#TheologyinIsolation 6 - "A View from the Middle: Trauma Theology and COVID-19"
Continuing our #TheologyinIsolation series, Florence O'Taylor reflects on what trauma theology teaches us about the risk of rushing to redemption narratives and easy explanations.
I study trauma for a living.
Before studying it, I spent half a decade living alongside and working with a group of wonderful women, many of whom have survived, or are in the midst of surviving, various traumatic experiences. Trauma is something I think about more than most.
As we settle into lockdown for the foreseeable, it is beginning to hit home that this pandemic is a collective trauma on the scale of 9/11 or WWII. Apart from the distinct threat COVID-19 poses, the impact staying inside will have on some of us is significant. There are some of us without homes, some of us without immigration status, some of us with abusive partners, some of us who are yet to be supported financially by the government, some of us who are living alone and some of us living in overcrowded flats with no outdoor space, all of us living in a way that we could not have imagined in simpler times, mere weeks ago.
After 10 years of austerity, in the midst of a public health crisis, along with an under-resourced NHS, we are experiencing our social security safety net in a terrible state. We find ourselves in potential trauma territory. As Christians we might feel a pressure to provide a redemptive twist or deeper meaning to all this as it is occurring. Looking through a lens of trauma theology, I want to encourage us all that it is OK – in fact it is to be encouraged – to hold back from offering redemption narratives and give permission to sit a while with the magnitude of what we are facing.
It is quite natural to be asking where God is to be found in the midst of it all. Ministers will be acutely aware people are asking these questions and might feel an obligation to give a hope-filled answer. We might be speaking with friends and, as people of faith, feel a pressure to say something profound about some deeper meaning or whip out an ABC apologetics guide on suffering. I know I have had a constant urge to be ‘useful’ or ‘productive’. But, as Rowan Williams said on Newsnight last Tuesday, suffering is nothing new, and trite redemptive offerings remain not what is needed. In fact, they can be dangerous. To use an analogy from Easter Weekend (forgive me during Lent!), we so often feel a pressure to skip from Good Friday to Easter Sunday, providing a redemptive arc to the story as it unfolds, forgetting that in truth we sit in the middle of Holy Saturday, unsure of whether or how resurrection might come forth.
While this urge toward Easter Sunday is real, it is worth resisting. It risks minimising our pain – both personal and collective – and propagating a narrative of redemption and image of God that is allergic to real suffering. We need permission to sit a while in the darkness; to allow the magnitude of what has already occurred, and what will inevitably occur in the coming weeks, to sink in. It is OK to feel numb, to disconnect, to feel like we are living through a particularly dark episode of Black Mirror. It might also for some be helpful to recognise this pandemic as a traumatic event. Trauma can be defined as an event that ‘overwhelms the ordinary human adaptations to life’, distinguished from other forms of suffering as it breaks down our capacity to integrate the event with former life experiences. Traumatic events can shatter our sense of what we thought to be true and safe. We can feel disconnected with our histories and unsure as to how our future will unfold. This can leave us in an uncomfortable, liminal space theologian Shelly Rambo refers to as the middle.
This middle space can be painful yet acknowledging it is important. In doing so we allow the possibility of healing to begin. Just as fresh wounds need to breathe, it is crucial that we don’t plaster over our struggle or confusion. Trauma theory suggests that if we try to mask our pain, it makes a habit of returning, and so it’s helpful to give ourselves space to experience it now. Our theology must make space for this, resisting the forward pull toward redemptive resolution. As we approach Easter, the passion narrative provides us with wisdom on how to proceed. Drawing on Rambo’s work, alongside Hans Urs von Batlhasar and Adrienne von Speyr, Holy Saturday provides the middle space where we can witness trauma and develop an understanding of God’s love in its midst. This awkward day, suspended between Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, resonates with the limbo we find ourselves in with COVID-19. Isolated at home, suspended from normality, unsure as to when, how or if it will return, we can give ourselves permission to be bewildered. Just as omitting Holy Saturday risks replicating the violence of the crucifixion by being unwilling to witness its painful reality, we needn’t force a redemptive narrative, but witness and validate the collective pain COVID-19 is causing.
As we pause in the middle, we might begin to recognise that just as God’s Spirit lingers on Holy Saturday, he remains with us here, albeit at times almost unseen. God is not waiting for us to feel, think or act better, rather he is witnessing the chaos with us, omnipresent.
Thinking theologically in isolation, while we sit with the enormity of the shift that is occurring globally, we might both attend to our sense of fear and to the sparks of joy and hope that may emerge. We might let go of a need to offer linear redemptive narratives in the midst of crisis, instead attending to the losses, grief and the chaos that is unfolding. Here, we might begin to notice that divine love remains in the midst of suffering and accept the ambivalence of our emotions. In so doing, we might better be equipped to accompany people in their grief, challenge broken structures, and as Easter Sunday draws near, start imagining what future could emerge.
 Judith Lewis Herman, Trauma and Recovery, Trauma and Recovery : From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, [rev ed.]. (London : Pandora, 2001), p.33.
 Shelly Rambo, Spirit and Trauma : A Theology of Remaining (Louisville, Ky.: Louisville, Ky. : Westminster John Knox Press, 2010)
Florence O'Taylor is currently studying for a PhD on Political Theology and women's experience of addiction at Durham University