Theorizing and theologizing about trauma are highly visible in my information networks these days. While inter-generational trauma has been a known and acknowledged reality in communities of color for generations, this psychosocial reality has become mainstream in the last few years. A primary reason for this shift is obvious and ubiquitous – the Covid-19 pandemic and its devastating impacts on American society and societies around the globe.
Why does this matter for my writing in this space? One way to examine, interpret, and apply the reading from John 21 is through the lens of trauma theory, theology, and pastoral care. But first, let’s review some of the realities of this historical moment.
As of this writing, the United States is days from recording the one millionth death from the Covid-19 pandemic. This number is certainly a significant undercount, perhaps as much as 200,000, based on the additional deaths recorded during the pandemic that exceed expected mortality rates. “These immense losses are shaping our country,” Melody Schreiber writes in her Scientific American article, “how we live, work and love, how we play and pray and learn and grow.”
These losses will have generational impacts. This pandemic will be an historic “anchor event” – similar in this way to September 11, 2001, or – to expand the cultural and generational framework – April 4, 1968, or November 23, 1963, or December 7, 1941. For example, Schreiber reports, nearly a quarter of a million children lost a caregiver to COVID. Older Americans as a cohort and communities of color have been particularly hard hit. The consequences of these concentrated impacts will only unfold over the coming decades. “On average,” Schreiber notes, “every death from COVID leaves nine people grieving.”
Other age and social cohorts have been hit in other ways. The death rate among working-age Americans is the highest ever recorded in the experience of the American insurance industry. These death rates are forty percent higher than they were pre-pandemic. By comparison, a ten percent jump in the mortality rate would be considered a once in two hundred years catastrophe. The current death rate is unprecedented.
This working-age death rate was especially concentrated in the fields of food and agriculture, warehouse operations and manufacturing, and transportation and construction. “And working in a nursing home,” Schreiber observes, “has been one of the deadliest jobs in the U.S.” during COVID-time. The overall losses suffered so far are more than double the American deaths recorded during World War II. Just as it has taken generations to process and to continue to grieve those losses, it will take generations to process and grieve the devastation of this pandemic.
Some of the impacts have been immediate. Over one million women so far have left the work force during the pandemic, primarily to deal with disruptions in childcare and other caregiving responsibilities. Many older adults, who were primary caregivers in the unofficial world of childcare, are simply no longer there. This loss has been concentrated in communities of color that depend more heavily on the unofficial childcare network and resources. This loss of primary caregivers has physical and mental health consequences for children as well as economic ones.
“The Bible is one long series of traumatic events and accounts of how people struggle to speak about God in the face of them,” Serene Jones writes in Trauma and Grace. “Two traumatic biblical events jumped out at me immediately,” she continues, “the crucifixion and the resulting trauma of those Christians who experienced it” (Kindle Location 124). The crucifixion was an experience of terror and torture, of humiliation and shame, of personal agony and political theater. “So, for Christianity,” Jones suggests, “understanding trauma is not just a kind of secondary issue—it is rather the most central event of our faith” (Kindle Location 129).
Jennifer Allen writes that all traumatic events cause cultural trauma, a change in the collective identity of group members in response to and in the wake of that traumatic event(s). Allen quotes Jeffrey Alexander in this regard. “Trauma,” Alexander writes, “is not the result of a group experiencing pain. It is the result of this acute discomfort entering into the core of the collectivity’s sense of its own identity” (Allen, page 6). This entry results in an “enculturation” of the trauma which produces shared memories, stories, and interpretations of the traumatic event.
Allen applies these insights to the telling and writing of the gospel accounts. She points, in particular, to Shelly Rambo’s description of the Johannine account as a “survivor narrative.” Allen writes that, “The emphasis on witness and the many post-resurrection narratives in John provides a significant basis for claim-making and transformation of the collective identity” (page 6). The disciples carry the experience of the trauma of the crucifixion (and resurrection) and discern the meaning of these events as they tell and re-tell the gospel stories. In this way, the event changes the collective identity of the group.
“The Christian story is bathed in trauma,” Allen writes, “and in understanding God and our relationship to God in the face of historic, enculturated trauma. It is in the face of the shared narrative of trauma,” she continues, “where Christians can gain an understanding of God and God’s relationship to their own brokenness” (page 12). She argues in her thesis that John 21 offers a story that attempts to explain God’s presence in the trauma and to offer Jesus’ instructions on how to proceed in response to the trauma.
Allen describes Peter in John 21 as a “survivor seeking healing.” He responds to all that has happened by trying to return to the way things used to be when he and his companions worked and lived as Galilean fisherman. I imagine many of us church folk think immediately of the desperate desires in our congregations for things to return as quickly as possible to “the way things were before Covid.” But in John 21, we see that there is no going back to the before times. “Peter’s lack of success in fishing,” Allen argues, “proves that he will not be able to return to life ‘before,’ but will need to reintegrate his life with the presence of trauma” (page 18).
