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Gun violence trauma: a collective, shared wound

Sarah Bixler and Shelly Rambo, two theology professors who study trauma, discuss gun violence.

Convener: Sarah Bixler, Participant: Shelly Rambo

Sarah: If we trace the etymology of the word “trauma,” we find its origin in “wound.” It’s often more common to think about wounds in relation to medicine or psychology than theology. As a systematic and constructive theologian, Shelly, you ground your work in wounds. Why do you center the concept of wounds as a way to understand trauma?

Shelly: Honestly, I’m just tracking with the narrative in the Gospel of John in light of what we know about trauma. In my first book, Spirit and Trauma, I focused on thinking about the ways in which death remains in life. We know there’s not a clean line between death and life for communities and persons who experience trauma. There’s not often a clear delineation between the event of trauma and then some sort of new life. As a result, something of death and loss remains.

Sarah: Early literature in trauma studies noted the intrusion of the past on the present as an indication of
post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Yet in reality, this happens all the time to different degrees. We see it when Jesus appears to the disciples after his resurrection, with his wounds visible. Death is present in life; the past is in the present. There’s a lot of theological significance in this. If we have a normative view of the wounds of trauma as ongoing, as present and remaining, this makes a big difference in how we understand and respond to the impact of traumagenic events.

Shelly: Wounds don’t simply go away. We have that testimony right at the heart of the Christian gospel. In John 20, wounds are complex and complicated and messy. People don’t want to see them, [and] there’s a lot of turning away from those wounds, or instrumentalizing the wounds to make them about securing salvation in the afterlife. When Jesus’ actual wounds are decentered, this disconnects us from thinking about the messy wounds of our lives, especially in relation to trauma.

Sarah: The Gospel of John invites us to look closely at Jesus’ wounds, to resist the impulse to erase them altogether. In our U.S. context, there are visible and invisible wounds from trauma. Wounds from gun violence are visible in the news of war, individual shootings, and mass violence. But there is also invisible wounding from gun violence that remains below the surface. How do we not look away from these forms of trauma?

Shelly: It starts with activating the sacred imagination. In our preaching and teaching, we can have people think just a little bit differently about these very familiar biblical texts. So, in “doubting Thomas week” in the liturgical calendar, we give a little breathing room to encounter something very familiar in a new perspective. We ask, “what is my connection to that ancient story? Is it telling me something about who I am and who my community is?” What is the connection between the wounds people carry right below the surface and how wounds appear in the Gospel narratives?

Sarah: In many ways, this is a task of formation. We make room for God’s Spirit to disrupt how we were formed to read familiar texts. Activating the sacred imagination is about attending to what we have been formed to look away from. How does the text resonate with lived experience in our communities? How is it uncovering a new awareness for us, things that are below the surface and not immediately apparent?

Shelly: I work with a cohort of congregations interested in becoming more trauma responsive. For a couple of them, gun violence is very much a part of their community life. The number one thing we’re finding is that the faith leaders, the first responders, often don’t think of themselves as part of that trauma work. They think last about themselves, and their understanding of trauma response is externally directed. The more challenging work is for them to ask, “how am I impacted by trauma?”

Sarah: It is so important to be formed to pay attention to our own wounds, which may have been rendered invisible to us personally. These wounds surface and resurface in potentially harmful ways when our own experience of trauma hasn’t been integrated into our sense of self. This is part of the work I do in my teaching — developing spiritual practices for self-awareness, making space for sacred imagination. I think this is implicit in the command to love our neighbor as ourselves.

Shelly: The work starts with your own body, with slowing down and seeing things that you don’t want to see. You doing the work prepares you to hold that trauma differently when you’re with other people. We need to sit with trauma in ourselves. It’s so hard, and so brave, so this needs to be a careful process. It’s not about faith leaders verbally processing their own personal trauma with their communities. Often, trauma cannot be spoken, so people carry it in their bodies. This is about faith leaders doing the work first before extending it to congregations.

Sarah: Yes, we need to acknowledge and process our individual experiences of trauma, while also recognizing that trauma exists as a collective reality. There is an impulse in American society to privatize trauma – to make it an individual’s problem – and to locate it externally, in an “other” or in some separate community. But as we think about trauma as related to gun violence, it is a shared experience, and it touches us all in an ongoing way. It is a collective trauma, a common wound.

Shelly: We are living under collective conditions with longstanding histories of harm. Trauma may have a single occurrence, individual or collective, but the impact is so much determined by ongoing layers of structural trauma that are often unaddressed. I find work in moral injury helpful here, because it asks a different set of questions around collective responsibility. It offers a broader societal critique of structures in which we’re living that diminish our moral horizon about living without gun violence. What would it be to imagine the world differently?

People rush to think about how they can respond when an event of gun violence happens. The complexity of trauma is to think, “how are we also dealing with the structural, the traumatic conditions in which such events occur? How do we think about the more systemic conditions that make certain communities more vulnerable to events of gun violence?”’

Sarah: All trauma has an afterlife, a sense of ongoingness, but this is intensified in particular communities by socioeconomic disparities and systemic oppression.

Shelly: Geoffrey Canada writes about growing up in Harlem with gun violence as the ongoing reality. He says, “There’s no PTSD in my neighborhood. It’s continuing stress disorder.” There are communal, ongoing conditions of vulnerability to trauma. That’s why I use words like continuing, ongoing, remaining, after-living — always a gerund, ending in -ing. The harm doesn’t easily go away, and integrating is an ongoing challenge.

Sarah: So how can faith communities do this integrating work? You and I both train faith leaders in theological schools, and we are engaging trauma with systematic and practical theology in our classroom spaces and in programs that equip leaders.

Shelly: What you and I are trying to do is to really prepare people for fully, somatically present, deeply engaged work that you can’t just do lightly. When proposing collective truth-telling processes and rituals, you need to plan that out carefully and slow down. I always tell people, “Slow down.”

Sarah: It’s tempting to think that a religious ritual will neatly wrap up a traumagenic event. That’s not how trauma works, and it can cause more wounding to use such definitive frameworks. Yet rituals are important for healing and integration because they give intentional space for truth-telling, acknowledgment and mourning. They need to be designed with a survivor-centered approach and seen as part of a broader ecology of building trauma-responsive and resilient communities.

Shelly: People don’t always want to bring trauma into church spaces because it hasn’t gone well for them. A lot of people don’t believe that their churches want to hear about it, or are equipped to respond well. When wounds surface, we need people there to facilitate a process of healing and move it into a productive space over a longer period of time. I like group facilitated conversations, because when people start telling truth in public, it is messy work.

Sarah: And it is necessary work. It is important work. It is deeply theological work. This is the work to which Jesus calls us.

Shelly: What if, in his resurrection appearances, Jesus is gathering? He comes back as a teacher to gather a community around wounds. What if this is a commissioning of the gathered community to not look away from wounds, to also see a connection of his wounds to other wounds? The wounds become the organizing point for the work of Christian living: to not look away, to tend to wounds, to touch them, to move them from open wounds to scars. There’s still the mark of the suffering there, but it’s not an open wound or an erased wound.

Sarah: This remaining mark testifies to the process of transformation. In spaces of trust and authenticity, wounds are made visible, and there is a community to tend and hold them. Here, we can engage in sacred imagination where God invites us toward responses that resist violence, that interrupt systemic cycles that create and recreate wounds.