Trauma is conventionally understood by theorists as the state of being overwhelmed by an external threat of annihilation.  This is brought on by a seriously violent event which one either directly experiences or witnesses.  This feeling lasts long after the immediate threat has passed.   Post-traumatic survival desperately needs Christian theological reflection.  Traumatic violence is pervasive.  Those who have suffered from sexual abuse are estimated to be no less than 1 in 6 American women (not to mention male survivors of sexual abuse).  Now add in those war veterans who suffer from PTSD, something between 11-20% of veterans from wars in Iraq and Afganistan and around 30% of Vietnam vets.  Plus, add those who are victims or witnesses of violence in our neighborhoods.  Because of the nature of trauma tends to keep those who continue to suffer from its effects silent, it is difficult to calculate exactly how many people are affected.  But, we probably can surmise that it is a sizable portion of our population.  If this isn’t reason alone for theologians to begin to talk about trauma as a topic worthy of Christian reflection, consider that Christianity has its origins in trauma.  The followers of Jesus who experienced the violent torture and death of their teacher at the hands of the occupying political leaders were traumatized persons trying hard to see the presence of God in the midst of apparent failure and crushed hope.

Shelly Rambo is one theologian who intentionally takes up the task of reflecting on trauma and, I think, does so with success.  Her recent book, titled Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining, really challenged the way that I think about the Christian story.  Reading the book was difficult, not just because she presents some complicated points but because the content is emotionally difficult to bear, but in the end it reawakened in me a passion for the theological project.  It is a stellar example of how to be creative, intellectually rigorous, and immensely practical all in one breath.

So, since (a) it is Holy Saturday today, (b) I am so moved by this book, and (c) I am looking for conversation partners, I thought it would be an appropriate blog topic.

Angel of Grief. Story, William Wetmore, 1819-1895.

Rambo argues that theological language has the potential to bring about a measure of traumatic healing.  When Christian theology focuses solely on the resurrection, however, it misses the opportunity to speak healing words to trauma victims.  The problem with a typical narration of salvation is that we tend to have a linear understanding of redemption.  We read the story of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection in terms of a strong start, an awful middle, and an amazing, better than before ending (which turns out to really be a beginning).  This kind of narrative can communicate to those who are in the midst of struggle to “get over it already,” but this is not the way that extreme suffering works.  One cannot “get over” traumatic suffering.  Trauma is an extreme form of suffering which cannot be integrated into one’s life narrative; the suffering remains, even if some measure of healing is experienced.  Traumatic suffering always remains.

Rambo frames Jesus’s death as a traumatic experience for the disciples which is not erased by the resurrection.   In other words, the resurrection experience does not make the disciples feel as if the crucifixion was now ‘worth it’.  The resurrection is not the victory of love and life over death, but rather it represents the survival of love through death, alongside of death.  The resurrection comes from a place of desperation, not conquest.  Rambo aims to upset a linear model of redemption and replace it with a more complex and subtle recasting of redemption in terms of survival and holding on.  This perspective is important if theology is to be neither delusional about the reality of trauma nor fuel for imperialist conquest narratives.

In liturgical language, Rambo wants to slow down the movement from Good Friday to Easter Sunday.  We fail to take time to dwell in Holy Saturday and, as a result, we fail to recognize that death remains with us even after the resurrection of Sunday has arrived.  We fail to realize that the effects of death remain after the immediate threat has passed.  Holy Saturday is the day on which Jesus’s death is completed (meaning, he no longer is in the process of dying and therefore no longer managing the extreme physical suffering of the crucifixion in an immediate way), yet there is still no hope of life renewed.  Holy Saturday is an abyss of darkness; it is the day of Jesus’s descent into hell.  Death has not been replaced with life, but rather the suffering of the day before has worsened.  The parallels with experiences of trauma are fairly transparent: because the effects of trauma remain long after the immediate threat has passed, victims have no reason to think that things will get better with time.  Healing is not a logical or natural progression from the current situation.  One cannot imagine a way forward.

For Rambo, Easter Sunday is not about the erasure of death, but rather the miracle that life survives death and stands alongside of it.  Love is not a victorious force that pushes its way through to overcome death.  Perhaps if love can be thought of as strong at all, it is due only to its tenacity.  Though it has no reason to exist, it does, however wearily.   Theologians try to rescue the Christian story from being more than a story of survival, but Rambo asks, “what if theologians did not perform this rescue?  Perhaps the divine story is neither a tragic one nor a triumphant one but, in fact, a story of divine remaining, the story of love that survives.  It is a cry arising from the abyss.  The question is: can we witness it?”[1]  A focus on Holy Saturday, this middle space between death and life, is not threatening to a resurrection theology, for this middle space is the condition upon which the redemption of the resurrection can come about.  This is not because the middle logically or theoretically precedes fullness of life, but more so because this is descriptive of what reality is.  Rambo wants to describe the redemptive work of the Spirit in this middle space.

