Trauma Triggers in Church

by | Feb 12, 2017

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. . . it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the grounds of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”
Matthew 5:21-37

In the name of God, Creator, Christ, and the Holy Spirit.

Good morning! What a gift it is to worship God with you and spend the day at St. Margaret’s. If you’re visiting this morning, on behalf of this wonderful congregation, I welcome you and pray you experience blessing here. And to the members of St. Margaret’s, I bring greetings from your 87 sister congregations in the Diocese of Washington and from your friends across the Episcopal Church. I’m grateful for the opportunity to thank you for all you are and do in service to Christ, both as part of this faith community and in your lives. I’m also grateful for Kym Lucas’ leadership here and beyond.

Shortly after the presidential election, the rector of one of the largest Episcopal congregations in the country, All Saints’ in Pasadena, California, announced that in worship, they would no longer pray for elected officials by name, in order to avoid saying the name Donald Trump.

“We are in a unique situation in my lifetime where we have a president-elect whose name is literally a trauma trigger to some people,” the Rev. Michael Kinman wrote. “This presents a challenge. We are rightly charged with praying for our leaders…but we are also charged with keeping the worshipping community, while certainly not challenge-free, a place of safety from harm.”

I was asked by a local journalist to comment on All Saints’ decision and if we would do something similar in the Diocese of Washington. It was the first I had heard of All Saints’ decision, and in that moment all I could think of was Harry Potter and his determination not to give into fear of the one who could not be named. “Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself,” Dumbledore had told Harry.

“We will pray for the president by name,” I said.

It wasn’t my intention to make light of trauma triggers, which are experiences that cause someone to recall a previous traumatic memory and respond to the triggering words or events with all emotional pain associated with that past experience. I know how powerful those emotions can be, and I understand the desire to create safe spaces in our congregations. I want that, too. But I also want us to be strong, and to draw upon the power of love, which as Scripture reminds us, casts out fear.

It occurred to me this week, thinking of trauma triggers, that the way we in Episcopal Church organize our Sunday worship services sets us up for a similar quandary with certain biblical passages. For as we did this morning, in our churches everywhere we read 3 Bible passages and a psalm from a predetermined cycle of readings. The reason we do this is to expose a faithfully worshipping congregation to a good portion of the Bible over a three year period. It’s a worthy goal, but on any given Sunday there are potential trauma triggers everywhere. Today is a case in point.

In a mere 15 verses of Jesus’ most famous sermon–known as the Sermon on the Mount–Jesus traumatizes all of us. This is not a passage of Scripture that would encourage anyone to draw closer to Jesus and it requires a lot of unpacking and a bit of historical context to make peace with it, although I doubt peace was what Jesus intended here.

For there are few passages more troubling in Scripture than the ones in which Jesus encourages us to cut off offending members of our bodies to avoid sin. Hyperbole, as you know, is extreme exaggeration to make a point, and if you spend anytime reading the New Testament, you know that Jesus liked hyperbole. He liked getting people’s attention, which is great, but his point doesn’t always translate across time and space, particularly when we read his words with such solemnity in church.

So let me say, in case you feel the pain of those words as I do, that I don’t believe for a minute that Jesus was actually encouraging us to do bodily harm to ourselves for the sake of spiritual purity. Nor do I believe that sinful thoughts are the same as actual deeds. His point, I think, is that sometimes it’s better to avoid situations that cause us to sin, and some thoughts are dangerous; if acted upon, they lead to real pain.

Next in line of trauma for many from these passages are Jesus’ harsh words, to our ears, about divorce. Early in my years as a rector, I watched on a Sunday morning as this particular trauma trigger affected a good portion of the congregation I served. One of our assisting priests was in the pulpit, a happily married man with three young sons whose day job was as chaplain and religious studies teacher at the local Episcopal day school. He was preaching on another text in which Jesus has harsh things to say about divorce. Speaking from his experience as a teacher and also citing certain studies, he said that, in general, divorce has a deeply adverse affect on children and that, in his experience, parents choosing to divorce often want to gloss over its impact on their kids.

