Public conversation about the realities of trauma are now prevalent. This includes not only the #MeToo movement, but also the thousands of American veterans with significant trauma who have returned from recent American wars. Increasingly sophisticated studies of trauma’s biological and neurological effects show that traumatic responses are not due to “nerves” or “shell shock,” as combat trauma was often thought of during earlier conflicts. Rather, it is a real phenomenon with biological, psychological, and spiritual effects.
Shelly Rambo’s first book, Spirit and Remaining, explored how trauma could be a lens through which to read Mary’s encounter with the risen Jesus. In Resurrecting Wounds, she pushes her argument further by exploring how trauma reappears in the midst of new life—noting that even the resurrected Jesus has visible scars when he appears to the disciples in the Upper Room. Rambo skillfully examines how wounds are treated in Scripture, in historical thinkers such as Gregory of Nyssa and John Calvin, and in contemporary womanist theologians, in order to constructively explore how theologians might make sense of such wounds. The relevance of her project extends beyond the realm of academic theology, as Rambo explores the way of life with trauma and looks at how healers from outside the Christian tradition use ritual resources to help veterans heal.
Here, an interdisciplinary panel has responded to Rambo’s complex work. John Oliver, a national leader in efforts by the Veterans Administration to care for returning veterans, asks how Rambo’s theology applies to the veterans he has spent years counseling and ministering to. Dirk Lange’s response relates liturgical theology to trauma theory. Lange wonders what connections worship might offer to healing traumatic wounds and how trauma theory might help us understand the wounds of Jesus in a new way. Keri Day, works from the perspective of Womanist theology, asks about how to engage the ongoing reality of racial trauma. Day points to the dangers involved in forgiveness without transformation. Warren Kinghorn, a theologian and psychiatrist with extensive experience in dealing with traumatized veterans, presses Rambo about her account of the church’s role for a specifically Christian account transformation and healing.
Reflections on Shelly Rambo’s Resurrecting Wounds
“A different theological vision arises from a reading of the Upper Room. Spirit and flesh are reconfigured. Truth telling is in service of releasing razors. Sacrificial logic unravels, replaced by a vision of communal care” (140). Shelly Rambo’s challenge to theologians involves a rethinking of the classic resurrection narrative, in fact, a deconstruction (in the sense of a “letting go”) of victory narratives and then inhabiting new countervisions. Countervisions focus on reimagining (seeing anew, seeing differently as Mary does in the garden) the themes of sacrifice, imitation, and reward (in the afterlife). Most significantly, as part of a countervision, is the shift from the necessity of individual sacrifice as salvific to the encounter of salvation (though I would rather say “reconciliation”) in the midst of a community.
This shift in the subject and context and trajectory of meaning places God’s work of reconciliation in the midst of community (context), in the midst of flesh and spirit (subject), with real people and real wounds. Another way perhaps of stating this point would be to say: when we can recognize the many crosses present in the world today rather than covering them up or fleeing from them (106), the discussion of afterlife becomes, curiously, not a discussion of a life “after” this one earthly life but an “after” to the wounds lived here and now. God’s trajectory does not shift our eyes to something in the future but to God’s in-breaking in the present moment, in the midst of wounds held by community.
Engaging Rambo’s powerful rethinking, my own thoughts take me first of all to the cross on which Jesus was executed. In John, we read that when the soldiers “came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. Instead, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out” (John 19:33–34). These are, of course the wounds that Thomas encounters, but there are already two particularly disruptive elements in this account of wound-making and the flow of blood and water.
The wound is inflicted on a body, a lifeless body. It is not instrumental (causing death, for example, nor are they a form of punishment). The apparent gratuity of the act of piercing Jesus’ side points to another dimension that wound/trauma may have. The wound becomes a mark or sign of a life once lived and now (on Good Friday apparently) over. The wound testifies to life rather than being the cause of death, the extinction of life. And this testimony of the wound continues in the next chapter of John’s Gospel when Thomas encounters these signs now in the living Jesus. These wounds actually represent the bridge between one way of seeing (Jesus is already dead) to another way of seeing (Jesus is alive in flesh and spirit). The wounds of Jesus do not heal. They remain. They testify. All instrumentality is taken away from the wounds.
The second surprising realization in the narrative of the piercing happens through the blood and water that flow from Christ’s side. Classical theology has interpreted the blood and water as symbolizing the two major sacraments: baptism (water) and Eucharist (gift of Christ’s body and blood in the elements of bread and wine). These two sacraments have been, of course, understood in varying ways according to different theological heritages but have, generally speaking, been understood to be a sort of participation in the life of the resurrected Christ (whether spiritually or physically or more rationally). What is noteworthy for this discussion of wounds is that these gifts are poured out on Good Friday, while Jesus is still on the cross. They flow from the crucified Jesus and not the risen Christ. What implication does this have for a countervision? These sacramental signs that witness to new creation are present in the midst of death, in the midst of the day of deepest despair. The blood and water flow as life-giving. The wound again testifies in itself to something new already occurring in the midst of death.
