Trauma-Informed Ecclesiology (An Invitation to Explore)...

Emmanuel Levinas confronts us with a fundamental question about the ubiquity and ferocity of trauma and human suffering in the world in the wake of the Holocaust:

Is humanity, in its indifference, going to abandon the world to useless suffering, leaving it to the political fatality - or the drifting - of the blind forces which inflict misfortune on the weak and conquered, and which spare the conquerors, whom the wicked must also join? Or, incapable of adhering to an order - or to a disorder - which it continues to think diabolic, must not humanity now, in a faith more difficult than ever, in a faith without theodicy, continue Sacred History; a history which now demands even more of the resources of the self in each one, and appeals to its suffering inspired by the suffering of the other person, to its compassion which is a non-useless suffering (of love), which is no longer suffering 'for nothing', and which straightaway has a meaning? At the end of the twentieth century and after the useless and unjustifiable pain which is exposed and displayed therein without any shadow of a consoling theodicy, are we not all pledged - like the Jewish people to their faithfulness - to the second term of this alternative? This is a new modality in the faith of today, and also in our moral certainties, a modality quite essential to the modernity which is dawning.
Emmanuel Levinas, Useless Suffering, p. 164.

A young boy in an ambulance after being pulled from the rubble following an air strike in Aleppo.

The world of the last century has witnessed an unfathomable concentration of trauma and human suffering. Two World Wars, genocide, hunger, poverty, abuse and neglect, disease, and an innumerable volume of personal or communal traumas which have been lost to history or held in secret. One thing is clear: Simple answers and "business as usual" is not only insufficient, but is immoral. It is time, as Levinas reminds us, for a "new modality" that moves away from the "explanations" of theodicy to the "suffering [with] inspired by the suffering of the other." But this shift, particularly from the grounding of Christian faith requires language and practices that for most believers simply do not exist. We simply lack the language and practices to respond in meaningful and generative ways to the sheer volume and ferocity of trauma and human suffering in the world, in our communities, in our churches, and within our own lives and the lives of those closest to us. 

The theological commitments and practices necessary to engage in the world as it really is will require a deep and pointed look at the Tradition we have received and the ways in which these things have (mis)shaped the church and its capacity to respond to trauma and human suffering. However, we will also discover that there are deep resources buried and obscured within the Tradition that provide powerful and redemptive tools for contemporary life in the world.

This November and December I want to invite you to join me in an exploration of the ways in which the Christian faith can respond faithfully and redemptively to a world that is so profoundly (mis)shaped by trauma and human suffering.

On Sunday mornings at 9:30 at the Dayspring Church of Christ I will be guiding us through the realities of trauma and human suffering, the history of the development of the Christian Tradition in response to these realities, and the theological commitments and practices moving forward that will enable the church to be God's healing presence in the world. This work, this joint commitment, this embodiment of the most fundamental convictions of the Christian faith culminate in what I describe as a Trauma-Informed Ecclesiology.

Each week, as part of our discerning together we will engage in two practices: A form of Lectio Divina and an exercise in theological reflection. The goal in both of these practices is to examine the ways in which we hear and think about Scripture and to contemplate the ways in which our theological values and commitments shape (or misshape!) our faith and life together and for the world.

Here is what we will explore each week of this series together: 

WEEK ONE: The Grammar of a Trauma-Informed Ecclesiology (Nov. 6th)
Drawing on some of the insights and metaphors of Joe Jones' marvelous systematic theology, A Grammar of Christian Faith: Systematic Explorations in Christian Life and Doctrine we will begin to explore the kinds of language that will be necessary and informative for our time together. Particularly we will explore the meanings (or range of meanings) for terms and constructions like Moral Agency, Imago Dei, Sin, Ecclesiology, Trauma, Trauma-Formed, and Trauma-Informed. This week will enable us to get our bearings and to mark out the boundaries of our expedition in the Christian Tradition together.

WEEK TWO: A Trauma-Informed Account of Sin and Salvation, Part 1 (Nov. 13th)
Here we will explore the ways in which we might talk about the impingement of the Powers of Sin and Death upon human persons and communities. We will explore the ways in which the Christian Tradition has offered accounts of sin, particularly within the Augustinian tradition, that ignore or marginalize the most ubiquitous and malformative variety of sin: not sin done by us, but sin done to us. This expanded vision will enable us to think about how this reality pushes back on language that we use to describe God's saving work in the world, particularly for those who suffer.

WEEK THREE: A Trauma-Informed Account of Sin and Salvation, Part 2  (Nov. 20th)
Now that we have established a more meaningful account of the ways that the Powers of Sin and Death impinge upon human persons and communities we will turn our attention to how this changes our language about salvation. In conversation with the fourth-century theologian Gregory of Nyssa we will explore and discern how we talk about the redemptive work of Jesus Christ and the fate of human persons. We will especially focus on the ways in which suffering has the capacity to complicate or compromise an individual or community's capacity to respond appropriately to the Triune God in history.