If there had been social media in those days, the congregation’s outrage would have gone viral. People were furious and stunned that someone could say something so hurtful from the pulpit. This was long before legal equality, and the gay and lesbian members felt excluded from his heterosexist perspective. Divorced couples, of which there were many, felt harshly judged by a man who had no idea what being unhappily married felt like. Several people told me they weren’t sure they could come back to church. One woman wanted me to publicly rebuke the preacher. Another wanted to write her own rebuttal, which she did in our monthly newsletter.

That was a crucible experience for me and for the congregation, which I’ll be happy to tell you more about someday, or later today, if you like. But again let me say, for the record, that I don’t believe Jesus wants us to hang our heads in shame for the fragility of our marriages. Long-term intimate relationships are surely among the most humbling and audaciously hopeful human undertakings. How could we not fail at them in more ways than we dare acknowledge? Surely Jesus understands that.  

I have my own trauma trigger from his words today.  You see, if I were to leave my gift at the altar and not return until I am reconciled with my brother, I don’t know when I would be back.

I’m not speaking about “my brother” in the universal sense; I mean my flesh-and-blood brother, my half-brother to be precise, who hasn’t spoken to me for years. His name is Jim, and he’s nine years my junior. We lived together for seven years when I was a teenager and he was in elementary school. I felt very close to him then, and at a critical juncture, responsible for him as our family fell apart. In full disclosure, I failed him. I failed him dreadfully at a time when everyone else in his world did too. I knew it as it was happening, and I tried to make it up to him; but the more I tried, the more I failed, because in my immaturity I kept making promises that I was in no position to keep. By the time Paul and I were married, he wanted nothing to do with me, and I can’t say I blame him. We’ve had glimpses of reconciliation over the years, but at one decisive moment, for his own good reasons, he shut the door for good. And every time I hear Jesus say go reconcile with your brother before coming to the altar, I feel the familiar guilt.

I wish I could say that my brother is the only person who comes to mind whenever I read or hear these words, but he’s not. There are others. I’m fifty-seven years old. I’ve made mistakes in my life and hurt people deeply, and people have hurt me. Sometimes I’m able to make things right again and go on; sometimes I’m not. But I’ve learned some things about reconciliation, in success and failure, that I carry in my heart.

I’ve learned, first of all, that reconciliation requires forgiveness. If you can’t forgive another person, or if that person can’t forgive you, or you can’t forgive yourself, reconciliation is impossible. It is possible to forgive someone without reconciling. In other words, it’s possible to release another person from the burden of your hurt and disappointment, move on with your life and let that person move on too, no longer defined by the damage done, but still not be in relationship. I knew an elderly woman who was robbed by a young man she had befriended from her twelve-step group. With bruises on her arm and face, she said to me, “I forgive him for what’s he done. But I don’t want to see him again.” I knew both statements were true: she forgave him fully, and needed no restitution or even apology. But she was in her eighties and had limited energy, and she chose not to invest anymore in that relationship.

Reconciliation is only possible when those involved are ready to forgive one another and move forward together. You can forgive alone, but you can’t reconcile alone. It’s a painful realization, to be sure: if someone doesn’t want to be reconciled with you, there’s nothing you can do. In my experience, trying harder to make things right often makes things worse. You have no choice but to let that person go, at least for now. But when both parties are able to forgive and want to move forward together, reconciliation can happen, and sometimes it does with remarkable ease.   

Reconciliation also rests upon the great paradox of growth that can only be realized through suffering. I’m speaking now of the suffering of the one who was wounded. It isn’t denying or discounting the pain endured. But reconciliation rests on solid ground of maturity and compassion that living through painful circumstances affords. The biblical story of Joseph and his brothers comes to mind here: Joseph, as you recall, was deeply resented by his brothers, who were jealous of this favored status in their father’s heart and irritated by his arrogance. So his brothers threw him in a hole and slave traders carried him away. Joseph suffered greatly as a result, and yet over the years he grew through his suffering. He matured in sensitivity and compassion and he learned to use his gifts for good. Through a series of events set in motion by his brothers’ hurtful deed, he found himself in a position of power, so much so that his brothers, who had long assumed Joseph to be dead, were dependent upon him for their very survival. In the moment when he could have lashed out at them in anger, he said instead, “Out of what you intended for evil, God has brought great good.” In other words, Joseph was fine, no longer needing to carry anger at his brothers. He was grateful for how his life had turned out and the person he had become through suffering. (Genesis 37-45)

Guilt and shame have no place in a reconciled relationship. There’s no longer a need for retribution or restitution. The debt has been paid, and not by the perpetrator, but by the grace of God, serendipity of life, and hard work of the one refusing to be defined by another’s transgression. The balance of power in the relationship is completely reset and reconciliation takes place on that solid ground.

