Nov 13

Was Jesus’ ministry “trauma-informed?” [part 4]: Responding to trauma within the compassionate Kingdom of God

There is a movement taking shape across the country when it comes to ministry settings: becoming trauma-informed. I am personally invested in this movement and I am intrigued by the ways I see connections between Jesus’ teachings and trauma-informed ministry principles. In the first post in the series, I focused only the first identifier of a trauma-informed ministry: the realization of the widespread impact of trauma and potential paths for recovery. In the second and third posts, I examined how Jesus recognized the signs and symptoms of trauma in those he not only interacted with, but then became followers themselves of his life and teachings.

As a reminder of the full context of this point within the larger definition of “trauma-informed” practices, I will repeat the framework that is guiding this series. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the concept of a trauma-informed approach would mean that “a program, organization, or system that is trauma-informed:

  1. Realizes the widespread impact of trauma and understands potential paths for recovery;
  2. Recognizes the signs and symptoms of trauma in clients, families, staff, and others involved with the system;
  3. Responds by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into policies, procedures, and practices; and
  4. Seeks to actively resist re-traumatization.”

A trauma-informed approach to ministry starts with the realization of the widespread impact of trauma. Certainly, if a church or ministry is not aware or is in denial of the problem posed by adversity in childhood, toxic stress, and the effects of trauma on whose they minister too, it cannot properly address potential paths for recovery and healing. Secondly, churches and faith-communities seeking to be trauma-informed will be constantly growing in their ability to recognize the signs and symptoms of trauma in those they minister to.

Jesus knew the tremendous brokenness of the world, and he knew the power of the Kingdom of Heaven to address the needs of people traumatized by the evil of this world and the effect of sin. Jesus’ understanding of the fundamental failings of most human systems is clear in his critiques of both the religious establishment of his day, as well as the Roman political and military complex. But rather than just point out the failings of the system, Jesus suggested that a new system could be put in place that would result in the justice, equity, and safety that a trauma-informed society would want to emulate.old_fireplace_mantelpiece_-_annunciation_cathedral_toronto

Therefore, while a whole thesis or multiple books could be written on this subject, I want to address the third way in which I observe that Jesus’ ministry was trauma-informed: Jesus sought to respond to the hurt and damage that trauma had caused in the world by fully integrating knowledge about trauma into an alternative way of social organization- a “Kingdom of Heaven.” This present and future kingdom would be governed by policies, procedures, and practices that would reflect the principles of a trauma-informed organization.

These principles are:

  • Safety: physically and psychologically
  • Trustworthiness and transparency that builds trust and maintains compassionate connection
  • Peer support and mutual self-help
  • Collaboration and community that results in a levelling of power differences between those served and those serving
  • Providing opportunities for voice and meaningful choice
  • Individuality and uniqueness is honored—each one an individual, not a project or a category
  • Raises and addresses cultural, historical, and gender issues

For this first foray into the topic of Jesus forming a trauma-informed alternative to existing “kingdoms” in his day, I’ll attempt to focus my thoughts by looking at one passage of particular importance: Jesus’ interaction with Pilate in John 18:33-37,

33 Pilate then went back inside the palace, summoned Jesus and asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”

34 “Is that your own idea,” Jesus asked, “or did others talk to you about me?”

35 “Am I a Jew?” Pilate replied. “Your own people and chief priests handed you over to me. What is it you have done?”

36 Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.”

37 “You are a king, then!” said Pilate.

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”(John 18:33-37, NIV)

Pilate, the fifth prefect of the province of Judaea, embodies the military and political might of the Roman Empire. He is familiar with the way that Rome governs—imposing “peace” through overwhelming military strength. Pilate, by nature of his position, was also familiar with the other significant rule in place over Judaea, the religious ruling and governing class represented by the Chief Priest, Caiaphas, and the Sanhedrin—70 men who formed a supreme council, or court, in ancient Israel. These were the two main “kingdoms” in place that Jesus posed a threat to.

When questioned about his position in regards to these kingdoms, Jesus tells Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world” (verse 36). Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he has focused on what the kingdom is or what is like. Here, before the Roman authority, Jesus focuses on how the Kingdom of God differs: it will not use force or intimidation. It is a Kingdom that speaks on behalf of truth and truthfulness, and those who recognize that truth listen and respond in kind. Absent is any form of coercion, physical or spiritual.

Jesus represented a compassionate, not a coercive, call to align with a new and alternative “kingdom.” This principle of non-violence in the face of oppression was as radical then as it is today. Jesus understood that any peace enforced by the threat of violence would never provide the sense of safety and security the human soul longs for. Jesus is completely transparent and trustworthy, a leader of integrity that guides his followers by his example and willingness to sacrifice position and power to place himself in the role of servant and messenger of the truth. In this way, Jesus serves as the ultimate example of one who created a community where power was shared equality and equitably. Jesus gave a voice to those without a voice—the marginalized and the overlooked. His desire to build an inclusive and accepting community placed him in the crosshairs of the religious elite, those who would label him a “friend of sinners” (Matthew 11:19). Jesus raised cultural, historical and gender issues that still reverberate through the church two thousand years later!

One may argue how well the Church exhibits the qualities of the compassionate Kingdom of God that Jesus ushered in with his ministry, but that fault lies with us—Jesus’ followers—and not with his teaching or personal example. In future posts, I hope to example a few of Jesus’ specific teachings on the compassionate Kingdom of God for further evidence that Jesus intends for that Kingdom—embodied by the Church—to be trauma-informed.


© Chaplain Chris Haughee, 2016