The Lure of Cure in Post-Traumatic Times

May 23rd, 2018

“There is never any resolution, just the process of healing,” Gloria Anzaldúa writes. [1] A visionary, activist, and Chicana author living in Texas near the border of Mexico, her voice on trauma emerged in the national consciousness after the events of September 11, 2001. She interprets those events and other recent events of domestic terrorism within the broader framework of her sacred tradition. The quote is her interpretation of the “Coyolxauhqui imperative,” which draws upon ancient Aztec and Mayan allegory and which she uses to instruct her community about approaching the suffering around them. Guided by the image of an “open wound,” the author maps a communal way of perceiving, relating to, and engaging the world. The imperative is to speak to this wound.[2] Like many reflecting on the collective impact of September 11, Anzaldúa speaks to the post-traumatic conditions in which we find ourselves now. But unlike many social commentators, Anzaldúa interprets the events in spiritual terms, according to the long arc of her Mayan traditions. Her imagery resists “ends” thinking and turns her community to a continuous process of “making and unmaking” the world.[3]

Modern studies of trauma speak to the impact of violence on each of us—interpersonally and collectively—and challenge assumptions of linear time, progress, and interpreting events in isolation. Trauma teaches us that we live precariously in the world. It tells us that the effects of violence and violent histories live on in ways that deeply inform the present and blur the lines we have neatly delineated as past, present, and future. Trauma tells us that our bodies hold pain and that it will take a multisensory intervention to release these body memories. Events that we thought were “over-and-done” live on within us, long after a traumatic event.

Christian ministers face the challenge of preaching and ministering amid the seemingly never-ending succession of violent events. They feel the weight of such ongoing collective trauma. With no time to recover from one, another comes along in our news stream. The crisis conditions of Saturday-sermon-writing in response to the latest events have become routine, as traumatic events appear to be the norm rather than the exception.

Like Anzaldúa, I want to propose a shift in our perception on spiritual grounds. The shift is not to accommodate the crises but, rather, to challenge a familiar trajectory of interpreting trauma theologically. Rather than accepting the inevitability of trauma, simply reversing norm and exception, I invite us to think with trauma to resist what I call the lure of cure. Anzaldúa wedges a space between these two terms, reminding us that healing is different from a cure. Cure implies an end, closure, and resolution. It implies that a problem has been remedied, that suffering has been eradicated. Healing, on the other hand, is messier. Healing is a way without assurance of an end. It can refer to a more unwieldy process of learning to live amid uncertainties. As a directional imperative, Anzaldúa allows her Coyolxauhqui imperative to guide the community in a way of living with wounds that do not simply go away. Spiritual traditions offer longstanding practices and discourses of healing for such times.

In our clinically oriented culture, we can easily collapse healing into cure. However, thinking with trauma exposes the ways in which Christian theologies too often align with a “medical model” that pursues cure at all costs. This theological slippage means that we are often pressed on Saturday evening to write the sermon that assures congregations of ends. We feel compelled to provide resolution. Internally, we may feel a failure to produce assurance in the midst of ongoing storms. I wonder if we miss the “resurrection imperative” (in line with Anzaldúa) to gather around wounds, like those gathered in the Upper Room in the Gospel of John. Amid fear and uncertainty, the risen Jesus returns to his disciples with the marks of past suffering on his body. And he makes them visible, displaying them to those gathered—not once, but multiple times.

The “resurrection imperative,” if it is rethought as a process of healing, is about bearing witness to wounds that remain. Jesus returns on the other side of death to teach his disciples a way to live fully amid the wounds. Bearing witness is not about cure. Giving in to the lure of cure, we have too often tried to provide assurance of resurrection without reckoning with the wounds of the cross. When Jesus enters the room, his disciples are oriented anew to wounds. Their collective imagination is awakened in the Upper Room and allows for healing.

Resurrection, however, is often preached as an exclamation point, as a triumphant ending to the Christian story. Easter can easily unfold as “resurrection as cure” rather than resurrection as a “process of healing” into which people of faith are called. To make meaning of this return, to live by it, ushers us into the work of bearing witness to wounds that remain within us and among us. This healing work requires complex witness and moral wisdom cultivated with no resolution in sight. When Wendell Berry penned his “post-traumatic” manifesto, he closed with these words: “Practice resurrection.”[4] “Without resolution,” I imagine Gloria Anzaldúa shouting, “and yet with much resolve!”

[1] Gloria E. Anzaldúa, “Let us be the healing of the wound: The Coyoxauhqui imperative—La sombra y el sueno,” Light in the Dark/Luz en lo Oscuro: Rewriting Identity, Spirituality, Reality (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015), 20.

[2] Anzaldúa, 10.

[3] Anzaldúa, 20.

[4] Wendell Berry, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” The Country of Marriage (HBJ: New York, 1973).

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