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.

Spirit and Trauma (1 of 6)

I’m slowly reading Dr. Shelly Rambo’s Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining and because I am not reading it for “school” and because I miss blogging, I’m going to reflect as I read.

Rambo’s work is a pastoral theology, the broad discipline I study, and this book is a sweet nexus of my interests in trauma studies, healing, and Spirit. She is working to claim the middle space between death and life and aiming to clarify how trauma can prevent persons from identifying with death or life. Trauma, horrendous and inexplicable, leads to a kind of middle existence where death has not come and life hasn’t either.

In the introduction, Rambo describes her book as an attempt to listen to the experiences of persons impacted by Hurricane Katrina and to show how trauma continues, how it doesn’t end, and how “trauma is the study of what remains” (p. 15). She works to construct a theology of Spirit that has meaning in the midst of unending trauma.

Drawing upon traditional Christian stories of the resurrection, that chief event most Christians cling to in order to point to how God redeems all, and death, the clear event where life stops, Rambo is offering a mild protest of these polar moments. This is reading of her at this early point. These two moments are, seemingly, too clear and clean. They both occur, bringing what they bring. They are though, for Rambo, vapid when it comes to the experience of trauma precisely because trauma resists falling into the clear, clean episodic instantiations of death and life. Trauma spills beyond hard borders.

Something happens between life and death, in the middle as Rambo writes. It is this middle-space, this “middle discourse,” this in-between that Rambo seems to want to discuss. She says – and rightly in my view – that Christians (and not them only) tend to rely on turning suffering into glory but without appreciating trauma’s “dislocation, its distance, and its fragmentation” (p. 8). I am looking forward to the book because of this. There is something quite rewarding about a resurrection and its sure and definitive perspective. There is also something missing, isn’t it? There is pain and death but it’s hardly appreciated. Rambo says that the accounts of redemption are insufficient. They are weakened by there plain disregard for the dislocating experience of trauma. Ah, the promise of this.

Rambo will work with the language of the gospels in the book, using the three days of Jesus’s death, entombment, and resurrection, and she will land in that middle space, that Saturday, that day where most preachers sleep in their sermons. In some ways, I think my ministry is postured for this middle, this Saturdayed experience of human existence, so I’ve already found a partner in Rambo in the introduction.

The book will outline a hermeneutical lens with trauma as the lens. Think of eyeglasses, tools I live with in order to see. Trauma will be the lens through which Rambo sees redemption. She’ll work to show us how Spirit presents (or is present) in the shattered. This arrests me right away and is frightening because it requires an openness to time in a way that’s largely unacknowledged. Is the Spirit present and active in the minutes and hours of unending emotional disaster?

I think of the time when Jesus died for example. I’ve gone to too many Good Friday services and an equal number of too many Easter Sunday services where the middle space stretched into silence. It is as if Saturday is either nonexistent or that it’s meant to be a bridge we walk over but don’t talk about. Can anyone get to Sunday without that middle space? We cannot. I am angling as I read to learn how to complicate the steps between Friday and Sunday. Maybe people arrive at church too quickly. Maybe we need the slow down as we trek through the soul-dark day before Sunday. And we may be tutored by Rambo on how to see trauma as a lens whereby we interpret again the experience of what’s left when trauma occurs.

While Rambo does not frame her book within Pentecostal studies, I cannot help but read the book as I am, a variously hyphenated Christian who happily introduces himself in ecumenical and academic religious gatherings as a black Bapticostal from the South side ordained to pastor in a denomination of historically Swedish immigrants. Try to box me if you dare!

I am looking forward to the book. I already hear the Spirit’s rumblings in the early words. So far, the Spirit is resisting the easy approach to do anything other than witness what real. I want to read this through once in a week but I’ll write posts about each chapter over the next 2 or 3.

 

Reading Lynched: The Power of Memory in a Culture of Terror

It’s as important to record reflections about my reading of Lynched as it is my own context for having read the book. I’ll start with my context because it sets the stage for my critical appreciation and my eventual scholarly appropriation of Dr. Sims’s work.

