Thursday, September 22, 2011

Sermon: "Living After Trauma" (Delivered 9-11-11)

Call to Worship
Come into this place if your heart is full of love; come into this place if you have affection and gentle kindness to share with those around you.

Come into this place if your laughter and smile can soften the hardness of another’s pain.

Come into this place if your faith is strong, if you feel called to service on behalf of all humanity and of this planet.

Come into this place if you are moved by beauty; come into this place and give attention to what is beautiful.

Come into this place if you are hurting, if loss and pain weigh heavily on you. Come into this place and allow yourself to be held.

Come into this place if you feel hardened against the world. Come into this place and begin to discover an inward stillness, begin to loosen the bands securing the armor you wear.

Come into this place if you feel adrift, if you search for purpose, if you are not sure how you can make a difference. Come into this place of discernment, seeking, and learning.

Come, let us worship together.

from Proverbs of Ashes by Rebecca Parker and Rita Nakashima Brock
Many years later, Rita and I reflected on [the many stories of profound trauma we had witnessed]. We talked about the power of presence to heal some of the effects of violence. Reliable intimate relationships can help people survive profound violence, terror and despair and enable them to live beyond their own personal pain. As Judith Herman notes in Trauma and Recovery, “Traumatic events destroy the sustaining bonds between individual and community. Those who have survived learn that their sense of self, or worth, of humanity, depends upon a feeling of connection to others.” Restored, people return to ordinary life and expand their concern to others-not as self-sacrifice but as self-possession. Present to themselves and to the reality of others, they do not live in denial of violence but in remembrance of presence. They have embraced a greater knowledge of the world, of evil. When we come into such presence of ourselves we are able to take responsibility for our actions and lives, in all their ambiguity. And in that process of taking responsibility, we turn the corner toward the practice of loving, the practice of transforming the world.

I grew up in the small, safe town of Wayland, Massachusetts. The shelter of the town was evidenced by a game we played as children. My friends and I would read aloud items from the police report in the weekly town newspaper and then add the words, “And that’s the boring town where we live.” Our favorite went something like this: “On Thursday afternoon a Wayland resident reported that a turtle was crossing the street along Old Connecticut Path. Police were unsuccessful in locating the turtle.” And that’s the boring town where I lived.

Each year on the Sunday after Labor Day, at Wayland’s Unitarian Universalist First Parish, we sang, “May nothing evil cross this door, and may ill fortune never pry about these windows, may the roar and rain go by.” The sheltering walls of my childhood did not feel thin. Hate was kept out. Love was kept in.

This past summer there was a murder in my hometown of Wayland, the town’s first murder in a quarter-century. The victim was a young woman with her whole life in front of her. She had just graduated from high school and was preparing to leave town to attend a fantastic college. The suspect charged with the murder is a young man who had his whole life in front of him. He had just graduated from high school and was preparing to leave town to attend a fantastic college.

In the midst of a family’s trauma, a school’s trauma, a town’s trauma, something remarkable happened. The father of the girl who was murdered is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Church in Wayland. With my parents he attends a peacemaking group at the church. Somehow, in the midst of his unimaginable and horrific loss, this man has made himself the voice of profound compassion.

His reaction has been so profound and powerful that it was the subject of an editorial in the Boston Globe.
In the aftermath of his profound loss, he has shown something else almost unimaginable in these circumstances: compassion… Victims can set the tone for how a town deals with tragedy… [His] apparent concern for the suspect’s family and - yes - even the suspect himself creates an atmosphere of unification rather than inciting fear and revenge.
In the face of such a horrific loss, I think we could imagine understanding just about any type of response. Totalizing depression, paralyzing grief, utter seclusion, even all-consuming anger. We can even understand responses that we would not condone. If this man announced that he was determined to avenge his daughter’s death, we’d understand it, even though we wouldn’t condone it. If anything, the hardest response to understand is this man’s gentle and compassionate response.

I cannot imagine what this girl’s father is going through. I can’t imagine myself in his shoes. And, I cannot pretend to know how I would fare if, God forbid, I should ever find myself facing a similar trauma. I’d like to believe that I would be a force for healing and compassion and reconciliation, but I don’t know.


The subject of this morning’s sermon is trauma. It is a subject that I’ve selected due to the obvious significance of this day. I want to tell you from the outset that while I want to contemplate the religious and theological significance to trauma, I want to be very careful not to dress trauma up in pretty clothes or fail to take it seriously. My thinking about trauma tends to approximate my thinking about a similar word, crisis.

For at least the last fifty years, motivational speakers and authors in the field of spirituality have repeated a saying. They’ve said that the Chinese character for the word “crisis” is a combination of two other Chinese characters, the Chinese character for “danger” and the character for “opportunity.” They’ve said that we will have success or peace or enlightenment if we only treat moments of pain as opportunities for learning and growth. However, this saying is based on bad translation. According to leading Sinologists, the character for crisis does not mean danger and opportunity. It actually just means danger or, to be more precise, “a time of danger.”

