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Bearing the Unbearable


Many mainline Protestants have a strange relationship with trauma. Our newspapers and prayer lists are strewn with stories of traumatic events. Stories of refugees fleeing war, racial aggressions on college campuses and sexual abuse of children are so common that they have nearly faded into white noise in our news cycle. But even given how ubiquitous the word “trauma” has become, its role remains elusive. We are more aware of trauma and its effects, yet the word itself has become an umbrella term for any manner of events that are stressful, painful or jarring. We call incidents and experiences traumatic, but most of us have a harder time articulating just what it is that makes them so. To use Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s phrase, when it comes to trauma, we know it when we see it.

In taking on and triumphing over sin and death, Christ also frees us from cycles of violence and suffering.

In Bearing the Unbearable: Trauma, Gospel, and Pastoral Care, a collection of seven essays, Presbyterian theologian Deborah van Deusen Hunsinger attempts to clarify our language about trauma and offer insight into how a Christian understanding of the gospel shapes our understanding of trauma and healing. Hunsinger rarely discusses trauma in isolation, choosing instead to put research from trauma studies in the context of pastoral concern, including witnessing, forgiveness, compassion fatigue, listening and restorative justice.


The introductory essay, “Trauma, Gospel, and Pastoral Care” lays out the foundation for the rest of the book. Drawing from a survey of recent literature on trauma, Hunsinger says a traumatic event is “an inescapably stressful event that overwhelms people’s coping mechanisms.” What makes an event traumatic is not just the event itself but a person’s response to it. The same event could be traumatic for one person and not for another, solely because of their abilities to process their experiences. Strictly speaking, it is not events that are traumatic but experiences. Hunsinger then pivots to a Christian perspective on trauma, seeking to understand suffering in light of the cross. Jesus Christ, she says, is “not simply a human companion who comforts us by suffering trauma alongside us” but is “known to us as the risen Lord … through whom God will fulfill his purpose of redemption.” The claim that in taking on and triumphing over sin and death, Christ also frees us from cycles of violence and suffering is a claim unique to the Christian church.

The essay embodies one of Hunsinger’s greatest strengths as a writer: her fluency with both the psychological literature on trauma and the Christian theological tradition. Not content to merely affirm the findings of psychologists, Hunsinger brings out a more holistic understanding of trauma by placing these findings in conversation with Barth, Calvin, Bonhoeffer and even the Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh. Neither is Hunsinger content with turning trauma into a theological puzzle. Trauma is a human problem, she says, and healing from trauma requires an approach as multifaceted and integrated as the lives people lead.

In the book’s most thought-provoking essay, “How Long, O Lord,” Hunsinger uses the laments of the psalmist and Job as a paradigm for pastoral care. While lament is often taken as a sign of unbelief or lack of trust, Hunsinger counters that lament is instead a courageous act that “presupposes the majesty of God, his power to bring new life, and his compassion on all he has created.” In the wake of trauma, when previously held assumptions and beliefs seem so fragile, lament gives voice to the unbreakable relationship between God and humanity. In lament, we not only speak to God but with God, participating in Jesus’ cry of dereliction from the cross. Hunsinger envisions how this practice of lament might be reclaimed within faith communities, seeing suffering not as something to be avoided or fixed but as “something to be faced honestly, encountered fully, and shared in community.” Lament is always personal, but it need not be private. It is when trauma is borne by the entire community that the sacred work of healing can begin.


While Bearing the Unbearable sees trauma primarily through the experience of war, abuse and terrorism, many readers will be struck by the connections between Hunsinger’s essays and the United States’ current struggle with racism. For example, Hunsinger notes how people who witness trauma but lack the power to effect change can experience traumatic levels of stress: People who “witness violence are aware of the harm being done but feel disempowered to help, they become vulnerable to ongoing distress.” Such an understanding of trauma helps explain how even witnessing acts of racist aggression can affect entire communities of color. Furthermore, Hunsinger draws from the work of psychologist Kaethe Weingarten to show how trauma is passed from generation to generation. While explicitly racist laws may be off the books, their effects are passed through families and embodied in people’s lives today.

The trauma of racism might be where Hunsinger’s book has its largest effect. As more churches take up the necessary if overdue work of deliberately talking about racism, it remains unclear what the long-term effects such dialogue will have. The greatest danger facing such churches is not that they will fail to deal with race but that they will fail to fully deal with the wounds people carry with them. Bearing the Unbearable is a necessary reminder that there is a great danger not only in avoiding the subject of race but also in passing over traumas too easily or too quickly.

Hunsinger ends the book’s first essay with a prayer that God would “work out our salvation by bearing what cannot be borne, by transforming our mourning into longing, our longing into lament, our lament into hope, and … our hope into joy.” The prayer summarizes Hunsinger’s approach throughout Bearing the Unbearable, offering neither cheap grace nor illusory hope but instead a treatment of trauma and healing deeply shaped by the cross and community. We participate in Christ’s death and resurrection as we mourn, long, lament and hope together.

Joseph Schattauer Paillé is a candidate for ordination in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary. He lives in New York City.