Trauma, Theology, Inclusion and the Church

Trauma disrupts.

“Trauma by nature drives us to the edge of comprehension, cutting us off from language based on common experience or an imaginable past” — Bessel van der Kolk van der Kolk, BKTS, p. 43.

Van der Kolk, Peter Levine, Mark Johnson, and many others explain the physiology of this disintegration in the body that robs trauma survivors of access to language through overwhelmed limbic systems that prevent us from properly accessing our cortical functions, including language. This disintegration also occurs between our brains and bodies, as van der Kolk so powerfully illustrates with the image of trauma survivors unable to identify objects placed in their hands when their eyes are closed (van der Kolk, 89). Trauma also confounds our sense of time — causing people to “remain stuck in interpreting the present in light of an unchanging past” (van der Kolk, p. 305). As Professor Chelle Stearns says, “in this realm of confused sense and bodily disconnection, one’s epistemology fails”. This overall disintegration, and the loss of language in particular, muddles theological exploration, which is language and theory driven — particularly in white, western, Christianity/academia.

If we are to be inclusive of trauma survivors in Christian communities, then we need to explore ways of doing theology that extend past the narrow lens of white, western Christianity/academia. In addition to individual trauma survivors, Ron Eyerman reminds us that “culture trauma” bears its mark on whole groups of people such as African Americans in the effects of slavery. Womanist, Feminist, and liberation theologies have challenged what we see as normative in doing theology, which is often white, westernized, patriarchal, linear, and more theoretical and less embodied. Letty Russell helps us ask, what does it mean to be hospitable to diverse voices, and in particular to voices of those who have been oppressed, dominated (traumatized)? (Russell, Church in the Round). Van der Kolk describes a lovely picture of this in the actions of Desmond Tutu during the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearing of testimony of apartheid related trauma. When witnesses became overwhelmed by their telling of trauma stories, Tutu led them in worship, song and dance, providing space for these traumatized voices, and accommodating the havoc that trauma wreaks on their brains and bodies. How do we keep from making our hospitality merely new means of domination? (Russell, p. 178). One of the answers to this question is to value these voices — to be willing to learn from one another. In what ways do we tend to the margins in churches, not to connect with those in the margins, but to protect ourselves against them (Russell, p 176)? If we want our theology to be accessible and enriched by traumatized voices, we must not only find ways to accommodate them, but also to value them.

We have much to learn about theology from the lens of trauma. The disruption of trauma humbles us and challenges our neat boxes in which to contain ourselves, our world and God. We see this in the difference between Job’s silence amidst suffering and his friends’ verbosity and (anxiety driven?) postulations about the mind of God. Trauma destroys these boxes, and in doing so, creates a more capacious theology about what is “too wonderful” to know by finite logic. One area where this is particularly powerful is in contemplating a theology of hope that is hospitable toward (i.e. includes, accommodates, values, and learns from) the experience of trauma survivors. Van der Kolk powerfully states, “without imagination, there is no hope, no chance to envision a better place, no place to go, no goal to reach” (van der Kolk, p. 17). Stephen Levine reminds us that art and healing have been divorced in western culture, and yet art is a transformative process of expression (S.Levine, p.11 & 15). As Levine finds that the “task of therapy is not to eliminate suffering but to give a voice to it, to find a form in which it can be expressed,” what if this can also be true of theology?

