would realize over a decade later) and narrow and straight. Even my sister fit into this category. And then there was me: still thin and girl-like, but developing obvious curves. A woman I idolized repeatedly “joked” about having too much junk in my trunk and my Sunday school teacher told me I needed to wear spanx or control-top panty hose every day because my bottom was “tempting” her husband. That harassment continued all the way through my teen years, and I turned to unflattering clothes, trying to make myself as ugly and unappealing as possible because I was scared.

Eventually, even considering wearing something stylish and fashionable was far too emotionally charged for me to handle.

College helped with this, mostly because my clothes identified me as an “ite” (short for PCC-ite, someone who closely lined with the school’s administrative ideology) and I didn’t want to be thought untrustworthy by my friends. While I always stayed firmly within the rules at school, I started exploring my options. My senior year, I wore a long crochet skirt from Newport News nearly every single day. I adored that skirt and the way it swayed around my feet as I walked. It made me feel good. Around the same time I also found a tie-dyed maxi skirt I still wear. I discovered I like V-neck and scoop necklines the best, and I prefer three-quarter length sleeves to cap.

Over time, as I continued wearing clothes I liked and made me feel good, it became easier to prioritize that feeling instead of the modesty rules I still carried around with me on every shopping trip. They were still there, but … not as critical. Not as loud.

2) Notice what you like on other people, and compliment them.

I have a bit of a reputation among my close friends and family that I am generous with my compliments, but what they don’t know is how this is a deliberate practice.

During my first year in graduate school, I was walking through a Wal-Mart foyer behind two other young women who were dressed very typically for a warm day in Virginia: shorts, tank tops, nothing unusual or even remotely scandalous. Walking towards us were a few women who were clearly fundamentalist of one stripe or another, and they were repulsed by the women walking toward them and did not hesitate to show their disgust on their faces. I thought wow, I used to be exactly like them. Then it occurred to me: wait, is this something I “used to do,” or do I still react this way? I wasn’t sure how deeply my background could still be affecting me, and how much I might be silently– but visibly– judging other women. To me, the easiest way to counteract any remnants of the shame I was taught to dole out on others was to actively work at finding something I appreciated. A haircut or color, a piece of jewelry, the sheen of fabric, cut of a shirt, a complimentary color. I even, on occasion, say one of those observations out loud.

Not only did this help me become less judgmental of other people, it helped me stop being so critical of myself.  I stopped evaluating every item I wore by old standards I intellectually no longer wanted to follow but still had trouble escaping their influence on my choices. It became possible to be in a dressing room and ask do I like how this looks? and not is this modest? What will people think? It was easier to assume that when other people saw me they either a) payed no attention (the most likely option) or b) saw something they liked.

3) Normalize fashion.

I discovered Pinterest in 2011, and it was a revelation. While I’m aware Pinterest hasn’t been the healthiest place for a lot of people, for me it was a gateway into a world I’d never really explored before. While some of us grow up with fashion and teen magazines, and I enjoyed surreptitiously flipping through Elle and Vogue during Barnes & Noble Visits, I had never had the experience of looking at clothes and coveting them for myself. I started pinning outfits and looks I liked with abandon. My Pinterest feed filled up with gorgeous coats, cocoon sweaters, architectural dresses, and elegant lace. There’s one outfit in particular I’ve been assembling for eight years and just found the last piece I needed a few weeks ago.

Because of this, I finally started to see clothes primarily as self-expression and to enjoy clothes as art. Not every piece will appeal to every person, and that’s perfectly fine. But I like what I like, and maybe it’s unique and maybe it’s not but I don’t care anymore. Clothes can be fun, pretty, and interesting, and can communicate nearly anything I want to say.

One of the hardest adjustments I made from fundamentalism to the more typical American experience was my baseline was so incredibly different from “real life.” Growing up I was surrounded by boxy denim jumpers, prairie clothes, and handmedown Gunny Sax dresses. Building a Pinterest board, browsing fashion glossies, flipping through Victoria’s Secret catalogues, all helped me establish a new baseline. When I went shopping for clothes, I knew what the items I tried on were meant to look like, how to style layers, how to build outfits and a flexible wardrobe.

4) Don’t push too far.

To this day, I still wear camisoles underneath sheer blouses. I still make sure I don’t have “headlights.” I wear unobtrusive undergarments and base layers. My shorts are all at least a handspan long below my hips. I don’t like wearing pieces I have to constantly adjust.

I learned this lesson the hard way– I’ve gotten clothes that I only wore once, was extremely uncomfortable, and could never make myself wear again. There was this gorgeous black lace dolman-sleeve blouse I picked up at Maurice’s. I wore a camisole underneath it, but the see-through black lace was just too much for me at the time, and even though I could probably wear it if I bought it today and I held onto it for years because I loved it so much … I could never put it on again without feeling an echo of that discomfort.

I also learned that some of my aversions to tight clothes come from sensory processing disorder, and not modesty indoctrination. I do own some skin-tight, painted-on clothes, but only when they’re comfortable and don’t make me feel like I need to crawl out of my skin. Sometimes that panicky feeling was modesty culture rearing its ugly head, and sometimes it was SPD. I learned to listen to body and accept that I don’t need to force myself into discomfort just in the name of “I’m not a fundamentalist anymore! I do what I want!”

5) Find what you emotionally need from your clothes.

Recognizing my wardrobe needs to meet emotional needs has been one of the most difficult parts of this journey, and I’ve never really heard anyone talking about this component. I think it’s hinted at a lot, especially when people with very distinctive styles talk about their fashion choices, but I think this needs to be more openly and explicitly discussed. Clothes help shape and communicate our identity across a wide spectrum of realities, such as race, class, ethnicity, culture, gender, etc. Given that clothes are so closely tied to identity, “I have emotional needs regarding clothes” isn’t exactly a surprising (and probably not unique) observation, but I only came to this understanding after talking about my clothing choices and modesty culture a lot.

Above I mentioned being harassed and bullied and how it affected my wardrobe, and one of the longest-lasting effects it has had on me is that I must feel sexy in my clothes. This is fundamentally essential to me. If I feel frumpy, dowdy, unstylish, unattractive, it’s comparable to feeling triggered. Not as intense, but I can start to feel physically ill and I become super self-conscious. I actually start to lose a strong sense of my embodiment– a term I used once was “amorphous blob.”