Nonetheless, when (with the prompting of the Beloved Disciple) Peter swims to shore, he seems to rejoice that perhaps he and his companions have gotten past all that unpleasantness and may be able to move on in triumph. The rest of the disciples clearly see that this avoidance and suppression of the traumatic memory isn’t possible. They know who Jesus is but won’t risk talking about how exactly he got from where he was to where he is.
In the threefold questioning, Jesus leads Peter to review and re-narrate Peter’s own place in the traumatic story. Jesus meets Peter where he is and allows Peter to come as far as he can in the conversation but presses him no further for the moment. “In Peter, we see the effects of trauma in their earliest and least processed manifestations,” Allen writes. “Peter has not yet processed the trauma to the point where he is able to share the narrative with others, establish trust, or reconnect relationships,” Allen continues. For Peter to become a “carrier” of the tradition to the community and succeeding generations, “he needs to begin processing his own trauma and he needs a witness who can hear his narrative and help to integrate it into the larger narrative” (page 20-21).
Allen examines the roles of Jesus and the Beloved Disciple in similar ways, and I would encourage readers to take some time with her fine thesis (as well as the books to which she refers). But there is something about Peter in this text that makes him a helpful focus for preaching this week. In our historical moment of trauma, we are, I think, most like Peter. We would like very much to get back to fishing in the way we did before all this stuff began to happen to us.
When I say, “we, of course, I am referring primarily to White, privileged, and propertied people in the United States and western Europe. We are far more accustomed to triumph than we are to trauma. In fact, we love triumph so much that we have willingly inflicted trauma on others – especially upon Native, Black, and Brown people – in order to maintain our triumphant and privileged positions. One of the realities that makes our current trauma so terrifying is that we White, privileged, and propertied people are in the process of “losing” all of that advantage.
It’s no wonder that we want to go back to the way things were, back to fishing as if nothing important had happened. But that’s not an option for us or anyone else. The downstream consequences of the COVID trauma will be with us for generations, just as the consequences of White Supremacy have been visited upon Native, Black, and Brown people for generations. We White people might get our feelings hurt as we hear these stories, but we can either sit and listen, or we can try to silence the testimony with violence.
Allen notes that the Beloved Disciple has made more progress than Peter in processing and integrating the trauma of the cross and resurrection. Thus, the Beloved Disciple serves as both a witness and a partner in Peter’s process, whether Peter wants that to be true or not. Perhaps this is an invitation for us White, privileged, propertied folks to recognize the partnership of the traumatized among us. Now is the time to listen to Native, Black, and Brown people, to women, to the disabled, to the LGBTQIA+ community, to those who do not conform to the tyranny of the “normal.”
They know what we don’t. We may not be able to fish as we once did. But that’s not an end to the old life. It’s an invitation to the new one.
References and Resources
Allen, Jennifer M. “John 21 and Christian Identity: What John’s Gospel Reveals about Cultural Trauma.” https://www.academia.edu/42951581/John_21_and_Christian_Identity_What_Johns_Gospel_Reveals_about_Cultural_Trauma. Accessed April 28, 2022.
Jones, Serene. Trauma and Grace, 2nd Edition . Presbyterian Publishing Corporation. Kindle Edition.
Kim, Sean Seongik. “The Delayed Call for Peter in John 21:19: To Follow in and by His Love.” Neotestamentica 51, no. 1 (2017): 41–64. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26417485.
Lewis, Karoline M. John (Fortress Biblical Preaching Commentaries). Fortress Press. Kindle Edition.
Manning, Brennan. Ruthless Trust: The Ragamuffin’s Path to God. New York: HarperCollins, 2000.
Ramelli, Ilaria. “‘Simon Son of John, Do You Love Me?’ Some Reflections on John 21:15.” Novum Testamentum 50, no. 4 (2008): 332–50. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25442613.
Schreiber, Melody. “What One Million COVID Dead Mean for the U.S.’s Future.” Scientific American, March 29, 2022. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-one-million-covid-dead-mean-for-the-u-s-s-future/. Accessed April 28, 2022.
SHEPHERD, DAVID. “‘Do You Love Me?’ A Narrative-Critical Reappraisal of Ἀγαπάω and Φιλέω in John 21:15–17.” Journal of Biblical Literature 129, no. 4 (2010): 777–92. https://doi.org/10.2307/25765966.
Stevenson, Bryan. Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption. Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Tutu, Desmond Mpilo. No Future Without Forgiveness. New York: Random House, 1999.
Woodyatt, Lydia, Worthington, Jr., Everett L., Wenzel, Michael, and Griffin, Brandon J., eds. Handbook of the Psychology of Self-Forgiveness. Springer International Publishing AG, 2017.
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