A Review: by Mathew Swora
“Seeing your face is as seeing the face of God” (Genesis 33:10), said Jacob to his estranged and offended brother, Esau, upon their reunion. This was long after Jacob had betrayed and despoiled his brother of his birthright and his blessing, and long after his brother had threatened to kill him for that. More than a mere exclamation of relief, these words serve notice that the invisible God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is to be seen in relationships, especially in stages and moments of healing and reconciliation, in effect, through love. For “God is love” (I John 4:8). What began with Cain and Abel, God can and will stop and heal, through such things as what Jacob learned and did. Ours is “The God of Jacob.”
In Jacob and Esau’s story we find all the elements of trauma: betrayal, estrangement, fear, violence, even murder, even fratricide (or at least the threat thereof). Some of these elements may also be found after natural disasters, such as earthquakes, hurricanes and tornadoes, when our previous assumptions about our place and relationship with the world are shattered, sometimes literally out of the blue. All of them can be found in human-generated disasters, such as war, genocide, crime, murder, and civil strife. Just read Lamentations for a catalog of trauma.
Although long-term, unrelieved stress can generate physical and emotional symptoms similar to post-traumatic stress, the normal, unavoidable stress of every day lives and our built-in role conflicts are not to be confused with trauma. Trauma differs from stress similar to the way in which a tornado differs from prevailing winds. In Belgium and in Kansas, I have seen how mature trees lean in the direction of prevailing winds, having constantly been stressed to survive in that shape. But they’re still quite strong, maybe stronger for the pressure. Tornadoes, however, can uproot and shatter trees. When a human or natural disaster strikes so suddenly, powerfully and irreversibly as to threaten our lives and our very sense of being and meaning, as though it were a betrayal of the very covenant we had made with God, life and the world, that is trauma.
In response to trauma, our bodies want to shake, weep, cry out, move, even run, the fight or flight response. There is deep, God-given wisdom to such responses; they discharge adrenaline and other God-given hormones that enable us to react to threat and hopefully even survive. But often we are forced—or feel forced—to stuff and stifle these responses for a later time, or indefinitely. Children who were abused in any way quickly learn not to react, lest they “invite” more abuse. Or people in the midst of falling bombs or rising waters have to shut down their shaking and quaking in order to get to safety. They may never let it come back on, so busy are they with coping and putting the pieces of life back together.
Yet the body remembers, and years later, for reasons we may not understand, they may come out in destructive ways, such as “acting in.” That is, by drug and alcohol abuse, risky sexual behavior, or other destructive addictions. Or we may “act out,” by abusing other people, stirring up conflict or in organized mob violence, as with gangs or in war. While such actions may provide momentary feelings of relief, they also widen the scope of trauma victims and add another kind of trauma to that of the victims: participant-induced trauma, the trauma of guilt, shame and spiritual deadening on the part of the offender. Often people carry both kinds of trauma, because, as is often said in therapeutic circles, “hurt people hurt people.” Violence and trauma become, in effect, a spiritual virus passing from one host to another, through families, communities and even nations in a vicious, self-perpetuating circle. The curse of Cain did not stop with him.
Just as we should never underestimate the power and effects of trauma, so we should never underestimate the power and possibilities of healing. In the STAR training (Strategies for Trauma Awareness and Resilience) that I took over the weekend of June 23-27, I learned much about the causes, effects and treatment of trauma. Though hosted by Augsburg College, in Minneapolis, MN, it is part of Eastern Mennonite University’s Institute for Peacebuilding. Mennonite peace and reconciliation workers have discovered that no one can deal with conflict for very long before realizing that it is often driven and complicated by very deep, emotional and historic pain, in effect, trauma. Rarely can the conflicts be resolved and peace made until the underlying pain and fear are addressed and healed to some degree.