This doesn’t mean I walk around in 6-inch heels and miniskirts everyday– in fact, I live in jeans and hoodies during the fall. But they are skinny jeans that make my ass look delectable and hoodies I think are cute and don’t swallow me whole. Often I’m wearing ballet flats or motorcycle boots and I make sure to do my hair. When I’m looking for professional clothes, I only look at pencil skirts– no A-line for me, no way. If I’m wearing something loose on the bottom, what’s on top is tight and vice versa. I absolutely refuse to wear a shirt that covers my collar bone, and I do not care how cold it is, that is why I own scarves. I show off my boobs — sometimes I show a little cleavage, sometimes I wear a push-up bra. I accentuate my curves.

I need to love my body. I need to feel proud of it, unashamed, unabashed. My clothes help me get there.

***

Anyway, this post is getting pretty long so I’ll stop there. I hope it’s helpful.

Theology

Patch the Pirate vs. Adventures in Odyssey: A Metaphor

This summer, some friends and colleagues of mine were together on a work trip and one evening we were making a slew of Cards against Humanity cards based on our collected backgrounds in Christian fundamentalism and homeschooling. In that reminiscing atmosphere, I brought up one of my absolute favorite gems from my childhood: the opening to Patch the Pirate Goes Down Under. If you’re not familiar, Patch is the radio musical version of Adventures in Odyssey created by the Hamilton family after Ron Hamilton lost an eye to cancer and started wearing an eyepatch.

In the opening to Goes Down Under, we’re introduced to the main villain: a giant squid unimaginatively named “Squash.” When he appears next to their ship, he makes some threats and then– and my hand to goddess I am not making this up— he squirts Sissy the Seagull with his ink which acts as a weird love-potion-slash-aphrodisiac concoction. Sissy, played by Ron’s wife, Shelly, always speaks in a squeaky, girlish voice but it becomes even more exaggerated as she starts exclaiming how “biggimus” and “strongimus” Squash the Squid is. He then — and again, a bunch of Christian fundamentalists wrote this program for Christian fundamentalist children— encapsulates her in a squid ink bubble and takes her oh-so-willing-and-pliable body down to his lair, “The Golden Grotto.” In the opening to an album titled Patch the Pirate Goes Down Under.

Every time I talk about this I laugh so hard I cry.

My friends obviously wanted to hear this for themselves because it’s hilarious and also HOW?!?? so we pulled up a sample on YouTube. And holy smokes it was even worse than I remembered it. The crew are sailing near Australia and see a “glimmering” spot in the water. Patch is briefly absent from the deck, so the child at the helm steers the ship closer. When Patch reemerges, he asks what they’ve done and we hear this dialogue sequence:

Peanut: But what could be wrong with being a little curious?

Patch: Plenty, Peanut. In Romans 16:19, God says he wants us to be wise about good things and innocent about evil things.

Sissy: Getting curious about evil things usually leads to sin.

Patch: That’s right, Sissy Seagull.

Sissy: When you see ole’ Mr. Sin coming around, you better run the other way.

One of the things anyone who’s escaped from fundamentalism will tell you is how questioning and curiosity are absolutely forbidden in Christian fundamentalist environments; how the freedom to investigate and seek answers for yourself, or even gain some measure of personal experience, is eliminated. I know all that, and yet still I was somehow surprised when an album advertised as “character building song and story” explicitly teaches this concept. All that had happened was the crew, voiced by Ron and Shelly’s children, saw something unusual in the water and felt an impulse to investigate. Peanut says “my curiosity is killing me,” to which Sissy responds “I hope it doesn’t kill me, too.”

You heard it here, boys and girls. Curiosity is sinful and might kill you.

***

I grew up on Patch the Pirate, and it’ll never leave me. Just the other day my partner and I were watching The Good Place and during the episode Tahani has the realization that vulnerability and connection can make a lot of headway in forming relationships where shame can’t, and ends up befriending someone she previously considered an enemy. Immediately, I remembered one of the songs from Down Under: “Welcome your foes and turn them into friends, this is the remedy the Bible recommends. Turn back good for evil and never seek revenge. Love your enemies instead and turn them into friends.” It took me a second to remember all the words correctly, but in a flash I could basically hear the men’s choir singing the chorus in my head.

We didn’t listen to Adventures in Odyssey as much, but we did have a tape with “A License to Drive” on it, as well as a few other stories (one about a young woman dancer who’s injured and then grows up to be a pastor’s wife and flutist? Something like that?). By the time my family had loosened up enough where listening to Adventures in Odyssey was permissible (earlier in my childhood it had been far too “liberal”), I’d mostly grown out of this type of children’s programming, but my sister listened to each new episode through an internet streaming app like clockwork so I’m pretty familiar with the stories, characters, and themes. One of the main themes in Adventures is “imagination,” and many of the kids at Whit’s End have an opportunity to explore history, community, and themselves through the “Imagination Station.” At Whit’s End, asking questions is encouraged and celebrated. Following curious impulses and discovering truths and revelations happens all the time on the show. Granted, it’s still a Focus on the Family production and therefore everyone has to form the correct conclusions an arrive at the right answers, but still.

I think that the differences between Patch the Pirate and Adventures in Odyssey exemplify the sometimes-hard-to-parse differences between fundamentalism and evangelicalism. There’s a spectrum there, for sure, but evangelicalism and Christian fundamentalism are actually different, and those differences aren’t just in what Bible version they read or the clothes they wear. My shorthand way of explaining it tends to be “Evangelicals believe, Fundamentalists know.” And while both environments tend to be toxic and can even lean towards the abusive and cult-like, I still think there’s value in recognizing that it’s not just a matter of degree, but of substance, too.

Mr. Whittaker is never going to tell the children at his ice cream parlor that curiosity is sinful. Patch the Pirate will– and has.

Social Issues

obligation and abandonment

If you move in progressive spaces, especially progressive religious spaces, there’s a quote from the Pikei Avot you’ve probably bumped into a time or two:

You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.

I started seminary in September, just a few months before the November 2016 elections. Even that fall I wasn’t incredibly optimistic about the electoral outcome, and after that abomination became president-elect many of my friends and family told me I was being ridiculous and hysterical for crying over it. “He’s not going to shove immigrants into concentration camps,” they told me; “no one is going to kidnap children from their parents and then adopt them out to white families” they tried to assure me. “Checks and balances will stop anything truly terrible from happening, don’t worry so much,” “the courts will stop him,” and “stochastic terrorism is not really a thing, y’know Sam.”