The reality of wounds that do not vanish or go away is also the impetus at the heart of the liturgy. Liturgy is a dangerous memory, to borrow an expression from Johann Baptist Metz. Developing this notion in a slightly broader direction, I want to say that the liturgy rehearses the wounds, not in order to eliminate them, bandage them over, find a solution or resolve them, but first of all to continually acknowledge the wounds as part of resurrection.
Unfortunately, the liturgy (or for some the term ‘worship’ may be more familiar), as it is experienced through practice, has also been forced into the framework of classical theology and victory narratives. In its many iterations, liturgy and proclamation can too easily equate the cultural, social, and patriotic values with victory narratives, turning the gospel into a national narrative (xxx) of sacrifice and erasure of wounds, failings, and defeats. Then liturgy becomes merely the bastion of a type of religious culture that gives participants comfort and reassurance and even a sense of identity. It points back to a story, to an event, that it attempts somehow to imitate. Its starting point is the cross as sacrifice and only then resurrection. This trajectory covers over all anomalies, all disruptions, all trauma, all wounds of life. The reward is somewhere far off in an afterlife and in the present, people live in a false assurance, continually reaffirmed by narratives that are not gospel narratives.
On the contrary, liturgy could be the embodiment of the countervision of which Rambo writes. The mystery of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection and its reception liturgically in early Christian communities, when read through trauma theory, suggests that the repetition or ritualization is not a facile remembering or a mere representation of an event. It is not simply the remembering of a past event (the cross) through established ritual patterns. The ritualization of this mystery, like the wound, cannot be captured, defined, and therefore controlled. The event—the cross as traumatic event—remains strangely inaccessible and in its inaccessibility directs us to the many crosses people carry today just as in the gospel narrative Christ’s wound bridges the gap between Good Friday and Easter Sunday. The mystery continually returns as a resistance to meaning, to constructed narratives, and even to the rituals that attempt to embody it. The Christ event returns as a life-giving force that continually disrupts our usual forms of remembering and ritualizing.
Perhaps one could argue that liturgy and wounds are deeply intertwined. This relation comes to the forefront in Rambo’s discussion of talking-circles, a ritualized activity, a communal activity, that embraces and liberates (122ff.). The Warriors Journey Home places the wound front and center of life and of healing. The liturgy, as ritualized, repetitive action, is a living into the wound, putting one’s fingers into Christ’s side, the releasing of razors, over and over again, witnessing to the in-breaking of God as the wounded one.
Shelly Rambo’s work continually pushes me, a liturgical theologian, to make these connections between a ritualized action and resurrecting wounds, that is, liturgy as a provisional space in which wounds are not overcome but tended to and, in community, in a mutual bearing of one another’s burden, in order to see and to live differently. I am in deep gratitude for Shelly Rambo’s sustained reflections on trauma both theoretically through the channels of the academy but also in the lives of real people, in real situations of crisis.
Rethinking Resurrection in the Face of Trauma
We are living in an age of trauma. Shelly Rambo’s Resurrecting Wounds: Living in the Afterlife of Trauma offers a compelling account of how a theology of resurrection can respond to the many traumas (both individual and structural) we face. In particular, her book is not merely an intellectual exercise in restating and affirming orthodox accounts of the cross and resurrection. Instead, she breaks new ground in Christian theology by arguing that we need to imagine new concepts and practices of resurrection if we are to address, in a redemptive manner, the diverse traumas we continually witness.
