Resurrecting Wounds: Living in the Afterlife of Trauma
Reviewed by Tom Paxson
By Shelly Rambo. Baylor University Press, 2017. 196 pages. $29.95/hardcover or eBook; $24.95/paperback.
Christianity was born in trauma, but do we recognize its implications? The psychological-social-spiritual trauma, which is Rambo’s focus, disrupts pre-trauma patterns of experience: the dead live on, as it seems, and the pre-traumatized self dies. But neither the living nor the dying is final, as both recur unexpectedly against one’s will. The experience of time is disrupted, with the past interrupting the present and haunting the future, with recurrences or flashbacks adding terrifying new detail to conscious memories.
The event or events initiating the trauma are often obscured by sensory and emotional overload, resulting in confusing, emotion-laden memory fragments. The sense of self may shatter in the chaos of confused time, memory, and alienation. Debilitating estrangement from one’s earlier life and from the lives of others intensifies persistently raw wounds, desperately hidden from and by oneself and others. It is well-established that such trauma can be passed from one generation to another when the wounds underlying the trauma are not fully acknowledged and integrated into the individual’s or the community’s self-understood history.
How is it that a religion born in trauma no longer speaks to the traumatized? Rambo suggests that Christian theology over time came to hide the wounds, and with them a central part of the gospel narrative of resurrection, by shifting attention to a triumphant, flawless, otherworldly existence after death. Without challenging the eschatology, Rambo focuses on the afterlife of trauma in this world as seen through the lens of the Gospel of John. In re-envisioning resurrection to include resurrection in this earthly life, she builds on trauma studies, encounters with those living in and with trauma, and the work of feminist, womanist, and Black theologians, among others. For me, reading Resurrecting Wounds brought Quaker history and thought into dialogue with the rich collection of voices Rambo assembles in addition to her own distinctive account.
Rambo finds a vision of resurrection this side of death in a fourth-century narrative by Gregory of Nyssa (ca. 335–384+) regarding his sister’s life and death. Gregory seems to not clearly understand that the life of Macrina (his sister) suggests an alternative to his own patriarchal and eschatological understanding of resurrection. His narrative describes a resurrection involving miraculous healing rather than redemptive suffering: she had a tumor that disappeared following much prayer and the loving touch of her mother. This divine favor was marked by a faint scar where the tumor had been. Later, others’ diseases were healed through Macrina’s prayer and touch. This story offers a resurrection not purchased by an imitative witness of suffering and death but through imitative witness to the life and teaching of Jesus.
Rambo explores the complicity of theology in covering and hiding wounds, including those inflicted by slavery on those who were enslaved as well as on the slaveholders, and on the biological and psychological “descendants” of both. “History, for those attuned to race,” Rambo writes, “is the unaddressed harm that lives on,” rather than a record of discrete past events. This history involves tracing the legacy of slavery in its later reverberations: lynching, legal discrimination, illegal discriminatory behavior, racially motivated abuse, and so on. Too often the wounds are covered over, or hidden for and by the privileged, but they are all too apparent to those who suffer today’s persisting racial violence.
Ongoing trauma points to the necessity of disclosing or uncovering the wounds that caused the trauma in the beginning, and those that reinforce it. The dynamics of trauma impede such work. Perpetrators’ and sufferers’ admitting these wounds in community, and constructing ways to live together in the afterlife of trauma would constitute a raising up of new life, an important form of resurrection. Rambo would include a vision like this in an enlarged understanding of the resurrection. Along these lines, there is a fine chapter on collective efforts by veterans in Ohio struggling with trauma in the company of participating witnesses (called “Stronghearts”) who through active listening are themselves drawn into the inchoate understanding and threatening locus of trauma.
The Quaker movement was born in trauma, and early Quaker texts can be read with profit through this perspective. Apart from its intrinsic interest, Resurrecting Wounds provides a lens for reading early Quaker texts. James Nayler’s last testimony is a good place to practice before turning to other texts from the Valiant Sixty.
Resurrecting Wounds is replete with valuable insights. It will be of special interest, I believe, to many readers of Friends Journal, including those who have struggled with trauma themselves: not least, those who suffer from what they experienced as abusive yet “normative” theologies.