Over the last several years, I have been significantly influenced by the thought-provoking work of theologian Shelly Rambo whose study of trauma has challenged the traditional paradigm of redemption – one that moves from death to life without remainder.
Or, put another way, the notion that salvation moves in a linear fashion from brokenness toward victory over death, evil and suffering, and glosses over the way the trauma of death continues, or “remains,” in the midst of life. In “Spirit and Trauma,” Rambo observes that traditional understandings of redemption advise people to “get over it” or to move on, but those who have suffered trauma find any such counsel unhelpful. For some, the reality of death continues to impinge on life, and there is no clean break with the trauma of the past. In other words, some people find it difficult to move directly from Good Friday to Easter. Some of us get stuck in Holy Saturday and are not sure what Easter means when wounds remain. How can we sing “Hallelujah” when wounds remain?
Moreover, such questions about trauma coincide with a perennial quandary of the Christian faith: If salvation has been accomplished in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, why is there so little peace on earth? Why do we live in the grip of so much anger, evoked by conflicts that mar our family, work and communal environments, or by the interminable warfare that marks our era? Why do we find ourselves paralyzed by fears and chronic anxieties that deflate our sense of worth, making simple acts of compassion – of connection with others – enormously difficult? Why do such debilitating realities remain, even as we proclaim that Christ has been raised, that death has been defeated and that victory has been won?
For me, Rambo’s deep theological reflection on trauma can help us address these questions. In her most recent book, “Resurrecting Wounds: Living in the Afterlife of Trauma,” she highlights a crucial feature of the lectionary text before us on the 2nd Sunday of Easter: the Gospel of John’s account of the risen Lord’s appearance to his disciples, in which the wounds of crucifixion are on full display. They are not erased by resurrection. Indeed, Jesus directs the disciples’ attention to the wounds: “He showed them his hands and side” (John 20:20; for further reflection on this text, see my recent editorial). In light of Jesus’ attention to wounds, Rambo reenvisions the meaning of resurrection by locating its power in confronting, attending to and mindfully transforming – rather than erasing – wounds.
In our current context, wounds in need of attention are myriad. Think of the staggering number of people who have lost loved ones to a deadly pandemic and the grief engulfing them, compounded by the pain of separation and isolation. Moreover, the pandemic has exposed deep racial wounds in the fabric of our lives, as well as an ever-widening socioeconomic gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” Think also of the recurring trauma of mass shootings, often the result of racialized violence, that continues to terrorize our nation. Facing into such wounds is essential if we are to be an Easter people who engage, rather than ignore, the death-tending realities of our world and bear witness to resurrection life.
Lately, I have been gleaning much wisdom about facing into wounds such as racism from Resmaa Menakem’s highly acclaimed book, “My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies.” Menakem helpfully distinguishes between dirty pain and clean pain. Dirty pain entails avoidance, blame and denial when confronted with realities such as racism. As Menakem observes, “When people respond from their most wounded parts, become cruel or violent, or physically or emotionally run away, they experience dirty pain.” Clean pain, by contrast, entails facing into trauma. With respect to addressing racism, clean pain enables our bodies to heal and find the means to address white-body supremacy. “Accepting clean pain,” Menakem contends, “will allow white Americans to confront their longtime collective disassociation and silence. It will enable African Americans to confront their internalization of defectiveness and self-hate. And it will help public safety professionals in many localities to confront the recent metamorphosis of their role from serving the community to serving as soldiers and prison guards.”
Surely Christian communities, following Menakem’s counsel, can be places of resurrection where clean pain replaces the dirty pain of avoidance — places where these and other wounds are touched, attended to, released, liberated and redeemed. Places where anger, fear, agitation, grief and loss are acknowledged and addressed, where anger is transformed into compassion for those who are hurting and where energies are refocused to address injustice. Places where fear is transformed into interconnection that enables us to see that where one is wounded, are all wounded, and that injustice to one is injustice to all. Grief and loss can forge communities of care and compassion, tenderness and courage. In all of these respects, the church is a place of respite, not because we retreat there to ignore wounds, but because it is a place where a risen Lord directs our attention to them, and breathes his Spirit into us, empowering us for healing ministries in his name.
- Would you agree with the contention that far too often we skip from Good Friday to Easter, glossing over the way that death continues or remains in the midst of life? Why, or why not?
- Have you ever found yourself perplexed by the perennial quandary that if salvation has already occurred, why is there so little peace on earth?
- In light of Jesus’ direction of his disciples’ attention to his wounds, what do you think of Rambo’s notion oflocating the power of resurrection in confronting, attending to and mindfully transforming – rather than erasing – wounds?
- What would you identify as wounds in need of attention in your community? In our nation? In our world?
- What do you think about Menakem’s distinction between dirty pain and clean pain?
- How can churches be the place where wounds are touched, attended to, released, liberated and redeemed?
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