God dammit I feel like Cassandra.

It’s been almost three years, and that span has been the best and worst years of my life. Enrolling in seminary: best choice I’ve ever made. It was phenomenal and I loved every second. I got involved in local politics for the first time since I was an ignorant, unaware Republican teenager and that was … informative. I learned a lot about people and about myself (mostly how badly I needed therapy, which I’ve now been in for over a year). I started walking in marches, attending demonstrations, and participating in civil disobedience. Being arrested and thrown in jail was both miserable (no food or water in a freezing concrete cell for 12 hours: do not recommend) and sublime (I was with some of the most incredible people I’ve ever met). I completed my capstone project/report in September and while I’m incredibly proud of the work, it was draining in the extreme and required every reserve of grace, patience, and kindness I could draw upon. Other events over the last year have sapped me of compassion, joy, well-being, and trust. Compared to all the rest this seems almost minor but I’ve also been trying to get pregnant for three years and am pretty much sick of it at this point.

I’m facing another difficult year.

The 2020 legislative session starts up in January in most of these United States and as the primary policy advocate or “government relations director” (I’m a lobbyist, but apparently we in the non-profit world don’t like calling ourselves “lobbyists”) for the Coalition for Responsible Home Education, January through May is going to be a frenetic rollercoaster ride I will barely be able to manage. In June I’ll be moving to Michigan to join whatever Democratic presidential campaign has won the primary for the simple reasons of a) I can easily find housing there and b) I have the time and money. I’m committed to doing these things, and in some vague, nebulous, barely perceptible sense I’m … excited? about doing them.

Last Tuesday though … I ran out of fucks.

My county has been in the national media a few times over the last few years because of how incredibly queerphobic we are down here. A while back the secular humanists invited in a lesbian woman to teach a sex ed class at the public library, and the bigots unleashed a staggering tide of hatred that ended in a political brouhaha of local-politics-but-epic proportions. This year, it was a Drag Queen Story Hour the same bigoted group used to incite violence. The county government’s reaction was to punish the public library financially and warn them that if the library didn’t want to lose any more of its funding they had better stop allowing such “controversial” (ie: queer) events. Our state attorney’s general office got involved and explained how what they’re ordering the library to do is illegal, but so far they’ve refused to budge. Last Tuesday, I spoke at a public hearing on behalf of my queer community for our right to free speech and public spaces, and doing so terrified me. I left moments after I was done, and spent the next week struggling to get out of bed and with a migraine I couldn’t shake.

I want to abandon the work.

I look at what’s going on and the searing rage that’s accompanied me for three years is just gone. The riverbeds in my soul constantly flooded with sorrow have run dry. I’m beyond frustration, despair, or caring. Even terms like “apathy” and “emotional numbness” don’t cover it. I look at what I’ve been hearing recently and I’m just … tired.

***

I’ve been taking a break this past month trying to get some of my verve back but I’m afraid it’s not working. I went on vacation to the Emerald Coast and lazed on a beach all day for a week. I’ve created a Twitter account just for my obsession with the upcoming Wheel of Time television adaptation. I’ve been playing video games pretty much nonstop, and when I’m not playing video games I’m reading books and have nearly caught up on my TBR pile. At this point, I don’t know what more to do to make myself feel engaged again, to care again about what’s going on in the world and what I can be doing about it.

As I’ve thought about all this, I’ve started to think it might be the biggest reason why my writing has languished so much over the last three years. Yes, seminary has kept me enormously busy– and so has all the protesting and demonstrating and lobbying. But when confronted with … the entire fucking world right now, what can my writing possibly do? What can men do against such reckless hate?

I haven’t come to any answers. I hear You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it and what used to inspire me feels small and useless. What is the meaning of “You are not obligated to complete the work” when the planet, without immediate and immense action, could actually be dying all around us? There could, theoretically, be no completion of the work for anyone. But … I’ve been reading a lot about vulnerability and I’ve been putting on a brave show for a while, almost entirely to myself. Trying to convince myself that yes, I absolutely will have a draft of my memoir completed by Christmas (ha!). I will finish my World History and Cultures review (right, sure). I will type up all the blog ideas I’ve been jotting down for years now and actually start turning them into blog posts and magazine pitches ([insert::eye roll]).

But I started this blog six years ago because I wasn’t sure what else to do. I wrote for myself, wrote to remember, wrote to feel, and through it all I found all of you. I’ve made friends I cherish, have had transportive experiences I’ll never forget, have felt joy and anguish more acute than anything else in my life has brought me. Maybe, if I start typing away with the same “I have no clue in hell what I’m doing but HEY I’m gonna WRITE WORDS” … I can keep going. Maybe this is putting one foot in front of the other.

Maybe this is doing the work.

Photography by Chuck Holland
Social Issues

the trauma tentacle monster

A few months after I started blogging, a friend of mine came to visit. As we drove back to my house from the airport, one of the things we discussed was my recent writing habit and she expressed some uneasiness about its content and tone. She cautioned me against being too angry, too bitter, too critical, too ungracious. It was a criticism I was already growing inured to since I got a comment arguing essentially the same thing every other day, it felt like. But, this was my friend, so I tried to keep the defensiveness to a minimum. I told her I understood, but my anger was healthy and the criticisms I was making were necessary– especially because, often, those criticisms were not intended to be received well by who I was criticizing, but to validate those they had harmed.

At the end of the year, my father recognized a portion of an anonymous interview I’d given to the BBC about Michael and Debi Pearl’s books and their abusive teachings. He called me, understandably wounded and upset. “When are you going to stop?” he asked me, referring to my decision to air our dirty laundry on the internet. “Never!” I shouted, nearly screamed, at him. “Not as long as there is a single child still being abused the way I was!” It was the worst fight we ever had, and we didn’t speak for nearly a year (he has since demonstrated a real and lasting repentance, and I am very grateful and happy with my relationship with him now).

Sometime in the next year, I wrote in a Facebook comment somewhere about the way C-PTSD has irrevocably changed my life, changed my brain, changed everything; another trauma survivor told me how I was wrong, how the wounds eventually heal and the scars fade, and admonished me not to reject a path toward healing and wholeness. I was offended, and told her so. To me, it smacked of what I’d been told all my life: you can– and must– choose joy, bitterness is a poison that hurts only yourself, forgiveness is the only way to be happy … what she said felt like the secular wooey-woo version of the fundamentalist mandate to “let not the sun set upon your wrath.”

