Bearing Witness in an Age of Shock and Trauma

Presented at the UTU AGM 12 November 2022

Rev. Dr Rob Hoch

         Thank you for letting me share this afternoon. I’m going to talk for a few minutes about what it means to testify or bear witness as people of faith in an age of “shock trauma” — it seems like an apt, if unhappy, metaphor for our time. Numerous observers say that we are living in an age of trauma. We don’t really get how deep this goes. This realization dawned on me during an elementary school presentation on trauma. The presenter said that when a child watches an act of violence, say the planes slamming into the Twin Towers of 9-11, it doesn’t make a distinction between the historical event and the subsequent replays of that event. To the child watching, it is one and the same, as if the planes keep slamming into the towers ad nauseum.

         While adults may be capable of making those distinctions, the developing mind may not. Maybe the normalisation of trauma contributes to sense that we’re toughened to it, numb — or indifferent to shock, the other half of trauma. Webster’s defines shock as a “sudden or violent mental or emotional disturbance. (2) : a disturbance in the equilibrium or permanence of something. : something that causes such disturbance. the loss came as a shock.” By all rights, we should feel confusion and disorientation, but often we feel nothing in particular.

         Or do we? Today, trauma scholars tell us that painful experiences are not merely temporal but wired into our physical being, even inheritable. A woman telling me about how her young son was killed years ago when a police vehicle struck him outside their home, said it was as if the police officer had kicked her in the stomach. She reflexively placed her hands over her womb, as if the trauma were located in this specific place of her physical being, the epicentre of shock. You don’t need to be a neurologist to recognize how multiple traumas contribute to collective anxiety, with a locus in the body itself.

         Another dimension of this is the collective rather than the personal or individual. Edwin Friedman, author of Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, says we live in cultures of “chronically anxious systems” in which reactivity — rather than reflection or awe — are the dominant modes of response. According to Friedman, knee-jerk reactions “seem to bypass the cerebral cortex and perpetuate a super-charged emotional atmosphere”.

         Think Q-Anon (the conspiracy theory movement), hate speech, mass shootings, state sponsored rape, climate crisis, misinformation and disinformation as accelerants that bypass our cerebral cortex. Chronic anxiety is the result. Or, we might say fear —”fight, flight, or freeze” — is the predominant agent of social action or inaction.

         Fear is abundant. William Brown, an Old Testament scholar, says that this list isn’t simply a function of our overactive imaginations — we face real threats:

It has been said that 90% of our fears do not reflect reality, but I wonder whether this observation needs some significant updating. There are today plenty of good reasons to be afraid, and fear is a natural response to the world as we see it.

Our preaching has often treated fear with the conventional wisdom of that idea — that is “90% of our fears do not reflect reality.” Incidentally, as a person, I find a lot of wisdom in that conventional take on fear.

         Having said that, those of us who live with sermons, either as listeners or as preachers, may need to revisit the way we treat fear. Today, we face existential threats to our existence. As people who think about God and faith, we also may need to revisit our theological understandings of fear in the biblical lexicon. How is the biblical thinking around “fear of God” distinct from the fear we see in secular society and how might a biblical and theological understanding also be an anti-dote to the fevers inflicted by “chronically anxious systems”?

         Brown, whom I cited a moment ago, points out that the concept of the “fear of the Lord” runs throughout the biblical narrative. Yet, in each case, the writers correlate fear with a surprising capacity to turn the worst powers of fear into surprising expressions of a flourishing life and community:

  • The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge. (Prov 1:7a)
  • The fear of the Lord prolongs life. (Prov 10:27a)
  • In the fear of the Lord one has strong confidence. (Prov 14:26a)
  • The fear of the Lord is a fountain of life. (Prov 14:27a)3

He goes on to argue that fear of this kind would better be translated as “awe” or “wonder” — awe places our lives in perspective (see William Brown, “The Fear of the Lord and the Politics of Awe” in Journal for Preachers, 45:4 (Pentecost 2022).

         We look into a night time sky, full of wonder at the reaches of universe and our own tiny place in it. If we realized just how precarious our existence really was, we would grovel in terror. Almost by an act of grace, we feel quieted or perhaps still. In the star’s gaze I visit with my own mortality — and I am not afraid. We don’t think of that experience as fear (fight, flight, or freeze) but as intimating something else, namely, wisdom, life, strength, and a capacity for beauty.

