A Theology of Trauma…

“A Theology of Trauma” first appeared at Religica.org on Sept. 14th, 2019 as part of the project’s blog series. “The Religica Blog explores ideas that shape our future. The impulses that shape our future come from people who share their values, stories, and insights. Each blog is seeking meaning over argument, and new discovery that helps all of us. Leave the argument and come discover something new.”

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
            ~ The Second Coming by W. B. Yeats

Theodicy abounds! Given my newsfeed over weeks and months, my human spirit feels an abrasive insistence that the world, or at least from my perspective in Seattle, is very bleak indeed. With concentration camps on the southern border of the United States and ICE officers rounding up immigrants, escalating conflict around the globe with nuclear arms treaties ignored, and hurricanes destroying islands while the media obsesses with the placement of Sharpied lines, Yeats’ theopoetics is prophetic: “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.” I wonder when such distant atrocities will show up on my doorstep, my brown skin, liberal leanings, and Hispanic last name trumping my U.S. citizenship and my humanity. It seems to me that the whole world is crying out: “Oh God, why have you forsaken me?”[1]

As a hospital and prison chaplain, I notice that miracles and tragedies often coincide. With the sudden death of an aged mother, siblings reunite and reconcile at her bedside after years of animosity. An incarcerated 13-year-old boy convicted of homicide with a gun asks whether forgiveness and reconciliation are possible. A young man takes a wrong step off of a porch and is now a quadriplegic. A teen girl would rather be in a detention center cell because the alternative is living homeless on the streets. So many times I am asked: “Where is God?” So many times I ask the same question as I listen at the intersection of despair and hope. As a spiritual practice I often turn to Leonard Cohen, who in his song “Anthem”writes: “Ring the bells that still can ring, Forget your perfect offering, There is a crack, a crack in everything, That’s how the light gets in.”[2]

Being a witness to stories such as these has led me to explore a theology of trauma as a response to the challenge of theodicy. I experience the universe as created in trauma, with an explosion so violent it manifested both space and time. The Earth was formed in trauma over eons of heat, cold, collision and eruption. Life evolves in violence, needing to consume resources and other living beings in order to survive and thrive. I put my body through trauma, tearing muscle and crushing bone, to keep it healthy, strong and flexible. It seems that trauma is an essential component of the universe, of life, of human cosmology. Complexity and evolution always come with the pain of change.

Theologically, if the wisdom of Genesis is correct and everything was created “good,” there is a temptation to believe that God blesses trauma. But was it “good” when the Abrahamic God participated in mass infanticide in Egypt? Or in the slaughter of the Canaanites so Israel could have their land? Was the incarceration, torture, and state execution of Jesus of Nazareth “good”? For myself, coming out of the Abrahamic religious traditions, I reject these revelations of theodicy if I am to maintain a relationship with a Spirit of life and love that is benevolent, powerful and present.

But what if, instead of blessing trauma, God speaks from creation itself in the midst of trauma? Through this theological lens the holy invites humanity, from our primordial depths in creation, to choose goodness despite trauma. Instead of asking “Oh God why have you forsaken me?” the question transforms into “Oh God, where do I find you?” Arthur Peacocke writes in his article The Sound of Sheer Silence: “Our exploration toward God has inevitably led us to the question of how God can communicate with a humanity depicted by the sciences as a part of a monistic natural world and evolved in and from it.”[3] Instead of a distant cosmic judge, the Spirit of life and love becomes an apophatic, panentheistic presence that invites holy participation.

As Viktor Frankl found in the Nazi concentration camps, even in the darkest depths there is always a choice within trauma. What will I say? What will I do? In my chaplain work I have a sense of love and justice that responds when I see suffering. My center cannot hold. Instead of asking “Why did God let this happen?” I consider that perhaps the answer is, “What is God doing while this is happening?” And I find myself in that answer. John Haught writes in his book Science and Revelation: “the divine decent [into creation] in no way means that God is weak of powerless. In Christ’s passion God is presented to faith as vulnerable and defenseless, but, as Edward Schillebeeckx has remarked, vulnerability and defenselessness are more capable of powerfully disarming evil than all the brute force in the world could ever accomplish. […] ‘Power’ means the capacity to bring about significant events, but this does not necessarily require the external use of force.”[4] In this theology of trauma, the nature of our humanity, our common-union, participates with and in the Spirit of life and love. The arc of justice bends not because God wills it from beyond but because an eschatological whisper resonates through our cells into action in the world. All beings of good will manifest divine mercy, charity, and compassion into the universe by listening to that “sound of sheer silence”[5] inviting us to participate in the story of creation. The Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman writes: “the God of life and the God of religion are one and the same. Implicit in the struggle which is a part of life is the vitality that life itself supplies. To affirm this with all of one’s passionate endeavor is to draw deeply upon the resource available to anyone who dares draw upon it. The aliveness of life and the power of God move through the same channel at the point of greatest need and awareness. What precarious ingredients!”[6] Which means responding to trauma, not in reciprocation of atrocity, but with connection, healing and growth. In doing so, we dare to swim in the powerful currents of the Spirit of life and love.


