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

Resiliency in the End Times…

Siblings in faith, I deliver these words in the spirit in which they were written; in the spirit of life and love. There is an ancient curse that is translated as: “May you live in interesting times.” And while every generation has its share of turbulence, certainly our generation feels urgent; terrifying; and overwhelming. It seems that everywhere we turn, conversations and media are focused on the suffering of the world. Environmental collapse. Racism. Sexism. Economic inequity. Gun violence. Extremism. Fascism. Conflict. War. The world is so big. We are so small. Certainly there is a temptation to say, “The end is near!”

Humanity has a long history, and tradition, of proclaiming the end of the world. When asking my parents about the cold war, they recall the fear of nuclear Armageddon, hiding under school desks in fallout drills. For my grandfather who fought in World War II, there was the fear that the whole world was going to descend into fighting and chaos. For my great-grandparents, they saw crops fail in the dust bowl and markets crash in the great depression. For my great-great-grandparents, they saw their country fall into civil war and the social upheaval of reconstruction. Each of their generations had to overcome adversity. And there is one thing all predictions of the end have in common: they were all wrong.

This isn’t to say that our problems aren’t ridiculously critical; with human suffering in our face every day. But what each generation also had were everyday people who held onto hope. Who held onto faith. Who believed in love, whether it was rooted in a transcendent humanity or in a benevolent God. People who showed up, responding to adversity with audacity. And who kept making the choice to not give into despair.

And I will be honest, I have deeply felt despair at my doorstep. I’ve helped prepared the bodies of my grandfather, my father in law and my own father; I’ve sat with dying children in hospital rooms and frightened teens in detention center cells. But more powerful than despair is my commitment to hold sacred space for hope, faith, and love. I believe we are all called to create this sacred space for each other and our world. Our spiritual and religious communities hold a powerful possibility to be bastions of resilience against a universe of trauma.

Because the Buddhists are right; life is suffering. There will always be trauma and all I can do is choose how to respond to it. Yes, we are working toward the kingdom of god; that beloved community where we all share in a universal respect of the worth and dignity of each person and the interdependent web of life in which we are all a part. I truly believe in the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s pragmatism that “the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.” And I also know that our vision will always be a ‘becoming’; forever responding to the trauma of creation.

Because I understand that the universe was created in trauma, regardless if it was a good word or an accident of fate. It was an explosion that ripped possibility into space and time. As beautiful as it was, my son was born in the trauma of blood, sweat and tears from his mother. We all entered this world crying. Even keeping my physical body healthy required some trauma; because no pain, no gain. In many ways trauma is positive and beneficial. Without some adversity, I wonder if we would have the arts, or music, or even religion? Philosopher Albert Camus writes: “This is what in the end had kept me from despairing. […] In the middle of winter I at last discovered that there was in me an invincible summer.” It took adversity to actualize resiliency.

But however beneficial trauma can be, that makes no concession for causing pain and suffering in the world. I am negligent if I sit with a patient who has just lost a loved one to gun violence and say, “Don’t worry, God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.” As if the Spirit of life and love would break our hearts in order to test us. No, this trauma rooted in pain, fear and hate; the human made atrocities that we face every day. They are the evils we dedicate our lives to addressing. Because we refuse to accept a world where they must exist.

As much as I refuse to believe in hell or the concept of original sin, there is ample evidence of the depths of trauma human beings are capable of inflicting on each other and on the Earth. It is this trauma that forms the core of our wrestling with the balance of hope and despair; a struggle with theodicy; why do bad things happen to good people? Where is god? Why must I suffer? How do I make sense of a traumatic universe? These questions are common, and they are normal.

Which is why I believe religion and spirituality will never become obsolete; and why I believe our spiritual leadership is so necessary. Not to answer the questions of theodicy. Not to take suffering away. Or even somehow magically remove all trauma from existence. But to respond to theodicy with another question: “What will we do now?”

Our call is a wakeup call that we are not alone; that we are not powerless; that we have choices; and that we will show up. We show up to remind our culture what it means to be a human; and to demand justice and love be made manifest in a universe of trauma. Theologian and civil right icon the Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman writes: “It is the insistence of religion that 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 will we do now? Do we dare draw upon the Spirit of Life and Love? Because surely with the eschaton approaching, we are coming upon our greatest need and are painfully aware. Siblings in faith, we have a choice. Do we dare? And yes, this is frightening. Author and theologian C.S. Lewis wrote about what we face: “Is God safe? Certainly not! But God is good.”

And this is the truth; we are not called to be safe. We are called to be good. And perhaps this is what that looks like. There is a story in the Christian scriptures: “A person came to Jesus and said, ‘Teacher, what must I do to achieve eternal life?’ And the answer was, ‘Keep all the commandments.’ But Jesus, I pay my taxes. I’m kind to people. I don’t cheat or steal. I volunteer. I recycle. ‘What am I still missing?’ Jesus answers, ‘If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and come follow me.’”

Truly there is freedom from suffering, and it is letting go of attachments. That is the 8-fold path. To have the right view, right resolve, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right spiritual practice. And the only way to achieve these things is to drink from the font of life and love. It is a daunting challenge.

And a real one. Because for the challenges and trauma of our ‘interesting time,’ perhaps the answer is found in exactly that radical call to dare to be transformed. Because what does real economic equity demand? What does real sustainable care of all of creation demand? What does dismantling systems of white supremacy and heteropatriarchy demand? What does access to food, water, shelter, health care and education for all people demand? Perhaps giving up my known ways of being, and daring to choose something radical, vulnerable and audacious.

And I can no longer depend on my siblings at the margins to agitate me into change; for centuries black and brown bodies have been bending that arc of justice. No, the work is mine. And it is ours. To survive our times, we need daring communities and congregations. No more playing it safe. We do not have the luxury of time to continue to ignore the big questions and big issues. Thankfully there is hope.

Children’s educator Fred Rogers said, “Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary. The people we trust with that important talk can help us know that we are not alone.” And trauma is always healed in community.

Beloved, we are trusted with the important talk. We are asked to hold the space of trauma. We are called to be daring and to create the spaces of faith, hope and love that keep the despair at bay. In our interesting time; in our challenging time; we are presented with the font of the Spirit of life and love. It is always there; beckoning; inviting; challenging us. Do we dare? Amen.

Maybe someday. But not today.

Saturday I sat in the hospital with a teen who was shot in the stomach.
Yesterday, 1 dead and 7 injured at a school shooting in Colorado.
An hour ago, while we ate dinner, shots were fired outside our home.

We held our breath until we heard the sirens.

I went outside to see if anybody needed help.
There is a mosque on the corner.

I’m beginning to believe that nothing will ever change.
Not until each of us has sat with a body bleeding out.
Not until we’ve held a child’s hand while they cry about how much it hurts.
Not until each one of us has lost somebody to this horrific violence.
Not until every one of us is shot, one way or another.

Today, my family was lucky. The shots didn’t enter our home.

There’s always tomorrow.

Holy and hurting spirit of life and love; continue to weep with our pain.
Holy and broken spirit of life and love; continue to companion us in our mourning.
Holy and powerless spirit of life and love; continue to whisper change to our hearts.
Maybe someday, we will listen. And learn. And understand. The way of life and love.

Amen.