The words “healing” and “treatment” makes it sound like it was a course for licensed therapists and psychologists, but only some of the attendees were of that professional status. The rest of us were students, school teachers, community activists and organizers, seminary students, and one pastor—myself. I would recommend STAR for anyone. The information was accessible and applicable for anyone of almost any educational background and level.
Central to STAR’s model of trauma awareness and response is “the snail model.” Think of the inner, overlapping circles as descriptors of the cycle of trauma/abuse, acting in and/or acting out and re-traumatization, of self and others. This cycle, sadly, is the plot line of many stories, epics and movies, from the ancient Babylonian creation epic, to Homer’s Illiad, Hitler’s Mein Kampf, the spaghetti westerns of Clint Eastwood, to today’s shoot-em-up video games, and the revenge fantasy novels of Dean Koontz. Often, the unwilling participants in this cycle bear a tragic nobility, suffering inevitably as both victims and avengers.
If that is not to continue forever and destroy both victim and perpetrator and create many more, at some point one must break free and create a new, self-reinforcing cycle, or story, or identity, by transcending the cycle of violation and vengeance. Because it breaks out from the tight circle of pain and retribution and moves off in another arc, a diagram of this redemptive movement has been called, “the snail model.” Also because it goes slowly and can be messy, as snails are.
The trajectory of the new cycle begins with truth-telling: exploring and memorializing the story of the injury but with a difference from the constant feedback loop of victimhood and the need to avenge. In the new story, the old plot leads to new ones, in which the victim rises above the status of victim, and the offender is considered separately from the offense. Prime examples of this would be the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., or the courageous and careful restoration of Warsaw, Poland, brick by brick, after it was completely leveled in 1944. There’s no excusing or minimizing the offense, of course. But the offender has to be re-considered as a hurt human being (because “hurt people hurt people”), no longer diminishing him or her to a sub-human status, as when the Hutus of Rwanda labeled the Tutsis “cockroaches.” That gave permission to stamp them out. But just as often, the offended must take the offender down from the status of a super-human monster, bigger than life, and therefore, above and beyond the reach of conscience, love or healing. This happened in Nazi-occupied Poland, when the war started to turn against the Nazis. Hearing news of German defeats, and seeing wounded Germans in passing hospital trains, gave many Polish Jews and Gentiles courage to start standing up to the occupiers in both overt and covert ways. They were only human, after all.
From there the trauma victim moves toward a new story and identity, one of survivor, overcomer, forgiver and peacemaker. Forgiveness is not to be confused with reconciliation, which requires just as much responsibility on the part of the offender as on the victim. The victim’s own healing cannot be held hostage to the offender’s willingness—or not–to admit his or her wrong-doing and ask for pardon. The offender may not even be available or alive any more. Forgiveness is not about excusing or minimizing the injury. It is about releasing oneself from a felt need to avenge, and therefore re-traumatize oneself and others.
An important way-station in the journey of trauma healing is the willingness to seek reconciliation with the offender. In one of the most touching parts of the seminar, that is what we saw a mother and her granddaughter do, in a documentary film, with the man who had raped and murdered the granddaughter’s mother years before. With the help of a volunteer who worked with Victim-Offender mediation, they were able to meet with the murderer in his prison and hear the answers to many of their questions about the murder. This was possible because of good preparation for this event, which included working with the murderer to help him get to the point where he owned up to what he did, and to all its meaning and ramifications. Forgiveness and reconciliation are not to be confused with condoning what needs to be forgiven. By honestly facing what he had done, and how it had affected them, both the offender and the victim’s survivors experienced some relief from the symptoms of trauma, how it that had long depressed, deadened and imprisoned them. The brutal crime had already forced into fact a relationship between the murderer and the victim’s loved ones. But after their initial meetings, that relationship was on a constructive, life-affirming path for all of them. But the murderer remains in prison.
This cycle of release and healing is the grand, mythic story that must come to inspire, instruct, and re-construct us, as an alternative to the myth of redemptive violence and the cycle of vengeance that has enchanted us for millenia.
