A message from Dr. Elaine Heath, Dean of the Duke Divinity School, originally posted for the Duke Center for Reconciliation.
In her book, Trauma and Grace, Serene Jones offers the proposal that both individuals and communities who suffer from trauma, can find healing and hope in certain biblical narratives.  For example she cites the story of the Walk to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-49) as a text about the communal trauma that the disciples experienced, and how Jesus broke through and helped them to begin to re-narrate their experience and their future. Jones specifically uses this text in conjunction with the trauma inflicted upon the United States on September 11, 2001. The story of the Walk to Emmaus thus becomes a template with which to imagine our own collective healing from other kinds of community trauma.
The process of healing trauma, writes Jones, includes speaking about the original harm that caused trauma, doing so in the presence of witnesses who create a safe environment as a container for the story, and finally, both those who experienced trauma and the witnesses to their story, begin to create a new story together, “to pave a new road through the brain.” By creating the new narrative of hope, survivors of trauma develop agency to enact a better future. They reframe their understanding of themselves and increase their capacity to resist further victimization or enactments of violence, as well as the paralyzing apathy that can be a side effect of trauma. For communities in trauma, the corporate creation of a new pathway “through the brain” takes place through a new set of shared practices that foster communal healing. The appropriation of what Richard Hays calls Scriptural Imagination is a key element in healing communal trauma as Christians.
Scriptural Imagination and Post-Election Communal Trauma
A primary task of the church in post-2016 election United States is to invite a deep reading of Scripture within the church in order to facilitate healing of communal trauma within and beyond the church. Indeed this is a significant aspect the Church’s “working out our salvation” at this volatile and polarized time.
During the recent presidential campaign culminating in the election of Donald Trump, the pre-existent trauma of many people groups in our nation escalated. Donald Trump’s harsh language of exclusion and contempt for women, immigrants, African Americans, Muslims, Mexicans, people in the LGBTQI community, disabled persons, journalists and others was unprecedented for a presidential candidate. While tapping into the very real and understandable feeling of exclusion and powerlessness of many Americans who continue to suffer a depressed economy in their communities, Trump’s talking points were often litanies of blame against every minority population in America. As Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II noted in his address to the 2016 American Academy of Religion, the slogan “Make America Great Again” was used during the dismantling of the first and second Reconstructions in the US and is explicitly linked to violence against African Americans. Historically “Make America Great Again” meant “Make America White Again.”
Regardless of whether President-elect Trump intends to carry out the extreme actions he promised such as mass deportations in his first year in office, the violence of his campaign promises was enough to unleash appalling actions among some of his followers. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported that violence against racial minorities and others sharply increased in the first few days after the election, with the majority of reports being incidents against immigrants.
Where Shall We Go from Here?
Many questions now arise for the church in this context, especially since 81% of white, evangelical, self described born-again Christians voted for Trump. Christians who repudiated Trump over various moral, political, and economic objections found themselves deeply at odds with family, friends and co-workers who were among the 81%. In the fallout after the election many Christians who formerly identified as evangelical have dropped the label, unable to reconcile the difference between what evangelicals historically stood for, and the immoral speech and behavior of the candidate that 81% of their fellow evangelicals chose. The election has profoundly divided the American church.
Could it be, then, that God is speaking to us through this division, extending an old fashioned altar call to the church in the United States? In the aftermath of the election we must now search our soul as the “one, holy, catholic, apostolic church.” What is God calling us to do? How can we find our way across the political divide? What will repentance look like? How can we reclaim our God-given mission to bear the love of Christ into the world?
The Spirit of the Lord is Upon Us
The first place to begin is to remember our identity. When Jesus stepped into his public ministry and preached for the first time in his hometown, he read from Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor…Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4: 18-19, 21).
Jesus, in other words, claimed Isaiah 61 as his mission statement. He then went on to live this text throughout his ministry. Because the church is the Body of Christ, Isaiah 61 is also a defining vision for the church, and no text is more powerful than this for helping the church to once again imagine how to live with and for our neighbors. This text is, indeed, a template for us to imagine God’s preferred future for the world, and to live into that future together.
Consider these verses, for example, and how they might shape our plans of action as congregations working together for the common good: ”They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD, to display his glory. They shall build up the ancient ruins, they shall raise up the former devastations; they shall repair the ruined cities, the devastations of many generations” (Isaiah 61:3-4). This is our vocation, our identity—to step forward and create a new story with our neighbors, one in which devastated cities and ruined neighborhoods are renewed, children grow up with a future, and the church behaves like Jesus.
In the midst of a climate of fear, despair, and hate, the church can and must live into this text, to work together for the healing of our nation. We can do this because “the Spirit of the Lord is upon us.” Not only is it possible for us to bear witness to the trauma and usher in healing through this text, but it is a gospel imperative. The church is in the world for “such a time as this.”
Yet we will not be able to embrace our God given healing mission until we repent of our sinful resistance to our vocation as the church. We are not here for ourselves but for our neighbors. We are here to embody the reconciling and healing love of Christ that crosses racial, gender, economic, political, religious, and national lines. The heart of the gospel is found in Jesus’ dying words on the cross: “Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing” (Luke 23:34, NRSV). The central fact of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection is that God loves God’s enemies.
May God help us return to our identity and vocation as the Body of Christ in the world—for our neighbors’ sake as well as our own. May we take up the set of practices outlined in Isaiah 61 so that we become bearers of good news, healers, repairers of ruined cities, healers of many devastations. May we embody words and actions that cause our neighbors to turn to God in gratitude and praise. May we do this together, in community, now.
1. Jones defines trauma as “…an event in which a person or persons perceives themselves or others as threatened by an external force that seeks to annihilate them and against which they are unable to resist and which overwhelms their ability to cope.” Serene Jones, Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World (Louisville: Westminster/John Knowx, 2009) 13. Gabor Mate describes it this way: “Trauma is not what happens to us, but what we hold in the absence of an empathetic witness.” Gabor Mate, “Foreward” in Peter A. Levine, In An Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness (Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books, 2010), xii.
2. Jones, 31-32.
3. Richard Hays discusses Scriptural Imagination as a crucial skill that fosters renewal of the church with colleagues L. Gregory Jones, Ellen Davis, and Stanley Hauerwas at Duke Divinity School in a panel discussion Feb. 14, 2013.
4. Also see William J. Barber II, The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement, with a Foreward by Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove (Boston: Beacon Press, 2016).
6. According to a Pew survey released 11/9/16 the divide between evangelicals and other Christians in this election was similar to previous elections of recent decades.