21 Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. 23 “For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. 24 When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; 25 and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. 26 So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. 31 When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. 32 Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. 35 So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”Matthew 18:21–35 (NRSV)
One of the skills that I am most grateful for developing in seminary is the ability to hold onto traditional interpretations of scripture pretty loosely, allowing my faith to remain flexible. At this point in my life, I’ve sat in enough biblical studies and church history classes to have been exposed to scholarship that challenges the normative theological interpretations and beliefs about the Bible that I learned growing up. I’ve also done my fair share of theological wrestling, and accompanied people through their own, in my stints as a pastor and a chaplain. Now that I’m working towards my doctorate in practical theology, I’m used to asking, “What’s at stake?”
Because of all of these experiences, it has been a long time since a scripture has surprised me, let alone shaken me to my core. Matthew 18:21-35 did both.
As I began to read the text, it seemed pretty familiar to me. I easily recalled years of sermons and Sunday school lessons that summarized the general theme, mainly to appreciate God’s extravagant mercy and to not withhold mercy from others, like the hard-hearted servant in verse 28.
In this parable, Jesus tells Peter that the kingdom of God is like a king who wishes to settle accounts with his servants. When one of his servants could not pay his exorbitant debt, jeopardizing the safety and stability of his entire household, the king, surprisingly, granted him mercy, forgiving the debt entirely (v. 27). Then that same servant, who was owed a smaller sum of money from one of his peers, did not extend the courtesy to his peer. Instead, he acted violently towards him, threatening him in front of the other laborers (v. 31).
At this point in the story, I had to pause. Truthfully, I had completely forgotten—perhaps even overlooked—the violence in this text, so I was not prepared to react to it so viscerally. This time around, however, I was forced to be mindful of another interpretative lens through which I read scripture: my body.
In trauma studies, one of the fields that most interests me at the moment, there is a general understanding that our bodies and our emotions are more connected than we have realized. Having done my own trauma work for several years now, I have found this to be true. For years, I lived disconnected from my own emotions, taking solace in both intellectualizing and spiritually bypassing my problems away. I prided myself on being able to handle, with God’s help, any curveballs that I faced, rarely letting myself get flustered by life’s challenges.
It wasn’t until 2016, after months of experiencing sustained racist and sexist traumas at my alma mater, which also coincided with the uptick in Black death after Michael Brown, Jr. was murdered in Ferguson, MO, that I began to take somatic responses to pain more seriously. I had no other choice—with few resources to express my deep grief, my body began to show the signs. I experienced daily panic attacks, quickly spiraled into a depression, and suddenly, inexplicably, developed a random limp. It lingered for eight months, puzzling me and my doctors, only to disappear on the first day of the summer break when the people who had harassed me left the campus. My therapist, who specialized in mindfulness work, gently suggested that my limp could be a somatic trauma response. I was intrigued.
In the years since then, I have sought out literature that explores how bodies experience trauma and healing, like Bessel Van Der Kolk’s The Body Keeps The Score and learned about therapeutic frameworks that address this, such as Peter Levine’s “Somatic Experiencing.” Louis Cozolino’s The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy also seeks to explain how humans’ experiences with traumatic and healing events are processed in our brains and are revealed through our bodies. By reading these works, and through my own personal experiences, I’ve learned to pay attention to my body’s cues to help me interpret events in my own life.
As I tried to calm my panicked system, my body was notifying me that there was much more to this story in Matthew 18 than I had accounted for. I could not help but be drawn to the action verbs, imagining my own body’s responses if I were in each character’s shoes. I felt a little nauseous imagining what it would have been like to have such an impossible debt looming over me and breathed a sigh of relief when the king forgave the first servant (v. 27). That relief was immediately replaced with a vicarious rush of power, imagining the servant going to collect his money. A part of me imagined myself in the crowd, watching helplessly as the servant went for the other’s throat, throwing him to the ground and later, into prison (vv. 28-30). I resonated with the community’s outrage and decision to tell the king in the next verse, hoping that he would make things right.
Finally, I pictured the king’s self-righteousness as he became incensed with the first servant’s actions. “How dare he withhold forgiveness from another after I, so generously, forgave him?” I thought. I completely understood the king’s desire to teach him a lesson and his decision to punish him, after all.
I didn’t like it, but I understood it. At that moment, during that reading, I realized for the first time that I now had an imagination for the individual, communal, and systemic traumas that are laden in that text. I recognized the very human, very normal desires for power, safety, and survival, even at the risk of traumatizing others. I empathized with the vicarious trauma of witnessing intra-communal violence and being outraged by injustice. I understood the community’s decision to go to one oppressor to try and get him to police another. I knew that it wasn’t justice, but understood that it was a semblance of control, and that counted for a lot.
In the days since my experience reading that text, I asked myself, “What changed?” Clearly, I was more sensitized to the violence and trauma within the text, but I knew that my response had greater implications.
I could not help but wonder if my sudden discomfort with the text and my enmeshment with the characters came from the introduction of new concepts that had been slowly stretching my political imagination over the past few years. After all, the political events of 2015 and beyond are what showed me that what I thought was “normal” was, in fact, horrifying. Before then, I lacked the language to look critically at issues of oppression. But now I find myself constantly analyzing the realities of the world around me, especially concerning power dynamics: how it is wielded and its potential for collective trauma.
In an instant, I’m reminded of the fact that one’s political imagination is malleable. My own certainly was. After all, I no longer aligned with my American socialization that views power as a commodity and justifies—encourages, even—stepping upon one’s neighbor in order to ensure one’s own safety. I mused that perhaps it was my introduction to concepts such as prison abolition that sensitized me to the belief that no person should experience torture or torture others—especially for power and profit.
