National Trauma and the Jesus Ethic

Trauma has a way of trickling down into our psyche and shading the world we see with dull colors. Even if we haven’t had anything overly traumatic happen to us specifically, we still find ourselves born into a world of trauma and carry it in our various national, ethnic, and socio-economic identities. As scholar Shelly Rambo points out:

The central dynamics of trauma—its overwhelming violence, the shutdown of adaptive processes, and its lack of integration—can be interpreted on a larger scale. Our national lives become reorganized around traumatic events. Histories of violence are repeated. Robert Jay Lifton’s work with Vietnam veterans moves beyond an analysis of combat trauma to attest to the broader political reality that trauma returns in unending cycles of war and violence. If experiences of violence are not integrated in time, they can, in fact, be unearthed in another time and in another form. According to Lifton, what is unresolved about one war becomes the seeds of the next war; fragments of an unintegrated Vietnam reappear with a new face in Desert Storm. The struggle to reconstitute an individual self is transformed, as well, into the struggle to reconstitute a national self. Studies of slavery and racism in America point to the cycle of traumatic repetition enacted in respect to historical truths that are continually covered over and buried.

Shelly Rambo, Spirit and Trauma, page 27

Peter’s national trauma was one of an exiled, oppressed Jewish man. He lived in a land that had been taken from him and he, like all of his Jewish brothers and sisters, was waiting for God’s Chosen One to arise and take it back. Soon they would rise up together, overthrow their oppressors, and move from the bottom of society back to the top. They’d return to the glory days and give everyone who hurt them a taste of their own medicine. Maybe once they had taken the throne they would exile the Romans or drive them into poverty or turn them into their slaves.

All of these thoughts must have been ringing in Peter’s ears when Jesus told him to go buy a sword—so much so that he (like most people today) missed the very words that followed: “Go buy a sword so that I might be numbered with transgressors.” What was the transgression? In part, they looked like transgressors, but what’s more theologically important was their transgression against Jesus. For in this command to go buy swords, Jesus reminded the disciples of how he sent them to do ministry with some simple supplies earlier in their career and they lacked absolutely nothing. The transgression they would now commit was to sell those simple ministerial supplies and use the money to buy swords, undoing the very lesson they were taught.

But Peter, with his selective hearing, only heard the part about the sword. It matched everything he had already played out in his mind. And when a crowd came to arrest Jesus, Peter pulled out his weapon and went for the kill and missed—because, let’s face it, Peter was not a ninja capable of expertly slicing someone’s ear off. In that moment Jesus turned to Peter (and to us) gave the lesson of lessons when it comes to killing and violence: “No.” Then he put the man’s ear back on.

Peter had always been willing to die for Jesus. He had said it himself just the night before. Furthermore, he had just proved it by trying to incite war with his attack. And as the leader of this new war, he was clearly willing to go down with it. What he wasn’t willing to do, however, was die for Jesus as a disarmed man. He was not willing to take on a cross. And so as Jesus spoke the “No” that would echo through the ages, Peter ran into hiding.

Jesus taught a different way of overcoming. Jesus fought national trauma by willingly taking trauma upon himself. As N.T. Wright says, “Jesus could see that the standard kind of revolution, fighting and killing to put an end to… fighting and killing was a nonsense.” All of this violence was a part of the domination cycle that belonged with Satan, whom Jesus said “has been a murderer since the beginning.” Violence is just Satan replacing Satan with more Satan. We do not overcome pain and trauma by taking up Satan’s swords and guns—we overcome pain and trauma by sewing the fruit of the Spirit into infertile fields where seeds don’t seem to belong. We forgive people of the debts they owe us, even though that’s not how debt is supposed to operate. Like MLK in Selma, we take on suffering and let the world watch until they become aware of themselves. For as he taught,

…throw us in jail, and as difficult as that is, we will still love you.  Bomb our homes and threaten our children and as difficult as it is, we will still love you.  Send your hooded perpetrators and violence into our communities at the midnight hours and drag us out on some wayside road and beat us and leave us half-dead and we will still love you.  But be assured that we will wear you down by our capacity to suffer.  And one day we will win our freedom but we will not only win freedom for ourselves.  We will so appeal to your heart and your conscience, that we will win you in the process.  And our victory will be a double victory.  This is the meaning of the nonviolent creed.  This is the meaning of the nonviolent ethic.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

*This devotional was created out of the themes of Matthew 26:47-56 found in today’s reading at Below are the various AI-created pictures I typed into existence via Mid Journey to mock up artwork for today’s post.

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