The Bible Offers Hope for Trauma Victims when Violence is the Norm

Reading the Bible Through a Trauma Lens

We live in a world shaped by trauma. News of horrific forms of violence taking place all across the globe shocks us. But we often don’t realize that violence and trauma are everyday occurrences in our own country—and our own homes. While some people in the United States face the threat of death, all of our communities are impacted by family abuse. Considering the most conservative numbers we have—1 in 6 males and 1 in 4 females experience sexual assault before age 18—a large portion of our friends and acquaintances have likely had traumatic experiences.

These statistics bear great significance for us as faith leaders. In a congregation of one hundred, twenty of your church members are walking around with wounds of sexual violence on their bodies and souls. That number says nothing about those with wounds caused by domestic violence, racial prejudice, sexism, and bullying. Were we to include these forms of interpersonal violence, the number would increase significantly.

What would sermons and conversations look like if twenty people in our congregation of one hundred had just lost a house in a fire or a child to premature death? Wouldn’t we be working to build a better understanding of God’s activity in the midst of brokenness rather than passing over pain as a mere hiccup of normal life?

Yet we continue to imagine trauma as some sort of abnormal occurrence. And while our churches have a strong theology for sinners, we have a less articulated theology for victims.

What if we read the Bible in such a way to build a theology of trauma for victims? How could this form of Scripture engagement impact, and heal, our communities?

Setting the Stage

I would suggest that Diane Langberg’s maxim sets the stage quite nicely: the cross is where trauma and God meet. Jesus cries out in the pain of abandonment by the Father. Since we do have a high priest who understands our trauma (Hebrews 4:15), we can read the entire canon from the frame of trauma—from the trauma of the first sin and death to the trauma of the cross to the trauma just prior to the coming new heavens and earth.

Key Themes in a Theology of Trauma

Reading the Bible through the lens of trauma highlights a few key themes beyond the foundation of a God who knows trauma firsthand in the unjust torture and death of Jesus. Here are five that can help equip you to address trauma from a biblical perspective in your own community.

Anguish is the norm and leads most frequently to questions

When more than 40 percent of the Psalms are laments (and that doesn’t count the primary themes of the prophets!) we must recognize that expressing anguish is one of the most appropriate forms of communication to God and with each other. But we are not alone in the feelings of anguish. God expresses it as well. Notice that God expresses anguish over the idolatry of Israel (Ezekiel 6:9) and Jesus expresses his anguish when lamenting over Israel (Luke 13:34). He cries out in questions when abandoned by the Father (by quoting and therefore fulfilling Psalm 22): Despised and rejected, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief.

Peace happens in the context of chaos

Psalm 23 comes to the lips of many in times of trouble as it expresses peace and rest during times of intense trouble. Shadows of death yet comfort; enemies around yet feasts. Peace happens but rarely outside of chaos and distress. Or consider Jeremiah 29:11, frequently quoted to those going through hardship to remind them that God has a plan. He does have one, but recall that the plan was to live in exile among those who see the Israelites as foreigners and second-class citizens!

The kingdom of God in the present does not promise protection of bodies

Try reading Psalm 121 aloud among those who have survived genocide or been raped repeatedly by soldiers. “The Lord will keep you from all harm.” Really? You lost 70 family members? Where was your protection? Our theology of God’s care must take into consideration that God does not eliminate disaster for those he loves. Recall again the trauma wrought on those God chose to be his remnant. They were the ones ripped from families and enslaved by the Babylonians.

God and his people are in the business of caring for the most vulnerable

The kingdom of God is not for those who have pure beliefs. The kingdom of God is for the poor in Spirit, the persecuted, those who provide mercy, and those who hunger for justice (Matthew 5). True or pure religion is practiced by those who care for the most vulnerable among us (James 1:27). Jesus himself is the fulfillment of healing as he claims Isaiah 61 as fulfilled in his personhood and mission (Luke 4:18-21). As God’s people, we are the hands and feet to carry out that binding up and release from oppression.

Recovery and renewal during and after trauma likely will not eliminate the consequences of violence until the final return of Jesus Christ

Despite our call to heal the broken and free those enslaved, we are given no promise that the consequences of violence are fully removed until the final judgment. Rarely do we expect lost limbs to grow back or traumatic brain injuries to be erased upon recovery from an accident. Yet sometimes we assume that traumatic reactions such as startle responses, flashbacks, or overwhelming panic should evaporate if the person has recovered. A robust theology of trauma recognizes that we have no promise of recovery in this life. What we do have is a theology of presence. God is with us and will strengthen and guide us to serve him and participate in his mission.

There is much more to say about a theology of trauma for victims. We can discuss things like theodicy, forgiveness, restorative justice, and reconciliation. But for now, let us be patient with those who are hurting. They represent the norm and not the exception. And may we build a missional theology of trauma in our communities, not only for victims, but the whole interconnected body of Christ.

Further Reading

Ganzeboort, R. Ruard (2008). Teaching that Matters: A Course on Trauma and Theology. Journal of Adult Theological Education, 5:1, 8-19.

This article is repurposed with permission from philipmonroe.com.

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Phil Monroe
Phil Monroe

Philip Monroe, PsyD is Director of Training and Materials for Mission Trauma Healing at American Bible Society. He maintains a private clinical practice with Diane Langberg & Associates in Jenkintown, PA. Prior to 2017, Phil was the chair of the Graduate School of Counseling at Biblical Seminary where he now holds Taylor Visiting Professor of Counseling and Psychology endowed chair.

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