To understand Rambo’s project, one has to grasp what sits at the center of her conceptual framework: the wound. Rambo centers her own theological understanding of resurrection through the wound. She challenges the standard understanding of “doubting Thomas” in the Gospel of John by arguing that dominant interpretations of doubting Thomas tend to interpret this encounter between him and Jesus as an affirmation of his belief over his previous doubt of the resurrected Christ. As Rambo argues, this dominant interpretation “has come to represent, in modernity, a performance of faith over doubt, of belief over unbelief, and, perhaps most unique to the times, of faith over reason, as Thomas stands as the modern skeptic who is won over by the truth of the gospel” (10). Moreover, classical theologians such as Calvin inadequately discuss the resurrected body in that this body’s spectrality and materiality are only used as a way to teach the disciples about doubt and unfaithfulness. Thomas’ encounter with the resurrected Jesus, for Calvin, is only significant in affirming the faith of Jesus as Lord, which is ultimately about grounding faith in an absolute proposition or eternal truth. As a result, Calvin’s interpretation leads to an abstract reading of this narrative, which erases the significance of the wounds that the resurrected Jesus bears. Rambo wants us to sit with the wounds and not foreclose the meaning of Jesus’ appearance. She wants the reader to ask: what else might emerge when we sit with the wounds of Jesus? What if Jesus’ appearance depicts an account of life after wounds, life after death? Linking Jesus’ wounds to our wounds, she suggests that this gospel narrative allows us to confront the wounds that remain with us, which invites us to ponder this question: “What is the promise of life given the ongoingness of “death?” (7). Life is not simply being free from wounds or liberated from forms of social pain and death. Instead, the resurrected Jesus “reveals something about life in the midst of death” (7). This resurrection narrative provides “testimonies to life beyond trauma,” possibilities of new life that can only emerge through engaging the wounds. Rambo’s major contribution is that she offers a different account on the significance of this resurrection appearance between Jesus and Thomas that reconfigures how we think about life in the midst of personal and social forms of tragedy and social despair.
Of particular interest to me is chapter 3, which asks: Can Jesus’ wounds speak to our historical wounds? She extends this conversation of wounding and trauma to the wounds of racism in this country. She wants to argue that this encounter in the Upper Room between Jesus and his disciples is a story about wounds surfacing, testifying to “wounds that have never passed away” (71). Jesus’ wounds entail a history of structural suffering and this history returns to this space, being the Upper Room. Rambo generously employs black liberationist scholars such as James Cone in discussing what shaped the wounds of Christ. In large part, the wounds of Christ are directly connected to the imperial context of the cross. Understanding the wounds of Christ involves understanding the terror and horror of the cross, an instrument of lynching used on an occupied people who desired and worked toward freedom and liberation. To understand the violence of the cross is to understand histories of harm and trauma for a Jewish people. Likewise, histories of suffering and trauma for African Americans remain present in this country. But we attempt to erase or deny the wound. As Rambo reminds us, wounds bring back memories that we often want to forget. White Christian America often denies the ongoing presence of historical racist trauma and wounding. White Christian America forgets that Christianity is “born of a colonial wound” (76). As a result, Christian theology is fashioned though sanitizing, purifying and erasing the wound, leading to a theology that “hovers over the soil of human histories.” Following Willie Jennings’ lead, Rambo wants to firmly root Jesus’ cross and contemporary crosses back into the soil so that we may be able to see how historical histories of racial suffering, harm and trauma continue to cause violence in the present.
In light of the structural and colonized dimensions of Jesus’ wounds, Rambo intimates that Jesus returns to the Upper Room to surface these wounds to his broken community of disciples (broken by Roman imperialism) and to offer redemptive ways forward in light of their wounds. There are two insights that Rambo offers that I was drawn to, points that I want to meditate on and ask questions about.
First, Rambo offers a creative interpretation of a specific action of Jesus, who after showing his wounds to the disciples, breathes on them and says to them to “receive a holy spirit.” She interprets this statement not as receiving the Holy Spirit but a holy spirit, this holy spirit etymologically referring literally to breath. This idea of breath is found in Genesis 2:7 in which breath is understood as making life possible at the most basic level. Rambo interprets this moment as Jesus telling his disciples to “receive breath back again” as they had been deprived of it within the context of colonial fear and imperial lockdown. Under structural oppression and terror, breath becomes short as there is little air. Yet, Jesus wants them to live, to breathe. If the disciples are to be commissioned (sent out) to be Jesus’ witnesses, they will need life, they will need to breathe. She relates this to the Age of Ferguson in which this insight is echoed by Eric Garner’s words, “I can’t breathe.” Systems of racial oppression shorten breath, but Jesus shows his wounds to help them engage their own wounds in efforts of resurrecting their own belief in God’s ongoing work in their lives. This moving forward involves them being able to breathe in order to do the work they have been commissioned to carry forth. And this ability to breathe is the work of the spirit. Moreover, through John 20:23, Rambo draws a connection between the need to breathe in relation to the practice of forgiveness. She argues that holding on to the sins of others literally drains you, it takes away breath (82). For oppressed communities to persistently internalize racism in all of its insidious forms is like being out of breath. Rambo maintains that for the Gospel of John, forgiveness is directly tied to the somatic experience of breathing when trauma takes breath away.
