The Falcon Cannot Hear the Falconer, II: Ongoing Reflections on Suffering, Theology, and Newtown
Shelly L. Rambo on Presence, Trauma, and Resurrection—Part Two
This is the conclusion of the exchange with Shelly Rambo regarding trauma, violence, and theology. You can find the first part here. Above are icons of the Incredulity of St. Thomas and Macrina the Younger.
Prof. Rambo begins here by continuing thoughts about resurrection that became more urgent after the death of her mother.
SLR: What is the promise of resurrection? In theological terms, I am moving from articulations of the aftermath to rethinking the afterlife. I had hesitated to move so explicitly into eschatological territory, but, interestingly, it was my mother’s recent death that gave me new energy to engage questions that encircle resurrection. I started to examine resurrection promises with a new sense of urgency. I wanted to know what kind of connection I would have with my mother after death. I wrote elsewhere that scars had particular meaning, since my mother had scars from her heart surgeries. The fact that I had come to know myself by way of her scars suddenly linked me to Thomas in a new way.
Just as I had been shaped by her scars, what, of Thomas’ becoming, would be shaped by these scars? My mother’s scars became sacred to me by way of the biblical story, and it tied her to a lineage of Christian saints, like Macrina, whose flesh marked a life’s journey. This is very tricky territory to navigate, since I resist glorifying suffering. But it seems right to acknowledge that the very tangible marks of one’s person can shape, empower, and guide others. I would like to think that resurrection connects us to those who have come before us not in some ethereal way but in tangible traces of life that reappear and continue to shape us.
The scars bears traces, holds memories, but not in a way that damns us or throws us back into chaos. So Thomas’ resurrection exclamation, “My Lord and my God,” might be interpreted beyond a cognitive assertion that Jesus is who he claimed to be, and, instead, interpreted as Thomas’ response to the invitation to discern life in and through wounds. If the imperative to witness was what is handed over in Holy Saturday, it is the invitation to practices of re-creation that we receive on Easter Sunday.
“Sandy Hook Angels,” a photo of an ad hoc memorial and the tokens left by mourners in Newtown. All rights reserved by Flickr user teeitup228.
I obviously have not worked all of this out yet, but I am trying to grapple with classic claims of resurrection—the promise of the resurrection of the body, and the promise of reunion with loved ones—in light of trauma. In the case of Newtown, I was mindful of Marcus Yam’s photo image in the NYTimes of the memorial constructed outside of the Sandy Hook Elementary School. The figures of angels were staked in the soil in memory of each child who was killed. This is theologically rich to unpack, but I was thinking about how a theology of resurrection—as afterlife—might rethink the notion of guardian angels, taking them from supernatural figures of innocence to meaningful expressions of presencing—of guarding spirits in the presence of violence. How might we take other-worldly images of the afterlife and activate them?
CJD: On a related note, can you talk a little more about how you understand the relationship between explanation—the sort that Tom Long is talking about—and presence? Are we talking about rival practices, about pastoral judgment and timing, or about a division of intellectual labor, or what?
SLR: Actually, what I like most about Tom Long’s book is that he is calling for ministers to reengage the theodicy questions in response to what he identifies as a “weak” ministry of presence; he thinks mainlines ministers are so hesitant to say anything in the face of suffering that they have reduced presence to what I would call ‘tissue box’ presence. He is concerned about the nature of that presencing, just as I am. He thinks engagement with the theodicy questions prepares the minister for a different way of being present—a “thicker” presence. The practice of seeking explanation (inquiry) is one practice that the minister would bring to those who face tragedy. But I want to open up ministerial preparation for presencing in times of tragedy beyond cognitive preparation to other modes of preparation—somatic, aesthetic. (Long does gesture in this direction by proposing walking out our theodicy, reviving the ancient strolling practice solvitur ambulando, meaning “it is solved by walking.”)
I also think that cultivating practices of imagination is critical.
For those who experience trauma, the capacity to imagine the future is often shut down. Can we imagine the world otherwise for our congregants? This means that we need to open ourselves to new teachers—poets, artists, musicians, etc. To answer directly, I do not think that explanation and presencing are rival practices. However, explanation has been a privileged practice (in theologies of suffering), and we need to place it alongside other practices.