This summer has also been difficult for a lot of different reasons, and at one point both Handsome and one of my closest friends tried to reassure me that the things I was going through wouldn’t last forever, promising me they will eventually get better. But, again, it just sounded like one of my fundamentalist pastors encouraging his congregation to ignore their emotional interior because “this, too, shall pass.” Their reassurance, to me in that moment, was upsetting. It felt invalidating instead of helpful.

***

Last night I had a migraine, which means I needed to stay away from backlit screens so I decided to read Sense and Sensibility aloud in lieu of watching Elementary with my partner, and when I got to this passage, I laughed because I felt a twinge of oof, same:

The agony of grief which overpowered them at first, was voluntarily renewed, was sought for, was created again and again. They gave themselves up wholly to their sorrow, seeking increase of wretchedness in every reflection that could afford it, and resolved against ever admitting consolation in the future.

I have been mulling over this problem for almost a year now– have started and stopped half a dozen posts about it. It’s thorny, and tricky, and all I can do is hope what I’m trying to say here will be received in the same spirit I’m offering it. I shared the anecdotes above to illustrate what I’m examining is not something I’ve noticed solely “out there” in other people, but primarily in myself, as recently as last month.

When trauma survivors first exit fundamentalism/evangelicalism, one of the most crucial first steps we must take is leaning into our emotions– all our emotions, especially the “negative” ones that we were usually completely cut off from. After a lifetime spent in an authoritarian environment that controlled our emotional lives by telling us feeling anything besides joy is sinful, we need our anger and rage as much as we need air to breathe and food to eat. It’s necessary for our survival. There’s a reason why one of the adjectives in my Twitter bio is “bitter” and I’m never taking it out. “Bitter” is no longer an accusatory insult, but claimed and redeemed as a meaningful part of my recovery.

However, I have noticed a pattern in myself and my communities for a long time and am becoming increasingly troubled by it (important to note this isn’t limited to post-authoritarian-religion spaces, I’ve also experienced similar patterns in disability and mental health spaces, too). As we gather together online and in the meatspace, we can find an incredible amount of validation and support among other survivors. In an effort to make those spaces as safe and welcoming as possible, members are encouraged either explicitly by moderators and rules or implicitly by group norms to respect, and not dismiss, another’s sharing of their experience and pain. This is important, and makes it possible for people to see themselves reflected in other’s stories and understand, maybe for the first time, they’re not alone. I will never undercut the power this holds: for me, I’ve always expressed it as feeling the “scales fall away from my eyes,” that’s how transformative it was.

But, I am growing convinced that sometimes what starts as validation can become retraumatizing. I think it’s possible for the support and encouragement to finally acknowledge all the hurt and pain to become conflated with barring the illumination of a path toward equilibrium, integration, and healing. Obviously, I understand why this happens. When I hear “it gets better, here’s how” in the throws of my suffering and consequently reject it, I am operating from a similar place as Mrs. Dashwood and Marianne: “resolved against ever admitting consolation in the future.” Add a heaping side-dish of a lifetime of being guilted and shamed for my emotions, and “giving them up” in any way feels like ceding my abusers emotional manipulation and control. In the heat of the moment, I think it can genuinely be difficult to suss out the difference between my friend telling me I was being too critical of fundamentalist churches and my partner trying to reassure me.

Another aspect of this is what my therapist and I have termed the “trauma tentacle monster.” I went several years without processing any of my trauma, burying it as deep as I possibly could and almost vindictively squashing down any sign of it coming to the surface. Because of that, the trauma tentacle monster grew. It fed on those memories I kept in the dark and slowly creeped and oozed its way into every single part of my life until it was utterly impossible to escape it. Things that, at first, had absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with my trauma became connected to it, became a trigger. Once the connection was made, getting the tentacle cut off and unstuck took serious effort and time.

I’m not a licensed therapist so take this with the necessary grain of salt, but: I don’t think I’m alone. I don’t think I’m the only person in the world with a trauma tentacle monster living in my head, and I’ve seen signs of them lurking under the surface in friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and occasionally rearing their head. Sometimes those trauma tentacle monsters lash out at the people around it.

I am coming to believe that spaces built for trauma survivors can, completely unintentionally, feed the tentacle monster and allow it to grow. It’s possible for the monster to even thrive in those environments, for it to exploit the steady stream of validation and connections (as well as for harmful individuals in those communities to capitalize on the existence of all our hidden monsters, to weaponize them against each other).

What I’m not at all sure about is what to do about any of this. We need our communities. We need our safe havens. We need the validation, the support, the ability to bravely share our stories. I believe those things are essential … but we also need healing, and to know that healing is possible. The trauma tentacle monster can be fought, can be beaten.

Really … we all just need therapy. A lot of therapy.

Photography by Quinn Dombrowski
Social Issues

choose you this day whom you will serve

A few weeks ago I participated in a direct action intended to disrupt the business and daily activity at the national headquarters for Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The march was organized by Movimiento Cosecha and the #NeverAgainAction movement that has been protesting at detention centers operated by ICE or its contractors. I told a few people beforehand that I was going to be there, and some asked me a variation on the question “are you planning to be arrested?” My answer was always “no, I am not planning on being arrested.” I would then usually comment “the police have a choice. They could think y’know, they’re right, concentration camps are bad and decide not to arrest anyone.”

While there was some levity in my word choice, I was also telling the truth: it’s never up to me whether or not I’ll be arrested. That’s not my decision to make … and that’s also the point of engaging in a direct action like ours a few weeks ago or the one at Wyatt last week, where a captain chose to drive his truck into a line of peaceful protestors. Kelly Hayes said this better than I ever could:

This moment gives us an opportunity to reflect on what civil disobedience really is. It is not, as many believe, the act of getting arrested in protest. It is a form of direct action in which you are giving authority a moral choice. You have made your moral choice, and they have to make theirs. And you are telling that story in the open, or at the very least, in the context of a public narrative.

Sometimes, you will present authority with that choice and they won’t arrest you. Maybe they think it’s not worth the effort or the media exposure. Maybe you have the numbers. Sometimes they arrest you. Sometimes they show their character. And whatever they do, when it’s your action, their choices happen in the context of the story you are telling. Civil disobedience forces a confrontation between morality and that which would subdue it.

