This week at Missiongathering Thornton, we’ll be hearing a message about trauma. Trauma is an epidemic, affecting combat veterans, victims of assault and abuse, survivors of natural disasters and many others. Our society has only in the last decade or so really begun to wrestle with the effects, particularly the long-term effects, that trauma has on individuals.
But what about group trauma? Certainly adversity and potentially traumatic events suffered by a group of people often lead to group solidarity. What about generational trauma? Sigmund Freud expounded on the concept of collective memory, and the author of the biblical book of Jeremiah references the proverb “The parents have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Jer. 31:29). Thank God that our society has found the understanding to take PTSD seriously and the wherewithal to treat it and other related disorders, but it may be that the strictly individual and personal trauma is only the proverbial iceberg tip.
This Sunday is “Christ the King” Sunday, or “Reign of Christ” Sunday for those who find the feudal language of the former problematic. It is the conclusion of the church year and marks a celebration of Jesus’ eternal, cosmic triumph over the powers of sin and death. In that respect, Reign of Christ Sunday makes us cast our gaze backward, toward Easter; the resurrection is the ultimate act and symbol of triumph. As a former professor of mine is fond of saying, though, resurrection only works on dead people. The road to the empty tomb can only go through the cross—a point we in the church often seem to miss in our talk about Jesus and our talk to victims of trauma. And the cross is traumatic! Jesus suffers physical, psychological, emotional, existential torment. He does not emerge unscathed. The Gospels that tell of Jesus’ interactions with the disciples after the resurrection show us a risen Jesus who is scarred from his execution.
Even Jesus’ trauma does not stay individual, though! As the crucifixion is happening, the disciples and relatives who are there (only one of whom is a man) are themselves traumatized by witnessing the gruesome death of the one they had placed their faith and their hope in. Peter and Judas are tormented by their respective denial and betrayal of Jesus, and all of the disciples, including those who would come later, are confronted by the scandal, as Paul puts it, of the cross. There are even those, particularly in the first few centuries of the church, who will die as martyrs or be maimed because of their faith in Christ.
Jesus’ trauma cannot stay individual because Jesus came to address collective trauma with collective causes. The Gospel reading for this week, Luke 1:68-75 reads: "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.” The Israelites and their descendants had suffered from war, famines, natural disasters, deportations, enslavement, conquest, and the manifold internal trials and tribulations inherent in any society, ancient or modern. Many of the prophets, as well as many of Jesus’ contemporaries, believed that the Messiah, the “anointed one,” would come and not only set right the unjust conditions that Israel was living under but also heal the wounds of the underlying collective, generational trauma that resulted from those conditions.
Ultimately, when we are faced with trauma in our own lives and the lives of others, we must first and foremost, as Luther wrote, “flee to the cross.” For ourselves we must remember that the God we worship refused and still refuses to stand aloof from our problems but came and suffered in solidarity with us. When addressing the trauma of others we must remember that the empty tomb, though in itself the ultimate symbol of triumph and hope, has too often been used as a weapon to tell people to “just get over it.” We must remind ourselves that resurrection is God’s thing, not ours, and you can’t have the tomb without the cross. And when confronted by those who would deny or downplay generational and group trauma, we must stand firm in the knowledge that God sees and knows the sufferings of the oppressed and Jesus’ suffering for the sake of the entire world brings us, as Jesus-followers, into solidarity with the entire world.