This raises a curious point for me: the question of forgiveness within this country. For certain, I take it that Rambo is exploring the deleterious psycho-social effects of racial pain and wounding on oppressed communities. For healing to be a possibility, such wounding cannot go unaddressed or live inside of marginalized individuals without recourse to mending and healing. I agree here. However, I wonder how we speak about forgiveness in an age where forgiveness is used as a tool of political calculation, a way to reinforce trauma through denying structures that make the wound possible. For instance, when the 2015 Charleston shooting in South Carolina occurred, the surviving black church members almost immediately announced that they forgave Dylan Roof, the white male gunman and terrorist. The problem is not that these exercised their own agency in relation to acts of forgiveness. Rather, I am concerned with how this question of forgiveness becomes a moral demand or imperative placed upon black people on how they should respond to flagrant racist assaults. The American media lauded these Charleston black church members for forgiving a white supremacist. Unfortunately, this expectation of forgiveness is then used to measure how other black communities should forgive forms of racial violence. In fact, the Charleston church members’ actions to forgive were directly used to condemn the Black Lives Matter movement as angry and violent, the antithesis of this forgiving church community. What is lost here? What account of living beyond the wound through forgiveness can one offer that will not be in service to these kinds of gross political calculations?
A second insightful point was how Rambo situates the affections and the body in relation to the wounds we experience and what this means for forms of new life. Jesus’ wounds involve an affective and somatic experience. His body holds the memory of his suffering as well as collective suffering (Jews who resisted Rome). Rambo states that the return of Jesus’ wounds “indicates that this memory-work will take place on the ground and on the surface of skin” (89). The communal work of remembering and engaging wounds is an affective and enfleshed practice. This means that recognizing and addressing wounds is not simply a cognitive practice but a practice of body and flesh, a practice of linking experiences, feelings and histories to particular bodies that have been traumatized and now must find a way to creatively move forward. I agree with Rambo in theory on this point, but I am wondering what does this insight practically look like? Attending to racial wounds in this country does involve transforming how white America (and its churches) morally see and engage black bodies, but how might this practically play out, given Rambo’s idea of “memory-work”? Could Rambo offer a more full-throated account on this particular insight?
Rambo has offered a highly creative understanding of Christian resurrection that transforms and even explodes certain assumptions associated with orthodox accounts. I am grateful she has written this text and look forward to seeing how it shapes the field of Christian theology and ethics on questions of structural trauma, injustice, and liberation.
“Within Your Wounds Hide Me”
Longing for the Trinity in Resurrecting Wounds
Shelly Rambo’s Resurrecting Wounds has forever changed the way that I will encounter the Gospel of John’s Upper Room narrative (John 20:19–28). It will henceforth be for me the story of a haunting. Just as Rambo’s earlier Spirit and Trauma, dwelling with John’s narrative of the disciples at the empty tomb, focused on the disciples’ inability to see clearly, so also her reading of the Upper Room powerfully teaches readers that “the Johannine text is not a place of simple seeing but a site of complex and layered remembering” (37). John’s resurrected Jesus is simultaneously spectral and fleshly. He passes through a locked door, bids peace to the gathered disciples, and shows them his wounds. When the disciples rejoice at seeing him, he says again, “Peace be with you,” suggesting that they have somehow not seen in their seeing, and breathes on them a holy spirit. When Thomas insists in Jesus’ absence that he will believe only by putting his finger in the mark of the nails and his hand in Jesus’ side, this spectral Jesus again walks through a locked door and, in a very unghostly way, commands Thomas to plunge his hand into his ribs. Thomas, in Rambo’s reading, wants to touch Jesus’ wounds as a mode of verification, as a way of asserting control over the wounds—but Jesus, granting Thomas’ request, also subverts it. Jesus does not allow Thomas to stop, contentedly, at verification. He asks Thomas to engage his wounds: “the wounds of history are returning on this marked body, and that history is brought forward in such a way that believing is inextricably linked to engaging those wounds” (83). Engaging wounds is not a matter of cognition only. It is affective work, and it is hard. It requires feeling one’s own capacity to wound, and to be wounded. We do not know how Thomas responds to Jesus’ invitation to touch his wounds. Nor, Rambo points out, do we know whether Thomas, when he cried “my Lord and my God!” was engaging Jesus’ wounds or distancing himself from their affective and moral force (94).