CJD: Our focus here on the psychological dimension of the moral and theological challenge raises another question for me. Does introducing trauma discourse into this discussion help or hurt a social justice approach? I’m thinking of ethicists and theologians likes James McCarty, Anthea Butler, and many others who do value quiet solidarity and restraint as expressions of pastoral responsibility, but who also see explaining sociological realities and policy choices as key to meeting the moral demands of Newtown. This is not necessarily what you should do in the presence of a grieving parent, but suspension of metaphysical judgment shouldn’t prevent us from seizing the moment to mobilize and argue for a particular path, policy-wise, as a matter of theological responsibility. Does this contradict what you’ve said about trauma and its potential to re-organize our society’s responses to grievous wrongdoing, or is it in some sense complimentary?
Screencap of homicide infographic published by the Chicago Sun-Times
SLR: This is a great question, and it is gives me an opportunity to name something about the history of trauma studies. The study of trauma emerged at the end of the 19th century and has been a study rooted in the western European tradition, largely identified with Freud and psychoanalysis. Its central assumptions reflect that worldview, and the opening up of trauma to interdisciplinary study has challenged the individual model of patient and therapist and psychic healing. Geoffrey Canada, an education activist, takes issue with the acronym “PTSD.” In the communities in which he lives and works, Canada says, there is no “post” in post-traumatic stress disorder. Instead, the stress is continual, ongoing. Existing definitions assume an event of trauma and a list of symptoms that emerge from an inability to integrate that event. Canada speaks about conditions of existence that make some persons more susceptible to harm. (Jeffrey Alexander’s work highlights this well). This is where I see a critical connection to social justice. If you look through the double lenses of trauma and social justice, you would be seeing layers to communal tragedies and asking a set of questions that would unearth the ongoing (insidious) conditions of violence that underlie events such as the Newtown shooting. Whose deaths count in America? Newtown incited a national debate about gun control. Ongoing gang violence on the streets of Dorchester and Roxbury (in Boston) does not gain national attention. This does not diminish the tragedy in Newtown. It does cause us to think about whose trauma is recognized and whose is not.
Core to my understanding of trauma is the notion that trauma is difficult to unearth and to bring to light. This is often thought of in terms of the problem of memory and of the challenge of bringing one’s experience of trauma to consciousness—of telling one’s story. But there is another dimension that is core to conceptions of justice. The erasure, or covering over of violence, is often externally imposed. To bring a story of violence to light is not just about personal healing; it may be a threatened and risky activity. One of the dimensions of witness that I highlight at the end of my book is the capacity to “track the undertow.”
Flooded I-10/I-610/West End Blvd interchange and surrounding area of northwest New Orleans and Metairie, Louisiana
The imagery of the undertow comes from the context of response to Hurricane Katrina. There are forces (you would say infrastructural and systemic forces) that continue to pull people back into chaos. This would mean attending to the forces operating at a level that pull persons back into chaos. You can think of this individually and psychically as the difficulty of recovering memories or flashbacks of a traumatic event that continue to work against healing. But I think of it more in terms of the practice of discerning the forces that work against healing and addressing those. And my image of witness is one that positions outside witnesses in the chaos of the middle day, and they have the capacity to discern life arising, even when no signs of life can be seen. This is not necessarily quiet or individualized practices of presence; it could be more prophetic, public acts, of “tracking the undertow.”
CJD: I’m struck by an inter-Gospel resonance here in terms of reclaiming Thomas. At the end of Mark (15: 39), confronted by Jesus’ agonizing death on the cross, a centurion recognizes him as God’s son; he is the only human actor in the book to do so—otherwise the narrator in 1:1, God at the baptism, and demons all affirm this title as centrally important, if somewhat theologically ambiguous category. In the Thomas tradition as you render it, though, we have an alternative reading of theophany in the resurrection body—an oddly spectral fleshiness that nonetheless bears these remarkable scars. It in fact cannot be the resurrected Jesus if the scars too have not been reconstituted. Your exploration of scarring, and even touch itself, in terms of your mother’s death I think substantiates your argument about an embrace of human vulnerability that is distinct from the valorization of suffering.
