Christian Triumphalism: The Antithesis to Trauma Recovery
Published by Danjuma Gibson
Professor of Pastoral Theology, Care and Counseling
Occasionally, I will suggest to my students that Scripture puts forth two provocative questions that each of us are forced to struggle with at various points in our lives. The first is a question put to God by Satan in the book of Job: does Job fear God for nothing? If we recall the story, the adversary goes on to express how God has blessed Job and placed a degree of protection around him. For Satan, the challenge is simple: remove the hand of God, and Job’s relationship with God will take on a more antagonistic tone (to put it mildly). In many ways, the challenge put forth by Satan represents an unresolved tension that is interwoven in the fabric of many strands of Western Christianity—no matter how it may be consciously or verbally denied. Here in the West, we tend to believe that Christian faith should yield a certain level of safety, comfort, success, and livelihood in this lifetime. The inverse (and more latent version) of this unspoken proposition is that we believe relative success (as measured by Western standards) equates to evidence of God’s affirmation of us.
Even if we hold to theologies, creeds, and confessions that rebuff or explicitly deny Satan’s explicit (or implicit) challenge, our lived theology tends to betray our deliberative theology. Middle-class status, privilege, riches, and wealth—along with the state of temporal happiness it may bring—has in some instances become intrinsic to Western Christian identity, or in other instances is the presumed telos of Christian faith in America. Perhaps this is most vividly evidenced in the United States so often being referred to as a Christian nation—a title inextricably connected to historical narratives of manifest destiny and Western expansionism.
For the have-nots in the Western world, the prosperity gospel provides the theological currency to justify the pursuit of temporal happiness. For the haves, the entitlement gospel (i.e. the alternative of the prosperity gospel) provides the theological currency to justify the attainment of the American dream—an accomplishment that may have nothing to do with the favor of God and everything to do with happenstance, power, and privilege. So…to put it bluntly (yet therapeutically), instead of altruistically asking ourselves if we fear God for nothing (and risk the possibility of self-deceit), maybe we should instead ask of ourselves, “what do we actually fear God for?” Said differently, is the return on our investment in the fear of God an (unconscious) expectation of a degree of temporal happiness, comfort, and the American dream?
The second provocative question I am referring to is what was asked of Jesus by the lawyer in the parable of the good Samaritan: who is my neighbor? In this passage, Jesus describes how a priest and Levite passed on the other side of a road in order to avoid a dejected man who was beaten and stripped of his humanity. This parable has been used by many in a plethora of sermons and teachings, as well as elaborated upon in numerous commentaries. A common interpretation is that the priorities of the priest and Levite were misaligned and that they overlooked their true call to service. Such interpretations are not without merit. But here I offer up a different interpretation: the priest and the Levite did not want to get too close to any person that disrupted their sense of safety and security, or the illusion that their faith would enable them to transcend the tragedies of human experience. Similar to the priest and Levite, we too do not like to surround ourselves with individuals or groups that remind us of human frailty.
Commonly, when we talk about Christian hospitality, it is limited to people we invite to join us in our faith gatherings. But such invitations tend to be limited, have cultural or social boundaries that protect us from being too influenced or affected by the other, are time-limited, and allow us to foster relationships where we remain in power. But the concept of neighbor is different. It implies a deeper level of intimacy. It implies a community where people are more vulnerable to each other. It implies a community where the boundaries of being influenced by the other are lower, and where the community inhabitants are co-creators of the spaces in which we develop as human beings (for better or worse), and where we are spiritually, culturally, and socially formed (for better or worse). Simply put, we generally don’t like neighbors that remind us that life is fragile, and that we are vulnerable. We don’t like to have neighbors that remind us that faith and hard work are not the guarantors of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
While churches and denominations are places where like-minded individuals can come and worship together, churches and denominations are also cultural enclaves where people sin in the same way and come together as neighbors and preserve certain illusions of safety, orderliness, security, innocence, and self-righteousness.
The answers to both of these questions—do we fear God for nothing and who is my neighbor—present significant challenges for those who have been traumatized, are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and are on the long and difficult road to trauma recovery. Individuals who have been traumatized (such as military veterans, survivors of rape, or refugees fleeing terror and violence) will generally say that there are two types of people in the world: those who have been traumatized, and those who have not been traumatized. In the Church, traumatized individuals typically discover that they have a narrative that is antithetical to the non-traumatized narratives of Christian triumphalism (i.e. the stories with good endings that we like to hear on Sunday morning). Whereas the traumatized Army veteran is living in a world where she has first-hand experience of people being shot or even blown up, her narrative runs counter to uninterrogated narratives and platitudes in a faith community that argue God protects those that God loves.
To make matters worse, I have often encountered people in the Church who ask questions that reflect impatience and ignorance: at what point do we tell traumatized victims that God loves them? Questions or religious platitudes like this assume that traumatized people don’t already know that God loves them, and that mental awareness of faith tenants—alone—will heal trauma. Often, victims of trauma will hear questions like “do you want to be a victim forever?” or “do you want to be a conqueror?” However, if the community of faith actually knew what it was like to suffer from PTSD, they would know that victims of trauma were doing their best to recover. Religious platitudes and loaded questions aimed in the direction of trauma victims suggests that in many ways, the Church does indeed fear God for something—and that something (albeit an illusion) is the expectation of safety and orderliness.
Moreover, these actions taken by an uninformed faith community imply that for those who have been traumatized (like victims of sexual assault in the Church) can no longer be neighbors, but simply visitors entertained by cursory expressions of hospitality. The reality and lived experiences of the traumatized represents a frightening narrative that destabilizes the drama of Christian triumphalism. And the hallucinogenic power that triumphalism has over a church can make it an unsafe place for those suffering from trauma.
I am often asked about what churches can do to help victims of trauma and PTSD. With this question, the focus is often on the traumatized person or group. However, I suggest that we first focus on ourselves—individually and collectively—and unearth the many ways that Christian triumphalism has undermined our understanding of Christian faith, and how this in turn has weakened our understanding of what it is to be a neighbor. Christian faith is not meant to provide us with a competitive advantage toward attaining the American dream. Evidence of faith is not superficial happiness. True faith should bring us closer to God and set the stage for a robust love of our neighbor. Love of God and love of neighbor are inseparable. Dismantling narratives of Christian triumphalism can help the Church become a community for trauma recovery.
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