When I read that, as a Christian, of course I immediately remembered two of Jesus’ teachings: “you cannot serve God and mammon” and “whoever compels you to go one mile, go with him two.” As I sat in ICE headquarters, singing and chanting with ten other people, I was living out those words. My body sitting in that lobby was boldly declaring You cannot serve God and mammon. You cannot work for ICE, taking their money to enforce their policies, and be a moral person. Every word and lyric that came out of my mouth and echoed against every marble tile was deliberate resistance, carrying the soldier’s pack another mile.

Walter Wink talked a bit in Jesus and Non-Violence: A Third Way about the power of peacefully resisting domination and power:

Jesus directs his followers to go a second mile;

  • that forces the soldier to see that they are using their authority over you and not treating you as an equal
  • that alerts the officer that they are treating you as a lessor
  • that allows them to see that they are abusing their power over you and to consider changing their behavior.

That was Jesus calling his followers and us to point out the abuses others make on us out of their power positions and not out of love. You point out to them where they are abusing you or the situation and you open them to the opportunity to learn and change and grow. That is a loving thing to do and sometimes it’s very hard to do because they accuse you of not loving them because you won’t do for them what you used to do.

Kelly Hayes and Walter Wink are hitting at the same idea, and I especially appreciate Walter pointing out that Jesus’ teaching on radical resistance to power was fundamentally about loving your enemy. After DHS agents had handcuffed us all and dragged us away from the windows and the cameras, they put us in a small room while they called DC metro police; several agents stayed in the room while they waited and we decided to continue what we’d been doing in the lobby: singing. One of the songs we chose was the chorus of “Which Side Are you On?” and as we sang we tried to make eye contact with each of the agents monitoring us. Look at us. See this, see the decision you are making. I knew it was unlikely any of them would intervene, but I hoped. I still hope that occasionally they think about that day and their role in it.

***

My small group–Bible study–book club has been reading through Brene Brown’s Daring Greatly, and last night we read a quote from Ken Robinson:

However seductive the machine metaphor may be for industrial production, human organizations are not actually mechanisms and people are not components in them. People have values and feelings, perceptions, opinion, motivations, and biographies, whereas cogs and sprockets do not. An organization is not the physical facilities within which it operates; it is the networks of people in it.

While Brown and Robinson are focusing on creating and sustaining emotionally healthy environments, this morning I connected the above quote with everything I’ve been mulling over since the direct action in DC. The DHS agents, ICE personnel, and metro police who eventually put us in squad cars and then locked us in concrete room without any water or food for twelve hours clearly thought of themselves as cogs and sprockets. My arresting officer even said something to the effect of “why did you have to make us do this?” and I just stared at him– I am not making you do anything, I thought,  and wow I know I’ve used “abuser” as an analogy for structural power for years, but that just really drives the point home, doesn’t it.

They view themselves as just a part of the system, just doing their jobs. It’s not up to them what happens, they’re just “enforcing the law,” they don’t set policy they just enact it … but the reality is that they’re not just wheels grinding away in a machine. They’re people, and they have choices about what they do.

So do we.

Photography by Lindsay Wesson
Feminism

pillaging and the pro-life movement

Representative Steve King was back home this week, and yesterday he spoke in front of the Westside Conservative Club where the Des Moines Register recorded him saying the following. He was explaining why his heartbeat bills hadn’t made any progress, attributing it to his inability to “compromise” on “principles of life”:

And I started to think, we know the reasons why we [inaudible] exceptions for rape and incest– “because it’s not the baby’s fault”– but I actually started to wonder about this. What if it was ok, what if we went back through all the family trees and just pulled those people out that were products of rape and incest? Would there be any population of the world left if we did that?

Considering all the wars and all the rapes and pillages taken place and whatever happened to culture after society? I know I can’t certify that I’m not a part of a product of that. And I’d like to think that every one of the lives of us is as precious as any other life. And that’s our measure. Human life cannot be measured, it is the measure itself against which all things are weighed.

I watched the full clip, and that’s the complete quote and its context. As I’m sure you can imagine, King was– understandably– instantly criticized for this. He knows that his position is not exactly popular among Republican legislators, even. At this point, some of his GOP colleagues are already calling for his resignation. I understand the visceral reaction to these types of comments because they do paint a horrifying picture. It’s already troubling that King and 174 other legislators constantly push things like his heartbeat bill, it’s already concerning the ways Republicans want to invade our private lives and take control of our medical decisions, take away our right to self-determination. Not even allowing exceptions for people who have been raped … it boggles a lot of people’s minds to think someone could have so little compassion for a person who’s already been incredibly traumatized.

What bothers me about the criticisms I’ve been seeing is, though, is that most of those reactions missed the point of his talk and the reasoning why he rejects any rape/incest exception amendments. His fellow Republicans, Democrats, presidential candidates, and concerned citizens alike are treating his argument as if it’s an aberration. As if his — possibly hyberbolic– comments represent some sort of fringe when in reality they are a logical conclusion of the forced-birth ethical construct.

I know this because I used to think the exact same way as King. I would never have used his framing or his word choice, but when I was a forced-birth activist, wandering around protesting reproductive health clinics and getting ballot signatures, I was convinced that the rape/incest exceptions were inconsistent with a “pro-life” stance. If all abortion is really murder, then making an exception for how a baby was conceived makes no sense.

Granted, my background is actually pretty “fringe.” Growing up in a deep south Independent Fundamental Baptist cult doesn’t really produce a lot of reasonable centrists. But here’s how I know it’s not fringe: Karen Swallow Prior, a professor at Liberty University, made the exact same argument as King in a 2012 article she wrote for Christianity Today titled “No Exceptions: The Case for a Consistent Pro-Life Ethic.” Prior, Liberty, and Christianity Today are as establishment evangelicalism as it gets. One of King’s apparent constituents* even explicitly agreed with him in his blog post “King is not Wrong about Rape and Incest Exceptions,” taking issue with how conservatives are distancing themselves from King. The fact that King’s views aren’t fringe even appear in his words; “Human life cannot be measured, it is the measure itself against which all things are weighed” sounded like a quote to me so I dug it up. King is actually quoting Governor Bab Casey, as in the 1992 Supreme Court decision Planned Parenthood v. Casey.

