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Displacement and Trauma

Dean and E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Professor of Womanist Ethics and Society at Vanderbilt Divinity School

Heart of Jesus full of love and mercy, watch over my sister and brother migrants. Have pity on them and protect them; they suffer mistreatment and humiliations on their way, looked on as dangerous by most, and marginalized for being foreigners. Help us to respect them and appreciate their dignity. Touch with your goodness the hearts of we who see them pass by. Take care of their families until they return home, not with broken hearts but with their hopes fulfilled. May it be so.

Altar is a small town in northern Mexico, about 60-80 miles south of Nogales, Arizona

Altar has become something of a gathering place for people migrating from the south

folks will spend a bit of time there, preparing for the next hard leg of the journey

they will pack their backpacks, carrying a little food and as much water as they can carry for the journey across the unforgiving landscape of the Sonoran desert

rather than stem the tide of folks crossing into the U.S.

the U.S. government’s decision to pour more money and resources into sealing off the border has resulted in making the journey into the U.S. more difficult, more dangerous, more expensive, and more profitable

on the town square in Altar sits a Catholic cathedral

the congregation at Mass changes every day because so many people are just passing through

it is a parish that bears witness, daily, to the plight of the migrant

hanging just inside this church for all who enter to see is the prayer I began with, which is also repeated every time the gathered community celebrates mass1

it is recited as people leave for the north into the dangers or cartels, border patrols, bandits, the desert with its dangers of dehydration or hypothermia

then possible discovery, deportation or repatriation to rest and prepare for the next attempt at crossing

such is the migrant journey for far too many on our southern border

as I have said elsewhere:

the times we are in are a hot mess or a postmodern Shakespearean fresh hell

in other words—

we are living in a society in which our economic outlook is one of steady growth—we are in what some experts call a goldilocks economy

growth is not too hot, causing inflation or too cold, creating a recession

while jobs are not materializing as promised and hoped for and tax cuts have a decided edge

the middle fifth of earners got about $950 — nice but hardly huge

the bottom fifth got about $60

and in a world where housing and health care are soaring

an extra $60 or $1.15 a week—is near meaningless

the list of things we worry about and organize about are a vexing mix:


gay marriage

marital rape

planned parenthood funding

LGBT adoption rights

gender identity


#lives matter

government mandates

religious freedom act


women in combat

mass incarceration

death penalty

gender workplace diversity

confederate flag and monuments


health care

safe spaces

First Amendment


and much more

we have allowed the ideas of “post truth” and “alternative facts” that began as laughing points that have turned into policy points that become legal points such that some of us need not apply for justice or mercy

given the uproar going on all around us, as I was writing this talk, I noticed that there are two conferences that have created a particular kind of buzz this spring semester for the students, faculty, and staff at Vanderbilt Divinity School and perhaps in the spaces and places you live and work in

one is a conference being sponsored by the Office of Religious Life at Princeton University in March—Christianity and White supremacy: heresy and hope

the other is this one—migration and border crossings

there’s also annual conferences like the Samuel Dewitt Proctor conference whose theme is “the cry of black blood: the call to sacred memory”

and on the more conservative side, there is the Brehm Conference—“worship, theology and the arts in a divided world” and the Shepherds’ Conference for men in church leadership—“faithful”

and denominationally, the United Methodists are meeting in a little less that 3 weeks for a called General Conference that will center on human sexuality

the sense of fear and hope for this conference is tangible—even for those of us who live and work in a nondenominational theological school

after all, VDS is only 1 block away from the United Methodist General Board of Higher Education and Ministry

it is impossible to miss the care and concern from there and in area churches

these conferences represent, I think, the various conversations we are attempting to have within our faith communities, our circles of accountability, our personal commitments, our striving toward a discipleship of depth and breadth

that does not settle for a stultifying status quo of inequalities wrapped in the dull colors of iniquity and spit

as we look out on and live into the worlds we travel in or the ones we seek to understand

and I begin by naming these pieces of our daily puzzle of living not as a kind of yardstick for our various conversations through religious lenses

but rather to remind us that this conference is set in a much larger context that we dare not forget or neglect

a context that is built on memory and hope, dreams and nightmares, vitriol and healing balm, calls to circle the wagons and those who are opening the doors wide and filling in the moats of hatred

because we not only aim for a better day, we are moving ever closer to the new heaven and new earth as we work with the holy each and every day through acts both large and small


so, when I turn to this conference and the topic I have been asked to reflect on in this closing keynote, “displacement and trauma,” I find the topic to be an interesting turn to take to send us on our way

over the last couple of days, we have explored the causes, processes, and effects of global migration—the journey of the migrant, causes of migration, processes of migration, and consequences of migration in our plenary times

the conference organizers have been true to their word that this conference would