I thought back to a recent interview conducted by filmmaker Ava DuVernay for the September 2020 issue of Vanity Fair magazine. In it, longtime political activist, scholar, and writer, Dr. Angela Y. Davis, contemplates the ways that this present moment has contributed to an expansion of the collective political imagination in the United States. Under normal circumstances, seeing Davis’s picture in Vanity Fair—a relatively high-end fashion magazine that is marketed to wealthy white women—would be unimaginable. But this is 2020, after all, and stranger things have happened.
DuVernay asks Davis how she must feel, knowing that most revolutionaries never get to see such a large scale shift in the public consciousness. After all, she spent most of her career heavily scrutinized. But here she was, presented with a platform to teach freely about liberation. The very people who have been historically disincentivized to listen to discourse about oppression seem to finally be open to learning about it. Phrases that were once scoffed at, such as “systemic oppression,” “prison abolition,” and “defunding the police,” are now in the public lexicon.
Davis admits that the response is surreal, unusual, and encouraging:
“The protests [after George Floyd’s lynching] offered people an opportunity to join in this collective demand to bring about deep change, radical change. Defund the police, abolish policing as we know it now. These are the same arguments that we’ve been making for such a long time about the prison system and the whole criminal justice system. It was as if all of these decades of work by so many people, who received no credit at all, came to fruition.”
Thinking back on the parable in Matthew 18, I could not help but think about how these modern concepts have irrevocably shaped my reading of it. Just as I can no longer read about the individual and collective trauma of the characters in the story without connecting to my own personal and societal traumas, I found myself newly aghast at the moral of the story. Verses 34 and 35 tell us that “… in anger his lord handed [the unforgiving servant] over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt.” Jesus matter-of-factly ends the story by saying, “So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.”
This makes me very uncomfortable.
If at its core, politics can be reduced to an understanding of how power is enacted in our society, then my political imagination has been shifted both gradually and radically by the phenomenon that Dr. Davis introduces in her interview. She, along with the members of the many communities (young, transgender, indigenous, international, etc.) that she amplifies, have helped me understand that what is normative in our society is built on systems and beliefs that privilege power over people’s well-being, and is unnecessarily violent. And this, left unchecked, causes trauma. As an American, I now recognize what it looks like to be steeped in a culture where criminality deserves retribution and violence is normal, even if it comes in the name of God. It is no wonder why Jesus’s explicit affirmation that God would willingly torture people for withholding mercy to others never bothered me before. To be clear, I had never noticed it before.
But now I cannot look away.
Reading this story in light of the changes in my own political imagination has shaken me physically, intellectually, and theologically. It asks me to consider the question, “What’s at stake?” when a story of mercy contains so much violence within it. What’s at stake when Jesus casually threatens God’s eternal punishment to incentivize people to treat others with mercy?
For me, it means that we need a trauma-informed hermeneutic that takes power dynamics into consideration. It means critically analyzing our communities and institutions, ideologies, legends and scriptures, and our minds, bodies, and even our deities, for violence. It means constantly examining what is contributing to the formation of our political imaginations. It means replacing retribution with dreams of liberation for everyone—regardless of whether some might think they do not deserve it.
In her book Taking on Practical Theology: The Idolization of Context and the Hope of Community, Dr. Courtney Goto writes about the challenge of disrupting dominant paradigms, especially those where oppression lingers. For Goto, a paradigm is a way of understanding the world or a particular arena, and it is buttressed by pervasive beliefs, systems, and practices. Because paradigms often reflect the ideologies of the people who exist within them, work cannot be done to change paradigms for the better without a willingness to recognize existing harm—and that is impossible without empathy.
The ability to understand a paradigm requires a robust power analysis, which is made more difficult if one does not have personal experiences with oppression or the ability to empathize with it. This brings a way of seeing the world that allows a person to understand it differently and challenge ignorance or violence (p. 68).
Perhaps the times that we live in now are challenging us to recognize harmful paradigms within our society. Between generations of people speaking out about their experiences, historical records that point to the roots of interpersonal and institutional violence, thousands of hashtags, video evidence broadcast on social media, and peer-reviewed studies about the impact of trauma, it seems as if the dam is breaking. More people are becoming sensitized to violence.
It seems as if the U.S. political imagination is finally shifting to accommodate these radical disruptions. As Davis points out, activists have been building upon the liberation work that had been going on for generations. Thousands of people have pushed back against death-dealing structures in different arenas, and dehumanizing beliefs that were once normalized and even justified as “God-ordained” are now being given a second look. Little by little, progress is happening. Even if there is still so much work to be done.
It is significant that so many of us are now able to imagine less traumatic ways of existing in the world. It matters that more people can imagine a world without policing and the hoarding of wealth, or that we might be able to intervene and mitigate the climate crisis. It matters that we are asking ourselves how to respond to violent constructs in new and creative ways. And it is profoundly hopeful to imagine a world where healing from collective trauma is not only possible, but is accessible to everyone.
This is something towards which we should strive.
For me, a trauma-informed hermeneutic of both scripture and the society we live in presses us to consider that violence might be found in unexpected places. It can be in our institutions, communities, ideologies, and well-known stories. It can even come out of the mouths of our deities. As such, the work of assessing how our political imaginations and theological interpretations are formed continues. It asks me, at once, to consider “the stakes,” and weigh the implications of keeping them or replacing them with something else.
I do not have concrete answers, but I am grateful for the flexibility to imagine things differently.