His “we’re all products of pillaging, really” framework also only works in a world where all political and legislative decisions must align with theocratic principles. It’s an argument rooted in the common evangelical understanding of Romans 8:28– all things work together for good, including pillaging. Including incest. Including rape. King is not arguing pillaging and incest are intrinsically good, but God makes them good. Rape resulting in pregnancy, in King’s view, is theologically a blessing, it is the mechanism by which God makes “all things work together” and transforms a horrific, traumatizing event into a life-giving miracle.

Needless to say, this theological thought process completely removes bodily autonomy, self-determination, and agency from consideration. What the pregnant person wants is irrelevant. That they are most likely going to be further traumatized by having their feelings about their body and what happens to it overruled every single moment of every single day. The only thing that matters to people like who I used to be and King is “God’s will,” and we all just have to accept it without question.

If we’re going to criticize King and every other legislator that agrees with him, we have to acknowledge the theological underpinnings of their arguments and criticize that, not just capitalize on the sensationalism of his examples and word choice.

*from the wording of Hart’s post it seems like King represents his district, but he does not explicitly say he is a constituent.

Photography by Gage Skidmore
Theology

theological foundations: child liberation theology

Part One: Public Theology | Part Two: Incarnation | Part Three: Resurrection | Part Four: Trauma Theology

As you might have noticed at this point, each of the previous posts in this series have been building blocks. I began by asking myself what role theology should play in my public life and discussing the tension between my activism being grounded in my faith and needing to respect secular institutions and spaces. This led to the place where my Christian faith begins: in the Incarnation and how “God with us” teaches me to value lived experience and context. Jesus’ ministry began in the Incarnation, but closed with the Resurrection, and I discussed the ways that different views of the “crucifixion-resurrection event” affects our views on suffering, arguing that suffering is not redemptive and our lived experiences matter when constructing a theology of the Cross. That flows naturally into trauma theology, and how deeply our views of trauma affect our views of humanity, God, and every relationship that ties us together.

Which brings me, finally, to child liberation theology.

If you’re not familiar with Christian liberation theology more broadly, a brief explanation is liberation theology asserts that Jesus stands with the marginalized and oppressed, and one of his primary ministerial activities is found in Luke 4:18 (where he is reading from Isaiah):

The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

Liberation theology also teaches we are to engage in this mission, and often references the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, where Jesus instructs his followers to feed the hungry, invite in the stranger, heal the sick, and visit the prisoner.* One of the best things about liberation theology, in my opinion, is how it respects the power of lived experience and all the nuances and complexities of suffering and oppression; because of that, liberation theologians can focus on individual dynamics: Latin American economic oppression, the particularly virulent racism faced by Black people in the US, the avenues explored by womanist and mujerista theologians …

Because of my “job” as a policy advocate with the Coalition for Responsible Home Education (I’m not paid, but I do consider it my main job at this point), something that consistently captured my attention in seminary was the question “what about children?” Our class discussions always did an excellent job delving into womanist, feminist, queer, and religious minority perspectives, but very often children got left out of the picture entirely. In research for one of my papers, I discovered there are other theologians considering this question, like Rebecca Stevens-Walter asking “where are the children in all of this?” in her post “God of the Oppressed Child.”

I believe that, unlike many of us in our theological discourse, Jesus never forgot children. I also think his life gives us a framework to understand children in a liberative way, beginning in his own childhood.

When I read the end of Luke 2, where Jesus stays behind at the Temple and Mary and Joseph don’t realize he’s missing over a day of traveling, I can hear the panic in Mary’s question when she finally finds him sitting among the teachers: “why have you treated us like this?” This reaction is understandable– I don’t have children yet, but I can imagine how losing your child must have been beyond heart-wrenching. It makes sense to me that Mary would center herself and Joseph, and for anger to come to the surface after experiencing such fear and panic. It’s a common question for parents– how could you do this to us? I’ve heard it a few times, from my own parents. I’m sure most of us have.

But Jesus’ response is a calm, quiet, steady affirmation of his own identity and autonomy, separate from Mary and Joseph: “didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” Seen through the perspective of child liberation theology, that response is extraordinary to me. Mom, I’m myself. I have my own purpose, separate from yours. I am my own person. I decide where I need to be, what I need, who I need to talk to. I have my own religious experience. I have my own relationships with God and other people that are not about you. And while he returns to Nazareth, the text describes him as deciding to be “obedient” to Mary and Joseph– it’s another choice, another example of autonomy and agency. The entire passage concludes with how Jesus grew in “wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man”; this is a continuation of his initial decision to remain behind at the Temple, not a departure from it.

I think his expression of autonomy and individuation when he was twelve is re-affirmed throughout his three-year ministry. One of the harshest rebukes he ever gives his disciples is over their treatment of children, and not only does he say that children have the right to access him and his teachings, he tells everyone present how the kingdom of heaven belongs to children. I don’t want to understate how powerful it is that Jesus links children and the kingdom of heaven. This theme is echoed everywhere– “whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven” demonstrates clearly that Jesus understood exactly the rung on the social ladder children inhabit, especially since he teaches elsewhere the “last shall be first”; here, children shall be “the greatest.”

He knows how children were treated, were viewed, and he admonished anyone who would listen to completely upend that way of thinking. At one point Jesus even tells his audience it would be better for someone to have a millstone tied around their neck and thrown into the depths of the sea than for them to cause a child to stumble. For him, children are not just progeny, or economic assistants, or heirs, or tools. They are people and deserve the same liberation from oppression as anyone else.

***

I love children. To me, they are endlessly exciting, invigorating, inspiring, encouraging. Some of my heroes right now are Greta Thunberg and Emma Gonzáles (although they are both quickly becoming adults, Greta is 16 and Emma is 19), and I’m constantly uplifted by young people in my own community taking on tasks and leadership because the adults in their life have neglected or abandoned their responsibility. Watching them work  is like watching fireworks– they can be utterly dazzling.

I also know that not every child is empowered to shoulder those mantles of leadership. Most aren’t, in fact. And it’s my job to be like Jesus and not forget them.

*For a more in-depth exploration of liberation theology, I highly recommend A Black Theology of Liberation by James Cone, read alongside Sisters in the Wilderness by Williams.

