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Feminist Trauma Theologies and Bearing Witness, edited by Karen O’Donnell and Katie Cross

14 April 2023

John Saxbee considers theological responses to experience of trauma

ONCE a fairly in-house medical term, trauma is now widely cited with reference to a range of physical and psychological conditions requiring specific diagnosis and specialist treatment. Furthermore, it has given rise to “trauma theologies, including feminist trauma theologies, [which] take bodily experience seriously as both worthy of theological exploration, and as sites of theological construction”.

So, we are launched on a revelatory journey that does, yes, make for uncomfortable reading at times, but that is also a major contribution to critically constructive theology — critical in both senses of the word, and constructive in its fashioning of a life-giving faith for today’s world.

Trauma, according to Shelly Rambo, “is an event that continues, that persists in the present. Trauma is what doesn’t go away. It persists in symptoms that live in the body, in the intrusive fragments of memories that return.”

Feminist trauma theologies are marked by honest confrontation with God, space for something new to be spoken, and defiance of convention, appeal as honestly as possible to personal experience, and find articulation in community.

That latter characteristic makes the symposium the most appropriate format for a series of contributions that are both profoundly personal and academically rigorous, with a persistent sense that each contributor is in debt to the others as they mutually map a new and fertile theological landscape.

The first set of essays addresses violence against women, opening with Hilary Scarsella’s judicious analysis of “Believe all women” and “Await due process” responses to survivor testimony. Alastair McFadyen focuses on domestic violence with particular reference to the way in which the recent introduction of an offence of coercive control shifts the dial from specific acts of violence to persistent oppression. Manon James shows how poetry can inform feminist trauma theology, while Kirsi Cobb reveals how violence and abuse against women in the book of Hosea have been largely overlooked. Rosie Andrious exposes gendered violence in depictions of early martyrdoms and medieval mystics.

A section on female trauma as experienced in Christian communities deals with the physical and psychological trauma afflicting women in ordained ministry (Leah Robinson), in Indian Christianity (Sonia Sloans), and in Evangelical churches which can simultaneously harm and heal in relating to female trauma (Natalie Collins).

A final section offers positive methodologies for “post-traumatic re-making” (Ally Moder, Santiago Piñon, and, most memorably, Esther McIntosh).

After so effective an exploration of feminist trauma theologies, the way is open to intersectional exploration of other sites of traumatic experience: race, poverty, health and, of course, non-female-specific sexualised trauma.

Bearing Witness serves this purpose to good effect, as our current perspectives and practices in Church and society are sorely tested and found wanting, but not beyond repair. As David Tombs says in his foreword, “bringing theology and trauma studies into close conversation . . . shows that there are ways to address even the most challenging of subjects with sensitivity and hope.”

Raced reflections on trauma theology feature in the first of four sections. Here, Nuam Hatzaw’s treatment of hybridity, e.g. being raised in one culture and now living in another, challenges the assumption that this must be an enriching experience: it can be very traumatic. Anthony Reddie focuses on the toppling of a slave-owner’s statue in Bristol in his theological endorsement of an ongoing Black Lives Matter movement. This section features five outstanding scholars of colour.

Section two opens with an impassioned critique of Christian engagement with trans and intersex people, which is often predicated on others’ knowing best when it comes to who they are and what is best for them. Here, the Church of England’s Living in Faith and Hope process is cited as an example of such “epistemic injustice”.

This section also addresses the creative reading of LGBTQ+ experiences into biblical texts, the hidden instances of sexual violence against trans men — a corrective to the earlier volume’s focus on women’s experiences, and a plea for trans experiences to feature more prominently in trauma theologies.

Trauma experiences are embodied experiences. The third section includes chapters on autism (Clare Williams) and reproductive loss through abortion or stillbirth (Margaret Kamitsuka). M. Cooper Minister’s “Twelve-Step Guide to Resurrection” and a piece by Catherine Williams on the implications of trauma theologies for the practice of spiritual direction conclude this section.

Experiences of poverty in relation to trauma theology feature in the final section referencing the Grenfell Tower disaster, the pernicious impoverishing impact of colonialism, and the importance of actively responding to testimonies of trauma resulting from austerity (Chris Shannahan, Cláudio Carvalhaes, and Wren Radford).

Trauma theology does theology “from the place where it hurts”, where the “it” in question is both personal experience of, for example, racism, gendered aggression, austerity-induced exclusion, and theology that all too often has exacerbated rather than attended to the hurt.

The editors and publishers of these rich collections of heartfelt, sometimes heart-rending, but ultimately hopeful essays have successfully raised the profile of a subject matter too long marginalised and misunderstood.

Finally, for this reader, Holy Saturday, frequently cited here as metaphorically capturing trauma’s limbo-like experience, will never be the same again.

The Rt Revd Dr John Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.


Feminist Trauma Theologies: Body, scripture and Church in critical perspective
Karen O’Donnell and Katie Cross, editors
SCM Press £30
Church Times Bookshop £24

Bearing Witness: Intersectional perspectives on trauma theology
Karen O’Donnell and Katie Cross, editors
SCM Press £35
Church Times Bookshop £28

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