I am always a little worried about the possibility of “tissue-box” presence, as you say, and a shyness about the grim difficulty of theodicy that might foreclose the meaningful background work of theological reflection. But it seems to me intuitively correct, as you say, that all too frequently the “default mode” of interaction is a fumbling for formula that take the pressure off of God, or at least off of God’s various representatives. Good arguments and good imagination would do neither, of course. I remember our little school community dealt with the loss of a sophomore and the grave injury of her friend in a car accident. With a great cloud of not very good theology swirling about, my mother said to me, “Chris, God does not explain suffering, but he does answer it. And that answer is ‘Jesus wept.’”
Noah praying in the Ark, from a Roman catacomb. The Ark was a regular theme in early Christian art.
On the question of systemic violence and ongoing social trauma, the imagery from Katrina is powerful, almost archetypically so—that even when the waters recede, there are forces acting to drag people and communities back into chaos and disruption. When you talk about countervailing forces of memory, forces that contradict faithful witness to trauma, I think about this year and its celebration of civil rights movement achievements in Montgomery, Birmingham, and Jackson. These are obviously praiseworthy and impressive moments from one perspective, but from another, they forge a rather too easy consensus about the success of the current state of the struggle for equality—a somewhat less jagged path through the violence and indeed trauma it all entailed. I think we see this urge to triumphalism in the only large-scale lynching monument in the United States in Duluth, Minnesota for instance, which Dora Apel has analyzed quite subtly. I’m not sure what to do with all the implications here, but in these cases of perduring social trauma, the contrast between embracing resurrection and witnessing to Holy Saturday could make quite a difference.
Shelly, thanks for taking the time to work through all of this. I’ll leave the last word to you if there’s anything you’d like to add or make more complete in terms of the great amount of ground you’ve covered in response to the trauma of Sandy Hook.
SLR: I am struck by the fact that the Thomas account, as you say, features the resurrected Christ in this “spectral fleshiness.” (ghostly and scarred) The implication is that these scars are of a different sort—in some way transfigured in the resurrection. We can think about this by way of another interesting gospel connection.
12th century Transfiguration of Christ Icon from St. Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai
The event of resurrection is often interpreted in light of the event of the transfiguration in the Christian tradition. Although John is the only gospel that does not have an account of the transfiguration, some scholars account for this by saying that the whole gospel is a transfiguration account. This strikes me as suggestive for my reading of Thomas and what we might come to understand as the transfiguration of wounds. The word trans- suggests a crossing or passage across the surface of flesh that is figured, differently, by the encounter. This “passage” neither plunges us back into the wound nor removes it. Instead, the scars transfigure life or, as you say, “reconstitute” it. A famous hymn from my tradition claims that there is “power in the blood”; I am wrestling over the claim that there is power in the scars. But of what sort? Scars hold the memory of the suffering, but they also transfigure that suffering. I turn to the images of my mother’s scars and to the community in Sandy Hook to ‘flesh out’ the theological picture of resurrection, because I find that these textured ‘resurrection accounts’ can move me beyond my theological impasses. This has certainly been the case in my work with veterans; I bring these stories of resurrection to my theological work.
I think your turn to memorializing is an important one. How is the past performed in the present? How might the memory be carried forward in such a way that the suffering of the past transfigures the present? Memorials are about working through scars, we could say. This is careful work of insisting that an event still speaks but to do so without reopening wounds. Apel’s work on memorialization and lynching is important, because she is thinking from a different angle about how notions of transfiguration and redemption operate to shape collective memory. She shares concerns about theological claims that underlie how communities remember—redemption, martyrdom, atonement, and forgiveness. This is why working with the biblical narratives is so important, because some of the central assumptions that emerge from those stories infuse an American redemptive narrative. Interpretation and theological writing can, thus, be a mode of testifying at the site of resurrection wounds—resisting their theological closure, refusing tidy answers, and querying the transmission of the biblical story. A textured reading of resurrection can do something of the subtle work that Apel does in examining the dynamics of memorializing.
CJD: Shelly, with that we will bring it to a close. Thanks for all your work on this.
SLR: Thank you for the exchange.
Again, the photos of cards above are from the Letters to Newtown Tumblr. Paintings and icons are from the Creative Commons or are otherwise in the public domain.
Next week we’ll add the conversion roundtable to the mix, and next in the Newtown series we’ll be hearing from Mark Wiebe, a systematic theologian. Thanks so much for reading, and as always, follow the “Ask” link above to ask questions.