Wounds of the World: Does Theology Aid or Hinder Their Remembrance and Tending?

Global Horizon

Does theology aid or hinder memory work vis-à-vis structural wrongs? What fresh theological framework may political theology employ for assistance in transformative memory work?

“Christ’s [post ascension] body no longer bore the marks of his wounds?” In his book, End of Memory, Miroslav Volf aligns himself with those who respond to that question in the affirmative. I have described my theological discomfort with such alignment in detail elsewhere. Although Volf’s work is in the background and makes an appearance, this essay responds to two questions through a sympathetic reading of Shelly Rambo’s new book, Resurrecting Wounds. Does theology aid or hinder memory work vis-à-vis structural wrongs? What fresh theological framework may political theology employ for assistance in transformative memory work?

What Christians believe about Christ’s wounds evidently has implications for their political theological disposition towards the world. In other words, what we say about Christ’s wounds affects how we deal with the wounds of the world.

Rambo argues that when it comes to structural wrongs such as racism, “Christian theology is produced by erasing wounds. It sanitizes and purifies. Theology birthed from this wound is dependent on ongoing practices of erasing these origins. It insists on pure beginnings that hover above the soil. And if and when theology hovers above the soil, it denies harm done to bodies on the ground” (76-77). The soil that Rambo refers to here is a sense of the past, place, and groundedness in present continuous effects and affects of history.

How do sanitization, purification, and erasure take place? In responding to these questions, Rambo turns to James Cone, Willie Jennings, and Delores Williams. Cone points to the cross as a site of suffering that symbolizes the suffering enacted by whiteness against Black people. Willie Jennings adds another layer to Cone and “questions the ability of white America” (Rambo, 76) to make the connection between the cross and the entrenched violence of racism. Readers may also recall here Jennings’ use of the term “diseased social imagination” to describe the inability to take stock of the root of racism and therefore the inability to meaningfully envision a Christian imagination that would redress such problems.

Theology hinders memory work at least through two ways. One is through abstraction of what the cross actually means. To use Rambo’s phrase, this is a way in which theology “hovers above the soil.” In this abstraction, wounds are not registered. Because of this, “the crosses of history are able to stay disconnected” (88). Within the logic of such erasure and denial, one finds an eerie absence of critical reflection and interrogation “to question the lens through which the event is narrated” (88).

If as Jennings notes, “the deep wound of our racial history has never passed [and] no one in America lives without it,” (Jennings cited in Rambo, 73) how is it that it is not seen?  Herein lies a particular effect of abstraction. Abstraction produces “particular ways of seeing and not-seeing” (88). Not seeing wounds and bodies is one of abstraction’s sinister effects. It is to counter this kind of abstraction that Rambo lifts up Delores Williams’ “affirmation of bodies” (105). Rambo also turns to trauma literature to focus attention on bodies (4). We shall return to the topic of bodies when we ask the essay’s second question.

If abstraction is one way in which theology hinders memory work, then a second way in which memory work is hindered is through a glorification of wounds (91). In other words, when the wounds of Jesus are lifted up as a model for suffering, wounds are glorified. This problematic theological entanglement seems to aid memory work on first reading but, to the contrary, hinders it by lifting up particular memories at the cost of others.

As we have considered above, dominant modes of theologizing hinder memory work by hovering above the soil in at least two ways, abstraction and glorification. However, merely not hovering above the soil is only a necessary condition and not a sufficient condition for transformative memory work. Resisting hovering above the soil, therefore, is to eventually lead to transformative memory work that employs a fresh theological framework.

What fresh theological framework may political theology employ for assistance in transformative memory work? The rest of this short essay is devoted to responding to this question.

The marks on the body of Jesus after the resurrection, contrary to the proposals made by Volf and others, “insist,” as Rambo argues, “on a surfacing of the histories of forgetting and erasing of wounds” (88). The question I raised in the beginning of the essay informed by Volf’s proposals—a perspective I disagree with—insists on the opposite.

“By itself,” argues Volf, “memory of wrongs seems insufficient to generate solidarity” (Volf, 31). As I have said elsewhere, memory, for Volf, “is a means to an end and the end is reconciliation.” When that end is achieved, marks of wounds could be forgotten and erased.

Wounds inflicted by racism, however, are “as complex and deep in [the] flesh as blood and nerves” (Wendell Berry cited in Rambo, 71). To be precise, the verb “inflict” cannot really be used in the past tense. The wounds of racism are wounds of the present. Rambo uses the term “ongoingness” to refer to this present continuous nature of structural violence that afflicts the social and political worlds we inhabit (5). It is the not-coming-to-terms with such “ongoingness” that prevents Volf and others from proposing memory work.

Without a doubt, memory work is not straightforward. Oftentimes, “histories of suffering, when surfaced, often compete for attention within the public sphere” (95). This competition models “pits the suffering of victims against each other.” When done uncritically, “remembering one’s group trauma entails diminishing, and forgetting, another group’s trauma.” How, then, may we do memory work in such a way that particular wounds are not lifted up without a deep acknowledgment of others’ wounds?

Histories of suffering are connected. One task of political theology, therefore, is to enable these connections and prepare the way for solidarities to emerge across space, place, and time. The point here is not for memory of past trauma to wound again but rather for such memories to provide a place of meeting, encounter, and connectedness by which wounds are remembered and the task of tending to others’ wounds is actualized. As Rambo rightly notes, “The promise held in these marks does not come to fruition by gazing at the marks but by registering in them one’s connection to historical wounds” (89).

Rambo employs a Trinitarian framework and argues for a refreshing role of the Spirit as “memory bearer” (90). “Spirit as memory bearer carries forward the spirit of a place, a situation.” This Spirit carries memories and remembers the violence suffered by bodies. Here lies the pneumatological connection to the resurrection wounds of Jesus, “marking the impossibility of erasure” (88).

With this fresh theological framework, however, memory work is not simple recounting or tallying. Central to this memory work is what Rambo, building on Delores Williams, lifts up as “affirming the goodness of the body, a reanimation of the senses, and a realignment of the affections” (105). Indeed, bodies-especially wronged ones—need to be affirmed and our senses need to be animated in such a way that our affections are realigned. 

We live in a seemingly cosmopolitan world in which we are surrounded by people who may look different from us in more ways than one. Because of this one may assume that our affections are not constrained by the negative effects of race. As already discussed in the essay, such an assumption is naïve and mistaken. It is not an exaggeration to say that, often, we are bodies together in the same place but still remain “bodies that never embrace” (Jennings, 288) in such a way that our affections are realigned. If political theology could help, Rambo’s proposals are certainly worth embodying.

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