In all likelihood, being a refugee is one of the primordial experiences.
Premature death, epidemic disease, war. We had too many generations where all of the elders were killed en masse, leaving children to raise themselves.
Too many generations had to spontaneously make arduous, unexpected treks in unknown terrain, vulnerable, subject to the caprice of random things. And when the tribe is broken like that, or subject to slavery, dysfunctional behavior follows.
Trauma is morally and spiritually expensive, as any interview with a victim will attest. It shapes you down the rest of your life. Exodus has a poignant line that says, “The sins of the fathers are visited upon their children unto the third and fourth generation.”
It means that the after effects of violence and trauma radiate to your grandchildren because of what has happened to you. We don’t intend this. We don’t want it to happen. But it often does. We can’t help it.
What strikes me is how many examples we have of it hiding in plain sight. About 20 years ago, we had a Bridges run feeding the homeless guys in Battery Park just before Christmas. Someone had a radio blaring and the DJ announced the number one hit that day in 1968. I think it was Sly and the Family Stone and everyone standing around was moving to the music.
I said to the whole group in front of me. 1968? Where were you?
First guy says, “Danang”. The second guy says, “Just south of the DMZ”, another guy says “Haiphong Harbor”. If they were of a certain age, more than half of them were in Viet Nam. Suddenly, I felt ashamed, as I suppose most any American would feel if they had witnessed that moment. I’ve been participating in a national embarrassment and I didn’t even know it.
Hobbled by drugs and alcohol, spiritually haunted, now only marginally connected to their families. You want to know the high costs of violent warfare? Chances are pretty good, you stepped over it in the past couple months.
As you might imagine, I actively reflect on this, since one of my kids did recon in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks. They’d send us back photos of Blackhawk helicopters ferrying Humvee’s over 12,000 ft. passes in the middle of nowhere. Top shape, top training.
As a unit, fifteen years on. They’ve had higher than average difficulties in their marriages, higher than average difficulties developing meaningful employment. Higher than average cases of depression, social isolation. More than most struggle to find personal meaning and self-worth.
But if you ask them, one by one, about Post Traumatic Syndrome, they all say “Well, I didn’t go through anything that everyone else didn’t go through as well. Most of them saw worse things than me. I’m no exception.”
What we are slowly waking up to is that both parts of that equation are correct and the fall out from experiencing war is much broader than we imagined. As a society we are simply naïve about how much spiritual damage violent warfare inflicts upon all of our soldiers.
But I will tell you who does understand it and understands it very well, the Colonels and Generals in the United States Military and thank God for that. They can be counted on to be the last people to support the use of military force in any situation, seeking instead any and all other social ways to solve the problem.
But as a country, we are surprisingly naïve about the trauma of violence. I was reminded of that in the last round of debate about school gun violence. Some people suggested that the solution to gun violence in our schools was to arm our teachers and equip them to shoot back.
As a life long hunter, myself, I thought, ‘stunning naïve’. Never mind that our insurance companies might not think arming teachers is such a great idea, it is not that easy to take animal life, but it is dramatically traumatic to take another human life, even if it is justified. These are scenarios you are haunted by for the rest of your life, tapes you can’t stop from playing in your head. You don’t get over this.
Very few of us can even operate effectively in a crisis situation like that. It is estimated that some 20% of all soldiers in WW2 on their first encounter with battle, were unable to fire their weapons. They had been through weeks of basic training to prepare. Still, you just freeze because you are in shock.
Firing on other people, killing other people- These are things you can’t undo and you are never the same afterwards. But these people proposing that teachers become armed, act like it is no big deal.
I remember when my son was about to be deployed. I asked him how the Army trains you spiritually to actually kill people.
His answer, spoken like a genuine 19 year old boy, was “I don’t know Dad. They have you practice and practice and practice, so that when you get there it is no big deal.” But I know it is a big deal. And 19 year old boys still don’t have that forward planning part of the brain actually formed, so they can’t see or just don’t consider the longer term consequences of their actions. I thought to myself, this is one of the reasons we get them to do our fighting for us in the modern period. They are too naïve to understand how dangerous this really is.
Or sexual violence… The sum total of what we never thought about in the past. I got a wakeup call when I was about 23 when I was a psychiatric chaplain at the state psychiatric hospital. I had a counseling session on one of the women’s wards.
That is where I met a few prostitutes. I met their family occasionally. Of course, I met their pimps with some regularity. It made for a few light moments because they typically were in and then out again and back to work.
One night, Kate and I were out with another couple walking right by the ‘Red Light’ district. One of the women walking the street called out to us, “Hey Chuck”, to the amusement of my friends. I waved back and said “Trust me, it isn’t that interesting.”
But like a lot of chaplains and residents that meet the City’s street walkers, I decided to review the literature. I’d never asked myself why people become hookers. And there is no one reason. Yes, there are drugs, a big factor. Yes, the incidence of mental illness is higher among prostitutes. And there are other factors. But the number One correlate is survivor of child sexual abuse.
The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children unto the third and fourth generation. Back when I was a chaplain, nearly 40 years ago, we still didn’t talk about child sexual abuse, not in any public way. Bishops were still covering up for priests.
It was going on around us but we hadn’t done anything to heal it. So I’m grateful for the #MeToo movement. It’s about time, we named sexual violence for what it is. It is about time we understand how long-term the consequences are.
And it is so widespread. A few months ago, we had our own creative Exhibit at Christ Church. People wrote their stories on big placards and we posted them in Barnwell Hall. So moving and so many of them just from our wee spiritual community.
So much trauma. So long lasting. So hard to become the vulnerable, intimate person you would like to be. I remember as a chaplain on the psych ward, I got to see a different side. I have an image of one young woman I knew in particular.
