Public Trauma and the Cross of Christ

Philippians 3:17-4:1

I am the only child of two American history teachers. My parents, Joan and Dave Senior, both taught eighth grade American history, both in the same junior high school, on the same floor, down the hall from one another. Together they were one half of the eighth grade social studies program – although it often took students the whole year to figure out that “Mr. Senior” and “Mrs. Senior” were not just two people who coincidentally shared the same last name. I think it’s not romanticizing too much to say that I grew up with a much thicker civic than theological dogmatism. By that, I mean that my parents didn’t much care about what I believed about God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and all of the other stuff that we do in church on Sunday mornings. They weren’t nearly as concerned, as Paul was, that our citizenship is in heaven. But they both – and especially my Dad – had a very clear story to tell about the American republic.

It was on one level just a story, one that focused mostly on great white men and the wars they fought. There were lots of dinnertime conversations about classroom antics, problematic students, and school politics. But I heard in those conversations, too, a lot about the trajectory that my parents’ eighth grade American history courses followed. I remember the story of those courses very clearly: from what was called the “pre-history” of Native American populations in North America; to the age of exploration and colonization, to the French and Indian War and the burdens that war imposed on the American colonies through British taxation; to the American Revolution and the founding of the republic, first in the Articles of Confederation and then, when it failed, in the Constitution; to the war of 1812 when the White House and Capital burned, and Francis Scott Key wrote the national anthem; to the rowdy years of Jacksonian democracy in the 1830s and the systematic genocide of Native Americans in the “Trail of Tears;” to the “peculiar institution” of American slavery, the continual turmoil it caused, and the many attempts at political compromise endeavored in response; to the Civil War and finally, Reconstruction. As May rolled around, my parents usually had not made it much past Reconstruction, and it was left to the high school social studies program to explore American history in the twentieth century.

Admittedly, this story leaves many voices and perspectives out: women, African Americans, Native Americans, poor and working class citizens, and immigrants, among many others. But the story I learned from my parents about American history did clearly communicate why our history and politics matter, and why, therefore, our shared history and politics constitutes a res publica, a “public thing” in the Latin, a republic, as Franklin said, if we will keep it. I’ve found in my own reading and learning that a history that includes the fullest range of American voices and experiences only strengthens this thesis.

This election cycle is unique in my experience, both in the ways that the deep injuries of citizens have energized it, and in the way that this election has exploited injuries to traumatize and re-traumatize, over and again, our own citizens for political gain. I think it is not an exaggeration to say that this election has been an exercise in what I would call public trauma. The theologian Serene Jones in her book Trauma and Grace defines a traumatic event as “an experience in which a person perceives oneself or another to be threatened with annihilation.” Trauma, she writes, can be overwhelming physical violence as well as overwhelming violent rhetoric that threatens annihilation. Trauma can be experienced not only by the person or persons who are the object of violence but also by those who witness it. We are familiar with “post-traumatic stress disorder,” the term that describes the long-term psychological damage that results from trauma. Trauma survivors who experience PTSD are hyper vigilant in monitoring their environment in preparation for anticipated attacks; they often experience emotional numbness, sleeplessness, lost or fragmented memory of trauma; and they sometimes feel a compulsion to repeat and re-live traumatic events over and again.

For some, trauma has fueled anger and desperation that our candidates have skillfully manipulated. Consider those Americans who have lost their jobs and livelihoods to a global economic system arranged to reinforce the interests of a powerful few at the expense of the well-being of many. We have chosen to create an economy that privileges wealthy corporate owners and big-box consumers over industrial workers, leaving many without jobs and without much possibility of ever re-entering the workforce. Or consider communities of color whom institutions and systems at home persecute violently because those who benefit from such systems have neither acknowledged their fear of losing their privilege, and are far from dismantling it. For others, campaign rhetorics and tactics have been a constant source of injury: women, survivors of sexual abuse, immigrants, the disabled, and communities of color, among others. I am not myself among these groups, but I can imagine that campaign rhetoric has opened and re-opened old wounds, returning the abused spouse, the displaced immigrant, the disabled reporter to those moments of original injury, forcing traumatized citizens to re-live and re-experience trauma. Some are forced to re-live trauma every time injuries are delivered from the campaign podium, in attack ads, or by whipped up and aggressive supporters.

These various experiences of injury are traumatic in that they threaten annihilation. Our politics has manipulated these threats of annihilation in the worst way, most often responding to injury by inflicting more injury. For many, this election has been a place a deep darkness, sadness, and injury, not unlike the storm-tossed sailors in today’s psalm, those who, in the midst of the storm, “went down to the depths” and whose “courage melted away in their calamity.”

I am saddened and outraged, as I am sure many you are, both by the sense of hopelessness that many Americans feel, and by the rhetorical violence enacted upon our citizens in this election. I am also grieving a sense of loss, that, contrary to the narrative I learned from my parents, ours may not be a civic tradition that honors the contributions that all of our citizens make to our common life, nor one that provides all of our citizens the resources they need to live well.

