What is trauma? And how can congregations be a space of healing for the traumatized? Hebrew Bible Professor Paul Cho discusses the nature of trauma and how Scripture is a resource for congregations journeying alongside the traumatized.
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What is trauma? And how can congregations be a space of healing for the traumatized? Hebrew Bible Professor Paul Cho discusses the nature of trauma and how Scripture is a resource for congregations journeying alongside the traumatized.
Doug Powe: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks, a podcast featuring thought leaders and innovative practitioners. I’m Douglas Powe, the director of the Lewis Center and your host for this conversation. Joining me is Dr. Paul Cho, associate professor of Hebrew Bible at Wesley Theological Seminary. He’s the author of Myth, History, and Metaphor in the Hebrew Bible. Today, our focus for the podcast is trauma. Paul, I’m excited that you’re joining us today and I’m looking forward to this conversation. And I hope you are well.
Paul Cho: Thank you for having me. I’m always happy to talk about trauma and the ways in which we can combat it, address it. So thank you for having me on.
Doug Powe: it is a pleasure to have you. It’s interesting to say you’re happy to talk about trauma. Most people wouldn’t think about it that way. But I think as we go through the podcast, people will understand what you mean. Let’s begin. You teach on trauma. Can you share some of the insights of how you help students to define trauma?
Paul Cho: Most of my students who come to the classroom and want to talk about and think about trauma, have an interest in trauma either from personal experience or just from exposure to the concept at large. So it’s important for me as a teacher to honor that interest and to honor the experiences that the students themselves bring into the classroom.
So I start with where the students are and allow them to better articulate and define what they think trauma is. And they will soon find as they converse with one another, that the experiences and the definitions of trauma that people carry into the classroom are multiple and diverse. And so that’s one level at which students can both affirm and be affirmed in their own understanding of trauma and to begin to diversify and to complexify what they think trauma is. At that point that we can bring in formal definitions from scientific studies of trauma in the classroom to better frame that conversation around trauma, whether we are talking about psychological trauma that an individual may experience or have experienced, or the social trauma that a group at large might experience. So I think there are steps towards getting a better understanding of trauma. And I think it begins with the individual. And I think the best definitions and understandings of trauma exist in the tension between what we ourselves bring in and the larger scientific studies that are out there.
Doug Powe: That’s interesting, Paul. As you are talking, I’m curious. Off the top of your head, if you can think of maybe some common themes that run through where students themselves start when they define trauma, before you move to the scientific ways that you commonly see them unpacking this thought of trauma.
Paul Cho: Yeah, I think a lot of students come to trauma either from a very particular place or from an overly generalized place. By particular, I mean perhaps one’s own experience with trauma. So one thinks of trauma as simply what I experienced or what I know to have happened to the people around me, whether that be sexual in nature, racial in nature, or just the violence that they may have experienced in their personal lives. So that is very particular. And then another particularity is to think about trauma only as PTSD, as only pertaining to a very delicate and important part of what it means to have experienced trauma. But, of course, that’s not the only thing that we should think about when we think about trauma. And the overgeneralized way to think about trauma is to think about trauma as anything that’s bad or sad or tragic. Because there are many things that happen, obviously, in this world that are bad and sad and tragic, but they may not, in fact, be traumatic or trauma in the narrow sense. So I think it’s trying to both expand one’s definition and also to frame in a more rigorous way one’s understanding of trauma. That is the important work of defining trauma at the beginning.
Doug Powe: I think that’s extremely helpful because I think all of us tend to define things from what we have personally experienced. And it’s not until we bump up against other framings of ideas that we start expanding our own thoughts. And this leads to the next conversation I’d like to jump into. And you sort of have already hinted at this. So there’s individual trauma, but then there’s also communal trauma. Can you talk about how these are different and how they are connected to one another?
Paul Cho: Yeah, I think there are a variety of ways to think about communal trauma, trauma that affects a large group of people. And the way communal trauma works itself out is somewhat ironic in the sense that it can work out in a centrifugal way. That is to say, it dissolves the social and connective fabric of a group. Or it can in fact work itself out in centripetal ways where it actually coheres the identity of that group. So one thing to remember is that communal trauma can be defined as a large group experiencing similar or the same event that is traumatic for the individuals that make up that group. And in such cases, one can see the ways in which that experience can dissolve the trust and the connectivity that that the group enjoyed. And so this has a centrifugal effect on the community and can dissolve that community.
