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23 November 2020

Theology, Trauma and COVID-19

I feel the fragility of the world more acutely than I did ten years ago. I view persons as more vulnerable in it, and the earth more wounded by our heavy footprints.
Shelly Rambo, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining (Westminster John Knox Press), p.xiii, 2010.

These words were written by trauma theologian Shelly Rambo in 2010. Now, a decade later, it has become painfully clear what she meant about the fragility of the world and the vulnerability of humanity.

In recent months, it has become apparent that the COVID-19 pandemic represents a case of trauma on a worldwide scale. All of the symptoms are there: the initial feeling of shock and disbelief; the numbness and emptiness that clouds our thinking as we struggle to process events; and the perpetual state of hyperarousal whereby fear now saturates our lives. “We are living through a national and global trauma,” says theologian and clinical psychologist Joanna Collicutt.

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But clinical definitions only feel like half the story. Whilst the virus has undoubtedly triggered numerous cases of individual post-traumatic stress disorder, there is also a sense in which the trauma of COVID-19 has infiltrated the very fabric of our world. Here, I want to pick up on three themes that emerge from work in trauma theory and trauma theology that seem especially apt for our contemporary situation: interconnection, interruption, and lament.

Interconnection

It is the sociologist Kai Erikson who is credited with the first use of the phrase “collective trauma.” Erikson has spent his career examining the social ramifications of catastrophic events and points to a “haunting” series of symptoms that are shared across many disaster scenarios.[1] He writes: “By collective trauma […] I mean a blow to the basic tissues of social life that damages the bonds attaching people together and impairs the prevailing sense of communality”.[2] Not only has COVID-19 had devastatingly traumatic consequences for those human individuals who have contracted the virus, it has also reverberated across families and communities. National and local lockdowns—vital though they are—have completely upended normal patterns of social interaction. From grocery shopping to parliamentary debate, no part of our communal life has been unaffected. As Erikson goes on to say, “traumatic experiences work their way so thoroughly into the grain of the affected community that they come to supply its prevailing mood and temper, dominate its imagery and its sense of self, [and] govern the way its members relate to one another.”[3]

But the interconnection does not stop there. In my own research I am exploring the possibility of ecological trauma, whereby phenomena such as climate breakdown and catastrophic biodiversity loss are conceived through the lens of trauma theory. Indeed, COVID-19 is itself a zoonotic disease, transmitted from bats to humans, as a result of our ever more cavalier attitudes towards the natural world. Trauma hardly remains confined to the human realm, but rebounds between species and systems as a result of their interconnection. Pope Francis recognises the same principle in his 2015 encyclical letter Laudato Si’: “Since everything is closely interrelated, and today’s problems call for a vision capable of taking into account every aspect of the global crisis, I suggest that we now consider some elements of an integral ecology, one which clearly respects its human and social dimensions” (§137).

Interruption

The second key feature of trauma is the rupture it creates in time. This includes the fragmentation and failure of traumatic memories from the past, the invasion of the present via flashbacks and nightmares, and the inability to imagine the future. Not only do symptoms of trauma return and persist but distortions of time are themselves part of the wound.

Shelly Rambo provides a particularly compelling example of this temporal reconfiguration when she interviews a local pastor in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He describes how “life for people in New Orleans follows a new timeline: pre-Katrina and post-Katrina.”[4] Traumatic events leave such a mark that time itself seems to be experienced differently. In her own work, Rambo goes on to develop a theological account of trauma by rooting her thinking in the liminal space of Holy Saturday. It is here, she says, “caught between tragedy and triumph,” [5] that we find a theological container that can bear the weight of our traumatic experience.  The triumphalism of the resurrection is held at bay whilst we come to grips with living in the between times.

The same sense of temporal upheaval characterises our experience of COVID-19. We, too, are already talking in terms of pre-pandemic and post-pandemic society. We, too, long for the sort of silver bullet that the resurrection—or a vaccine—might offer. And yet we too are caught in sabbatarian limbo, where the trauma continues, and the future seems hard to imagine. Our usual timelines of expectation and progress have been dramatically interrupted by COVID-19. It is almost as if every day is a Holy Saturday.

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Lament

Finally, as well as interconnection and interruption, there is a third important strand of trauma theology that is especially pertinent to the current pandemic: lament.

Trauma theory is especially attuned to this need to lament because it recognises the irreducible distress that often lies at the centre of traumatic experience. Despite all our scientific advances in the diagnosis and treatment of trauma, it often seems like there is something inaccessible and incommunicable at its heart. The problem is that any speech, narrative, story, or memory seeks to contain, control, and integrate the original trauma; in short, “it understands too much”[6]. Rational discourse and straightforward communication can never quite to do justice to the extreme horror of trauma.

But what is possible is an outpouring of lament. The Lutheran theologian Deanna Thompson notes how lament provides a “space to breathe” because it acknowledges the trauma and allows for it to be expressed.[7] It is also modelled within the Christian scriptures. Biblical examples of lament give victims permission to be angry at and protest against God for traumatic situations of suffering and injustice. For example, Psalm 38 does not hold back: “For my loins are filled with burning, and there is no soundness in my flesh. I am utterly spent and crushed; I groan because of the tumult of my heart” (Psalm 38:7-8). In Psalm 77 we hear of the breakdown of communication: “I am so troubled that I cannot speak” (Psalm 77:4). The Psalms, then, offer something of a response precisely because they provide a vocabulary for articulating the seemingly inarticulable.

And so, as we struggle to comprehend the difficulties of COVID-19, we must remember that in some ways it may well be incomprehensible. The million people around the world who have died from this virus, their grieving families, the upending of our societies, and the existential anxiety we face are indeed too traumatic to rationalise or communicate. But what we can do is draw on the theological tradition of lament.

Conclusion

Interconnection, interruption, and lament—these are three ways that trauma theory and trauma theology can begin to illuminate our current crisis. There are no easy answers or simple solutions for our post-pandemic world. But if we have learned, like Shelly Rambo, to “feel the fragility of the world more acutely,” then that at least would be a good thing.

About the author

Dr Tim Middleton is a doctoral researcher in the Faculty of Theology and Religion at Oxford University, where his research focusses on intersections between ecotheology, trauma studies and strands of contemporary philosophy.

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Tim is a member of both the Laudato Si’ Research Institute and an interdisciplinary TORCH network that is investigating Climate Crisis Thinking in the Humanities and Social Sciences. He is also editor of the Journal of the Oxford Graduate Theological Society.

You can follow him on Academia here and on Twitter @TimMiddleton1.

Footnotes

[1] Kai Erikson, A New Species of Trouble: Explorations in Disaster, Trauma, and Community (W.W. Norton & Co, 1994), p. 227.

[2] Kai Erikson, Everything in Its Path (Pocket Books, 1976), p. 154.

[3] Kai Erikson, ‘Notes on Trauma and Community’, in Trauma: Explorations in Memory, ed. Cathy Caruth (Baltimore; London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), pp. 183–99 (p. 190).

[4] Shelly Rambo, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining (Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), p. 149.

[5] Ibid, p. 71.

[6] Cathy Caruth, ‘Recapturing the Past: Introduction’, in Trauma: Explorations in Memory, ed. by Cathy Caruth (Baltimore; London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), pp. 151–57 (p. 154).

[7] Deanna A. Thompson, Glimpsing Resurrection: Cancer, Trauma, and Ministry (Westminster John Knox Press, 2018), p. 74.