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Cultural Trauma and the Acculturated Jesus


This article first appeared on The Twelve blog. It has been re-posted with permission. Christina Edmondson is the Dean of Intercultural Student Development at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
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The Jesus of the Bible was a deeply connected, culturally credible Hebrew son.

There is no doubt that English never rolled from his lips. No flags of red, white, and blue waved from his vehicle or flagpole in front of his suburban home.

Which begs the question: can you and I even imagine that at this moment a glorified Middle Eastern embodied savior is making intercessions for his church? I wonder how the active practice of ceasing colorblindness and seeing Jesus fully human and fully divine, can, even now, serve how we see cultures. Maybe, in some way, this might break down our apathy to see and respond to culture outside of our own.

If we would zoom in for a tight shot of the year 2016, week after week, real news stories and fake ones alike, the tale of a world in constant cultural conflict emerges. Witnessing polarized sides with seemingly irreconcilable differences have left us embittered, spent, and disconnected. Instead of hearing the experience of the other, owning the consequences of our own cultural-narcissism, we fast from different voices and turn to news outlets, places of worship, and friend groups that match and fertilize our biases.

This approach ensures our entrenchment and entitlement. Yet polarization is not as simple as differences in one’s preference about colors of paint or the seasons of the year. It is indeed the differences that make a difference that cause us to ache, fear, and defend. And, for those who bear the weight of marginalization and historical silencing, the lack of power to express agency and engagement causes real pain and trauma. Yes, trauma.

So, what do we do for those left to bear the cultural trauma of 2016? Is there something for us to learn about ourselves and others when we can see Jesus in his full cultural embodiment? Let’s start with the first question by unpacking what cultural trauma is, and how we might respond.

Simply put, cultural trauma as a phenomenon occurs when group members of a shared identity experience a horrendous event or watershed moment. A tattoo of pain is left on the impacted people group. Now, they find themselves with an altered lens through which to see, interpret, and navigate the world as they work to process and avoid the reoccurrence of such pain. Like all trauma, it is not simply the in-the-moment experience that marks our suffering, but the fear of re-traumatization, the avoidance of accountability by others, and the bold denial of suffering that makes a painful moment a lasting imprint.

As a teenager, I vividly recall touring the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. I was stilled by the sadness and suffering permeating from photos chronicling the profound contrast of emaciated bodies being supervised by callous soldiers. While I personally bore no direct connection to the Holocaust, I felt anguish and grief. I thought our capacity to see others suffer without intervention is simply too great. I was immediately pulled back to stories of my own family’s journey through race-based human trafficking in North America. Etched in my memories of the tour is the moment when I heard an older white man behind me utter to his wife, “I guess it’s true; the Holocaust did happen.”

Early in my academic training, I spent a few years studying and practicing trauma-related treatment. This painful privilege brought me before former soldiers, survivors of incest, and offenders. The literature and the voices of those who have walked the long road of trauma, tell us how pivotal external validation is to one’s healing process. This is so true that the power of one important adult affirming a child’s painful experience can alter the trajectory of their outcomes and development. Yet, today we live in a world that resists acknowledging cultural trauma.

Just like in the case of the survivors of abuse, “deny,” “dismiss,” and “demonize” serve as stages of unaccountability and apathy. For example, we deny the impact of a political season entrenched with racist, misogynistic, and dehumanizing language. We dismiss the pain of those used by strategic racism to galvanize and separate. Finally, we demonize people who have suffered cultural trauma by misusing their faith convictions to subjugate their voices. We place the moral obligation on their shoulders to maintain a false unity, like a child told to keep adults’ secrets for the sake of the family. The dye has been cast. Where we find cultural trauma, we also find denial, dismissal, and demonization.

The made-in-America church, as is, struggles with a limited capacity to sit with, let alone worship the culturally embodied Jesus. For this reason, we struggle to see and serve our diverse brothers and sisters around us. Our Lord, is the Jesus that would experience profiling at the airport, and sadly, within our church sanctuaries. Possibly, today, he would be the Middle Easterner that we believe deserves an extra layer of investigation for fear that he may not affirm our American ideals. As the New Testament highlights, Jesus receives love to the least, also known as the socially marginalized among us, as love to himself. Let’s endeavor for Christ’s sake and the witness of the Gospel, to end the scourge of denial, dismissal, and demonization as we affirm the cultural trauma of those among us.

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