Violence, Trauma, and the Eucharist
Content warning: violence, trauma, abuse.
By Hannah King
Two years ago my brother died violently. I did not witness the end of his life, but a vision of it was painted in my mind when I first heard the news. My grief was complicated by traumatic images of his beloved body, broken.
In the year after his death, these images hindered sleep. Closing my eyes meant seeing my brother’s body despite my best efforts at distraction. But I also had flashbacks during the day. Surprisingly, they often happened at church. Liturgical Christians celebrate Communion every Sunday, with words that recall Jesus’s death in its physical terms: “This is my body, given for you; this is my blood, shed for you.”
The eucharistic feast reminds us that Jesus’s self-offering was not a theological abstraction, but his actual life poured out. And it celebrates Christ’s ultimate victory over death: his resurrection and ours, in him. But in my grief, the Lord’s Supper — with its language alluding to Jesus’s crucifixion — was difficult for me. My ministry as a priest was fraught with unwanted images of my brother as I celebrated Eucharist. Church became a trigger for me, but it was ultimately a trigger that healed me.
Christ’s Solidarity with Victims
Culturally, we have a strange relationship with violence and death. We are squeamish about it — outsourcing everything from the burial of our loved ones to the slaughter of our mealtime chicken and beef. And we simultaneously sensationalize it, consuming violent movies and video games as recreation.
But sometimes, and for some people, the reality of violence is uncomfortably close. The particular shame of brutality endured by the body — whether one’s own body or that of a loved one — can tarnish the soul in ways we have only begun to understand. And the cross reminds us that Jesus also endured this particular shame. Our Lord knows the pain and humiliation of bodily harm, even in its most extreme forms. He was beaten and whipped. Publicly stripped of his clothing, a form of sexual violation and abuse. He was pierced with nails and spears and left to slowly suffocate.
The brutality Christ endured is difficult to imagine. And focusing on the gory details can seem sadistic, bordering on sacrilegious. But for actual survivors of violence and those who carry vicarious trauma, the gory details of Jesus’s passion can be strangely comforting. His own violent death is proof that redemption reaches to the very depth of human terror.
My brother’s death was traumatizing. Christian faith does not erase this fact. It does not erase the trauma of sexual assault, war, racial violence, suicide, or murder. But the story of a crucified Lord does carry unique healing power to those who live with the memory of these things. Jesus’s death was not only the purchase of our redemption. It was also the greatest and most intimate act of solidarity with those who have been violated. He entered into the nightmare of suffering, not abstractly but concretely. He became a victim of violence with all the physical and psychological terror that entails.
The Cross as a Critique of Violence
We don’t often think of Christ as a victim. This is because Jesus willingly went to the cross; he offered his life as a sacrifice. He told his disciples, “I lay down my life that I may take it up again… No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again” (John 10:17-18). Jesus’s suffering is unique in its sacrificial meaning and power.
When early Christians named the eucharistic bread the “host,” derived from the Latin hostia, meaning victim, they had this sacrificial meaning in view. Jesus is the perfect sacrifice for sin, and he gave himself freely for the world’s salvation. His unique role as Israel’s Suffering Servant prevents us from equating other forms of victimization with such a “sacrifice.”
But like other human beings, Jesus still suffered in a body. And his willingness to become not only our High Priest but also the sacrificial lamb, to suffer violence under human hands, makes the Christian God unique among all religions. Edward Shillito’s World War I era poem “Jesus of the Scars” says it like this:
The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.
God’s wounds are a sign of his solidarity with victims. And they are a critique of the forces that oppress and brutalize human beings. The violence done to God exposes the violence of this world for what it is: an evil that must be judged.
Fleming Rutledge writes, “The incarnation of the son of God should not be understood as the divine benediction on all that is. It was an incarnation unto the cross, and therefore an incarnation that sets a question mark over against the way things are… The Messiah came, not to a purified and enlightened world spiritually prepared for his arrival but rather to a humanity no nearer to its original goodness than on the day Cain murdered his brother Abel. Indeed, the barbarity of the crucifixion reveals precisely that diagnosis.”
At the center of Christian faith is a crucifixion. But this does not normalize, glorify, or justify violence. Rather, the cross condemns it. When Christians recall Christ’s death, we are assured of his judgment over all the systems, attitudes, and actions that destroy God’s good creation. We understand violence as an evil that God takes onto himself for our sake and for our renewal.
The Hope of Resurrection
In Christian hope, this renewal looks like resurrection. Our story does not end with brutality and death. Broken bodies will be mended and raised. Jesus’s own resurrection is the down payment, the proof of this promise. By his Spirit and through the sacraments, this future reality breaks into the present, bringing healing and renewal now even as we wait for its fullness.
This is why and how the Eucharist has helped to heal my traumatic grief. I carry the knowledge of tragic death in my memory, with or without church. But in the bread and the wine I also encounter the living, risen Christ; I feast on resurrection. I find hope in the fact that violence did not have the final word over our Lord and that through him, violence will not have the final word over those who currently suffer.
Many people in and out of church today do suffer under violence. Some of them might struggle with images of Christ’s death just as I did. We do not need to obscure the historical and theological truth of the crucifixion because, in Paul’s words, “to those who are called, [Christ crucified] is the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor. 1:24). We preach Christ crucified. But we can and should do this with sensitivity and patience. Psychological healing may come gradually or, in many cases, not fully until Christ’s return.
As followers of Jesus we must also live the eucharistic story we proclaim. We must learn to listen and express solidarity with those who’ve experienced violence, and to denounce violence in all its forms — even forms that are otherwise foreign or far from us. This looks like taking abuse allegations seriously and offering adequate support to survivors; advocating for battered children, refugees, the unborn, and other voiceless members of society; and, for white Christians, learning to stand with and for communities of color in their diverse experiences of American culture. We can only do these things through Christ: his forgiveness, his example, and his resurrection power.
Because Christ’s body was broken for us, our bodies can be put back together again. This is my hope for my brother who died. And it is our only hope for society, the communal body of mankind which Jesus is uniting in himself through the Church. As we feast on him we will find our healing, individually and together.
The Rev. Hannah King and her husband, the Rev. Michael King, share the role of associate rector at Village Church in Greenville, South Carolina.