It is perverse to suggest to a person that has experienced a trauma that the experience is an opportunity for growth. It is heartless to tell victims and survivors that this is an opportunity for learning. And, and, and, there are countless examples of people who’ve bravely lived through trauma or crisis or suffering who do say that they learned something from the ordeal, who can say that they grew as a result. But, let’s not deny for a second that nobody goes out in search of trauma, that the pain and suffering are most real.

We gather this morning on the ten year anniversary of a day deeply traumatic to the psyche of our nation. But, we also know that trauma can take many forms. Trauma can come in the form an act of violence against us from someone close to us, from a stranger, or from a terrorizing other. We can experience it when we ourselves or when the members of the larger community are the victims. Trauma can also come as the result of an accident or an act of nature, a tornado or hurricane, a flood or earthquake. An illness or disease can be traumatic as well. With the diagnosis or the symptoms of disease come an unsettling of our lives, a deep disruption of our days, and an awareness of our mortality. Or, trauma can come in the form of so many different kinds of loss.

Poise, grace, and strength in the face of trauma are all the more remarkable when we consider that some sorts of trauma can be exploited. There is a side to trauma that is filled with immense danger. Social scientists have developed a term, “collective trauma,” to describe traumatic events are shared across a society.

In the build-up to the horrific war in the Balkans in the nineties, Serbian leaders such as Slobodan Milosevic told and retold, again and again, the story of an historic battle that had taken place 600 years earlier, in 1389, in which an army of the Ottoman Empire had conquered a Serbian stronghold. The rhetoric was one of victimization, of humiliation, of having suffered to such an extent that they were justified in taking any step to avoid future suffering. This powerful propaganda evoked a sense of collective trauma that would later be used to justify acts of ethnic cleansing, war crimes, and other crimes against humanity. They were told that they were justified in doing anything to avoid suffering another humiliation.

In Germany, following World War I, the Nazi party came to power through emphasizing the traumatic humiliation of the Treaty of Versailles. We must defend ourselves. We must never again be victims. The rhetoric of collective trauma was used to summon support for fascism.

Following September 11, this same sense of collective trauma was evoked as justification and sanction for the suppression of civil rights, the violation of human rights, and every subsequent act of violence. Images of suffering, death, and destruction – the collective trauma of the memory of that day – could be conjured up to justify whatever needed justification.

Listen again to what Rebecca Parker writes, “Traumatic events can destroy the sustaining bonds between individual and a sense of larger community.” Trauma can sever our awareness of connectedness. It can create a sense of smallness and separation. But, Parker writes, “Restored, people return to ordinary life and expand their concern to others – not as self-sacrifice but as self-possession. Present to themselves and to the reality of others, they do not live in denial of violence but in remembrance of presence.”

She tells us that both the healthiest response to trauma and the path towards own healing is found in relationship, connection, and all that reminds us of the bonds we share with others. The unhealthy response to trauma, the response that perpetuates harm, will be one that divides and excludes, that severs relationship and denies connection.

If there was a lesson I would lift up from the September 11 memorials and retrospectives from the previous days and weeks, it is that the September 11 heroes that are memorialized for giving their lives in the effort to save lives come from extremely different walks of life. They were of different classes and races and ethnicities. The leaders of the passenger uprising aboard United Flight 93, the plane that crashed in a Pennsylvania field, included a conservative Christian man from New Jersey and a gay man from San Francisco. The victims from that day also included Salman Hamdani, a Pakistani-American from New York City who was an EMT and a police cadet. Hamdani died during the collapse of the towers; he had gone to the scene to attempt to save lives. In the days after September 11, his family received no condolences. Rather, they were interrogated. The tabloid press published fabricated reports, saying that he had gone into hiding with a terrorist cell or that he was being held in a secret detention center by the US government. The remains of Hamdani the hero were in fact discovered six months later amidst the rubble of the World Trade Center. [Hamdani’s story is included in the recently published oral history collection Patriot Acts: Narratives of Post-9/11 Injustice.]

If Parker is right, if the way towards healing and wholeness comes through connection, then we would also count as heroes all those who in their living help to demonstrate and build the connections between people, all those who speak of the interconnectedness of all humans, all those who continued to invoke the network of mutuality to which we belong.

A colleague of mine speaking on the topic of forgiveness once said, “You are not only the worst thing you’ve ever done. And, you are not only the best thing you’ve ever done.” Today, we might also say, “You are not only the worst thing that has ever happened to you. And, you are also not only the best thing that has ever happened to you.” Our mistakes and our triumphs, the pain we suffer and the good fortune we enjoy, these are all a part of us. They’ll forever be a part of us. But they don’t completely define us.

Trauma is a part of life. We will all face it, though to different degrees of severity. The danger of living after trauma is an always present danger. It is the danger that we will separate ourselves, harden our hearts, severing and denying the relationships and connections that make us fully human. The opportunity is always there as well, not only in times of crisis but all the time. It is the chance to recognize the immediacy and the expansiveness of our connections. So may it be.