Recognize Trauma, Dismantle Racism

Trauma is a loaded word and scary at the same time because it obscures pains from the past that we wish to forget. However, despite our efforts to forget and move on, history continues to follow us in our lived experiences. How people interact and deal with the trauma is unique for each person. Our bodies and psyches reveal who we are, and our behavior shows our deep wounds. When these wounds are systemic across entire groups of people due to discrimination, police brutality, and racism, it is necessary to deal with the trauma and triggers on both personal and communal levels. Coming to grips with this type of trauma is to sit with the past and mentally to reflect and exercise these painful memories for healing, liberation, and ultimately dismantling racism. 

Yenny Delgado here

Arriving to Work

I used to hear my training supervisor say to me how grounding chaplaincy was. I was new enough to the work and new enough to Peter to listen very closely. Sometimes I think I was a better listener when I was new to the ministry.

I have always been nosey enough, curious really. So I was engaged by what he’d say after being such a long, faithful, pastoral leader at my hospital. He’d say things in the halls on our way to see people that made the visits worthy even before they began. I learned more that I only retain in the pores of my soul than I can re-state.

On one of those days, we were coming off the elevator. I was co-working the medical ICU. He was the chaplain, I was the resident. He was the real spiritual caregiver, I was trying to be. The ICU was not the congregation so I had some learning to do. I loved it and still do.

Peter told me that he hadn’t been on the floors for a while and that he always felt like there was a goodness when he came back. He was managing the department, creating programs, co-working with his colleague Mark, my other training supervisor and my current manager. Back then, I knew nothing of what he was really doing.

I’ve learned more about what took him away from the floors. I’ve lived it over the last few years of being an educator now. A lot can take you away from a patient room or from a family meeting discussing the end of life or from a session with a physician who just needs you to stand there as they cry. There’s an odd goodness in those moments.

One of the good things is the gift of perspective. You show up to work having all the things anyone else has. You carry all the things everyone else does. A soreness in your foot, brokenness in some soul spot, annoyance, heart-rending pain, minor delays about three or four decisions, uncertainty about an important person. And you go to the floor. You get to the unit. You arrive for your patient.

And for a moment or for an hour or for a day, you develop the tools to share yourself with another person going through hardness. You don’t lose your own stuff but you shelve it temporarily. You know exactly where it is. It’s outside on the contact precautions cart. It’s on the counter at the nursing station. It’s spread out like murky liquid on the floor at the door. It’s somewhere, your stuff.

But you bracket it so that you can, rather than shrink yourself, expand into someone better. You place your things where you can find them when you’re done. And you arrive to meet another sacred person.

“You Already Know Enough…”

I was texting with Sister Reverend Gina and Brother Reverend Eddie, rehashing details of an upcoming meal we’d have. In my calendar, these sacred and eucharistic occasions pop us as the Black Brilliance Gathering.

We got off that subject and into a query I posed to them about qualifying examinations, the exams I’m preparing to take around May and through August. I have four of them: psychology, psychology of religion, theology, and pastoral theology. Incidentally, if you think of any of those words, any combinations of those phrases between now and August, whisper words of prayerful intent for me!

Gina and Eddie, partners of mine in these doctoral streets, took their exams at the end of the summer. Their wisdom, as in all prior moments, was worth having. They were taking me to text school, answering my stated questions and answering the other ones that were abiding in my spirit. 

They were affirming me, teaching me, calming me. Somewhere after Gina had broken down the most concise truth about the exams, Eddie wrote, “You already know enough to pass.” 

After I experienced an immediate critique from all the ways and directions graduate school had trained into us at to that point, I breathed over his comment. It was what I needed even if I hadn’t asked. 

Now, I still was studying–and still am until May or June according to my timeline and plan. I am attending to a list of nearly 200 sources of books, articles, and chapters in all the times I’m not working my good job, exercising, fathering, and dating. I always have a book or two. Actually, I’m reading during some of that dating at this point in my great relationship.