Rambo argues that like those disoriented, gathered disciples, Christians since that first Easter have struggled to plunge our hands into Jesus’ wounds and to feel their weight. She suggests that much—maybe most—of Christian theology and biblical exegesis has functioned to enable Christians to avoid this hard “wound-work.” Jesus’ appearance in the Upper Room, losing its spectrality, is read as a scene of joyful reunion. Jesus’ breathing of pneuma hagion, holy breath, losing its ethereality, is read as a teaching on the Trinity. Jesus’ encounter with Thomas, losing its macabre fleshliness, is read as a cautionary tale of (cognitive) doubt and (cognitive) belief. Jesus’ wounds recede into either invisibility or, more dangerously, into instrumentality. The wounds become a means to lead Thomas from doubt to belief. Or, in substitutionary and sacrificial theories of atonement, they become the instruments but not the determinative loci of human salvation. Or, all too commonly, they have provided a narrative context for the legitimization of the wounding and suffering of the disempowered, whether of women or of African Americans or of colonized peoples or of these and other intersections of oppression. In light of this interpretive history, Rambo argues, it makes sense that many contemporary theologians (e.g., Jürgen Moltmann, James Cone, Delores Williams, Rosemary Radford Ruether) would “[contest] a dominant narrative of wounds as the means by which redemption is enacted” (6). But reading the Gospel of John, Rambo urges Christians to interpret the cross redemptively not by focusing on what happened on the cross but rather on the forms of life made possible after the cross, in the spectral, fleshly “afterlife” of resurrection: “instead of reaffirming the way of the cross, there is a need to imagine ways of resurrecting” (8). Just as the disciples in the Upper Room faced the challenge to leave the locked Upper Room, led by holy spirit to engage the “crossings” of woundedness, so also Jesus’ followers today are called by this revealing spirit to engage wounds:
Instead of covering over their wounds with sacred bandages, a different telling of the story turns the disciples to wounds, both to examine the hold of a certain logic on them and to invite them to touch wounds, to bring to life what the world deems of little value. Newly resourced in this space, they will embody new ways of gathering and develop new articulations of how to live. Amid the ruins, they enter the wilderness. (107)
Rambo displays a deeply moving capacity to dwell carefully and patiently in the biblical text, and there is breathtaking consistency between the content and mode of her analysis in Resurrecting Wounds. Her exhortation to attend to holy spirit that surfaces hidden wounds is enacted in the way that patiently, slowly, attentively, she tends the soil of John’s gospel (as well as that of Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Macrina and Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of St. Thomas), uncovering the wounds at its center that have long been covered by Christian bandages of control. Her short sentences and copious use of passive voice make reading this book about spectrality and haunting itself a spectral, haunting experience. In Resurrecting Wounds, as in her broader work, Rambo assiduously closes off wide controlled-access highways of theologizing and detours readers onto narrow roads that, more dangerous but more connected to land and soil and history, force travelers to dwell with trauma and, in doing so, to encounter buried but valuable truths. She does not want Christians to settle for easy or comfortable answers, since such answers can too easily elide or evade wounds. She beckons us to be disoriented and unsettled, like the disciples the Upper Room, living in the afterlife of resurrection.
In an age of Ferguson (and Charleston, Charlottesville, and so many other places), #MeToo, Trumpism, and rising rates of death from opioid overdose and suicide, when deep wounds are surfacing publicly and defenses against these wounds are rampant, Rambo’s work is needed for the church. I appreciate her insistence that Christians—particularly white Christians—must dwell at the site of wounds and not move toward theological strategies that keep these wounds covered. And yet, I worry that Rambo’s mode of argument excludes or at least neglects witnesses within Scripture and theology that could provide her project with more strength and power.
Resurrecting Wounds is in part a work of ecclesiology (151–52). But this ecclesiology is correlative to particular accounts of Christology and pneumatology. The risen, spectral, fleshly Jesus appears to the disciples, bids them peace, and breathes on them a holy spirit. Rambo neither affirms nor denies that this holy spirit is the Holy Spirit of Christian trinitarian affirmation, but she prefers an “undetermined spirit” that “[fosters] attentiveness to particular memories, particular histories” (90). This spirit “as memory bearer carries forward the spirit of a place, a situation” (90). This spirit’s work then forms a particular account of church: “as Christians turn and return to this story, they confront this particular history (the Jesus of history) and also claim its power to speak to the ongoing crosses of history (the Christ of faith)” (90–91). The church is that group of people who, having encountered the Jesus of history and carried by the wound-surfacing spirit, go forth to dwell amid the contours of wounds.