The work of Shelly Rambo is particularly helpful in shaping what I would consider my theology of hope. Rambo recognizes that the disruptive nature of trauma does not fit with in a traditional western Christology focused theology that views hope and redemption as a linear progression from death to resurrection, often eliding the middle experience of Holy Saturday. Rambo focuses on this middle place of “Holy Saturday” and looks at what it is to do theology from a place where death and life meet, a place of trauma, focusing on Pneumatology and the embodied witness of the Holy Spirit. Rambo challenges a theology of hope that rushes to victory and resurrection — a place that can seem painful, premature and even nonsensical in the midst of trauma. She acknowledges, “in the aftermath of trauma, death and life no longer stand in opposition…death haunts life.” (Rambo, p.3). In this place of disruption and amidst feelings of abandonment — feelings experienced by the disciples and figures like Mary Magdalene in the loss of and confusion of Jesus death pre-resurrection — in this place, the Spirit remains and witnesses to suffering and the enduring “trickle” of God’s love in groans that exceed our lost language. Telling the story of witness from the perspective of Mary Magdalene and the disciple known as “the beloved”, Rambo offers powerful imagery as these two witness Jesus after the resurrection:

“…they see, but never directly and with persistent obstructions. They locate Jesus but even then they do so at a distance… The events themselves are ungraspable in any straightforward way. Their witness speaks to a truth about the passion: that it cannot be so neatly contained in the past but continues on, marking life in ways that cannot be cognitively grasped. The event of death is known precisely for the ways that it escapes cognition. The witness to the death points repeatedly to the ways in which Jesus is neither dead nor alive, neither absent nor present.” (Rambo, p. 97).

Rambo’s theology of hope is that “love remains, and we are love’s witnesses” and even in this she cautions against the “elisions of our guiding logic” appealing instead to mystery and a way of witnessing to life from the depths in what remains: “the middle story is not a story of rising out of the depths, but a transformation of the depths themselves”. (Rambo, 171–2). Rambo’s theology offers hope for those who cannot be rushed past Holy Saturday, given the harm and suffering experienced in this life.

Jurgen Moltman’s theology is also impactful in how I conceive of a theology of hope. Rather than rushing past suffering in light of the knowledge that Christ will return in glory or relegating this hope to end times, Moltmann’s theology pulls eschatological hope from the future into the present pain, confusion and mess of life’s experiences. Moltmann says that “Christian hope embraces both the object hoped for and also the hope inspired from it” (Moltmann, p. 16). It is this hope that offers a strength, witness and honor in our suffering and trauma in life before Christ’s triumphal return as the “glow that suffuses everything here in the dawn of an expected new day”. It is the same hope that fuels liberation theologies — the joy and peace in the midst of sorrow and alienation in such a way that neither minimizes nor glorifies trauma.

The theology of womanists, feminists, and liberation theologians are impactful in how I conceive of a theology of hope. Karen Baker-Fletcher speaks of God’s presence “even in the seeming absence of goodness and divinity” (Baker-Fletcher, p. 147). As Baker-Fletcher powerfully states:

“The longed for, consummate integration of heaven and earth is present and yet to come in the saving love that permeates the universe. There is hope for all creation. If the power of life is omnipresent and if it can inspire love of the hater regardless of the temptation to hate the hater, then it is an all-inclusive love…more powerful than the temptation to hate, loving even the hater, persuasively luring…or calling…all into right relationship.” (Baker-Fletcher, p. 147)

Baker-Fletcher animates this in the story of Maimie Till-Mobley, a grieving African American mother who “found the courage to shout, Noooo!” after her son Emmet was lynched by boldly holding an open casket funeral, allowing journalists to photograph her son’s disfigured body, and by risking her life to appear at the trial of her son’s murderers. (Baker Fletcher 149–150). This is a theology of hope that fights defiantly against oppression in the pursuit of justice, but not with weapons of this world.

My theology of hope incorporates the enduring love that remains in the midst of the of the unutterable at the intersection of death and life; the love that is in the promise of what is to come — Christ’s glorious return; and a hope that fights for justice through love. As such, my theology of hope involves the joy of our Beloved and His return, which provides meaning and an ability to bear the unbearable in the here and now, as well as the enduring love of the Spirit who witnesses our suffering even now. Both the Son and the Spirit in these functions witness to the marvelous love of the Father for us. My theology of hope seeks not only to be inclusive of trauma survivors and others who find themselves in the margins, but is informed by them as well.