I always have an document on my laptop collecting my collections from all these materials. I’m in preparation mode. And yet, Eddie’s words pull me into a depth with what I know, with what I have, with what I’m prepared with as I am. 

Now, he was addressing me and qualifying exams. But can’t you take his comment in your own directions? You already know enough to pass. You already know enough to…   

Giving and Not Giving Energy

When you give energy to a thing, you give it life. Energy includes mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual material like thoughts and posture and effort. When you give a thing or a person or an idea energy, you give it life.

The other, accompanying side is that when you remove your lifegiving energy from a thing, you starve that thing of life. It could be a shift in your focus onto a different task. It could be removing a contact from your phone. It could be the choice to leave a call unreturned. It could be a decision not to go for that walk you said you would take. 

Giving to a thing is a gift that keeps that thing going. Removing what you give, then, is a resounding endorsement of another thing. What will you give to in the upcoming days of your life? What will you choose? Who will you choose? 

The answer really is about what you want to keep alive, what you wish to sustain, or what you will starve. Chaos needs energy. So does peace. Toxic relationships require attention. Living as an ambassador of contentment does too. 

Introductions to Theology

Me and a Womanist Sister are working on a webinar for the Association for Clinical Pastoral Education where we introduce the community to Black Liberation Theology. It’s part of a series of didactics that’ll be accessible to our pastoral educators and CPE students.

The series is called 8:46 and will have 8 webinars that are 46 minutes long–in sober and theo-ethical acknowledgement of Brother Floyd’s murder and how ministers, clinicians, and leaders might nurture our work in everything from the social construction of race to the psychological implications of racism and other sins.

I’m working with a practitioner from North Carolina and we’re offering an introduction to (Black and Womanist) theology. In the preparation, I found a sentence Dr. Stephanie Mitchem wrote where she said that theology begins not in studying in the classroom but in living a life.

So I’ve begun journeying over the beginnings of theology, the origins of my own, lately. It’s resting with me that the origins provide a long shadow over the rest.

If theology begins in a word, who wrote it or spoke it or claimed its authority? If theology started in a person, was that person relatable, relatable in every way or particular ways? If discourse about the Sacred started in practices, were those practices exclusive, open, and are they relevant? The questions continue when you think and live theologically, right?

Think about yours. From where have your best understandings of the Transcendent come? How were you introduced to your “theological” world? We could keep going. These are the kinds of questions that need answers.

Ways to Care

I am a father and I work as a chaplain, as a spiritual caregiver, and regularly I spend my days considering ways to care. Here are some ways and I’d love to keep building this list. I’m using words with more than one meaning, intending nuance.

  1. Enact a ritual and keep it – like a hug or a whispered greeting when you first see yourself or another person.
  2. Look at your own face carefully.
  3. Spend time with the person who you’ll expose others to.
  4. Chew your food slowly, filling yourself with the nourishment there.
  5. If you’re not in a place for feedback, say something like, “Let me move so I can try to hear you. Give me 10 minutes.”
  6. With their explicit permission and openness, touch someone today.
  7. Touch every body with kindness.
  8. Stretch.
  9. Before you speak, count to ten.
  10. Learn what cleansing breath is and employ many of them.
  11. In a conversation with a person, try asking “Is this what you’re saying…”
  12. Wrestle.
  13. Stretch beyond what you decided you’d do.
  14. Do something someone asked you to do without argument.
  15. Make an exception.
  16. Drink a cup of tea alone.
  17. Drink a cup of tea with someone.
  18. Let it play out.
  19. Smile.
  20. Walk.
  21. Smile while you walk.
  22. Help someone carry something.
  23. Listen to Nina Simone and Sam Cooke.
  24. Be gentle when you fail.
  25. Ask and listen to the response to, “What’s important right now?”
  26. When they yell, observe the pain there.
  27. Use “I” when talking about yourself.
  28. Cook and take a meal to someone else.
  29. Make it a goal to ask one good question daily.
  30. Sleep the number of hours you worked.
  31. Fart when you have to because “there’s more room out than there is in.”
  32. Invite someone to tell you their story today.
  33. Listen to the child’s joke.
  34. Ask for it.
  35. Watch someone you love do something they love.
  36. Play a little bit or in the words of one of my teachers, “You, play more.”
  37. Take an entire day off from the thing you experience as hard, if you can, and if you can’t, pray with words.
  38. Attend to your skin as it covers all of your beautiful self.
  39. Sit without saying anything next to a person who can’t say anything.
  40. Experiment with saying versions of “Peace to you.”
  41. Say goodbye in a unique way.
  42. Treat goodbyes as benedictions, times to say something about what just happened.