All this I have described so far in psychological and therapeutic language. But it is also, I noted, the language and movement of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The break from the self-perpetuating cycle of violence and vengeance into a new self-perpetuating cycle of healing is one that Jesus made even as he was being nailed to the cross, when he prayed, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” On the third day after his crucifixion, he appeared to the very disciples who had abandoned and denied him in his hour of need, an act in their culture that was nearly every bit as bad as his betrayal by Judas and his murder, and said to them, “Peace be with you.” Then he went on, through his disciples, to reach out, incorporate and reconcile people of the very tribes and nations that had abandoned and murdered him (Gentile and Jewish), and to reconcile them to each other. This “ministry of reconciliation,” in the apocalyptic language of John’s Revelation, is “the war of the lamb” (Rev. 17:14).” It is every bit as heroic, mythic and cosmic, and requires just as much courage, discipline and dedication, and then some, as does war. But in this war, bodies, souls and relationships are re-united and healed.
And it is not just for the survivors of war, murder and natural disasters, although one can argue that we are all such survivors, even if only by a few degrees removed. To live and be human is to have to work through offenses, injuries and insults to our selves and our sense of well-being, even if they are self-inflicted or secondary, that is, by hearing the stories of other people’s traumas and helping them through them. Trauma healing is also for social workers, aid workers, medical personnel, pastors and any others who help carry other people’s burdens and may themselves suffer secondary trauma and compassion fatigue.
Much of what we, as helpers, can do for those recovering from trauma, is to listen with patience, attention, care and empathy. In so doing we help them tell their story and thus validate their pain and injury. We cannot reinterpret their story for them, but we can listen for and encourage those steps and twists in the story-telling through which they can begin to move from a cycle of victimhood to one of victory over the symptoms of trauma. Because, by the grace of God, life, hope and healing are ever seeking to enter and re-direct the inward, downward spiral of victimhood. At times, though, we may have to recognize and challenge the temptation to use the story to reinforce a sense of victimhood, rather than to seek a way out of it.
Even if our lives have been incredibly sheltered (like mine, comparatively speaking), in this city (Minneapolis) and in this time, one need only sit somewhere a while before trauma stories and trauma victims come looking for us. Trauma of some sort has driven most of the immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers to our neighborhoods. The Native peoples, whose ancestors received the first Scandinavians and Germans to this community, carry a trauma wound that is re-opening on the occasion of Minnesota’s 150th anniversary. Federal law still says that the Dakota are not supposed to live in this state, under pain of death. I sense that the recent Arizona law requiring the validation of citizenship whenever there is any reason to doubt it, and the recent proposal of such a law in the Minnesota state legislature, has heightened the level of fear in the local Spanish-speaking community, documented and otherwise.
Trauma can feed back to the present from the future, in the one universal trauma we all face: that of death and dying. And so we deny and negate the reality of death in ways similar to the common denial of traumas in our past. But hope and healing can also filter back from the future to the present. On the last day of STAR, our assignment was to bring in some symbol of hope for ourselves. One person brought a cross. A Somali woman quoted a verse from the Q’uran in Arabic. Another brought some of her photography. I brought two matching halves of a freshwater clam shell that I had found alongside the Maumee River, upstream of Toledo, Ohio. It is a sign of healing and hope, I said, because the river, at its headwaters in Fort Wayne, Indiana, begins nearly as a dead zone, so badly is it polluted with silt, sewage and industrial waste. By the time it reaches Defiance, Ohio, however, the river is much cleaner and brimming with life. Freshwater clams are especially sensitive to pollution, but from Defiance on down they thrive in the river nearly all the way to its mouth, near Toledo, so powerful and effective are the powers of healing, renewal and cleansing in this world. That reminded me, I said, of another picture of healing and restoration to come, in John’s Revelation, chapter 22: “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse.”
And from the previous chapter, verse 4: “God will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away. He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!'”