[1] Psalm 22:1 ; Matt 27:46 ; Mark 15:34 ; NRSV

[2] Leonard Cohen, “Anthem,” The Future, 1992

[3] Arthur Peacocke, “The Sound of Sheer Silence” in Paths From Science Toward God: The End of all Our Exploring (London: Oneworld, 2001) p. 117

[4] John F. Haught. Christianity and Science: Toward a Theology of Nature (Theology in a Global Perspective) (Kindle: Orbis, 2014) p. 42

[5] 1 Kings 19:11-13, NRSV

[6] Howard Thurman, Meditations of the Heart (Boston: Beacon Press, 1953) p. 63

Walking in their Footsteps: A Call to Solidarity

(This post was originally written for the Faith & Family Homelessness Project. I highly recommend checking out their resources and learning more about how to experience and volunteer with their Poverty Immersion program.)

I’ve never personally experienced poverty. It’s an obstacle that inherently separates me from people living on the margins. I’d like to think I’m in solidarity with the poor because of the way I vote, the money I donate and the time I volunteer. I’ve built houses in Mexico, volunteered at food banks, and even served two and a half years in the Peace Corps in Romania. I’ve spoken with people living with dirt floors and tin roofs and have shared meals with families with no running water or electricity. I even work at a peace and justice non-profit organization. But I’ve never lived on the margins.

poverty-mandela

Which is why participation in the poverty simulation offered by Seattle University School of Theology and Ministry made a difference. It brought me one step closer to personally understanding the stigma, barriers, and hurdles people on the margins face on a daily basis just to have access to food, shelter and healthcare. I was reminded that our “welfare” system is a punitive one, punishing people for needing help.

I played a small part; a day care provider. However, I was forced to turn people away because of overcrowding, funding, and health issues. Participants needed a safe place for their children in order to go to work and pay their bills. I wasn’t able to help everybody, even though I wanted to. I watched as participants became increasingly frustrated with their experience. In the end, everyone had a small glimpse into what daily life is like for our brothers and sisters without food, shelter or resources.

quote-it-is-easy-enough-to-tell-the-poor-to-accept-their-poverty-as-gods-will-when-you-yourself-have-warm-thomas-merton-347817

Afterwards, we unpacked the experience. There were plenty of opinions on how to “fix” the welfare system. Two comments stood out. One participant mentioned that when we give to the poor, we should ask their forgiveness. It is the poor and marginalized who have been failed by our society and system and we’re all part of the problem. Another person said we need to stop judging people for being poor; we need to change our system to make it easier for people to get the help they need. As much as possible, we should eliminate the piles of paperwork, agency signatures, hoops and rules we make people go through. Sure, some people might take advantage of the system, but how many more people would be helped and brought back into self-sufficiency.

These opinions made me rethink my behavior. I’ve never thought of asking a person for forgiveness when I hand them a dollar outside a supermarket. But it makes sense. By asking for their forgiveness and blessing, I’m reaffirming their inherent worth and dignity by treating them with respect; I’m asking them for something only they can give. And I need to stop caring how they ended up being homeless. It’s not my place to judge and I’m not qualified to ask.

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All I know is that as a man of faith, it’s my responsibility to respond with compassion. This is the hard truth of faith; this is where conversion of the heart takes place. When we stop punishing and start forgiving. When we stop blaming and start helping. When we treat our neighbor as ourselves. This is why I’m grateful for having been able to participate in the poverty simulation. It reminded me yet again of the humanity of the poor, allowing me, if only for a brief moment, to walk in their footsteps. That is where solidarity begins.

(Sometimes) Love just ain’t enough…

Expectations.
Expectations.

I recently read a blog post on Whiny Baby where the author had recently traveled abroad, come home and decided that she was going to divorce her husband and reboot her life. (please read her WHOLE blog to get the backstory) She shares some very sensitive and controversial emotions about commitment, choice and authenticity.  This got me thinking about love, relationships and happiness.

Love is a loaded gun word. It is said too often, practiced too little and misunderstood by most. It attempts and fails at capturing the wide range of experiences that we say are “love.” Currently, I love my family, which is different from how I love my friends, which is different from my love of my fellow human, which all pale in comparison to the love I experience with my partner Heather.

Aren't we adorable?
Aren’t we adorable?