Spirit and Trauma (5 of 6)

In her chapter on the Middle Spirit, Rambo develops the “unique pneumatology” that rises from her sources in prior chapters. Introducing the overall discussion as “Spirit of Life” and “Spirit of the Deep,” she employs descriptions of the witness of spirit in unique ways.

Her conceptual frames are Spirit Is Breath, Spirit’s different movements in time, and the Spirit Is Love. Rambo works to underscore how the Spirit is life-giving, “aligned with life,” and searching “for forms of life when life cannot be recognized as such” (115).

To move the work forward, she interrogates the doctrine of creation and asserts, “God is depicted as a breath-giver” (117). Tracing this breath from biblical beginnings, Rambo points us to how the life of God is present in and between the passion and resurrection.

Interpreting from the middle, she writes, it is “a movement that exceeds death and yet precedes the event of life that resurrection narrates” (119). The present breath, the breath breathing in the middle, enables preaching, testimony, and witness. The Spirit that is breath empowers and makes heard and seen what is unspeakable and unsaid.

Think of trauma. In suffering, the Spirit “oscillates between formlessness and form, making visible what has been repressed” (123). This brings meaning to the Spirit’s work, to the potency of speech, and to unique theological contributions occurring in between events like death and resurrection. These are striking connections when you think of the ways in which trauma disables speech, removes basic abilities to communicate, and robs persons of capacities which are reintroduced by the Spirit in the middle. This will preach.

Relative to time, Rambo suggests a reading of the Spirit’s movement as more than forward. Resisting temporality, the Spirit’s activity is disruptive to straightforward readings of time and point in multiple directions. She believes that accepting this disruptive, non-linear view of the Spirit’s movement requires reading Christian history in a non-linear way. “Oscillatory witness is extremely helpful when looking through the lens of trauma” (127) and it is also courageous given the familiarity we have with linear readings of biblical and theological materials. No ways of reading take courage, risk, resolve.

Rambo draws upon Cornel West in particular when focusing this point and names the African American experience as a tutor for maintaining historical memory and moving when a destination is less apparent. This was a section I appreciated and would love to hear more about in terms of how Rambo sees this occurring since the writing.

In the section on love, Rambo gives definitional language to the well used word, a definition that emerges in the context of the middle. Love is seen on the sides of the middle, but what is the content of love in the middle? How are witnessing and remaining shaped as expressions of love? For Rambo, love blows as breath between the two experiences of death and life.

Love empowers us to “to witness the deep abyss of human experiences” (133), something I find compelling as a pastoral caregiver. At the same time, love is “marked by unknowing,” and “birthed through a failure of comprehension” (133). Imagine that. Developing and settling upon an ethic of love in the context of unknowing and failure rather than certainty and success.

Spirit and Trauma (4 of 6)

John’s account of Jesus’s death is the central biblical text under consideration in the book. As Rambo says, that account is the only one of the gospels with the unique feature of a soldier piercing the body of the crucified Jesus. That piercing produces the startling image of water and blood, where water is a symbol of life and Spirit. Water becomes an image of life and Spirit in the midst of death.

This notion of life in the middle of death is behind Rambo’s query in the book. In this chapter, she investigates Mary Magdalene and the beloved disciple in order to underline the beauty, complexity, and theology of those two unique witnesses and how their stories show the trauma remaining “after a radical ending.”

