Katie Snipes Lancaster
Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.
A Look at Joy
[To me, finding joy is only possible within all that is impossibly hard about human life. Joy is within, not outside of, the hardships and sorrows of life. If we are to turn to scripture as our source of joy, for me it then becomes important to recognize all that was impossibly hard for those who wrote and lived within those biblical texts. Below is an essay that takes a trauma-informed look at scripture. It is a little longer than some of the other essays I’ve excerpted, but it helped me see the multiple hardships out of which biblical authors articulate sacred joy. —Katie Snipes Lancaster]
When my wife and I rolled out on a spectacular Columbus Day weekend, 2010, thoughts of biblical research were far from my mind. It was our tenth anniversary, and we were meeting some friends for a bike ride in the Catskill Mountains. Just a half-hour into our ride my bicycle fell apart on a downhill. The impact on pavement left me with ten broken ribs, a broken collarbone, a collapsed lung, and months of healing and rehabilitation ahead. I lived, barely… This experience of personal suffering enmeshed in an unexpected way with a research initiative on trauma and the Bible that I had started just a year before.
I am a biblical scholar who specializes in what academics often term the Hebrew Bible. A year before my bicycle accident I had presented a paper at my professional association that focused on the study of trauma and the biblical prophets. My thesis was that contemporary studies of trauma could explain characteristics of prophetic books written in the context of the exile of the Jews in Babylon. As a biblical scholar, I was acutely aware, of course, of differences between ancient Israelite experiences of suffering and contemporary experiences labeled traumatic. Still, humans started experiencing trauma a long time before trauma studies began. The more I read psychological, anthropological, and other studies of trauma, the more I have come to believe that they can teach me and others about how this ancient Israelite people suffered and how their experiences live on with us through the Bible. The accident, combined with my reading on trauma, allowed me to see the Bible with fresh eyes. It sensitized me to ways that both Jewish and Christian scriptures were formed in the context of centuries of catastrophic suffering.
Both Judaism and Christianity offer visions of religious life that emphasize religious community, whether the people of Israel or the church. Jewish and Christian scriptures define these communities in ways that have helped these communities endure catastrophe, rather than be devastated by it. Perhaps most important, the scriptures of Judaism and Christianity, written in part as a response to communal suffering, present suffering as part of a broader story of redemption. In complicated ways, each tradition depicts catastrophe as a path forward.
This is the kind of religious perspective, for example, that can include the exhortation by Jesus, “If any want to become my followers, let them take up their cross and follow me.” The cross of Jesus, of course, is just one of many painful episodes that fed into the Bible, some better known than others. First, the Assyrians, an efficient and terrifying empire based in what is now northern Iraq, destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel and almost destroyed the kingdom of Judah to the south. The Assyrians then dominated Judah for almost a century. Next, another Mesopotamian empire, the Babylonians, destroyed Jerusalem and deported its population to remote parts of Babylon. A few decades later the Persian Empire defeated the Babylonians and allowed a few Judean exiles to trickle back home to Jerusalem. These returnees, however, never regained their Davidic kings or statehood. Instead, they formed a Temple-centered community shaped by lessons learned while in exile in Babylon. Centuries later a Hellenistic king, Antiochus the fourth, gained control of Judah, rededicated the temple to a Greek god, and enforced the death penalty for anyone practicing Judaism. Though his rule was eventually ended by the Maccabean revolt, Judah soon fell under the power of Rome. And this set the state for the crucifixion of Jesus and other Jews convicted of rebellion, the eventual destruction of Jerusalem, the Roman criminalization of the emergent Jesus movement.
Before all this suffering, ancient Israel had a set of scriptures much like that of other nations—some hymns celebrating the royal dynasty and its capital, royal instructions, love songs, some myths of creation and flood. These were Israel’s “pre-trauma” scriptures. After centuries of crisis, ancient Israel had transformed its scriptures so they focused instead on landless ancestors and life in the wilderness. The later Christian church then built its scriptures around the story of a crucified savior.
The Bible’s distinctive themes and emphases can be traced back to century after century of crisis. It certainly contains texts about other aspects of human experience—joy, gratitude, love, wonder and the like. Nonetheless, it was during periods of crisis that the overall shape and emphases of the scriptures were shaped most. Thus, suffering, and survival of it, was written into the Bible.
(David McLain Carr. Holy Resilience: The Bible’s Traumatic Origins, Yale University Press, 2014, p. 2–4).
God, trace within us a story of survival,
where joy, gratitude, love and wonder emerge
as a sacred unfolding gift, recognized and held.