I’ve also learned that reconciliation takes a long time, and the initial work of it is done apart, as the one wounded grows stronger and heals; as the ones who have wounded also heal from the pain of having hurt another so badly. The healing required on the part of the wounding one is harder than we realize. Often the ones resisting reconciliation are those who have caused the most pain. As Karen Armstrong wrote in her memoir The Spiral Staircase, “It is always difficult to forgive the people we have harmed.” (Armstrong 2004, 146)

Yet when the work is done, and people meet as two who have grown stronger in the broken places, reconciliation is a wondrous thing. It signals a fresh start, yet with all the hard-won benefits of having come through the hardest thing and prevailed. It changes you in ways that are hard to describe, and it gives you hope for the world.

In the introduction to another book, Twelve Steps to a More Compassionate Life, Karen Armstrong writes that one of the chief tasks of our time is to build a global community in which all people can live in mutual respect. Religion, she writes, which should be making a major contribution to this great task, is typically seen and experienced as part of the problem. It shouldn’t be so. “All faiths insist that compassion is a true test of spirituality. Each has formulated its own version of what is sometimes called the Golden Rule, ‘Always treat others as you would wish yourself to be treated.’” And yet, she writes, the world is dangerously polarized and we face an overwhelming array of global challenges that if our ethical and religious traditions fail to address, they will fail the test of our time. (Armstrong 2011, 5)

She wrote those words in 2011, and I daresay on many fronts we are failing that test. I don’t know where we are headed as a nation now, or, for that matter, as a species. It feels like a crucible moment on many fronts.

Trauma triggers are those things that remind us of all that is still wounded and unreconciled. Some of the wounds go way back, historically and personally. Others are recent offenses, born of insensitivity, ignorance, and pain bumping up against pain. All are being traumatized right now by a bully in the White House, who nonetheless has the support of many who believe, despite his behavior, that he can be a force for good. I have a hard time believing that myself, but I’m paying attention and trying to keep my head in the game, which is hard to do when there is so much to be offended by. Sometimes I wonder if that’s by design, part of a larger strategy, or have we all become so callous that we don’t realize how offensive our words and actions are to others.

What I know for myself is that I want to be on the side of forgiveness and reconciliation whenever I can. That requires me to take responsibility for my part in the pain and hurt others experience, including my personal behavior and because of my privilege and position. I need to own these things and make restitution whenever I can.

But to be on the side of forgiveness and reconciliation requires me to grow through suffering. I don’t want to be defined by trauma. I want to recognize within myself how trauma is triggered, work through that trigger on my own, and thereby have a bit more capacity to choose my response to the triggering circumstances rather simply react to it. I want to draw from strength in other parts of my narrative, as well as the love, mercy, and grace of God, so I am less vulnerable to those things that conspire to keep me small.

If you, like me, are hoping for reconciliation with one who doesn’t want to reconcile with you, I know that the path is a lonely one; but it is a path, nonetheless–of prayer, acceptance of what you’ve done, and of the other person’s right to choose not to forgive or be in relationship.

If you, like me, are in need of healing from wounds sustained by others who hurt you deeply, I know the path is a lonely one; but it is a path nonetheless–of prayer, openness to healing that comes from unexpected places, and a willingness to grow through suffering.

Perhaps we’re on both paths at once. On either path, or both, this I know: we are not alone. God’s grace is there to guide and heal us, so that, one day, here–or on the other side of death–when the gate of reconciliation opens to us, we might be loving and brave, and walk through it to meet the one waiting on the other side.

Works Cited
Armstrong, Karen. The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.
—. Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.