Trauma-informed Engagement with Scripture, Part 1

embodied reading human psychological multiplicity integration story work trauma-informed whole-person engagement with scripture Jul 19, 2022
woman holding an open bible

Trauma is something that touches every human being in one way or another. It can be thought of as an overwhelm of the system in which one’s resourcing is not adequate to one’s need and a part of us or our story becomes dis-integrated. Gabor Maté, in the film The Wisdom of Trauma, describes trauma not as what happens to you, but “what happens inside you as a result of what happened to you.” Resmaa Menakem says, “Trauma can be anything that happens too much, too fast, too soon, too long, coupled with not enough of what should have happened that was resourcing.” Cathy Caruth describes trauma as “the confrontation with an event that, in its unexpectedness and horror, cannot be placed within the schemes of prior knowledge.” 

Processing trauma, re-integrating that which could not be brought onboard when it happened, requires connection and compassion, a space of safety in which the healing process can unfold. People in religious communities have a particular opportunity and a unique responsibility to create space for such healing and integration.

In the coming weeks I will be posting more in-depth discussions about what it might look like to keep in mind our growing knowledge about trauma when we gather (both physically and in virtual spaces) to engage with each other around sacred texts and shared spiritual practices. For now, I will present a few points as a starting point for this ongoing discussion.

In this post I argue that trauma-informed engagement with scripture 1) recognizes the Bible as trauma literature, 2) acknowledges the ways the Bible has been used to inflict trauma as well as to heal trauma, and 3) holds space for the multiplicity of human experience present in group engagement with texts.

Recognizing the Bible as Trauma Literature

The biblical narrative is woven through with stories of trauma survival. David Carr, in his book Holy Resilience: The Bible’s Traumatic Origins, argues that the fact that Jewish and Christian scriptures both arose out of and speak to human trauma is part of the reason they have survived, and even flourished.

In addition to stories of trauma and resilience, parts of the Bible also embody in very direct ways the experience and impact of traumatic events. Kathleen O’Connor notes, for example, in her discussion of the structure of the book of Jeremiah, that the organization (or lack thereof) of the book belies the chaotic context out of which it arose.

Some texts, such as the large collection of lament poetry found in the Hebrew Bible, vividly describe not only triggering events such as betrayal, violence, and sudden disaster, but also the internal experience of trying to make sense of such experiences. We tend to want to clean these poems up, using heartbreaking lyrics, for example, from a lament psalm like Psalm 137 (By the rivers of Babylon I sat and wept) and then concluding by adding tidy phrases from other poems (like these lines from Psalm 19: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, oh my Rock and my Redeemer). Most of the lament poetry in the Bible, however, does not resolve in tidy ways. This poetry gives voice to experiences of trauma and the internal overwhelm and fragmenting that trauma involves and also holds space for that dis-integration to be present in and around a person while (and not only before) they are in the presence of God and a worshipping community.

Acknowledging How the Bible Has Been Used to Inflict Trauma

One does not need to look far to discover ways sacred texts have been used to cause harm. Sometimes we are aware of the harm right away. Other times, the impact of a line from scripture (what some are taught is the very words of God) being weaponized against a human being are only evident long after the harm has been done. There are large-scale examples of genocide and war rampages defended by lines from scripture. There are also small-scale examples of ways individuals carry unprocessed pain associated with the use of scripture. A few months ago I was invited to be part of a panel discussing women’s experiences in church. As someone who has always been given many opportunities for involvement and leadership in my own religious community and beyond, I was not aware of how certain messages had lodged in my body. I generally avoid discussions of lines from the New Testament epistles of Paul like “women should be silent” and “Adam was not deceived but the woman was deceived.” In preparation for the panel discussion, the organizers let us know that they planned to read aloud a number of these texts and invite candid responses or descriptions of how we experienced the texts. As I got ready to leave for the event, I found myself curled up in the fetal position in front of the fireplace in my home rocking back and forth and saying “I can do this…I can get through this” as I thought about sitting in a public setting hearing these texts. It was an eye-opening experience for me to realize my avoidance was probably far more self-protective than was immediately apparent in the “Oh, those don’t apply to me. Why waste my time discussing them?” kind of response I usually gave when someone asked me about these texts. When we talk about scripture being used to inflict harm, one of the things we are talking about is the use of a line or phrase or idea from the Bible in a context when someone is experiencing something too painful or shocking to be able to process and integrate it at that moment, with their current level of internal and/or external resourcing. This takes place on many levels, individually and communally, and has manifested in a variety of ways over the course of human history.

Acknowledging How the Bible Has Been Used as a Resource in Trauma Healing

There are also many ways sacred texts have been used to promote healing. For the purpose of this short introduction, I return to the topic of lament. Poems of lament not only illustrate the experience and processing of trauma, but also provide a framework for both individual and communal aspects of healing. June Dickie, in an article about the intersection of biblical lament and psychotherapy in the healing of trauma memories, describes how poetry can play a crucial role in the construction of meaning as people work to process and integrate traumatic memories. She also notes that elements of lament poetry like patterns, mild suspense, and vivid imagery can contribute to trauma healing. Dickie ultimately argues that both studying the biblical psalms of lament and “composing one’s own lament” can promote healing. This is only one of many examples of how the stories and poems collected together in the Bible have been used to facilitate integration and wellbeing.

Holding Space for the Multiplicity of Human Experience

Humans have gathered around sacred texts for millennia, reading, singing, chanting, translating, dancing, interpreting, discussing. There are many ways that the growing body of research around trauma and trauma healing can inform such gatherings and practices. Here I want to mention two aspects of multiplicity that can illuminate some of the dynamics present when we engage with scripture together. 

Jennifer Baldwin, in her book Trauma-sensitive Theology: Thinking Theologically in the Era of Trauma, describes four commitments of trauma-sensitive theology. One of these is the “natural givenness of human psychological multiplicity.” Human experience is multi-dimensional and holding space for both the shattered and dis-integrated parts of us or our story and our resilience, our strength, and our sense that we are more than our pain is an important part of processing trauma and journeying toward healing.

I believe the multiplicity that is a natural part of human experience at the individual level is also natural in gatherings in the sense that wherever two or three are gathered there are two or three particular stories and sets of experience present. If we take this awareness and bring it to a group engaging together around a sacred text or a theme from scripture, what we get is the possibility that within a group (even when the people share similar backgrounds and religious affiliations) there are many ways a text or religious proposition is experienced. To give a relatively simple example, imagine a small group of people gathering to read or discuss Isaiah 26. One person in the group has had the phrase “You will keep in perfect peace, him whose mind is stayed on thee” used to undermine or belittle them when they were navigating experiences of debilitating anxiety. “Oh, you must need to focus more on God. You know the promise—He gives peace to those whose minds are steadfast on him.” Another person in the same group may have calming, reassuring, and supportive connotations associated with the same phrase, perhaps remembering singing those lyrics with friends or family during joyful times of care and connection. Holding space for the multiplicity of human experience, therefore, can involve not only an openness to multiple dimensions of a particular person’s experience but also a generous accommodation of the different experiences of each person present. Trauma-informed engagement with scripture creates space for the nuance and richness of authentic human life and story rather than stating or implying that everyone should experience a given text or topic the same way.

By Jody Washburn


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