This account of Christ, spirit, and church provides a theological context within which to approach Rambo’s contemporary example of wound-work: Warriors Journey Home (WJH; warriorsjourneyhome.org), an Ohio-based nonprofit organization that engages healing circles to promote storytelling, support, and healing among US combat veterans. Rambo relates meaningful stories of healing among veterans and their families that have emerged from the WJH circles. But readers who have been following Rambo’s argument as a work of Christian theology will notice something that is perhaps a bit unusual: though it is hosted in a church and has a Protestant minister as its founder and co-facilitator, WJH is not distinctively or specifically Christian either in its model of healing, its ritual practices, or its self-description. Its rituals, which include soft drumming, burning and smudging of white sage, the passing of a healing stick, and evocation of Great Spirit, are “earth medicine” practices introduced to the group by co-facilitator Shianne Eagleheart, a Seneca ceremonial healer and licensed psychotherapist (116–21). Among WJH participants, Christianity “is not readily recognized as a healing tradition; . . . in fact, it is often seen as an obstacle to drawing veterans into the circle” (125). Rambo comments that “perhaps WJH members who have been familiar with Christianity in some form expect little to nothing from that tradition” (125). She cites Protestant minister and WJH co-facilitator John Schleup, stating that for Rev. Schleup
The absence of attention to bodies, to the somatic, is where Christianity misses the mark. It appeals to the frontal lobe but misses a basic insight about trauma—that it lodges in the body. John acknowledges the dissonance in the religion that he represents, and he is not defensive. He is just hopeful that there is more. The teachings of Jesus become a container for John’s work. He takes big terms like “salvation” and “redemption” and ties them more closely to the life of Jesus. Salvation really means healing, he insists, and not a “get out of hell free card.” (125)
Rambo acknowledges that some of the Christian participants in WJH circles struggle to reconcile its ritual practices with Christian faith (132). But it is in many ways a perfect incarnation of the ecclesiology of Resurrecting Wounds. Those who bear wounds, centered on the life of Jesus and animated by undetermined spirit, transcend the bandages that Christianity has applied to wounds (“the language of belief falls away”; 133) and gather in healing community to engage and salve wounds.
Warriors Journey Home displays an innovative and powerful model of veteran healing, and those of us who seek to support combat veterans can learn much from their ritual practice, non-judging stance, commitment to truth-telling, and cultivation of group healing. But with no disrespect to WJH or to traditions of earth medicine—I have no reason to doubt its capacity to facilitate trauma healing among combat veterans—I lament that any pastor or Christian congregation, seeking to promote the healing of combat veterans, would find traditional Christian practices so unhelpful and lacking that a turn to earth medicine is necessary. There are Christian practices and resources that neither Schleup nor Rambo engage, that if developed would potentially enable participants in programs like WJH to find within Christian tradition what they are currently finding only by looking beyond it—and therefore to more imaginatively and intimately engage Jesus’ wounds.
Why does Rambo never engage any of Paul’s writings in Resurrection Wounds? It is of course her prerogative, if she wishes, to focus on the Johannine and not the Pauline corpus: this omission does not threaten the internal consistency of her project. And to be sure, interpretations of Paul’s writings have contributed across Christian history not only to unhealthy dualisms of flesh and spirit but also to justifications of wounding. But no Christian theology of wounds can discount Paul entirely. Paul seems to be at least one early disciple who took Jesus’ wounds seriously, who did not avoid them, in part because he had been involved in wounding (diókó, persecuting, hunting down) those whom he later understood to be part of Jesus himself (Acts 9:4; Gal 1:13; 1 Cor 15:9). Paul came to interpret his own wounds within Jesus’ wounds: “I carry the marks [stigmata] of Jesus branded on my body” (Gal 6:17). In Paul we find a Christology that is not just paradigmatic but also participatory: believers are exhorted not just to see, touch, and learn from Jesus’ wounds but to immerse and to enfold themselves into Christ’s wounds, finding their life in his crucified, resurrected, ascended body (Rom 6–8). Paul goes on to say that Jesus’ followers are that wounded body, bearing each other’s wounds as members of a common body (1 Cor 12). Salvation for Paul is certainly “healing”; but more than that, to be saved is to be folded, wounds and all, into the life of the triune God, known and held in intimate, loving care (Gal 4:6–7, Rom 8:15–17). I wonder, then: if Rambo’s goal is to engage Christians in more intimate encounter with wounds, why not go through the Apostle Paul, or at least in conversation with him, rather than around him?
Related to this, in her reading of John Calvin’s commentary on John 20, Rambo rightly critiques Calvin’s insistence that Jesus’ wounds disappear after the apostles were convinced that he rose from the dead, which does not appear in the Johannine text. Citing the work of Julie Canlis, she argues that this stands in tension with Calvin’s insistence on Christ’s physicality not only in resurrection but also ascension (32).1 Rambo laments Calvin’s extrabiblical insistence that the wounds disappear after resurrection as a missed opportunity, particularly given Calvin’s extensive use of the metaphor of engrafting, which implies and entails wounding. She imagines a road not taken for Calvin:
Transposed through the Spirit, the wounds could figure a new aspect of resurrection. If the work of the Spirit is to engraft believers into the life of God, then the wounds of resurrection could function meaningfully in Calvin’s thought, without erasure. Wounds could be carried forward and drawn into a new moment. The wounds could have an afterlife. (35)
This richly trinitarian account of the salience of post-resurrection wounds would indeed be theologically and pastorally powerful. And indeed many Christians have embraced something like this account, particularly within Roman Catholic practices: I think in particular of the medieval anima Christi prayer, with its evocative imagery of the wounds of Christ moving progressively inside the subject, until one finds oneself enfolded into them: “O Good Jesus, hear me / Within your wounds hide me.” Calvin did not embrace this, Rambo suggests, in part because he was eager to avoid Catholic material piety and carnality. That is too bad. But curiously, after imagining this different future for Calvin, Rambo does not embrace this trinitarian path either. After critiquing Calvin by use of Canlis, she stops engaging ascension and sets forth a not-explicitly-trinitarian pneumatology and Christology with a diffuse ecclesiology that, in the end, finds Christian ritual practices wanting and embraces healing practices drawn from another spiritual tradition. And so I wonder: is this a missed opportunity also?