The radical endings associated with Jesus’s death don’t produce “a clear-cut ending” but “an unclear beginning” according to Rambo (107). This is a very important move in the book. Clear-cut is not a description of trauma or the lens of trauma that Rambo is suggesting to us. Rather, trauma, as an unending and complex experience, is full of unclearness and lack of clarity.

The author takes time to explain the various possibilities inside the experiences of Mary and the beloved disciple. Both of them experience Jesus around the death and rising in ways that make their testimonies problematic, inconsistent, and worth continued investigation, especially given how Bible scholars may move toward clarity and not ambiguity. People concerned with texts often say texts close and come to a close. In Rambo’s hands, the lens of trauma opens us to the possibilities. Opens us rather than closes our understandings of these texts, these persons, and these encounters with Jesus.

Rambo does a great job showing how “a series of turnings” in Mary’s encounters with Jesus might engender a healthy curiosity and a healthy ambiguity about her experience with Jesus. Mary and Jesus address each and don’t seem to recognize each other. Weird for people who are affectionate, no? Rambo discusses the familiarity and affection while pointing to the stiff titles which also exhibit distance. Again, this is worth questioning.

Rambo writes, “We typically associate witness with seeing and, subsequently, with testifying to w hat one has seen. This is not the case here” (89). Rather than seeing, there’s a fair amount of not seeing. The same is true with the beloved disciple, commonly known as John. He is a quieter figure, often not seen when folks like Peter are around since folks like Peter are often seen and heard first. Again, with Peter and John and Jesus and how they interact, Rambo offers an interesting way of seeing John as a witness where the beloved “disrupts this familiar reading, pointing us instead to a different conception of love” that remains (96).

It is pretty difficult to summarize Rambo’s excellent use of biblical, textual, and theological sources here. This chapter more than others needs to be read in order to appreciate her construction, her building, her nuance, and her contribution. I see her doing what one of her sections calls, “Handing Over,” even as she works to frame her lens of trauma and to provide for a way of seeing the familiar passages and persons in different ways.

Furthermore, the later part of the chapter is where she does the foundational work of her expressed pneumatology. Remember that Rambo is suggesting in the book that death and life are not marked episodes but are experiences that spill, experiences that remain rather than end. The Spirit (Pneuma) is at work in the unclear beginnings and in the unclear, unmarked spaces of death and life. Therefore, “The movements of Spirit are less definable and discernible,” says Rambo (107), a critical piece.

If you accept this less definable activity of the Spirit, then the middle space “makes more sense,” as much as the less discernible can make more sense. I find that this pneumatological claim is vital to the book. Seeing this, in the murkiness and in the less clear stories that the bible gives in the beloved disciple’s case and in Mary’s case, takes a faith to see what Rambo offers and, indeed, what scripture offers when thinking about trauma.

For Rambo it’s in this attempt to see and to re-vision where life is redefined. This is where the Spirit is working, in the re-definition, a fascinating piece. If the Spirit is at work in the re-definition, then the “language that emerges when we resist reading the death and resurrection” is more than our stubbornness or criticality; it is the work and operation of the Spirit. When it comes to trauma then, re-defining love and holding fast to the impulse to re-see is the very activity needed for God to remain active in the midst of trauma.

Spirit and Trauma (3 of 6)

The second chapter provides the primary theological materials of Rambo’s constructive work. Here she is concerned to witness the middle and to see what “persists between death and resurrection” (p. 48). Again, her overall project is to lift the unseen and unarticulated middle space. Rambo pulls two persons into her book in order to develop a constructive response to theological frameworks for unseen trauma, Hans Urs von Balthasar and Adrienne Speyr.

These two voices commingle, protesting the often split and individual views of how theology is done. Balthasar, the known theologian and priest, was often not regarded early on as a theologian in his Catholic setting, though he was as he aged. With a background in languages, his work is described as literary and poetic, but he was to be made cardinal the day his own death. Speyr was a physician and mystic who was certainly not (and often is not still) regarded as a theologian.