WEEK FOUR: The Trauma-Formed Tradition (Nov. 27th)
After exploring a deeper grammar of sin and salvation that is trauma-informed we return with clearer eyes to see the ways in which the Tradition itself has been trauma-formed. In other words, we will see some of the ways in which the history and practices of the church illustrate that the church has been more profoundly shaped by its experiences of trauma and human suffering than it has been responsive to those experiences. This is not a condemnation or dismissal of the Tradition; far from it. It is instead a testimony to the (mal)formative power of trauma and human suffering from which even ecclesial communities (and entire traditions!) are not immune. Together we will see this in an exploration of the Book of Common Prayer, the Revised Common Lectionary, and the commentary of John Calvin on a subset of the Psalms of Lament.

WEEK FIVE: The Ecclesial Turn: Theological Commitments (Dec. 4th)
Having sketched out together the fundamental shape of a Trauma-Informed Ecclesiology and the impetus for it (the Trauma-Formed Tradition), here we will explore three of the fundamental theological commitments that serve as the foundation of the theological model that I am proposing. In this session we will explore the ways in which our commitments about coercion and violence, the nature of the Atonement, and the ultimate destiny of human persons enable us to move into an embodied life in the world which is actually (for some, for the first time) Good News. 

WEEK SIX: The Ecclesial Turn: Embodied Practices (Dec. 11th)
This week we will have already come on a long journey together through church history, through the development of doctrine in the Tradition and the ways that language and practices have shaped our lives and our imaginations together. In this session we will turn our attention to the enrichment of concrete practices in our embodied, ecclesial communities. I will be helping us to think about how this Trauma-Informed Ecclesiology enables us to think more deeply and meaningfully about the practices of Baptism, Eucharist, and Confession.  

WEEK SEVEN: A Trauma-Informed Ecclesiology in the World (Dec. 18th)
Here we want to explore the ways in which the church should live in the world after our vision and theological reflection are sharpened by being Trauma-Informed. What does it mean to be an ecclesial community that enters into the suffering of others and there find our mutual salvation? How might the church think about the ways in which we are called to confront systems of marginalization, oppression, and violence? And finally, we ask what does it mean to live in a world where trauma and human suffering is unavoidable but should not be met merely with resignation? This will enable us to think of a Trauma-Informed Ecclesiology that is committed to a particular kind of solidarity, resistance, and resilience. 

(December 25th at Dayspring will be a special time of fellowship and celebration during the class time.)

WEEK EIGHT: The Public Life of a Trauma-Informed Ecclesiology with Q&A  (Jan. 1st)
Briefly I want to give some insights into the ways in which a Trauma-Informed Ecclesiology gives shape to the public life and witness of ecclesial communities and Christian persons. Not only do these theological committments fundamentally reorient our ecclesial language and practices, but they transform the way that we live and act in the world. I will help us to think about, for example, some of the ways in which this influences the way that followers of Jesus should think about public policy, missions, and life for/with the marginalized and the oppressed. We will conclude this week with an lengthy Q&A time to help you explore further the materials and proposals that I have presented in this ongoing series. 

An Associated Press photo of priests intervening in riots in Kiev in January of 2014. (via Huffington Post)

It is not the interpretation of love as an ideal, a heavenly power, or as a commandment, but of love as an event in a loveless, legalistic world: the event of an unconditioned and boundless love which comes to meet man, which takes hold of those who are unloved and forsaken, unrighteous or outside the law, and gives them a new identity, liberates them from the norms of social identifications and from the guardians of social norms and idolatrous images. What Jesus commanded in the Sermon on the Mount as love of one's enemy has taken place on the cross through Jesus' dying and the grief of the Father in the power of the spirit, for the godless and the loveless. Just as the unconditional love of Jesus for the rejected made the Pharisees his enemies and brought him to the cross, so the unconditional love also means enmity and persecution in a world in which the life of man is made dependent on particular social norms, conditions, or achievements. A love which takes precedence and robs these conditions of the force is folly and scandal in this world. But if the believer experiences his freedom and the new possibility of his life in the fact that the love of God reaches him, the loveless and unloved, in the cross of Christ, what must be the thoughts of a theology which corresponds to this love? In that case it is a love which creates its own conditions, since it cannot accept the conditions of lovelessness and the law. Further, it cannot command love and countermove. As its purpose is freedom, it is directed towards freedom. So it cannot prohibit slavery and enmity, but must suffer this contradiction, and can only take upon itself this grief in protest. That is what happened on the cross of Christ. God is unconditional love, because he takes upon himself grief at the contradiction in men and does not angrily suppress this contradiction. God allows himself to be forced out. God suffers, God allows himself to be crucified and is crucified, and in this consummates his unconditional love that is so full of hope. But that means that in the cross he becomes himself the condition of this love.
Jürgen MoltmannThe Crucifed God