I asked Heather to marry me, because out of all the women I had dated she was the first one I trusted completely. I WANTED to be vulnerable with her; something I had never experienced before. She knew about the women I’ve slept with, she knew me when I was fat and not so fat, she waited until I was ready to love her. I decided that if that wasn’t love, nothing would be. We’ve been married now for almost 7 years and our love is completely different from when we made our vows.

We no longer have crazy bunny sex (something I need to rekindle). We no longer go out to fancy restaurants, then dancing and boozing every weekend. We now fart in front of each other and no longer dress to impress. We’ve slowly settled into early nights, dinner in front of the TV, and tender rather than passionate kisses. I want need to be more romantic and sexy for Heather to rekindle some lost courtsmanship.  At the same time, the insane romantic love has grown into a deep friendship which gives support, understanding and commitment.  Our love has matured.

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/truth

It was stupid of me to think it could be any other way. The expectation that love will never change is probably why so many relationships end. Over the last seven years, Heather and I have lived in a foreign country, moved four times, adopted a dog, bought a house, started new jobs and grew seven years older. I am not the same man she married and she is not the same woman I fell for. As people, we are now very different.

What I feel I have done right is allowed my love to change along with our relationship. Full disclosure; our relationship is HARD work. It requires daily communication, which sometimes feels like a chore. It needs to be nourished with affection and attention; challenging as I get up at 6:00am and sometimes come home around 7:00pm only to have community council meetings and selfish distractions like wanting to watch the latest episode of Supernatural. There have been times where we needed forgiveness, compromise and conflict resolution. When I’m angry, it is hard to love her. When I’m feeling stagnant it is hard to be committed.

What could go wrong?
What could go wrong?

It has required my putting my own happiness on the backburner for the good of the relationship. This is where I believe the making or breaking point of love and relationship exists. Heather and my marriage has accrued a net gain of happiness. This is a miracle and blessing, because it’s not something every relationship can claim.

Sometimes, a hard decision has to be made to end a relationship.  I once dated a girl who I loved more than life itself. But she made me so miserable (jealousy, emotional blackmail, unpredictability) that I’m glad she ended the relationship; something I didn’t have the courage to do. It saved my identity and self. Plenty of people would just say that I wasn’t really in love, just infatuated. I say bullshit. The problem with this girl wasn’t love; I had plenty for the both of us. It was happiness.

Going strong!
Going strong!

Intimate relationships are messy and exhausting. It’s the long term happiness they give us that makes them worth the investment. Nobody can truly say they will love somebody forever. Who knows what will happen 20 years down the road. People change; sometimes they become bitter assholes. Many times people just grow in different directions. All I know is the only way Heather and I will be together forever is by making sure our love and relationship matures and evolves along with our selves. It’s the key to the happiness in our marriage.

Growing pains.

I prefer my curses the old fashioned way…

A friend once told me, “It’s an ancient Chinese curse: ‘May you live in interesting times.’” Curse or not, it’s true. We do live in interesting times. In my grandmother’s lifetime the world went from horse and carriage to space travel. We found better ways to kill. We found better ways to heal. The biggest advent I believe is communications.

For the first time, humanity is connected in real time. Every continent and every country communicates in video and audio simultaneously. I don’t think we (humanity) were ready for it. It happened too fast. We haven’t overcome xenophobia. Racism. Classism. Whatever-ism. Suddenly we are all in the same room trying to figure out how we all fit in. Like high school with nuclear weapons.

So much anger.

Take the recent uproar over a very distasteful video about the prophet Mohammed. One really crappy video done in very poor taste by an obvious bigot. Throw it into the internet. The entire Muslim world erupts. People die. Embassies burn. In the west, we denounce the video but still uphold its inherent quality of free speech (however hateful it may be). In other countries, they say we should put whoever made it to death.

Global communication explained: NO TOUCHIE!

For the first time, we CAN all talk to each other. We just don’t know HOW to talk to each other. Our technology brought us together. Now we’re all standing around not really knowing how to get the party started. Forget being in high school; we’re suddenly at my first 8th grade dance.

We live in interesting times. It shouldn’t surprise us. The world has always been interesting. There has always been war, protest, catastrophe; every single century since we started keeping records. The only difference is we are now globalized and have a 24 hour news cycle. When something happens, we know about it instantly.

Prophet?

Every generation complains that the next generation is going to hell in a hand basket. People cry out that we are living in the end times. We dream of a somehow lost “golden age” where life was more simple, pure and free from all our modern day problems. Reality check; this is complete fantasy. Old problems were solved, new problems took their place. If there was ever a golden age, we’re living in it now.

Instead of cursing ourselves, we should embrace continuous change and own it. We have to be strong, innovative, and willing to make the hard choices to earn the right to be a global society. Bob Dylan has a song: “Times they are a-changin’.” I believe this song rings true as much now as it did in 1964.

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you
Is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’.

Start changing.