This is just a taste of what Rambo is trying to do.  For more you’ll have to read the book, and then please get in touch with me and let’s talk!  For now, however, let’s take up her challenge to pause in the midst of Holy Saturday and feel the depths of its darkness without moving too quickly to tomorrow’s resurrection.

P.S. Check out this video lecture by Rambo if you’d like.

[1] Page 172

13 thoughts

  1. Conversation partner here! I haven’t read the book in total yet, but have seen Shelly speak, etc. Well, conversation partner eventually and soon, not quite at the moment… 🙂

  2. Thanks for the blog post! Have you come across Marcus Pound’s book about theology and psychoanalysis? He argues for an account of the Eucharist as trauma, in the context of a psychoanalytic account of trauma as that which breaks open the individual subject, and is crucial both to the birth of the subject and also to their healing. Within psychoanalysis, healing comes about precisely through the repetition of the original trauma, the breaking open of the subject so that they can be remade. That obviously doesn’t have to mean trauma in the sense that you’re talking about: it includes, I think, any sort of encounter which breaks open the individual’s self-containment and self-possession, but it would be interesting to see how Pound’s ideas would interact with Rambo’s.

    1. Marika, I have only looked at Pound’s book briefly. Thanks for explaining the general ideas here! What do you think about what he says? Do you think that the Eucharist really does that?

      I’ve looked at Serene Jones’s book more closely than Pound’s and she seems to be arguing for some of the same things– that healing comes about when the subject is broken open and the cycle of compulsive retelling/reliving is interrupted. This happens through the re-narration/re-embodying of the original traumatic event. Rambo was a student of Jones at one point so there is an influence upon her from this kind of thinking. What Rambo (and Jones) emphasizes with particular acuity is the idea that trauma can never be told or seen directly. It is unable to be repeated in any straightforward kind of way. When divine love/grace allows one to witness to the original afflicting trauma, the content of this witness is difficult to pinpoint. The only thing that can be discerned (but even this is discerned hazily) is that love remains. Love survives alongside of the death.

      1. I’m still not quite sure how to think about what the Eucharist ‘does’. I certainly think that it’s a useful way of thinking about what the Eucharist means, if that’s a distinction you can make! What you say about trauma being ungraspable, though, fits with something I’ve been working on recently, which is the relation between the idea of gift in the thought of people like Derrida and Caputo and the idea of trauma: trauma and gift are both, I think, the moments which interrupt economies of exchange and causality, they open up new possibilities, but they aren’t in themselves graspable, precisely because they resist meaning or comprehension. But then the question is precisely: if you can’t pin down the meaning of the trauma/gift, how can you say for sure that it is love, rather than something else, which remains?

      2. I think that’s a great question (How do you know that it is love which remains?) and I’m not quite sure how Rambo would answer it. I have to think more about whether she has an answer to that at all.

        Because I’m only superficially familiar with Derrida and Caputo’s discussion of ‘gift’, I wondering whether that comparison can make room for a clear condemnation of traumatic violence. In my own work I have really struggled/am really struggling with finding a balance between arguing that traumatic wounds are sites of new possibilities (healing, growth, grace, etc.) while still making sure not to romanticize traumatic violence and fail to acknowledge its absolute negativity.

    2. You’re right, obviously, that it’s important not to romanticise trauma, but if evil is privation, then can anything be absolutely negative (maybe evil isn’t privation, though, in which case, what is it?)? I’ve been reading a lot of Zizek, and his idea is that traumatic interruptions of history only get their meaning retrospectively: what happens afterwards, how does the trauma reorder the world? He says that what we do in the aftermath of trauma changes history: the trauma means one thing if it leads to one particular outcome, and something completely different if it leads to a different outcome. Might that be a helpful way of looking at it?

  3. Thank you for your post. I have in parish ministry drawn on Holy Saturday as a place of acknowledging/processing/living with the difficult, rather than using the promise of resurrection to foreclose doing do, but have not read any theory on it until now. I look forward to reading Dr. Rambo’s work itself directly.

    I was not able to connect to the BU video link you list, btw, but did locate a video lecture by Dr. Rambo on Holy Saturday at

  4. I used to be a pastor. A little over a year ago my PTSD from multiple childhood sexual experiences came crashing down upon me.

    I don’t know if you’re still talking about this topic and I don’t know if I’m ready to talk about it. But I have understood Hans Ursula Von Balthasars commentary on holy Saturday within “mysterium paschale”.

    So good wishes for you. What you say here in this blog has been true for me…I live in–what I have best tried to explain to my non-traumatized friends–a perpetual Saturday.

  5. Julia, thank you for reflecting on Shelly Rambo’s book, which I’ve also been working with over the last year or so. I’m particularly struck by her central image of ‘love remaining’ – and it connects deeply with my own explorations around ‘community resilience’. Her work is underneath the reflections on Holy Saturday that I’ve just posted on my blog here:

    Like Marika, I too am interested in the resonances between trauma and gift, and the parallels between lament and gratitude.

    Lots to explore further! Shalom, Al

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