There are several reasons why I like Balthasar, among them his choice to be a chaplain for students and pass up a post at a respected university. I’m getting into Speyr with this reading and appreciating the complex ways she negotiated her life as a doctor and her decisions to experience losses and to build a community of devoted with her spiritual friend and guide. I will not replicate Rambo’s summary of their history and work and if you’re interested, consult her directly; the notes are excellent if you’re interested by such curious trails (p. 49-54).

Regarding the partnership between Speyr and Balthasar, most of what scholarship has is through the priest and theologian who did the writing. Balthasar viewed their work as psychologically inseparable, as a necessary partnership, and even established a publishing house so that Speyr’s work could be better preserved and promoted. Speyr, a medical doctor in other parts of her life, developed a symbiotic relationship with Balthasar who was her spiritual director.

The nurture of their bond provides the chapter an interesting, arresting, and beautiful description of how trauma, witnessing the middle, and experiencing holy Saturday can come with paradox, un-acknowledgment, tumult, intimacy, and insight. The parallels, or doubleness to use one word Rambo inserts, to the subject are fascinating to my psychological inclinations.

Balthasar’s work gives us elements of a theology of Holy Saturday adding a timelessness to that day and a focus on “the inner sphere of the hypostatic union” where that day is concerned. Now, that word–hypostatic–points to the inseparable nature of the Trinitarian persons, Father, Son, and Spirit. It is a distinctly Christian conception of how to begin to understand the Divine. Balthasar is giving us in his work–and Rambo in hers by drawing upon Balthasar–indications of the inner experiences of the Godhead during the neglected day.

I think this is purposeful, needed, and welcomed and I also love how Balthasar does this by immediately and naturally co-orchestrating his theological conceptions with Adrienne Speyr, a view into another inner sphere that is worth respecting. I also cannot see this interpretive and methodological work without thinking about some of the ties to Womanist method. Note the content when you have to in Balthasar, but also appreciate the methodological beauty shaping here, a method that is mutual, insightful, cooperative, poetic, sentimental, deeply folded in richness, paradoxical. Do these words not describe the Divine?

This chapter is worth reading precisely because summarizing it diminishes and cheapens. That said, when Rambo comments on some of the great happenings in the chapter, she says, “Holy Saturday is a pivotal part of this divine love story. It narrates divine love at its least discernible point–between death and resurrection, in the recesses of hell” (p. 55). On that Saturday, a dead man descended into hell. There was no activity. There was no triumph. There was no preaching or saving. On Saturday, there was death. This can do back flips to a sermon, to a method of care, and to a theological discourse if taken seriously.

I’ve gone into detail so far about the relational nature of Rambo’s sources and tried to hint at the impact upon the theological work being done. The rest of the chapter is as important when turning toward how Rambo takes up what’s elided theologically, namely the pneumatological. It is the Spirit’s witness that she works to illuminate even as she shows how “the Christ-form” is the structure of Balthasar and Speyr’s approach to theologizing about Holy Saturday.

How does the Spirit bring to believing people the sheer suffering of a Son dead in hell? Can persons who did not experience that middle, timeless existence relate? How do we understand this “supreme solitude of Christ” as persons following at this distance? It is the assumed essence and role of the Spirit as the loving bond between the Father and Son that Rambo says allows Balthasar reconcile “the securing Spirit” and what “emerges from the wound of death” (p. 71). This is careful quality work to locate the Spirit (i.e., the pneumatological) in the pedestrian streets of those who suffered, not only Jesus on that Saturday but us.

As well, we have the stark theological reality as understood in the Christian stream (p. 74):

…there is  no way that death and life can be reconciled. The stark reality of the middle day is that we cannot conceive of life after death. On the one side, there is death in godforsakeness; on the other, there is eternal life. To get from one side to the other, we need a means of crossing. But Holy Saturday declares the impossibility of bridging the two.

