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.


Context 2: Trauma: Experience, Effects and Recovery

[Virtually all of the information in this post is derived from Judith Herman’s seminal and powerful book, Trauma and Recovery (New York: Basic Books, 1992). ]

Traumatic events and their effects upon individual and communal life share much in common with the grievous losses that attend all human lives.  But trauma also differs from those widely-experienced losses in both definition and degree.

Traumatic events encompass a wide range of experiences from a single overwhelming event to prolonged and repeated abuse.  They are characterized by “threats to life or bodily integrity, or close personal encounter with violence or death,” either to oneself or to a loved one.  Such events “confront human beings with the extremities of helplessness and terror” and force upon their victims “intense fear, helplessness, loss of control, and the threat of annihilation.”  (Trauma 3,33)

Traumatized persons lose their trust in themselves, in other people, and in God.

The experience of terrorized violence betrays and destroys a person’s fundamental assumptions regarding “the human and divine systems of protection that sustain life,” and in doing so, tears asunder the foundations of his or her world. “In situations of terror, people spontaneously seek their first source of comfort and protection.  Wounded soldiers and raped women cry for their mothers, or for God.  When this cry is not answered, the sense of basic trust — the foundation of belief in the continuity of life, the order of nature, and the transcendent order of the divine — is shattered.”  The traumatized person feels cast out of the “systems of care that give people a sense of control, connection and meaning.”  (Trauma 51-52, 33)  Victims of traumatic events are thus plunged into a state of existential crisis:  they “lose their trust in themselves, in other people, and in God.” (Trauma 56)

Healthy self-love, caring and trusting relationships with others, and belief in a meaningful order of creation are all casualties of violence.  Trauma “shames and stigmatizes”; its victims are prisoners of feelings of utter disconnection, worthlessness, powerlessness and pointlessness.  (Trauma 133, 197, 214)

The path to recovery is marked by new self-esteem, restored relationships, and a sustaining faith.

Although the experience of trauma can never be erased from one’s life, those who have undergone trauma can undertake a journey of healing, and most can “regain the world they have lost.”  Recovery from trauma transforms a dehumanized victim into an empowered and reconnected survivor.  The recovery process generally follows a three-stage path: establishing safety for the person who has experienced trauma; empowering that person to tell his or her story; and reestablishing the person’s healthy and life-giving connections.   In the last stage of recovery, the survivor rebuilds the foundations of his/her life that were lost to trauma: s/he develops “a new self,” “new relationships,” and a “sustaining faith.”  Relationship and community are essential to recovery:  through renewed loving and supportive relationships with others, victims learn to shed their trauma-induced stigmatized identity and reconstruct their damaged capacities for trust, autonomy, identity and intimacy.  Through experiences of love, imagination and restorative reinterpretation, they find a new set of assumptions about “meaning, order and justice in the world.”  Recovery is achieved when (among other things) the person’s self-esteem is restored, their important relationships are reestablished, and “a coherent system of meaning and belief that encompasses the story of the trauma” is affirmed. (Trauma 3, 133, 155, 178-9, 181, 194, 196-7, 214)