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The theology of trauma

By Trisha Elliott

Life goes on. Sort of. For some, anxiety, flashbacks, nightmares and elusive memories lie in trauma’s wake. To put it biblically, resurrection experiences can never erase the crucifixions we endure. Jesus’ wounds were evident after the resurrection — an outward sign of the longevity of trauma. Yet in the midst of pain, there is love.

“If the church’s message about God’s love for the world is to be offered to those who suffer these wounds, then . . . we must grapple with the meaning of beliefs not only about grace, but also about such things as sin, redemption, hope, community, communion, violence, death, crucifixion, and resurrection,” writes Serene Jones, president of Union Theological Seminary in New York City and author of Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World. There is solace for Jones in the original ending of Mark’s Gospel, in which the women leave the empty tomb so afraid that they don’t tell anyone what happened. The resurrection story isn’t sewn up. “This is truly what grace is . . . the incredible insistence on love amid fragmented, unravelled human lives,” she writes.

Jones is one of a small number of emerging, largely female theologians exploring the theology of trauma. Easter theology, they say, needs to be overhauled for the church to be an effective pastoral presence in the midst of violence and to minister effectively to trauma survivors. Rather than triumphing over loss, people who have experienced trauma know that they can never return to life as it was.

Shelly Rambo, author of Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining, says that a theology that sees Jesus’ death leading to a happy ending not only misses the boat but is damaging. Rambo writes that the traditional linear theological narrative of Easter can cause us to minimize traumatic suffering. All’s well that ends well. Like somehow at the end of the day, the crucifixion was worth every horrific bite of the crucifier’s nail. The traditional narrative of life (resurrection) triumphing over death can dangerously “gloss over difficulty, casting it within a larger framework in which the new replaces the old, and in which good inevitably wins out over evil,” she writes.

For Rambo, resurrection is not the victory of love and life over death but the survival of love within death. Surviving and holding on is the heart of redemption. “Redemption cannot emerge by interpreting death and life in opposition to each other,” she writes. “Instead, theology must account for the excess, or remainder, of death in life that is central to trauma.”

Her theology has liturgical ramifications. Rambo thinks churches need to pay more attention to Holy Saturday, the lost day between the crucifixion and the resurrection, when there doesn’t appear to be a way forward and it’s just about surviving. Redemption doesn’t lie in the conquering but in the persistence: “Perhaps the divine story is neither a tragic one nor a triumphant one but, in fact, a story of divine remaining, the story of love that survives.”

Rev. Trisha Elliott is a minister at City View United in Ottawa.



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