But the experience of trauma and the common experience of trauma and the ways in which it is represented to the group can in fact have centripetal forces. And I use that as a neutral term because I think it can be both positive and negative. And the way in which that centripetal force of trauma works itself out is in the form of narratives. Traumas and experiences of trauma usually engender a need for explanations. And those explanations, for the most part, take on the form of narratives. And at the group level, at a communal level, that narrative is not formulated by individuals or by all members of that group, but rather by people who have a platform, people who have the ear of the community. And the way in which that that narrative, the story, that explanation is crafted will come to define at least a part of the emerging identity of that group. And because of this, this can, in fact, create a new identity, perhaps even a stronger identity, because of the emotional energy that the trauma, the experience of trauma will have released. But obviously, depending on the veracity, or the worth, or the value of that particular narrative, the identity that it’s created can be either healthy or less healthy.
Doug Powe: You know, you’re connecting some important dots. And I’m going to put something out there that’s a little bit unfair, but I have confidence that you will be able to connect the dots in a more helpful way than I asked this question. But being a Hebrew Bible scholar, one way to think about the Hebrew text is through this lens of trauma — that when you we’re talking about communal identity and the way that trauma can help bring the group together or trauma can actually also have where the group may dissolve in places. So do you believe the way that we can read the Hebrew Bible text through this lens of trauma can actually help us think about our own narratives in life? Do you think the text operates in a way that can open up places for us to see ourselves?
Paul Cho: I think it’s important for some of us, especially those of us who hold Scripture in high regard as authoritative and valuable in our lives, to recognize that trauma is, in fact, a constitutive part of the historical and social reality that is behind the Hebrew Bible. And I think the recognition of that fact itself makes Scripture more proximate to us and to our lives and to our existence — to be able to recognize that the pains and the sufferings that we experience were also experienced by the people and the individuals behind Scripture. And to recognize that is also to be able to recognize that the Hebrew Scriptures reflect that pain and sorrow and that confusion that arises from experiences of trauma.
And we see this everywhere throughout Scripture. And I think to be able to pinpoint and to be able to identify and recognize the existence of the laments, the anger, the emotions, the confusions that are embedded in Hebrew Scripture is to say “That’s where I can find myself connecting with this ancient Scripture.” And then I think it is with that initial act of identification that one can possibly begin a journey of narrating oneself, one’s own story, one’s own pains, and one’s own journey through trauma, through suffering, alongside Scripture, to say the biblical writers began with pain and suffering and trauma, and they were able to get to a different place. And maybe, perhaps I can also partake in the scriptural theological journey alongside them. You may not look exactly the same, but because of this analogy between my existential experience and the experience that is behind and embedded in the pages of Scripture, we can in fact journey, co-journey with the biblical narratives. And that’s one way that we can find our narratives being inflected and reflected in Scripture and the Scripture in our lives as well.
Doug Powe: Let me continue in this vein, but bring it a little bit closer to home for our audience and connect this to congregations and think about the way that we can, as you just talked about, reflect on the text for our personal lives and for the congregational life. Let me start with our personal lives and pick what I know is one of your favorite books and one that many of our readers will also be familiar with, Job. So could you speak about Job and how the book of Job helps us to reflect on our personal lives, particularly when we think we’re being picked upon, how Job can actually help us to reflect in ways that might be helpful, where we can end up at a different place.
Paul Cho: I think of the book of Job as something of a gift to the world, of course, to the church and to synagogue, but I think it is, in fact, a gift to the world. And especially a world that knows what it means to suffer, to be oppressed, to feel, as you put it, to be picked on by God, by others in society, and to have this theological social crisis. And I think it is a gift to the world because it does not shy away from complexity, which we know to be real, which we know to be authentic. Because had the book of Job given us easy answers to these difficult existential theological questions, we would have easily dismissed the book. But because of its complexity and its nuance, I think it can in fact speak to us in a genuine way.
