Violent Trauma, Culture, and Power

An Interdisciplinary Exploration in Lived Religion

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Michelle Walsh
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , February
     332 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Michelle Walsh self-identifies as "an urban clinical social worker and urban minister, as well as a practical theologian" in the Unitarian Universalist tradition whose spirituality and theology are informed by Zen Buddhism (viii-ix). Violent Trauma, Culture, and Power is an interdisciplinary, comparative analysis of two cases studies conducted in communities with whom Walsh has extensive prior ties. After two and a half decades of social work and ministry with Boston communities, Walsh is not an anthropologist who drops in on a whim to objectify others' lives and suffering. This organic participation in each context lends the work its depth of questioning, and its finely tuned alternations between intimate depiction and respectful distance.

The case studies follow two communities reckoning with traumatic loss from gun violence. The Louis D. Brown Peace Institute (LDBPI) was co-founded by the mother of the child for whom it is named. The story of Louis D. Brown, who was active in anti-violence work but was killed at 15 in crossfire from a conflict between gang members, is ritually repeated in trainings as an act of both commemoration and pedagogy (53-54). Walsh examines the ways that LDBPI navigates collaborating with clinicians and public health experts while centering the experiences and wisdom of community members. A survivor-led organization, LDBPI, teaches that “each person first must learn to foster peace within, so that one then can foster peace out in the larger community” (55). From financial assistance to sand garden play, LDBPI aims to provide survivors with resources to find a peace that can carry outward into their personal lives and civic engagements (218).

In contrast to this ongoing grappling with chronic patterns of tragedy, trauma in the second case issued from a single, unprecedented incident of violence. The Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church of Knoxville (TVUUC), is a Unitarian Universalist congregation known for its liberal political leanings, history of civil rights activism, and practices of welcoming members regardless of sexual orientation (66-67). In 2008, a gunman, who by his own account targeted the church for its political views, opened fire during a children’s musical theater performance (71). Walsh studies the communal process of the congregation, as well as that of the Unitarian Universalist Trauma Response Ministry that offered assistance.

These case studies offer comparative narratives across lines of racial and class privilege. Most of the survivors engaged with the LDBPI are African American and many struggle financially, while the TVUUC is a predominantly white and affluent congregation. Walsh reflects extensively on how privilege and oppression, along with particular collectivities’ strategies and leadership, shape understandings of violent trauma. This monograph engages an impressive breadth of theological and social scientific literature. It also offers a strong articulation of the challenges and promise of interdisciplinary scholarship that has implications extending well beyond theology and studies of religion.

Walsh turns to the terms “queer” and “borderlands” in order to describe her experiences of cultural ambiguity and liminality as a white social worker and minister whose work spans urban and suburban, economically oppressed and affluent, black and white-majority settings. Walsh’s use of both would be enhanced by acknowledging how these concepts have intertwined elsewhere, and by assessing their theoretical resonances across various phenomena and discourses. 

It is not that “queer” need only be used to describe sexuality, and perhaps it is a term specially equipped to give language to uncommon forms of relationality for which other words do not exist. Likewise, Gloria Anzaldúa’s formulation of “borderlands” was opened intentionally and explicitly to describe contexts beyond her own mestiza, lesbian identity. There is a missed opportunity for dialogue with the histories of these words and their use, the pursuit of which would clarify how Walsh is building upon—and possibly departing from—prior deployments. 

Such a discussion could raise meaningful questions about how ideologies of normativity contribute to the violence that impacts Walsh’s communities. And this is precisely where Walsh has demonstrated something more profound and more troubling than is articulated directly. Members of the Unitarian Universalist church studied had assumed that they were not the presumptive objects of gun violence, a misunderstanding of both society’s troubles and human vulnerability (195). Walsh notes that this “world/sense” (a more embodied term Walsh uses for what is sometimes called a worldview) complicates the congregation’s healing process, and delves into the theological omissions within Unitarianism through which it might have been nurtured (219-22).  

The disturbing corollary of the above assumption, unexplored by Walsh, is that violence belongs someplace else and among others. That this logic may persist in a church known—and targeted—for its commitments to social justice reveals something ethically and politically important for our present moment. Where, and toward whom, is violence supposed to happen? I suspect that Walsh would agree that the (perhaps unconsciously) intuitive site of violence for a white, suburban congregation might implicitly be among those who are poor, of color, and especially black, and whose neighborhoods are not only in a city but euphemistically described as “urban.” Violence imagined in this way may barely register as violence to those who feel distant from its reach. It can be tolerated, denied, and downplayed even by those who would proclaim—and genuinely intend—solidarity. At this analytic juncture, a comparative lens risks obscuring such vexed forms of connection and relation. 

Violent Trauma, Culture, and Power brings methodological tools from religious studies and theology into ethnographic work that merges sociological understandings of inequality with neuroaffective studies of trauma. With this broad interdisciplinarity, Walsh signals that greater attention to ritual and practice, and to the bodies and affects involved, has something important to offer notions of power operating across social scientific discourses. Her keen attention to the ethics of representing others across differences in power, identity, and experience is seldom so strongly foregrounded in scholars’ accounts of their own fieldwork. This text deserves similarly careful scholarly attention for the ethos of careful engagement that it models—one that disallows voyeurism and allows multiple voices to pour through with their ambiguities intact.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Eleanor Catherine Craig is the Administrative and Program Director and Lecturer for the Committee on Ethnicity, Migration, and Rights at Harvard University.

Date of Review: 
July 18, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michelle Walsh teaches at the School of Social Work, Boston University. She is a licensed independent clinical social worker, activist, ordained as a Unitarian Universalist community minister, and holds a Ph.D. in practical theology.


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