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trauma theology

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