Julie Canlis, Calvin’s Ladder: A Spiritual Theology of Ascent and Ascension (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010).↩
10.31.18 | John Oliver
In Resurrecting Wounds, Shelly Rambo constructs a thoughtful, well-balanced theological analysis of injury and the wounds such injuries creates. She carefully and thoughtfully weaves contrasting voices highlighting various approaches to engaging, traumatic wounding and the nature of healing. She “re-figures” the story of “doubting Thomas” exploring how various theologians have, due to their own contexts, interpreted this intriguing story of woundedness, witness, doubt and demand.
Rambo does not offer her book as one that concerns pastoral theology and pastoral care. But her work is useful to both disciplines, providing chaplains and other spiritual care givers an imaginative theological framework around which communities that address trauma, healing and the wounds that remain in trauma’s aftermath might be addressed and perhaps redeemed. In covering the expansive theological and theoretical distances between Gregory of Nyssa, John Calvin, Dolores Williams, Virginia Burrus, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Shianne Eagleheart, Rambo astutely approaches wounds and our collective human responses to them. Her engagements also offer an invitation to those who live with and minister to those injured and wounded a lens through which to imagine a new way.
Rambo structures the book highlighting four responses to wounds, including: erasing wounds, touching wounds, surfacing wounds, and discovering wounds. Within each of these chapters, she explores and contrasts different types of wounds ultimately spiraling to responses to present-day complexities of racism and war trauma.
Of interest is Rambo’s focus on the various hues that human wounds (personal/communal; historical/contemporary) take as they are interpreted through different theological and contextual lenses. Rambo explores how Calvin, in his day, viewed wounds as unnecessary, even superfluous, confiding in the word alone being sufficient proof of the resurrection. Rambo highlights how the element of shame conveyed in Calvin’s dismissal of Thomas’ request for a multisensory engagement with the resurrected Christ is a subjugation of wounds (and life experience) to a theological thesis.
Calvin’s move to attempt to erase wounds that did not align with his theological views echoes in the way Jeni Cook, former director of the Veterans Affairs National Chaplain Center describes how many of our current service members and veterans wear “civilian camouflage” when they return home to hide from society. It seems it is easier for many (veterans, service members and our society-at-large) to keep war wounds private in service to a nationalistic narrative of success and victory. The down-playing or outright erasing of the wounds points to our human tendency to objectify others and their wounds to fit our needs.
Distinct from denying the wounds however, is the basic human response of shock. It is normal to avoid acknowledging disorienting events when they first occur. The early “denial” after trauma can serve as a coping mechanism that creates time and space to adjust to the shock of the “new normal.” This early denial can be a healthy response that prompts recalibration and resetting a true reckoning of the events.
In her second chapter, “Touching Wounds,” Rambo explores Gregory of Nyssa’s Holy Sister Macrina’s curious scars. Macrina’s “tattoos” hold the memory of God’s presence in her life and ministry, so rather than wounds suffered after trauma, her wounds are marks of sacrifice and healing. These private wounds, a source of discomfort for Gregory, point Rambo to a brilliant exploration of the construct of “sacrificial wounding” as it differs from “redemptive suffering.” She encourages readers to avoid the easy, but toxic logic of “redemptive suffering” which is most often perpetuated against women and other “heroes” such as veterans who are in this manner called to carry the weight of the world. Rambo carefully juxtaposes Macrina’s sacrifice of holding/tending to an ailing child as distinct from a “redemptive sufferer” standing in the child’s stead. Macrina’s choice/decision to hold and pray for the ailing child God “marks” Macrina’s body with “sacrificial wounds” that are interpreted as “the first thread of her heavenly garment” (48).