Many Christians, many Jews, many, many who are familiar with the book of Job may simply know Job as that patient and pious individual who did not curse God, but in fact somehow was able to bless God, even despite the fact that his family, his wealth, his property, his social circle had been decimated and, the text tells us, at the hand of the Satan, but behind the Satan was, of course, God. But I think if we read on into the book of Job, beginning with chapter three, what we realized is that Job enters into speech that is full of sorrow, pain, confusion, doubts, questions about everything. There is a sense in which the book of Job, and Job in particular, questions everything because of the experience that has shattered his world, his sense of belonging to the world, his sense of relationship to God, and his sense of self-worth, as well. So all that he held dear and to be secure was shattered.
And this catapults into a series of questions and laments that I think is a gift because it gives us scriptural and theological space in which to engage in similar considerations, similar meditations, similar outbursts and anger. There is a point at which one of the friends says to Job, “For your sake, because of you, should the world or the earth be abandoned?” That is to say, should we get rid of and question everything that we’ve known about the world in which we live, simply because you are suffering? And of course, the friend’s answer to what he thought was a rhetorical question was, “No, you’re not that important.” But I think what the book of Job in fact says is, “Yes, because of your individual suffering and your experience of pain, the world should be overturned.”
And I think it gives us the realization that our suffering matters not only to ourselves, but also to God. Because God, in fact, addressed Job at the end. And to realize that our suffering and the confusion and the pain that results from them is of theological importance and of concern to God, and it should be to others, I think it’s a great affirmation of the fact that suffering is hard, difficult, but it is not without, to a certain extent, value to God and to each other and to us and should be taken care of and regarded with such seriousness.
Doug Powe: Paul, the way that you just helped listeners think about Job, I think was extremely helpful. I appreciate that. Because thinking about affirmation in the midst of trauma, I think, is often challenging for individuals, but also critically important. I’m going to return back there in a minute. But I want to stay on this congregational theme, but come at it now from more of a communal perspective. In this case, I might be going out on a limb because I don’t know if this is one of your favorite books, but going to the book of Ruth and thinking about the practice in which women followed behind and picked what was left over as people were going out at the harvest and reaping. But the community had built into it a way of taking care of people. So, again, thinking about the trauma of individuals who were struggling and doing without, yet the community had built in a response to try to help those in such situations. And I think this is, again, important for a congregation. So if you can sort of reflect, again, upon the thinking behind that text and how we can think about what we can do in our lives, that would be great.
Paul Cho. And that’s a great question and a very good question, because I think this is something that we can all do and we should all aspire to do in our congregations. We know that congregations are important groups. It’s important for those who have been hurt by the experience of trauma. Whether it is a particular singular experience or an ongoing experience, it is important for that individual and for those persons to feel that they have a connection. And I say this because I’m relying on the work of Judith Hermann, who taught at Harvard Medical School and is an expert on trauma. And she identifies the three steps for recovery as the following: first, establish safety for the person who has experienced trauma; second, have a place in which this person can both reconstruct the trauma experience and to mourn that experience; and then the third step is to reconnect to groups and individuals.
I don’t think many congregations or pastors are equipped properly to be able to help a traumatized person reconstruct the trauma experience. I think that should be left in the hands of psychologists and psychiatrists who are trained to engage in this work. But I think a congregation can play a vital role in both creating a safe space for a traumatized person to be, and not necessarily to tell, but just simply to be and to be a part of a group. And I think the congregation can also play a vital role in helping this individual reconnect to society, to find that they can, in fact, enjoy the same kind of relationships they once did and also to form new ones if necessary. I think this is, in fact, a vital role that churches must play and be conscious of as they engage in the work of going about ministry in a world that knows trauma too well. In different groups, as individuals, we all know trauma. I think coming out of the pandemic health crisis, as well as the realization that racism continues to afflict our society in such deep and painful ways, we will come out of this having been traumatized in one way or another.
Being mindful of the ways in which a congregation in a healthy and helpful way contributes to the healing of such individuals and groups I think is important. I will also say that I think churches are places in which we can build the capacity for resilience precisely by training our members, both young and old, in resilience. And resilience comes about not because we focus on “let’s be resilient when traumas come ” but rather in just in being healthy communities in which people can have conversations both with disagreements and with agreements, both with people who are like them and not like them or think and believe in the same way. I think a community that is healthy, simply healthy, just loves one another, respects one another, will in fact make their congregants healthy and resilient. So I think that’s an important part that congregations can and should play. And this is reflected, of course, in the book of Ruth where there are social structures and practices that recognize that there are those who live in the margins, live always a little too close to danger and to being disappeared, to being made to disappear because of economic, social, and other factors. To recognize the existence of such brothers and sisters among us and to make room for that not as an exception but an eventuality, to be mindful of that and cognizant of that, is an important practice for all of us as we go about the ministry of being dispellers of Christ’s love and mercy and peace.
