Faith communities among Settlers need to create safe spaces to give testimony about intergenerational trauma, but also provide opportunities for privileged people to face our culpability, and build courage and skill to engage in justice work. – Elaine Enns
A New York Story of Peaceful Resolve
In the pre-dawn darkness of May 14, 1974, a group of Mohawk Indians moved into Moss Lake, an abandoned Girl Scout camp in northern New York. Most of the group came from the Akwesasne reservation, which straddles the border between New York and Canada.
They had come to reclaim part of the Mohawk ancestral homeland, contesting the legality of an 18th century treaty to hand over their land which was signed by a single, unauthorized person. They also came with the intent to live the native way of life. “Your government lets the Amish live the way they want to; why can’t they let us live the way we want to?” And thus they brought some farm animals and made plans to grow their own gardens.
Not surprisingly, the surrounding community did not appreciate the intentions of the Mohawks. Many local whites were hostile and vigilantes took to roaring past in cars, sending rifle shots over the camp. State troopers were sent in, who held the camp in surveillance and posted armed guards. A state senator accused the group of being “radical.”
As the new group needed food, local Mennonites responded by donating pick-up loads of supplies such as vegetables, warm clothing, and live hens. Arrangements were made for canned goods to be delivered, and farm implements were secured. Mennonite bishop Richard Zehr and his family visited the camp often and developed friendship with the Mohawks.
With the help of a mediator, negotiations unfolded over a three-year period, resulting in a peaceful settlement where the state granted the group 700 acres of lakes and woodlands in Clinton County. Again, local Mennonite churches pitched in to help with the transfer of materials; a new sawmill was set up at the new site.
In retrospect, the role of the local churches was a significant element in the peacemaking effort. First, it helped sustain the Mohawks in practical and social ways so that time was on the side of the native group to develop their vision. Second, it modeled something to the wider white community in a way that reversed the rising hostilities. Thirdly, as advocates, the church folk played a role for state officials to take the Mohawks with greater seriousness.
(This anecdote has been adapted from “The Role of Advocate” in Ronald Kraybill’s pioneering book, Repairing the Breach (1980). Read other stories on the Race and Reconciliation page.)
Harm and Trauma
Trauma Studies is a fairly recent field. This fits with Rene Girard’s thesis that the “concern for victims” is an unfolding concept even in modern (indeed, postmodern) history. (Read more about Victimization and the Work of Rene Girard.) Stemming from histories of harm is the reality of emotional trauma which not only affects individuals but persists transgenerationally. Both nature and nurture contribute to the factors that pass it on from person to person. Here is a definition from theologian David Carr:
“Trauma is an overwhelming, haunting experience of disaster so explosive in its impact that it cannot be directly encountered, and influences an individual and group’s behavior and memory in indirect ways.”
While the Bible does not have a direct word for ‘trauma’, it is worth asking how trauma can be found within biblical texts and narratives. Where would you start to look?
Remem-bearing the Past to Heal the Present
“The Remembearers . . . [are] those who have the traumatic event registered in their consciousness without actually having experienced it themselves: the second circle of witnesses to the violent experience.” —Lotem Giladi and Terece Bell
One example of a faith-based perspective dealing with historical harm and intergenerational trauma is the work of Elaine Enns. Her thirty-year “Journey Into Restorative Justice” has led her into a new frontier of restorative work which addresses historical harm in both settler and indigenous communities. She herself had four grandparents who fled Russia after the Revolution and settled in the prairies of Canada adjacent to native Cree communities.
“Settler Mennonites have experienced a complicated mix of persecution and marginalization on one hand but assimilation and privilege on the other.”
Part of her dissertation work was to interview people in both communities to explore how the internalized trauma in each community played out in the ways that affected how both groups related to each other. Read more about this in her article, “Trauma and Memory: Challenges to Settler Solidarity” (2016).
Related to this study, Elaine had opportunity to attend several meetings for the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) which documented the history and lasting impacts of the Indian Residential School system. She writes,
“The TRC provided school survivors and their descendants an opportunity to process, publicly and privately, their experiences. Attending hearings in Halifax and Saskatoon, I was deeply impressed with the pastoral and prophetic leadership of the commission and the wisdom of rituals that created space for painful testimony and healing. Many churches in Canada are now working to respond to specific Calls to Action directed to religious communities—something to which Christian leaders in the U.S. should pay close attention, since we have our own native residential schools legacy to confront.
“My studies convinced me that part of my Mennonite community’s reluctance to work alongside Indigenous neighbors for justice lies in our untransacted intergenerational trauma. Another factor is a phenomenon called “egoism of victimization,” in which a group is unable to see others’ pain because of their own wounds. So I am thinking about how to overcome these barriers and recognize and redress past (and continuing) injustices through “restorative solidarity.” Harry Lafond, Cree elder and Executive Director of the Office of the Treaty Commissioner, has supported my development of an interactive model that works to uncover the stories we Settlers carry (personal, communal, and societal), in order to understand our identity formation and transform those narratives with the power of moral imagination, spiritual resilience, and political courage.” (source: “Journey Into Restorative Justice”)
More recently, Elaine and Ched Myers have written, Healing Haunted Histories: A Settler Discipleship of Decolonization (2021, Cascade/Wipf & Stock Publishers). Read more on the webpage that features their books. For an earlier excerpt, read… Healing Haunted History: pre-publishing excerpt
Check out Mark Brett’s Political Trauma and Healing: Biblical Ethics for a Postcolonial World (Eerdmans, 2016) which applies biblical theology to contemporary debates around decolonisation, especially in the Australian context.
Are Settlers ready to tell their own untold stories? Can churches provide safe and brave spaces for that to happen? Might that sort of process create new bridgework for having dialogue with people from marginalized communities?
Searching for Balm In Gilead
For groups wanting to explore the theme of transgenerational trauma through a biblical study, view the Balm in Gilead Bible Study Guide
Read a comrehensive online article about the spiritual song, There Is a Balm in Gilead.
The slave caught the mood of this spiritual dilemma and with it did an amazing thing. He straightened the question mark in Jeremiah’s sentence into an exclamation point: ‘There is a balm in Gilead!’ [italics in original] Here is the note of creative triumph. – Howard Thurman
Source of quote: Deep River and The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death by Howard Thurman (Richmond, IN: Friends United Press, 1975).