The Spirit, as Rambo, outlines is the form of divine presence in the middle space. It is the love, the “weary love” of God that “survives and remains not in victory but in weariness” (p. 80).

Spirit and Trauma (2 of 6)

In Rambo’s first chapter, she works to clarify her primary aim of seeing theological interpretive frameworks and examining Christian narratives about suffering. Suffering is a word commonly known by people in general and Christians in particular. Trauma is less accessible but everyone knows suffering.

Trauma can be a clinically described experience, something Rambo is aware of, but she turns toward the theological and the narratival in order to see what faith and story possess for the remaining required when trauma has destroyed and left barren the ways in which persons have understood the world, framed the world, and made sense of the world.

In the type of suffering known as trauma, Rambo says that all prior ways of interpreting the world and all previous ways of understanding the narratives and stories of Christianity fail. They shatter. Speaking of Christian narratives, she invites the reader to “meet these texts in their shattering” (p. 17), an invitation the chapter takes seriously after setting out the governing logic of Christian themes around the passion and resurrection and not that middle space between the death and resurrection. This is a way to remind readers of what is central to Christianity (life and death) and also what, perhaps, needs to be added to what is central (the experience of the traumatized).

Rambo lifts the violent nature of trauma’s residue and how the range of symptoms associated with suffering in trauma leaves us with a “complex and often indirect task” of trying to heal while losing the ability to “register the event and its effect through the use of language” (p. 21). The narrative is indispensable and she turns to Christian narratives and languages while offering a compelling explanation for the gaps between the present theological narratives as resources on the one hand and the grasp of persons experiencing and trying to locate, name, and identify their suffering on the other. This locating, naming, and identifying stand as a three-part interpretive grid and it may be an additional pull-out for chiefly practical purposes in doing the kind of theological artistry Rambo does.

The section on Herman’s contribution to trauma discourse as well the concept of witnessing grounds her distinct claim of witness as a transformed metaphor throughout Holocaust studies, literature, psychology, and theological studies. She orients us to central features of clinical trauma/suffering as experienced by individuals, gives a broad view of the cultural traumas of the Holocaust and Hurricane Katrina, and finds integration as the issue, especially those with clinical sensibilities. She writes, “If experiences of violence are not integrated in time, they can, in fact, be unearthed in another time and in another form” (p. 27). The social and political implications of this is worth mining.

While working with witnessing and theology, Rambo brings us to the conceptual territory of “unmasking, unearthing, and tracking what escapes interpretation” (p. 31), the beginnings of a critical analysis of the narratives/resources within her view. Drawing upon Caruth and Freud through Caruth, we begin to get Rambo’s outline of how trauma moves from an individual crisis to a murky individual crisis that doesn’t end, that doesn’t sit on one side of life or death, and that “cannot be read in any straightforward way if one is looking through the lens of trauma” (p. 33). If taking a lens of trauma has value for Rambo, that value is in making problematic the simple reading of 1) suffering happens (think of the cross), 2) suffering hurts (think of the death), and 3) suffering ends (think of the resurrection). Instead, Rambo listens to the cry at the intersection of death and life in order to challenge the stable and central identifications we make in Christianity which leave out an identification with those experiencing trauma. Does Jesus speak to the distorted bodies, distorted times, and the distorted words of those who suffer in this way?

Even reading slowly, Rambo paints a respectful conceptual picture of what’s been important to Christian narratives, one that isn’t deniable, the centrality and stability of the passion and resurrection. But the emerging pastoral question stands out of the stability and leans to the right and left of the centrality. This goes to Rambo’s use of witnessing from a middle place by which she intends 1) a posture that allows for seeing what is generally unseen and articulating what is usually unarticulated; and 2) entering into the omitted, the elided, which stays at the heart of suffering. This in her view leads to a reclaiming of suffering and a reclaiming of what it means for Christians to witness, inviting “testimonial power,” and a reworking of Christian vocabulary around redemption.