Trauma as a place of service
From a talk at Q Ideas
What can we do? It’s the natural question after a disaster.
Our hearts break for the hurting and the grieved. We want to reach out, to help. As people living in a broken world, we are regularly and often confronted with the problem of pain, with the reality of human suffering.
Dr. Diane Langberg is a practicing psychologist whose clinical expertise includes 50 years of working with trauma survivors and clergy. She speaks internationally on topics related to women, trauma, ministry and the Christian life. In a talk at Q Ideas, she argues that trauma is perhaps the most important place for service and mission in the 21st century. Here are some extracts:
It is a numbing world. The digital world and media tsunami overwhelm us but today I would ask you come with me for just a glimpse of this world that our God so loves this world whose anguish He bears.
Last summer I was in Ghana speaking at a conference on violence against women and children. And while there we were taken to visit the Cape Coast Castle. Hundreds of thousands of Africans were forced through its dungeons and it's door of 'No Return' onto slave ships. Descending into the darkness of one of those dungeons was claustrophobic. 200 men, shackled and chained together, stayed in the dungeon for about three months before they were put onto ships and sent across the Atlantic.
We stood in one of those male dungeons listening in the darkness to the whole horrific story when our guide said this, "Do you know what's above the dungeon? ... The chapel." Directly above 200 shackled men, some of them dead, others screaming, all of them filthy, God worshippers sang, read Scripture, prayed and I suppose they took up an offering for the less fortunate.
The slaves could hear the service and the worshippers could hear the slaves some of the time because they often had somebody down there trying to keep them quiet. The evil, the suffering, the humiliations, the traumas were overwhelming and the visual parable was stunning. The people in the chapel were numb to the horrific trauma beneath their feet.
We have dungeons in our world today - genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia, wars around the world, female genital mutilation, rape, sex trafficking and violence in our own cities. Do you know that all of these events produced traumatised human beings? The dungeons are here. They result in traumatised human beings. That means that they live with recurrent tormenting memories. of atrocities witnessed or borne. Memories that infect their sleep with nightmares, destroy their relationships, their capacity to work or to study, torment their emotions, shatter their faith and mutilate their hope.
Trauma is extraordinary. Not because it rarely happens, but because it completely swallows and destroys normal human ways of coping and living. The dungeons of this world are filled with traumatised people. The usual response to atrocity is to try and remove it from the mind. Those who have been traumatised want to flee the memory of its occurrence and we who listen find we want to flee also. We find it too terrible to remember and too incomprehensible to put into words. That is why we use the phrase 'unspeakable atrocities'. That tension, that push-pull between the need to forget and the need to speak is the central dialectic of trauma. And the tension is not only experienced by individuals or families but by institutions and yes, even nations.
As a psychologist I've seen the push-pull in my clients who were too terrified to remember and speak but who cannot forget. I have witnessed families and churches and, yes, nations deny the existence of evil and trauma in their world. The stories threaten our comfort, our position our systems.
So what are we to do? Choose complicity or silence or flip from cause to cause trying to do something which is sometimes about making ourselves feel better? Or render judgement and categorise the traumatised as 'they', "if they were more responsible or made better moral choices, they would not be suffering."
Under the worship in that chapel in Ghana, lay the darkness, oppression and tyranny of slavery. All things that blight and destroy human beings created in the image of God. And I think that you know, that Christianity does not look like being folded up with evil and sitting on top of dungeons. I think you know, that following Christ does not look like complicity with a system that butters our bread and fills our coffers, while we stand on the back of those created in the image of God.
I would argue that heaven leaves its place of comfort, songs, purity and plenty and heaven comes down. If the people of that chapel had truly worshipped the God of the scriptures, they would have been in the dungeon in the filth, the darkness and the trauma and they would have entered in so that they might bring out. God came down, Jesus became like us so we might become like him. He came to this dungeon you and I call earth. He sat with us, he touched us and he loved us. And he brought us to himself and he enters the dungeons of our hearts and transforms them.
We were the slaves in the dungeon. He's called us as his body to follow his lead to go back into the dungeon so that other slaves might find freedom and go back with us and find yet more. Sadly, the body of Christ has often failed to see trauma as a place of service. But I think that if we, as the body of Christ, look out on suffering humanity, we would realise that trauma is perhaps the greatest mission field of the 21st century.
People have sometimes hidden in their chapels. We worship and sing and give money. We've often blamed those who suffer. And we have often failed to recognise that systems can be corrupt and power is abused, even our power. And yet, like our Lord, there are many people in this world who suffer from totally undeserved injustice and trauma. We have not gone to the dungeons and have sadly been blind to the fact that that is simply an exposure of the dungeon that is in our heart.
Our first call is love and obedience to Jesus Christ. Many have thought that if you avoid the dungeons of the world, that's how you stay clean. But to do so, they failed to follow our Saviour who went to the dungheaps of this world. Will we, his body, also leave our heavens and enter the trauma of terrified and shattered humanity? If the Church does not enter into trauma, then I would ask you, "Is she really then living as the body of an incarnated God?"
Watch the 16 minute talk here.
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