First, I’ve spent the last ten weeks reading and writing in the areas of Black and Womanist Theologies and African American Political Theology, and while those terms can be expansive in what they cover academically, it’s important to state those two courses as broad but immediate readying agents in my thinking about what happens in this book about Black people living in and in response to a culture of lynching. The book could easily be on the syllabi for either course. A Womanist scholar, Sims adds to the collective a historical reading of a time that’s not seen enough in the United States of American history.

Lynched is worth reading if for nothing other than its relevance to issues that many Black people are still facing around policing, community engagement, race, and political discourse. It’s relevant because as people we continue to be subjected to explicit legalized and legally authorized brutality in the form of newly designed lynching strategies, including police who still participate in the heartless, legally indefensible murder of Black bodies, while being shielded by and in some cases lauded by the governing bodies in place to protect citizens. I intend that as a theological comment even if it can be read from a particularly psychological, sociological, or ethical point of view. Lynching and living in response to it is a theological matter. As so is the support of persons who do the lynching of Black persons.

Second, aside from my current reading list, like every Black person in this country, I’ve spent the last several years participating to varying degrees in the anguish, contentment, alarm, prayerfulness, silence, and soul-bruising nature of this environment leading to our deaths. I say “our” in order to point to the corporate nature of how the long list of boys, girls, women, and men who have died as absolutely unwilling participants in the culture of lynching that pervades this country. I, like every other Black person, am recipient of the chronic, even if unseen, pain that comes from being Black and being alive, being Black and loving, being Black and wondering, being Black and hoping, being Black and quitting, being Black and fighting, being Black and parenting, being Black and serving, being Black and leading, being Black and going to the barbershop, being Black and grocery shopping for my family, being Black and driving through the suburbs, being Black and watching women clutch their purses at the sight of me, being Black and opening my empty hands when I see the police so that they see there’s nothing in them, being Black and holding my beautiful boys as much as I can while being Black.

Coming to this reading while Black was like coming to the notes of an aunt who wrote important things down, things that she said over and over while I was small but that she knew I’d listen to differently when the milk was no longer behind my ears. I’ve told you about the book already, though from a decidedly current and autobiographical sketch. That’s part of the power and beauty of a book like Lynched. It anchors you, if you’re Black, in a part of your story that you know intimately and may not be able to explicate.

That said, Dr. Sims pursued a project to conduct an oral history of experiences of lynching, inviting and meeting 50 persons from Virginia, South Carolina, New Jersey, Nebraska, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, Louisiana, California, Pennsylvania, and Alabama. Participants in her project were at least 70 years old, and she was interested in learning why people did or didn’t discuss lynching; how a culture of lynching influenced their understanding of justice or faith; and what those participants wanted future generations to know.

As she sets out onto this psychologically taxing and uplifting quest, Sims makes early notes about the ways participants first responded. People were cool to respond to church announcements promoting her study. She wondered about this and said that silence served purposes for Black elders. For some, silence was an expression of fear. For others, silence served to preserve life. The fear was not always acknowledged; it was subconscious and underneath the quiet of Black people. Fear motivated the silence as did life preservation.

In terms of preservation, when lynching wasn’t discussed and silence kept, Dr. Sims approached people directly in churches for instance, knowing that they were old enough and that their church was involved with justice long enough, so that there would be some story to tell. Those folks wouldn’t approach her always, she said, and that was to engage in any number of “countercultural techniques” like mentoring students, teaching literacy to adults, providing scholarships, and promoting arts rather than to deal directly with the bruising subject of lynching. There are those “public and private responses to moral issues” that Sims puts forward from her interviews (8).

Her stake is about the immense value of language, and stories in particular as a form of language, and its use “to minimize the gravity of lynching and the countless lives forever disrupted as a result of this practice” (16). What a comment! There is gravity. There is the impact upon countless lives. There is the longstanding word forever that names the existential disruption. There is the sad reference of the fitting word practice that captures it all. My sense from Sims is that it is uncommon to talk about lynchings, how they were publicized, how lynchings were cultural events paraded as spectacles which were government-sanctioned in order to produce terror in Black people and in Black communities and to assuage white communities by virtue of those communities’ uses of this perverted, brutal mechanism even while those white (people in) communities were community leaders like police, pastors, and politicians. The book gives insight into how hard it is to discuss this culture and why Black folks do and don’t jump into the conversation. And why whites don’t either.