         Could this be a centring and motivating part of our preachings and prayings? Maybe.

         An unlikely clue comes from William Shatner, famed as Captain James T. Kirk of the Star Trek Enterprise, boldly going, at warp speed, where no man has gone before. Yet, as a passenger on a space capsule designed by Jeff Bezos’ company Blue Origin, Shatner looked into space for the first time — and bold wouldn’t describe his experience:

I was crying,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was crying about. I had to go off some place and sit down and think, what’s the matter with me? And I realized I was in grief. It was the death that I saw in space and the lifeforce that I saw coming from the planet — the blue, the beige and the white. And I realized one was death and the other was life.

Importantly, Shatner did not predict this feeling. It took him by surprise, and it was at least initially confusing. What was he experiencing? Frank White, a space philosopher (I didn’t know there was such a thing!), believes Shatner was going through an “overview effect”. According to White, the overview effect . .

 is a cognitive and emotional shift in a person’s awareness, their consciousness and their identity when they see the Earth from space. They’re at a distance and they’re seeing the Earth … in the context of the universe.

White has studied the reactions of 40 astronauts, and he says Shatner’s reaction is typical. He goes on to describe the overview effect as “an emotional or mental reaction strong enough to disrupt that person’s previous assumptions about humanity, Earth, and/or the cosmos.”

         For Shatner, it was the experience of life and death, and he only experienced it because he felt its acute expression in his body suspended between life and death. It reminds me of Deuteronomy 30:15: “See, I set before you today life and prosperity, death and destruction” (NIV). In other words, it may help to be a famous actor or a billionaire kleptocrat if you want to tap into this “overview effect” but it’s not required — in fact, if you follow the lectionary, you might want a space philosopher (or, if you prefer, your preacher) to help you explain the experience recounted for the First Sunday of Advent, 27 November (Year A).

         Isaiah 2:1-5 starts us off with an eschatological vision in vs. 4, which could provoke something like an overview effect in those of us who live by such words:

 they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.

However, Matthew’s Jesus depicts his coming in 26:36-44 in a way that seems, at least initially, to exacerbate potentially harmful forms of fear. Jesus speaks of his return as being sudden and without warning as well as catastrophic: it will be a climate crisis (“they knew nothing until the flood came”); it will be arbitrary, “one will be taken, and one will be left” (survivors left to explain why them and not their neighbours); it will be “like a thief coming in the night” (a group of Roman soldiers banging on the door of their next victim?).

         Or, if we see Christ as the eschatological vision of God’s new creation — the blue, the beige, and the rainbow — and in the same moment see the slaughter of innocents in Matthew 2:16-18, where one is taken, and one is left behind — we glimpse our beautiful, terrifying fragility in the new human being.

         What Shatner reports, and what the biblical writers record in their witness to God’s saving and reconciling activity, is the entanglement of our being with powers of anti-being. As people of faith, when we experience this in the moment of worship, especially when we “bear witness” or “give testimony” to God’s incarnation we entangle our collective body together, bending anti-being (death purveying, terror producing, mind closing fear) to new being (openness, wonder, thought, joy). Our anti-being is bent with surprising grace, turning the monstrous into the vulnerable, the othered into our neighbour, weapons of destruction into implements of creation.

         It is like that when we see the Manchester sculpture, the Knife Angel ( When we see such pieces, we may first see the ploughshare (the whole) and then, with closer examination, that it is made up of discarded weapons. Or we first see the weapons and only later how they have been re-imagined by a radical capacity for beauty. We could almost chart a path from orientation, to disorientation, to reorientation. What previously taught us the fear that leads to anti-being, first shakes us, before yielding to the awe that engenders thought, beauty, hope, changed perspective.

         On the one hand, I feel awe or fear when I look at the Knife Angel; I also feel something like grief. . . and yet it is not grief exactly. Is it that we feel the grief of which Paul speaks: “We do not grieve as the world grieves, as people without hope” (1 Thessalonians 4:13)?        Thank you.

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