Resurrecting Wounds

Living in the Afterlife of Trauma

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Shelly Rambo
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , October
     2017.
     196 pages.
     $29.95.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781481306782.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Resurrecting Wounds: Living in the Afterlife of Trauma, Shelly Rambo provides an extended theological meditation on Jesus’s resurrection appearances in the Gospel of John. Her primary aim and major theological contribution is to rethink resurrection in light of our contemporary understanding of trauma. According to Rambo, Jesus’s post-resurrection wounds speak to present-day manifestations of violence which inflict wounds that persist: namely, the wounds of racism and of war. Rambo reads these contemporary wounds as traumatic in order to resist what she calls the covering over and erasing of wounds. For Rambo, trauma is like an open wound, for in the context of trauma, life and death exist simultaneously. As such, Rambo argues that resurrection is “not so much about life overcoming death, as it is about life resurrecting amid the ongoingness of death” (7). “After-living” is Rambo’s term to signal this life lived amidst death.

Resurrecting, on this account, is therefore not a once-and-for-all overcoming of death, but involves instances of life and healing occurring amidst death. Rambo’s vision of resurrecting in the after-living consists of three primary aspects: the spirit, who releases memories by breathing new life into the community; the community, shaped by the spirit to enact practices of care; and the body, where affect, touch, and breath aid in the healing process. Thus, Rambo’s book “refigures resurrection” (10) by looking to ways the spirit enlivens communal and somatic practices of care, while recognizing that traumatic wounds may remain even as healing happens.

Rambo resists traditional interpretations of the Johannine resurrection story, like that of John Calvin, which serve to erase wounds. According to Rambo, Calvin interprets John’s narrative as one of belief: Thomas makes a confession of faith only after Jesus invites him to touch his wounds. Yet, Rambo notes that once Jesus’s wounds have produced belief for the weak in faith, the wounds are no longer carried into the story. Rambo extends the implications of this traditional interpretation by exposing the drive to cover over wounds underlying understandings of both racism and war in the United States. These dominant narratives tell a story of quickly overcoming and moving on from wounds. Rambo transforms these dominant narratives by re-reading the Upper Room story as one of healing in after-living. The scar scene at the end of Gregory of Nyssa’s hagiography of his sister, Macrina, is for Rambo a new Thomas scene, where belief is replaced by healing, and Thomas’s plunging finger is replaced by a mother’s touch. According to Rambo, just as white supremacy blinds us to recognize the wounds of racism, the disciples could not truly recognize Jesus until he breathed the spirit onto them. The spirit exposes history, stirs the senses, and reorients affections so that we can confront the wounds of racism, just as the spirit enabled the disciples to truly recognize Jesus. The communal healing circle of a veteran’s rehabilitation program unearths participant’s wounds in a safe space, just as Jesus sits in the circle with the disciples in the Upper Room, engaging in healing work.

Rambo interacts with an impressive breadth of topics, scholars, and sources—from early Christian hagiography to moral injury, from Calvin to Luce Irigaray, from qualitative interviews to Caravaggio’s painting The Incredulity of Saint Thomas. As such, one should not approach Resurrecting Wounds expecting extensive historical analysis, biblical exegesis, nor ethnography. Such a breadth risks too quickly comparing wounds across what may be very particular historical and socio-political conditions. Nevertheless, Rambo retains depth and precision to her work, and the reader can sense Rambo’s careful attention to the topics and texts at hand. As Rambo suggests, her text contributes to doctrinal questions (152), although, I would add, the doctrinal implications were not always thoroughly educed in the text. Therefore, Rambo opens the door for further theological work that would pick up and draw out these implications.

Resurrecting Wounds is situated within feminist and womanist discussions of suffering. Rambo hopes to avoid two extremes: on the one hand, the rejection of wounds completely, which overlooks the particularities of marked suffering, and, on the other hand, valorizing wounds such that one’s becoming is dependent upon wounds. Put in another register, Rambo wants to resist a triumphal resurrection story that erases wounds, while at the same time being careful not to make suffering productive and necessary to salvation. This is, admittedly, a difficult aim to fulfill, one that Rambo is not always successful in achieving. For example, she states that she reads the gospel account not for truth but for goodness: “The question is whether this surfacing [of wounds] is for good” (15). It is not clear, however, that replacing truth with goodness allows her to resist the valorization of wounds. If the surfacing of wounds is for good, then it seems to me that wounds become productive for one’s becoming. Yet there may be cases where the surfacing of wounds re-traumatizes the survivor, thereby troubling the search for goodness. Although I do not think Rambo would disagree with this possibility, it is not one she emphasizes in her book.

Overall, Resurrecting Wounds is an important and beautifully written contribution to current theological discourse on trauma. Rambo’s re-readings of the Upper Room story perform the witnessing she finds central to healing work, a concept she developed more fully in her first book, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining (Westminster John Knox, 2010). Witnessing is less about seeing and believing than it is about remaining with trauma; the witness is attuned to how resurrecting happens in the ongoingness of death. By performing this witnessing in her own work, Rambo draws the reader into an act of theological formation. The book forms us to be witnesses: to recognize and sit with trauma, and abide in the often ambivalent healing process that may take place.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Hannah Jones is a doctoral student in Theology at the University of Chicago Divinity School in addition to holding a Master of Arts in Social Work from the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration.

Date of Review: 
February 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Shelly Rambo is associate professor of theology at Boston University.

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