She had a way of curling up, like wounded child, a child that had been beaten, a child that just wanted to be loved like a normal person. What is wrong with that? What is wrong with me that no one will love me? It would break your heart.
The New York Times had a couple pieces this week on the women fleeing violence in Central America. Poor, without resources, without their own people. Desperate, on the run, trying to get to the U.S. mostly to turn themselves into the Border Patrol so they can seek asylum, subject to sexual violence by men who can get away with it because they are in a lawless boundary.
You can just hear the bitter frustration that they were taken advantage of, objectified, dehumanized. No one knew or cared about their story. No one treated them with human dignity. They didn’t care. Long after the fact, they weep for themselves, they weep for the child in them that just wants to be loved.
There is a rape that is recorded in the Bible in the book of Judges that ends with a poignant image of the response of those who are victims of suffering and violence. This unnamed woman finds her way back to her home and falls at the threshold of her door right at the dawn.
Our doors are such powerful symbols of refuge and safety, the dividing line between people who know us and care for us and those on the outside that might wish us woe in the ancient world of lawless anarchy.
And the dawn, the hope of a new day, the hope of something different, hope for something better, hope that will heal.
In the Bible, God is most consistently depicted as a healer or a redeemer from really bad stuff. In Isaiah we read, “You restored me to health and let me live. Surely it was for my benefit that I suffered such anguish. In your love you kept me from the pit of destruction; you have put all my short-comings behind your back” (Isaiah 37:18)
Over and over in the Prophets, you read a line like this “So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you; I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” (Isaiah 41:10)
God is compassionate towards our suffering. God heals and redeems us from trauma and violence.
So when the Gospel writers remember Jesus, what they remember is that Jesus was compassionate. Jesus healed.
Over 10 times in the gospel of Matthew we read a line that says, “When Jesus went ashore, He saw a large crowd, and felt compassion for them and healed their sick. He cast out Demons and restored sanity. He opened the eyes of the blind, let the deaf hear, cured leprosy.
In the Gospel of Mark, people asked just to touch his robe that they might be healed.
Matthew, Mark and Luke all record stories about Jesus healing on the Sabbath when the religiously observant Jews literally tried to do nothing but rest. Jesus answer is that compassion is always the right response. It is the Divine way.
He taught us the parable of the Good Samaritan that has a Spiritual Agnostic Samaritan looking better than the Rabbi or the Priest because he actually responds to someone who is in need by concretely taking care of their needs, exhibiting the non-romantic way of service towards others, the humane expression of hospitality, as what God’s love looks like in action in our world.
All in all, I count some 27 stories of Jesus healing other people and there are 6 more where he forgives people sins. Even in the last day of his life, he heals a soldier that comes to arrest him and he forgives the two criminals when they are on the cross together.
Throughout the inhumane and unjust treatment that he endures, he remains humane and compassionate.
You have the same juxtaposition at the beginning of his life. You have the vain and violent way of Herod, who had a well earned reputation for cruelty and wanton violence. When he hears that Jesus is born, he orders all the children murdered in the region.
That is contrasted with the nurturing, warm humanity of Mary who cares for her child, who keeps an open, faithful disposition. Luke says, in that wonderful turn of phrase, that ‘she pondered all these things, wondering what they might mean.’
She supports Jesus throughout his life, even when she doesn’t understand what he is doing and she probably thinks he is a little nutty.
She is there at the end of his life. After all the disciples flee in the night, when Jesus is arrested, she and two friends keep vigil. They are the only ones that stay and watch him die, such a touching image of Motherhood, the face of Divine compassion channeled through her.
Compassion and healing are the Divine way. That is why you do what you do. You know that. You’ve seen it first hand.
Right now, some of us from the Church are visiting people detained because they are seeking asylum in our country as humanitarian refugees. We had a prayer concern in the last few weeks from one of our volunteers visiting a man from Nigeria. He knows no one in our country except the volunteer from Christ Church that goes to support him. Afraid for his life because he was beaten many times in his home country, he took a flight to Newark, hoping as a last gasp, that he might find asylum.
And I’m always surprised at what can happen when ‘compassion’ meets ‘six degrees of separation’ in our Global Village. We heard about this man’s plight, and one of our members, herself from Nigeria, contacted the man with a program in Nigeria for gays and lesbians that are persecuted, in case he has to return home. And how does she know about it? Her brother is gay and she knows the unjust suffering that he endured.
I think of the creative group we have from Christ Church that just started a “Memory Café” that allows people suffering from dementia to get together once a month, and their care takers to meet each other to share what they are going through. We have a meal together and play music and other memory enhancing games that facilitates dementia patients to connect again with their emotional identity and make a momentary connection with people around them.
It is what makes you, you. It is what gives you life and joy, to be in the company of others. That is compassion in action.
I think of the creative efforts that are being made through Grace Kitchen that opens a fresh produce market and gives over 80 families groceries in the Atrium of Christ Church every week. By helping people in need, we are creatively finding a way to make a connection between those of us who immigrated here a couple generations ago and the most recent immigrants. You don’t have to be Einstein to figure out that this is the only way we will actually understand the challenges of poverty in our area for this generation. It is a different challenge than a generation ago and different social scene.
We aren’t separating children from their parents, which all of our experts say causes substantial trauma in children. We are giving the parents resources by which we they can nourish their children which we know promotes love, stability, and healthy families.
The politics of immigration aside, part of this is a flat out moral and spiritual issue, plain and simple. The Divine way of compassion feeds the hungry in their midst, visits the prisoners that no one else thought to visit. The Divine way creates a safe space for sexual assault survivors to recover from their violation and reclaim their identity and self-esteem. The Divine way helps those traumatized by violence to redeem their suffering through a deeper, more noble purpose. It reassures their recurring anxiety and points them towards a deeper peace.