Doug Powe: Paul, thank you. That was helpful and I appreciate you outlining those three points from the Harvard professor. As we get ready to come to a close, the pandemic has been traumatic in many ways for a variety of people, and you’ve talked about a few of the ways that it has been traumatic. But if you were going to do a Bible study in a congregation, can you talk a little bit about how you would frame that study to help them think about coming out of the pandemic to build a healthier community, to deal with some of what’s taken place? Obviously, as you pointed out, congregations aren’t equipped to do all the work that is necessary to do this, but the role they can play in helping people in this time.
Paul Cho: In terms of the Bible study I would recommend and the ways we can run them, I would provide two recommendations or two thoughts. The first is to read the book of Psalms. The book of Psalms reflects the entire “anatomy of the human soul,” as John Calvin put it. It expresses our laments, our mourning, our doubts, our anger. But of course, it also expresses our thanksgiving and our joy and praise. I think the book of Psalms is important because it reflects the fullness of our emotional responses to trauma and to life in general. And it makes space for people to both celebrate and also to mourn, not only by themselves, but with each other.
And I think if a Bible study or the practice of reading together honors the fact that the person who reads a scripture will bring their own experience, their own thoughts and emotions to that table, and to say “I honor you in your response to that” and to sojourn with them in that journey, even if you yourself may not be celebrating or mourning or being confused or angry, I think can be a very healthy experience for congregations to engage in with one another. And I think that the Psalms are uniquely important because it also brings us with each other standing side by side before the presence of God. This theological dimension, I think, is something that is unique to churches and to other worshipping communities. And this is something that we can helpfully engage together, to say “Here is a person who is mourning and angry because of the experience of trauma coming out of this pandemic,” and say “I stand with him or her in the presence of God as a sanctified community.” That can be quite affirming for individual members as well as the congregation as a whole.
The other book you might have guessed that I would recommend is the book of Job. In fact, I am in conversation with people at Wesley Theological Seminary, as well as people both in South Africa and in Australia, to think about launching what I’m calling the Job Project. And the project is, in fact, very simple, just to read the Book of Job, or at least parts of the book of Job with congregations and communities who have suffered in ways known and unknown. And I think the book of Job is important because it recognizes, as I’ve stated before, the reality of pain and the horror that we have experienced.
And the experiences of horror are diverse coming out of the pandemic. Young people who have lost the ability to commune with their friends. That has been devastating, both socially, psychologically, emotionally, also probably physically. The loss of jobs for many people around the country and around the world has been devastating. The loss of life of our loved ones, of our neighbors and our friends, that has taken a humongous toll that we have to recognize. And we as Americans are not good at lamenting. We are not good at recognizing that death stings and has reign over us. I think that the book of Job helps us to confront the reality of all that, and I think it also creates that space in which people can feel empowered and encouraged and affirmed to speak their laments and their sorrow.
I think also it will be important for the leaders of such Bible studies to be mindful that we can bring our toxicity, even through the reading of Scripture. That even as we bring ourselves to that table, there are ways in which we might release our emotions that may not, in fact, be helpful. And I think we need to be mindful of that to both give the space to embrace such a person, but also to say there are safety measures that we have to abide by, especially when we engage in in group study of such things. So, I think the book of Psalms is an easy recommendation, but not only Psalm 23 but also Psalm 137, beginning to end. I think reading a diversity of Psalms would be important and the book of Job would also be helpful, especially with a guiding hand. So those are two recommendations that I would have.
Doug Powe: Paul, thank you for your time today. And I’m excited about the Job Project and I look forward to hearing more. Of course, any way that we can help or participate, we would be happy to do so. But, you know, very appreciative of your work and look forward to your continued work in this area.
Paul Cho: Thank you. It was a it was a pleasure, oddly, to be able to speak with you about this topic.
Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks, we speak with Dr. Matthew Stanford about the church and mental illness.
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