Context 4: Towards a Theology of Inner City Trauma

Effective liturgy informs and forms participants in worship. Liturgy should retell the central stories of the Christian faith in a way that pulls congregants into the experiential and theological heart of those stories. Good liturgy mediates both our understanding and our experience of the divine by evoking and inviting participants into the theology — the logos of the theos — that frames and animates the words and rituals of worship. Theology, then, is the life spirit of liturgy – and trauma-informed worship must be infused by a theology that grapples with and responds to the challenging realities of trauma and recovery from trauma.

Mainstream Christian theologies do not speak adequately to inner city trauma.

Contemporary mainstream Christian theologies of redemption and resurrection – theologies that largely originated in white, middle and upper class contexts — do not speak adequately to inner city trauma. In the United States, the prevailing Christian narrative of redemption posits deathliness and life as mutually exclusive realities. That narrative describes a clear and final transition between death and life, in which death is concluded, a joyous new life is begun, and good wins out over evil. That narrative fails in the face of trauma; and it markedly fails in the context of the ongoing, communal trauma of life in the inner city. For trauma victims, the deathliness of the traumatic event is never fully left behind, and the potent reality of evil remains, even in recovery. For those who live in the inner city, where violence and grinding poverty are seemingly intractable facts of life, a complete escape from the effects or threat of trauma is impossible. A practical theology that promises and delivers resilience, hope and some mode of healing even in the midst of enduring deathliness is required.

How do we begin to discover such a theology? What are the guideposts that will direct our journey? I believe that an effective and faithful theology of inner city trauma must be guided by the following criteria:

A faithful and effective theology of inner city trauma should be trauma-informed, Biblically-based, Trinitarian, and grounded in the experiences and culture of the inner city community.

1. It must be grounded in the experiences and culture of the worshiping community. For my congregation, a theology of trauma and recovery must grow out of the experiences and culture of this American Latino/a community, and must be informed both by the struggles and by the strengths and resources of Latino/a culture and theology. At a minimum, such a theology must recognize that ‘la vida es la lucha’ – but even in the midst of la lucha, life is fed by wellsprings of relationship, familia, and community.

2. It must be trauma-informed. To be effective, this theology must be responsive to the dynamic of traumatic experience and, guided by imagination, wisdom and compassion, must incorporate the central features of trauma recovery. It must create a safe place for honesty and grieving, as well as for trust and growth; it must witness to and honor shattering stories of traumatic events; and it must work to restore the selfhood of the survivor, to foster loving relationships, and to engender a sustaining faith in a coherent and meaningful cosmos, even in the midst of darkness.

3. It must be Biblically-based. The Bible abounds with narrative, poetry and prophecy that give powerful voice to harrowing experiences of trauma and to the grace-filled gift of life after trauma. From Jesus’ resurrection with the wounds of his trauma still intact, to the healing of the hemorrhaging woman, to the agonies of Job, to the Psalms of lament and Ezekiel’s Valley of Dry Bones, the Bible witnesses honestly and faithfully to interlaced realities of trauma and grace. In addition, the Gospel of John provides an alternate account of the Last Supper, which opens the way toward a communion service that celebrates salvation based in love stronger than death rather than in blood sacrifice.

4. It must be Trinitarian. The Trinity embodies the loving, life-sustaining relationality that undergirds trauma survival and recovery. Jesus is the incarnate reality of the God who walks with us and helps to bear our burdens, even to and through deathliness; he is both the messenger and the personification of God With Us and God For Us. The Spirit is the Paraclete whose exhorting, supportive presence is promised and given in the darkest hours of the disciples’ – and our – lives. And God is the Parent, whose love embraces even the most broken and wretched among us and whose mercy creates and recreates life, even and especially where new life seems humanly impossible.

And now, let’s begin.

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4 thoughts on “Context 4: Towards a Theology of Inner City Trauma

    • Yup, the me of 3 years ago would have been surprised by ‘Trinitarian’ as well 🙂 I use the term as a shorthand and inclusive way to point toward the power and presence of both Jesus and Spirit for my community — a reality that has been a soul-opening learning experience for me as I learn about and learn from this community. As I have experienced them and am coming to understand them, Jesus and Spirit are the incarnate, ever-present, ever-active, ever-loving, ever-renewing aspects of God that are conjoined with us at every moment of our beautiful, harrowing and ordinary lives. Relationality is a huge part of my invocation of ‘Trinity’ — but it’s relationality, not just within God, but among God and humanity and all of creation. Loving, actively caring, life-giving relation forms the very essence of God, humanity and creation and their indissoluble abiding in and with and for one another. And recognition of that extraordinary truth — recognition and deep acceptance on a gut, core-of-the-person level — is, I believe, one of the cornerstones of trauma survival and recovery and one of the contributions to trauma recovery that religion is (or ideally should be) uniquely qualified to make.

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  1. As an inner city pastor for 30 years I agree that trauma must be attended to…I think one of the ways it can be attended to is by also naming the healing that has gone on in the community. Several years ago I visited with Dr. John Rich who grew up in the Bronx. He asked a question no pastor, D.S., Bishop or lay person ever asked me. And it’s one I never asked as well. Until he asked me. He asked, “who are the healers in your community?” And then he asked, “And what are you doing to support them?” Church is not only a healer, it is a witness to healing. Perhaps one of the most important things we can do is celebrate the power within neighbors (not institutions) who are providing healing in almost invisible ways to those outside. That Trinitarian presence is in the life of the world around us. While that includes the Church – it does so, only as part of the larger world around us (I think). So, paying attention to trauma, invites us to pay attention to the healers. Ms. Jackson who lives a block from our church once told me when talking about a neighbor struggling with alcoholism (while raising 3 children by herself) that she would talk with her neighbor. The next time I saw her neighbor she was doing much better. I asked Ms. Jackson what had happened and she answered: “My calling is to heal the broken, honey.” Mmmmm. Mmmmm. Mmmmm.

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    • Wow, that’s a fantastic perspective! Not only does it give us a wonderful way to discover the healing resources in our own community — but it also provides a powerful way to invite and encourage community members to discover their own roles and identities as healers. It gives a whole new resonance to Jesus’ sending out of the twelve and the seventy, with the commission to heal and to proclaim/be the new community of God.

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