It was a sunny fall afternoon a few years ago. A friend posed a very interesting question as we ate our dinner on the deck at a local restaurant. “What do you think, Chris, about the possibility of a whole group of people experiencing a reaction to trauma? Like, maybe our whole nation is still traumatized from 9-11-01, or Katrina, or maybe just a whole host of cascading traumatic events?” We spoke at some length about what a reaction to trauma would look like in a society at large, and it was clear to me that it was more than possible that we, as a nation, could be experiencing a societal trauma response.
I have done additional research since that time, and the concept of the enemy/aggressor cycle in response to collective trauma rings true to some of our experience as a nation. The enemy/aggressor cycle is based on Enemy System Theory, Human Need Theory, and the writings of Vamik Volkan and others. I came across the concept first in Caroline Yoder’s “The Little Book of Trauma Healing” (2005). I want to share a few of her insights, and see if they coincide with our experience as citizens of this wonderful, yet complicated nation we share.
Naturally, when a traumatic experience occurs on a societal level, we want to make sense of what happened. We tell stories and create a narrative around the traumatic event that seeks to give meaning to the events. When the traumatic experience challenges our sense of safety and security, we can often fall back on familiar narratives. It is especially easy to do so when those familiar narratives are rooted in aspects of our national or religious identity. Two very powerful and common narratives are those of good vs. evil and redemptive violence.
As Yoder writes, “The Enemy/Aggressor Cycle is not an inevitable response to traumatic events but it is exceedingly common. In fact, Volkan speaks of these reactions as ‘the rituals of large-group psychology’ that come into play where there are ethnic, national, or religious conflicts, hostilities or wars. This cycle is set in motion when healing has not taken place and groups see themselves as victims that have been wronged.” Rather than collectively “turning the other cheek” as Jesus commands his followers to do, we seek the justice of “an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” (Matthew 5:39). Seeing ourselves as those who are “good” and have been wronged, we seek someone to label “evil” and assign blame, making them the focus of our hostilities.
Consider what happens to our faith when we have adopted a “good vs. evil” narrative to make sense of our experience. It twists our thinking and clouds our perception, as it becomes easier to project unflattering characteristics upon our identified enemy, even stripping them of their humanity. Anything that might tempt us to identify our common experience and humanity is shoved aside in order to protect the purity of our categorization of the “enemy.”
We adopt black-and-white, either-or thinking. The words of Jesus are co-opted to validate our feelings. After all, didn’t Jesus say, “He who is not with me is against me?” (Matthew 12:30). Context and balance, nuance and critical thinking are eschewed. Clarity and certainty are prized above all else, and dividing lines are drawn between those that can and can’t be trusted.
As we near the celebration of Good Friday and Easter, I can even see these trauma-induced factors at work in the gospel narrative. When Jesus challenged the religious order of his day, a dangerously simple solution began to formulate in the minds of those who opposed his message—even among his own followers! When the opposition is dehumanized and labeled evil, it is easy to justify the need to separate ourselves from the threat and rid ourselves of the “other.” This brings us to the second of the common narratives that are invoked by collective trauma: redemptive violence.
Redemptive violence is an ancient and instinctual pattern: the belief that violence must be used to overcome violence. Jesus challenged this thinking even as he was being arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, saying to Peter, “Put away your weapon, for those that live by the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). When we feel threatened, in our righteous anger, we can more readily lean on truism like “let’s fight fire with fire” instead of Jesus’ command to love our enemies and pray for those that persecute us (Matthew 5:44).
If all of this sounds familiar when we look at ourselves, our hearts, or other discourse in our lives, I would encourage a purposeful pause during this season. Leading up to a celebration of Passover and Easter, consider the message of freedom from bondage and hope in the midst of suffering and trauma that are a part of the narrative. If you have a sense that you have been caught up in trauma-based thinking or a cycle of suffering brought about by a desire to find someone or something to blame for your hurt, do the hard work of repentance and forgiveness. Hopefully, after having stepped out of the cycle of perpetuating trauma, we can reach out in compassion to others. We can set others on the same path toward healing and wholeness, seeking a sense of community based on the redemptive power of faith and love.