Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”
Matthew 2:16-18 (ESV)
There seems to be a tremendous public outpouring of assistance and charity to the Flint, Michigan community in the wake of this horrific lead poisoning episode. Yet, it seems in many ways that the Flint community rightly “refuses to be comforted” in the wake of this atrocity. In part, I believe this is because how we characterize and talk about this malaise has a direct impact on those whose lives have been traumatized by lead poisoning. Should we talk about this as an accident? Was this an administrative oversight? Is this simply a tragedy that
requires acts of charity? Or, is this an incident of radical evil?
I raise these rhetorical questions to suggest that how this calamity is narrated will, in part, determine the extent to which individuals hurt by the lead poisoning can regain a sense of functionality in their life. While there is still much to be investigated in this matter, I will offer up that this decision to poison a community with water laced with lead—all in the name of austerity and cost cutting—was no simple oversight, but an act of radical evil. To be sure, lead poisoning is no small matter. According to doctors and other related professionals, there is no “safe” level of lead that can exist in the human body. The adverse effects of lead poisoning in the human body can be life long, resulting in significant cognitive, developmental, and motor impairment. Indeed, the human spirit has been greatly harmed in Flint. How does one communicate to their child—who may have been perfectly healthy one year ago—that their life is irreparably altered forever?
The silence of the church on this matter is incredibly loud. Indeed, we have witnessed an act of radical evil. Providing bottles of water, alone, is not a faithful Christian response. When understood as an act of evil, it compels the larger community to not only respond with acts of charity, but to seek out justice in solidarity with those who have been victimized. If the narrative of this event continues to be one of administrative oversight such that providing bottles of water (while greatly needed) is the only perceived remedial response, we run the risk of suggesting that the bodies of certain marginalized communities don’t matter. Moreover, as the church, we implicitly suggest that God does not really care about Flint. The love of God cannot be divorced from justice.
A discussion of trauma is inseparable from the narrative that describes the incident, and the response of the larger community. In her seminal work Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman (1992) describes elements of post traumatic stress disorder in a manner that better prepares caregivers to empathically care for those who suffer from the ailment. What is often overlooked in her work, however, is her systematizing of trauma. Instead of locating trauma and the hope of recovery exclusively in the experience of the victim, Herman calls for us to recognize the culpability and responsibility of the broader community. For Herman, traumatological discourse not only reflects a dialogic between victim and perpetrator, but necessarily reflects a tripartite engagement between victim, perpetrator, and community. Herman argues:
Sharing the traumatic experience with others is a precondition for the restitution of a sense of a meaningful world. In this process, the survivor seeks assistance not only from those closest to her but also from the wider community. The response of the community has a powerful influence on the ultimate resolution of the trauma. Restoration of the breach between the traumatized person and the community depends, first, upon public acknowledgment of the traumatic event and, second, upon some form of community action. Once it is publicly recognized that a person has been harmed, the community must take action to assign responsibility for the harm and to repair the injury. These two responses-recognition and restitution-are necessary to rebuild the survivor's sense of order and justice. (70)
It is time for the church to be vocal in calling those responsible for decision-making to repentance; in this case, rich, powerful, privileged people deciding the fate of an impoverished community. The silence of the church is conspicuous and deafening. Silence in the face of radical evil and injustice can lead to the onset of secondary trauma, as the passivity of the broader community reinforces the message that the victims do not matter. In his letter from a Birmingham prison, Dr. Martin Luther King’s words still haunt us:
The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's often vocal sanction of things as they are. But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If the church of today does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authentic ring, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. I meet young people every day whose disappointment with the church has risen to outright disgust.
Dr. Danjuma Gibson joined Calvin Theological Seminary in 2014 as a lecturer in pastoral care. Prior to joining Calvin, he was an adjunct professor at several other seminaries and universities in the Chicagoland area. In addition to trauma, Dr. Gibson’s current research interests include investigating how various forms of black religious experience intersect with psychoanalytic discourse in a way that is accretive to how we understand personhood, identity formation, and human flourishing.