For Sims, “These oral histories can serve as entry points to provide the human community another frame of reference from which to examine diverse ways in which notions of civility frame narratives that offer insights about these individuals’ human capacity to make a conscious decision to go into their interior archives and determine for themselves, if, or how, they will give voice to a truth that reflects their lived reality” (33). These are contexualized analyses and constructed “alternative responses” by the people who experienced these remembered atrocities turned “cultural symbols and their embedded meanings” (66).

Throughout my reading I came to basic questions about inspecting images offered in media and education and mining the relationship between images and symbols which are those deep, abiding, hardly changeable understandings of Black people. The symbols emerge after the use and spread of images over centuries. It’s hard to see lynching as both legally wrong and morally unacceptable when centuries teach you that Black people are worthy of death, even public, gruesome government-supported death. These are character questions and cultural questions. They are critical issues that make you, whoever you are, turn and ask what you really believe about people.

This is a book about remembering rightly. It faces the direction of remembering parts of history that are not seen or not regarded and about courage that isn’t either. One main attribute that Sims lifts is “an ethic of resilient resistance” and her oral histories enact “an ability to name and respond to evil in a manner that challenges practices that are neither just nor fair” (124). In summarizing the histories as an ethic, she promotes a truer reading of what happened and what happens during lynchings. Sims offers an alternative to naming silence or speech as resilient acts of resistance against the culture of lynching.

She also includes material about how Black folk are a people just as engaged in an “ethic of forgiveness,” an ethic that can’t be held without the aforementioned resistance. After all, how can Black folk forgive without also resisting the brutal murders bringing up the need for such forgiveness? Who would suggest the need to forgive without a prior acknowledgment of the God-made flesh and humanity of the murdered? It’s important that both are in the book and that forgiveness is after the former. Also, Sims makes all the interviews public. Look into her notes to find the wide trail to them.

In terms of my critique, I don’t think Sims goes far enough with her employment of the liturgical review of baptism. It’s clear that she’s leaning toward the historical and that she wants to respect her interviewees while not forcing a theological reading upon their work. I think she wants their words to shine rather than her interpretation of them. Still, I think she could have added a chapter to work out her own theological renderings of the interviews. She hints at this, of course, saying “the act of remembering is symbolized as a ritual of baptism—not a literal baptism by water, but a symbolic immersion that plunged and invited me to journey with participants into repressed, suppressed, reconfigured, and ritualized memories as they remembered lynching and a culture of lynching…” (5). Sims’s work is a social-cultural-religious approach to these primary narratives as sources of discovery and meaning. These narratives are gifts that Sims gives us, grants us access to, and it’s important that others come along to work with these narratives as they’re presented. I don’t fault Sims for her not dealing for pointedly with theological matters. I respect what she’s set out to do. She’s left more to be done, rather for her next works or for those of us picking up this book and living with it in our memories.

If you read this book and find it interesting to your soul; if you read it and you want to step into similar reads, I’d commend James Cone’s The Cross and the Lynching Tree, M. Shawn Copeland’s Enfleshing Freedom, Kelly Brown Douglas’s Stand Your Ground and Terrance Johnson’s Tragic Soul-Life. These are not fun reads. Like Lynched, they are important, sobering theological works that help ground us further in the basic reality of Blackness that is faced with both uncertainty and deep certainty.

Those books, like Lynched, will remind you of what Howard Thurman called the “place for the singing of angels.” He was writing into our memories the way Thurman does about the truths recognized over and over. In Deep is the Hunger, Thurman described what is underneath these kinds of works. “Despite all the crassness of life, despite all the hardness of life, despite all the harsh discords of life, life is saved by the singing of angels” (p. 92). That’s the kind of spirit underneath the oral histories of Sims’s project. Her interviews possess the spoken words, the hard-won melodies, and the unshakeable echoes of Black people who in the face of their own harsh discords decided to speak and to sing. May the Listener of our prayers encourage us to keep speaking, to keep singing, and to keep listening to our beautiful selves. And may in that collective chorus, we move toward transformation.