In his words to the Philippians, Paul begs an important question: what does it mean to that our “citizenship is in heaven”? And how does that inform the way that we encounter one another as citizens of earthly polities. I must say, first, that I’ve always bristled at theologies that locate our true citizenship in heaven, casting our earthly political life as a poor imitation of a heavenly kingdom. Some political theologies – those, for example, inspired by St. Augustine – urge us to understand that what is ultimately real is not our earthly experience, but the heavenly order. And so we should try to arrange our earthly politics in ways that reflect the heavenly kingdom, in which all things are ordered properly to the love of God. In these theologies, earthly politics are disordered to the extent that they fail to reflect the way things really are in the heavenly kingdom. If I’m being honest, my dis-ease with such theologies is probably rooted in my upbringing, which valued the political traditions of the world immensely. But I also think that while such theologies may tell us why our earthly politics are deficient, they don’t open space for us to feel deeply for our compatriots whom our politics injure. On this view, earthly suffering is, after all, not ultimately real.

There is a flavor, perhaps, of this kind of theology in Paul’s words to the Philippians in our passage for today, when he contrasts those “enemies of the cross of Christ” whose “minds are set on earthly things,” with those whose “citizenship is in heaven.” The Philippian community was fractured internally. Paul urged the Philippians to imitate his good example and thereby to unite in living into the life of Christ together. In drawing a contrast between earthly and heavenly citizenship, Paul knew what he was doing, for the Philippians understood the language of citizenship well. In the civil wars that led to the ascendancy of Caesar Augustus as Emperor of Rome, Philippi was promoted to the lofty status of a Roman city. Philippian citizens had all the rights and privileges of citizens of Rome. Indeed, if we believe the account of Acts 16, Paul’s narrow escape from persecution in Philippi turned on his own status as a Roman citizen. Christians in the Philippian community spoke the language of Roman citizenship. Paul knew that an appeal to a more perfect citizenship would not land on deaf ears.

It also seems likely that the Christian community in Philippi was suffering persecution and humiliation, as Paul himself did, at the hands of local authorities. Threatened with annihilation, the Philippian community was suffering public trauma. But Paul argues that the humiliation of public trauma is the very medium that the cross of Christ transforms into wholeness, healing, and victory. In another well-known passage in Philippians that we didn’t read today, Paul invokes what seems to be an early Christian hymn, one that remembers the way Jesus Christ discloses the divine character in the most profoundly traumatic of humiliations, “even death on a cross,” as Paul says. In our passage for today, Paul writes, Jesus Christ will “transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory.” For those whose bodies and minds and hearts have suffered traumatic humiliation, those who are made to experience and re-experience the trauma of humiliation in our politics, this, perhaps, is good news.

How is it good news? Serene Jones notes that the Christian story is odd in that it portrays a profound trauma, the horrible execution of a man nailed to a cross, and then immediately offers a redemptive response, the resurrection of Christ. Jones writes: “We are compelled, deep within to believe that in the throes of this traumatic event, God uniquely meets humanity in the fullness of love and offers to us the grace of life abundant.” Christians have lots of ways of making sense of how God works in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ to redeem the pain and brokenness of the human situation. Jones suggests that it’s not so important which theory we select to explain how God accomplishes redemption. Indeed, she argues, for trauma survivors, different explanations of God’s redeeming work may hold different kinds of power. What’s important is that the cross interrupts trauma, breaking up the narrative of pain and injury that trauma survivors so often find hard to release, and offers an alternative narrative gesturing towards wholeness and new life.

Jones recounts an experience she had with four women who participated in a course on self-defense that Jones helped to lead. The last meeting of the course happened to be on Maundy Thursday, with the service scheduled to begin just after the self-defense class ended. Jones writes that she was surprised to see four women from her course file into the Maundy Thursday service. As the service ended, Jones greeted the women on their way out, curious about why they’d come. Jones writes: “Mari spoke to me first, rubbing the knuckle she had bruised in class: ‘This cross story, … it’s the only part of this Christian thing I like. I get it. And, it’s like he gets me. He knows.’ She hugged me and walked out. Shanika left next, saying something about Jesus standing between her and her ex-partner, taking blows meant for her, keeping her safe. Sarah, her closest friend from the shelter, disagreed, smiling. ‘He’s the King, man. He’s throwing your ex’s sorry ass in hell’s jail soon as he can.’ Joanne, the last to leave, didn’t say anything but gestured toward the cross with a slight shrug just before walking out the door.”

I wonder whether we, the Church, in our most foundational story, have something important to offer a republic suffering in a season of trauma. Indeed, the Church itself was born in its response to the trauma and grace of the resurrection story; we are a public thing, a res publica, inasmuch as we come together, as we always have, around the cross of Christ and the redemptive possibilities it offers. As much as I love the narrative of civic pride and responsibility that I learned from my parents, I see the limits of that story in offering hope, wholeness, and healing to persons that our political process seems to go out of its way to injure. A more fitting story is available to us who gather as the Church. To be a citizen of the heavenly commonwealth is to remember that politics at its best should help people to live fully human lives. But all fully human lives are broken lives; no one escapes the brokenness and pain that make human beings human. Neither does our God. And while our brokenness and our injuries may not go away, God offers wholeness and flourishing despite them. The resurrected Christ has deep and unhealed wounds, and is also a God who offers new life in the midst of wounded-ness. How can we offer the cross as an interruption to the traumas that our political process inflicts on traumatized citizens to offer life made new?


About the Author

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John Senior is the Director of the Art of Ministry Program and Assistant Professor of Practical Theology and Religious Leadership at Wake Forest University School of Divinity.


Christian Theology

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