Many veterans see themselves as doing what Macrina did; sacrificing life and limb for a country that, in their eyes, seeks to be a light and refuge in the world. Rambo’s challenge for spiritual caregivers is to join the wounded in the unpacking of their individual injuries and wounds while exploring and distinguishing “redemptive suffering” from “sacrificial wounding.” Standing, perplexed in the mystery of the sacrifice, we might all begin to see how God chooses to mark and illumine it.
Rambo’s third chapter, “Surfacing Wounds,” invites us to explore the collective community wound of racism. Rambo describes that an element in the insult of the wounding is the dynamic of forgetting and/or denying the wounding ever occurred (92). The crucial protection enacted by the privileged is an enculturation of the young to “not see” these subjugated wounds. A second protection the privileged use in covering wounds is “soothing over” a wound. This tactic allows the “soother” to avoid addressing the wound at any depth for the other or self. Rambo posits that we begin to take responsibility for the wounds and enable others to respond to the wounds directly. The spiritual caregiver’s challenge is finding ways to address wounds directly rather than binding them or avoiding them completely. This unproductive pattern of managing anxiety (Mueller and Kell) around wounds persists in personal and communal contexts.1
Rambo draws on Michael Rothberg’s diagnosis of how communities often fall into the creation of a “hierarchy of suffering” (95) where suffering is scaled and then judged as worthy of remembrance. This “crooked” way of seeing suffering is addressed when we attend to the texture of each history while still situating it in respect to other histories. Rambo joins with Rothberg in stating that when shared wounds are honestly and humbly approached, the community as a whole can begin to draw connections between the sufferings of peoples. These “links” allow wisdom and resources to be shared across the wounds. The “ongoingness” of wounds is honored as multiple oppression histories meet in the “crossings”; each bearing witness to the other’s terror and truth. A challenge offered in this is exploring ways to invite trauma stories into a community context without re-traumatizing others.
Rambo’s inclusion of Dolores Williams’ construct of “revaluation” invites us to considering how by righting relationships through various methods including touch, we “reanimate life from the ruins” (101) and reinscribe value (and meaning) to the wounds. Reanimating lives from ruins is, however, deeply difficult work. Being the agent of others’ wounding means one may also be carrying the sense of having betrayed moral ground rules, it may mean that an individual has lived for decades without finding or providing forgiveness, it means that reinscribing value / making meaning of the most horrific moments of life is a long and painful journey. Remorse is a painful and treacherous journey.
Rambo offers a keen description of a learning and caring challenge providers have when caring for others; that of “reducing the new to the familiar.”2 Denial of wounding (and learning for that matter) comes often when we seek to make the “new” fit into our comfortable “familiar.” Rambo invites us to see that the persistent “misrecognition” of Jesus post-resurrection is reflected in our culture as the hegemony is unable to understand what they are seeing as due to a stilted “crooked” worldview.
The final chapter, “Discovering Wounds,” delineates the context of returning US veterans as easily objectifiable, monochromatic heroes who have served their usefulness and are now expected to play the role of grateful returnee (see also Ben Fountains’ Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk). Using veterans as a paradigm, Rambo invites us to explore how we as a culture (or as humans) find it difficult to imagine that the past returns to those who have experienced and continue to experience trauma.
In this chapter, Rambo highlights Eagleheart’s theory that “hurt goes to hurt,” meaning that the communal experience of sharing wounds invites a new depth perception and perspective on all griefs, even those that seem unconnected. Moving too is the truth that as redemptive as are communities in which trauma work occurs, such as Warriors Journey Home (WJH) described, the work of exploring, touching and naming the wounds is difficult, lifelong, ongoing work (92).
Rambo invites us to see that there is no magic that converts wounds into portals for healing, that the community of the wounded (to which we all belong) can help us see others and ourselves more clearly; that as we touch, hold and honor wounds we revalue ourselves.
As spiritual caregivers move toward honoring wounds of all kinds Rambo invites us to set aside preconceived notions and bring ourselves to truly meet others where they are. She invites us to step into the anxiety, discomfort, embarrassment and woundedness with humility and an awareness that in the sacrificial holding we too may be wounded. Unspoken is Rambo’s hope that spiritual caregivers will know themselves well, will have the capacity to see their own story as linking with others’ stories, will be able to avoid reducing people and events to what is familiar to them and will be able to engage others without competing or insisting that their story be dominant. Unspoken too is Rambo’s hope spiritual caregivers have a support group in which personal wounds, life journeys and injuries will be shared, honored and integrated.
William J. Mueller and William L. Kell, Coping with Conflict: Supervising Counselors and Psychotherapists (New York: Prentice Hall, 1972).↩
Rudolf Ekstein and Robert Wallerstein, The Teaching and Learning of Psychotherapy, 2nd ed. (New York: International Universities Press, 1972), 142–43.↩