Photography by Leonora Enking

 

Theology

theological foundations: trauma theology

Part One: Public Theology | Part Two: Incarnation | Part Three: Resurrection 

Back when I was still trying to make it as a freelance editor, I took on a contract for doing developmental edits for a “Christian Living”-genre book (a self-help book with a dose of self-righteousness, moralizing, and religious-based shame thrown in for good measure), taking it on because the topic sounded like it was in my wheelhouse. She pitched the concept to me as wanting to get Christians to make room for suffering and pain and how she had been on that journey herself, so I thought I’d be reading a memoir-ish book along the lines of Lewis’ The Problem of Pain.

Instead, what I got was a preachy screed filled to the brim with victim blaming and judgment. Her only argument was the one we’re all used to hearing: ignore your trauma and “choose joy” (or you’re bitter, which is a sin). She was essentially just trying to turn Romans 8:28 into a book. It also became clear that this cis straight middle class white lady had no real idea what she was talking about– her examples of “suffering” included: sibling infighting, bad grades, losing friendships, etc. I only edited the first three or four chapters because I kept pointing out how her words and arguments might be received by traumatized people, abuse victims, grieving parents … she resisted at every point because her theological system demanded compliance over compassion.

A while later I ended up leaving my church over a similar issue: the pastor kept preaching sermons that deliberately conflated suffering abuse with perpetuating abuse, or cracking jokes about spanking babies, or encouraging women to “stick out” unhealthy relationships. At that time, I realized that how people understand trauma affects absolutely everything in their theology. If you do not understand how trauma happens, how trauma works, or the way trauma lives in the body and the mind, then you’re not going to offer appropriate care to anyone affected by it.

Last year I discovered trauma theology and immediately latched on to it as the framework I’d desperately needed to explain this reality. The experiences of my life mean that a Christian theology articulated principally by abusers — Luther, Wesley, Calvin, notably– can only be an unmitigated failure for me. Theology uninformed by trauma does not and cannot work for trauma survivors. In my experience, those theological systems will constantly re-traumatize me, or force me to assent to some sort of complicity in my abuse in order to “seek healing.” And that doesn’t even cover systems that are explicitly and fundamentally abusive, like complementarian theology.

Most compellingly, though, once I was working with a trauma theology framework, it became conspicuously obvious how well it fits as a way of working with Scripture. I’ve used all sorts of lenses over the years to interpret the Bible– historical-critical, Marxist, deconstructionist, feminist, phenomenological, and so on– but most of the time those lenses feel rather “after the fact.” There’s a lot of value of reading with a “hermeneutics of suspicion” or looking for power dynamics, or places where the relationship between signifier and signified might be disrupted, but they are ways of interacting with the text at a distance. Trauma theology, though, just … clicked into place for me, like the Bible was meant to be read that way, that it had been written with trauma theology in mind.

I think this feels so true because trauma, unfortunately, is a deeply human experience– and the Bible is nothing if not deeply and profoundly human.

Last semester I took a class that studied sections of the Tanakh, including the story of Elijah. One of the passages we were asked to prepare an interpretation of before class covered I Kings 19, where Elijah flees from Jezebel and meets G-d at Horeb. As I read the story for the first time in years, I resonated so much with how Elijah responds. After Jezebel threatens him, he flees for his life– and it’s like my gut remembers what it feels like to feel that fear, to be that afraid, because it clenches. Then, he leaves his servant behind and goes into the wilderness alone– and I’ve been down that road myself, both desperately seeking isolation and feeling like I don’t deserve to be around anyone who might care about me. Eventually he collapses underneath a broom tree, begging G-d to just let him die and falls asleep– and I think about the countless times I’ve pulled the covers up over my head and just wished that everything would just stop, could I just stop existing please.

What happens next is so ineffably beautiful.

Elijah awakens to feel a gentle hand on his shoulder, smelling the warm and sweet smell of fresh bread, and hears someone telling him “Get up, and eat.” He looks, and there’s bread baking on the stones beside him, with water beside it. He eats, drinks, and goes to sleep again. When he wakes up, the voice is still there, and so is more fresh water and hot bread. As I read, I thought of all the times I’ve been in bed when my partner comes home, struggling to both embrace and fight off the absolute numbness that pervades my life sometimes. I thought of all the times he’s put a gentle hand on my shoulder and said “Get up, and eat,” and I look, and he’s made pancakes and there’s a mug of tea on my nightstand just how I like it.

Elijah is traumatized. It’s the only word to describe what he’s been through– he’s lived in fear for his life for who knows how long, and it’s taken a toll. He’s tired. He’s done. He puts one foot in front of the other until he just can’t anymore, and what does G-d do? G-d tells him to sleep. G-d brings him food.

G-d meets him. Elijah encounters G-d not in the thunder or earthquake, but in a “soft murmuring sound.” G-d understands his trauma, and gives him the time he needs to heal and recover from being triggered by Jezebel’s emotionally and psychologically abusive threats. G-d helps Elijah restore some of his equilibrium, and then sets him on a path where he meets Elisha for the first time: a relationship. A partner, and his legacy.

Trauma theology helped me see all that, revealing it all in an intuitive, natural way. I can see it everywhere now, too– in every single one of Jesus’ healing miracles, when Moses flees Egypt, the interactions between Paul and Barnabas, or Mary Magdalene at the Tomb. I especially see it when Jesus tells Thomas to touch his hands and his side, because as a rape survivor who has spent half a dozen years trying to get people on the internet to respond to rape victims appropriately, I know exactly what it feels like to offer up your wounds as proof for skeptics to shove their hands into.

***

In real-world practical terms, what truama theology unveiled to me is that I believe Christianity should fundamentally be about healing– all forms of healing. I want to see a world of spiritual restoration, physical balms, emotional resilience, strong connections, and relational power. I need to join Jesus’ ministry of healing, of “touched and being touched.”

Spending the last year reading Scripture through a trauma theology lens and fleshing out my trauma theology has also made it easier to view my life and other people in a trauma-informed way. The last seven months of my life have been extraordinarily difficult, and at times I wasn’t sure how I was going to be able to handle some pieces of it. Trauma theology, though, helped me retain my values– kindness, compassion, understanding– because through a hazy cloud of my own pain I could more easily see the ways trauma, shame, and vulnerability were being activated in all the situations I’ve been in this last year. Social researchers call this “self-differentiation,” but I’m starting to think of it as “becoming more like Christ.”

