Trauma: Suffering in Silence

Date Published

October 1, 2016

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Published by Danjuma Gibson

Professor of Pastoral Theology, Care and Counseling

A Reflection on Trauma and the Church Community

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Luke 13:1-5 (ESV)

In the above passage from Luke, the community seems to be engrossed in a conversation with Jesus about several fatal tragedies. Whether responding to specific statements or the general tenor of the colloquy, Jesus challenges an age-old axiom that the evil that befalls people is somehow correlated to their lifestyle or behavior, or indicative of God’s wrath. In an almost algebraic formulation, since the time of Job and beyond humanity has demonstrated the propensity to erroneously view the evil that ravages people’s life as interpretive data regarding individual (and group) morality, spirituality, and goodness. Such hermeneutical formulations regarding the tragedies of life serve to protect our individual and group sense of safety, innocence, and cosmic orderliness. While such interpretive processes work to preserve our most basic sense of safety, at the same time they tend to anesthetize our capacity to empathize with others. Even if we do not vocalize our judgmental opinions to others, the true nature of our hearts never lies. When such biases take residence in our psyche, especially when we are oblivious to it, we are at great risk of injuring both neighbor and community.

Across the experiential spectrum of those who may hear about the evil that befalls people are the actual victims who in fact have experienced and survived great tragedy, have witnessed such tragedies in person, or have loved ones who have succumbed to some tragic event. Even at the time of this writing, the U.S. commemorated the fifteenth anniversary of the September 11th national tragedy. As one listens to the tearful and heartfelt testimonies of the survivors and people who lost loved ones on 9/11, the intensity of their narratives makes it seem as if the catastrophe occurred just recently: as if time had stopped on 9/11 for the survivors. In another place, I observed that victims of the Flint, MI, water crisis refused to be comforted: similar to what the second chapter of the gospel of Matthew observes of those traumatized by Herod after he slaughtered Jewish babies. Whether we are speaking about modern day tragedies or awful events several millennia ago, the human response of those victimized by certain tragic events seems to reflect a kind of paralysis in time around the same event.

It is within these two polarities—of both the observer of those who suffer great tragedy and the actual victims of such tragedies—that we can better understand trauma. For the victims of trauma, the sting of the ailment gains its strength between the stark memory of the tragedy and a callous community that lacks the capacity to understand the new world that the traumatized now live in, a world where the unthinkable has occurred to me. At its root, trauma reflects the overwhelming of a person’s psychological faculties in response to a violent event. Trauma, and its next of kin—post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)—can have lasting effects on an individual or group. Caught in the balance between awful memories and a community that lacks the patience to listen and empathize, victims of trauma are forced to suffer in silence.

In some cases, the precipitating event that triggers trauma/PTSD is a natural disaster. Sometimes the precipitating event stems from a man-made disaster. More perfidiously, when the precipitating event reflects violent actions by a person or group against another person or group, we can refer to this as crimes against humanity or radical evil. Over and against these catastrophic events are the communities or human-systems in which such tragedies occur.

Sometimes the community may simply function as an observer of the traumatic event. At its best, such community may function as an experience-near empathic container whereby the traumatized can begin the intentional work of re-narrating their life-story in the wake of the traumatizing tragedy. An example of this is the yearly commemoration of the 9/11 catastrophe. Because the actual tragedy played itself out (and continues to do such) through modern-day telecommunications and social media, the entire country more readily achieved an experience-near empathic position in relation those affected by this tragedy.This experience-near empathic position is evidenced in the expectation and normativity of annual commemorations.

At its worst, when a community is an observer of trauma, the collective emotional need of the community to move on or forget about the tragedy may in some cases trump the needs of the victims of trauma to tell and lament their stories. A classic example of this can be seen with pastors and their families who may suffer some kind of trauma. e congregation’s need for their idealized pastor to “be well” will in many cases compromise the pastor’s actual ability to recover from trauma or loss. e reality of their pastor falling victim to a trauma and possibly displaying human weakness and spiritual ambivalence may be too disruptive to the collective psyche of the church.

In other instances, the surrounding community tends to function in a bystander-position, thus turning a blind eye to the man-made disasters or radical evil that maim or destroys the human body and the human spirit. In other cases, the community may assume an enabler-position that proves inept to hold accountable the perpetrators or architects of man-made disasters or radical evil. In both the bystander and enabler positions, the surrounding community’s need to preserve illusions of safety, security, innocence, or providential orderliness tends to insulate the collective consciousness against empathizing with the plight of traumatized victims. at is to say, when a particular people-system cannot relate to or empathize with a person or group that has been traumatized (similar to those in Luke 13 who told Jesus about the Galileans killed by Pilate), it is far easier to imagine that such victims are somehow responsible for their trauma than it is to resign illusions safety and innocence. Such desensitization by the community may further reinforce the isolation and guilt that many survivors of trauma are faced with. Simply put, the victims of trauma and the actions of the surrounding community are inseparable in any traumatological discourse.

The church of God has the potential to serve as a valuable resource, and can have a tremendous impact on the well-being and recovery of trauma survivors. Engagement with the Psalms in particular has the potential to serve in a cathartic capacity since the writers display a full range of human experience, emotion, and affect in relation to traumatizing human experiences (Jones, 2009). Local churches can embody Christian hospitality through rituals of lament or worship services that commemorate those lost to tragedy, while simultaneously affirming the humanity of the victims and survivors of trauma. Indeed, one of the primary tasks of pastoral theology is that of calling the community to lament and mourn with those who suffer, especially victims of trauma who have needlessly suffered in relation to man-made disasters or radical evil.

is essay calls for pastor and church leaders to consider a traumatological lens in worship and liturgical designs.

The classic fable that time heals all wounds is one of the most treacherous folk tales that has infiltrated the unconscious psyche of the church, especially as it pertains to trauma. It cannot be overstated that trauma and PTSD are irreducible phenomena and as such are not human experiences that can be solved or fixed. No matter how the victims of trauma remind us of how fragile life is and disrupt our illusions of innocence and righteousness, healing and recovery for the traumatized cannot be rushed. It is a process of working-through.

e victims of trauma or those who are diagnosed with PTSD are not strange or abnormal people that we have to return to normal. They are human beings fighting to recover from unthinkable experiences that the surrounding community cannot relate to. Instead, the word strangeness should be applied in relation to a society that anesthetizes its collective heart and consciousness in order to exist under illusions of innocence and security—or that has become all too comfortable with the violence and radical evil that traumatizes people. A more faithful Christian response to trauma calls for churches and communities of faith to adopt a communal praxis of experience-near empathy in its reflections on ecclesiology, liturgy, and worship.


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