Photography by Leonora Enking
Theology

theological foundations: suffering & resurrection

Part One: Public Theology | Part Two: Incarnation

I think one of the elements that tend to push people away from Christian fundamentalism and evangelicalism is that there is no rigorous or deep conversation happening about suffering. In those contexts, when we encounter pain, abuse, trauma, loss, grief, tragedies, or horrors, there are only a handful of half-baked platitudes available to offer each other. “Everything happens for a reason,” we say, or “God only gives us what we can handle”; even worse, we take on the mantle of one of Job’s friends and victim blame: “what are you doing to make him act like that? Are you being a good, submissive wife?” Or, the one I’ve seen most often this week: “if they’d been carrying a gun, they could have stopped it.”

Most conservative Christian articulations of theodicy— the attempts to answer the “problem of evil”– can take us into some harrowing theological territory. Evil is really just God punishing the wicked, goes one argument; the one I’ve personally encountered the most often is “God’s ways are not our ways,” and something we think is “evil” may not, in fact, actually be evil at all. I’ve always found that one deeply disturbing, because it renders our conscience completely irrelevant– and totally and utterly unreliable to boot. All my life I found the pat, tidy, almost pre-recorded responses to my suffering unsatisfying and inadequate. When I was struggling the hardest with all the abuse I’d experienced, hearing “everything works according to his plan” infuriated me.

There are very few things I know beyond all doubt, but one of them is: suffering is not redemptive.

… which makes thinking about the Crucifixion and atonement theory a difficult proposition. Penal substitutionary atonement theory (a type of satisfaction theory)– the dominant theory that most evangelicals believe must be accepted as a fundamental truth in order to “be saved”– is deeply troubling to me because of what it says about suffering. In this model, suffering is not just good, but necessary. In order for God to accept us, someone had to be made to suffer. We’re supposed to find it beautiful that God chose Themself as the person who would do the suffering, but in reality it’s just horrifying. It forces Christianity to be fundamentally about death; it renders Jesus’ entire earthly ministry and his Resurrection an afterthought. Nothing is as important as the fact that he died for our sins.

Other atonement theories I’ve encountered in the last six years have been better, but not by much. I held onto christus victor theory and moral influence theory the longest, but both ultimately teach that suffering can be the most redemptive option. Suffering can be good if it breaks the chains of death and evil on the world. Suffering can be good if it teaches us to be compassionate.

And then I read Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk by Delores Williams and broke down crying– tears of relief, joy, hope. I was ecstatic. I felt almost enlightened– in religious language, it was a liminal encounter with the divine. Something inside of me jolted awake and recognized her words as True:

The resurrection of Jesus and the flourishing of God’s spirit in the world as the result of resurrection represent the life of the ministerial vision gaining victory over the evil attempt to kill it … Jesus therefore conquered sin in life, not in death. …

The resurrection of Jesus and the kingdom of God theme in Jesus’ ministerial vision provide black women with the knowledge that God has, through Jesus, shown humankind how to live peacefully, productively, and abundantly in relationship. Jesus showed humankind a vision of righting relations between body, mind, and spirit through an ethical ministry of words, through a healing ministry of touch and being touched, through the militant ministry of expelling evil forces, through a ministry grounded in the power of faith, through a ministry of prayer, through a ministry of compassion and love.

There is nothing divine in the blood of the cross … Jesus did not come to be a surrogate. Jesus came for life … As Christians, black women cannot forget the cross, but neither can they glorify it. To do so is to glorify suffering and to render their exploitation sacred. To do so is to glorify the sin of defilement. (146-48)

In William’s ministerial atonement theory, suffering is a reality that can’t be forgotten or ignored, but it is recognized as something being wrong with the world, or with humanity. Evil is acknowledged as real, and as incredibly powerful. She also piercingly recognizes how evil operates: it attempts to kill not just life, but peace, abundance, relationships. Its source is often found in the breakdown of connection, of losing physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual coherence as a person and as a society. Life and resurrection, in this ministerial vision, is the search for healing, compassion, and love– as well as the fight against disconnection and exploitation.

Kelly Brown Douglas argued for something similar in Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God when she speaks powerfully on rooting our theology in the Resurrection and not just the Crucifixion:

There is not one story reported in the four Gospels in which Jesus cooperates with death. … What the crucifixion-resurrection event reveals is that God does not use the master’s tools. God does not fight death with death. God does not utilize the violence exhibited in the cross to defeat deadly violence itself. …

Maintaining the connection between the cross and the “empty tomb” is essential to the meaning of the resurrection itself. It grounds the resurrection in history. It makes clear that the evil that God overcomes is historical, that is, that God really defeats the powers of this world. …

The resurrection restores life to those who have been crucified. It calls attention to the meaning of a life. (181-192)

***

The consequence of reorienting my conception of the “crucifixion-resurrection event” from one that revolved around death and suffering to one based in life and ministry is that my faith is no longer about fear, shame and avoidance. Before, my religion was completely wrapped up in keeping myself and others away from an eternal afterlife of misery and torment, but now my religion is fundamentally about life, and having it more abundantly. Like Jesus, I will not cooperate with death. I will not allow the evils of disconnection and exploitation to fester– not in myself, and not anywhere else, either. A “ministerial vision” of faith compels me to actions that are more than just evangelism, but toward justice.

And, as Kelly Brown Douglas put it, my faith is grounded in the “historical”: the worldly, earthly, and human. I believe that the resurrection asks me to see this life, and all our lives, as important and valuable. It’s my job to bring a reality of resurrection, not some far-off distant hope with no real-world applications or substantive changes.

In my life, believing in the resurrection this way teaches me to look for ways to “bring dead things back to life again,” as Rachel Held Evans put it in her introduction to Searching for Sunday. How can I bring about a cultural shift among homeschooling families? How can I help bring about a world where children’s lives are seen as valuable, important, and worth not just protecting from harm to but to aid them in flourishing and finding fulfillment, meaning, and purpose?  How can I strengthen connections in our communities– between legislators and graduates, parents and social workers, educators and children? How do I make sure that everyone at the Coalition for Responsible Home Education is treated in a way that values their life and living it abundantly, even when the work we’re doing encounters the “banality of evil” every day? How do I make sure when I’m in the political arena, a field where negotiation and compromise is essential, I work in a way that does not “cooperate with death”? That makes sure the policy proposals we make and pursue do not harm life, or contribute to human suffering?

The resurrection has taught me how much resisting death, suffering, and evil matters.

Photography by Leonora Enking