1) [To] bring together leading scholars from various disciplines and religious backgrounds as well as ecclesial leaders to explicate political, theological/ethical, and religious issues pertaining to immigration and border-crossings.

2) [To] offer quality resources that faith communities can draw upon as they seek to engage these issues faithfully-on both intellectual and practical levels. These resources would include curriculum-related material and possibly lectures, and presentations posted on YouTube.

3) [To] suggest to faith communities concrete ways for participatory praxis at local and national levels.

with workshops on pedagogies, worship and preaching, organizing, immigration policies and law, pastoral care, best practices, getting in line

and oh, the networking and side conversations we have had

and the deep listening many if not most of us have engaged in

so, in many ways, to talk about displacement and trauma as we prepare to end brings us back to the beginning of our time together

though with an important difference: we have become a community of sorts that has been through something together

and hopefully we have some new insights or different angles of vision or committed ourselves to our next

perhaps some of us have come to understand a different viewpoint with more empathy rather than bare ideology

and we are beginning our goodbyes and hoping, I pray, that we will find ways to live into what we have learned by taking it back to our home spaces and working with others to take more seriously, where we have not, that we are to welcome the stranger at the gate in our communities and into our lives


so, how do we welcome the stranger at our southern gate?

what fuels the fear and hatred and hording of resources that makes some folks acceptable migrants and others a dark horde of violence?

how do we, as I think we have tried to do in our time together, find a faith-filled theology and ethical muscle that we turn away from a lexicon of terror that creates social, political, religious, and legal categories to include or exclude those who have been forced from their country

their homes

to escape war or persecution or the lack of jobs

for I think that part of what we point to when we pair displacement and trauma is what is going on in us as much, if not more, than what is happening to migrants

the crisis I see at the border is a humanitarian one

not one that threatens US sovereignty and security

in the last half decade, while immigration at the U.S. border has dropped significantly compared with earlier years, the profile of migrants has changed in ways that the U.S. immigration system has never been designed to address

instead of young men and seasonal workers, most of whom migrated from Mexico, the majority of people now arriving are asylum-seeking families from Central America

this past november, more than twenty-five thousand families crossed the U.S. border—the highest such monthly total on record

they were fleeing the violence, poverty, and rampant political corruption that have made parts of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala virtually uninhabitable

the crisis at our border is a refugee crisis that is difficult, if not impossible to fix at our border with a wall

and the reality is that the US alone cannot fix this refugee crisis

it will need the efforts of the countries in the region working together

by refusing to see the reality that the change in who is crossing our southern border are asylum seekers we are able to ignore the law that these migrants must be allowed to present their claims to immigration agents

that children cannot be detained for more than 20 days

our catch and release response for migrant families has now moved to punishing asylum seekers and attempting to dismantle what we already have in place, inadequate as it is

these scare tactics simply have not worked—deterrence has failed and we need to shift to how we handle this refugee crisis

and more importantly deal with it as a refugee crisis rather than casting brown bodies as a threat to national security

or the reason why we refuse to offer a living wage to millions of workers

or the alleged cause of rise in crime in the US

thinking about displacement and trauma begins, for me, with acknowledging that what we have is not a border-security crisis

it’s a crisis created by the fact that we need more asylum officers, immigration judges, beds that are suitable for families, and better coordination between ICE, customs and border protection, and US citizenship and immigration services

it is little wonder that we are in the midst of this particular mess as we remember the complex troubling milieu we are in


displacement and trauma (especially when we link them together) are creations of the fantastic hegemonic imagination that rests in all of us

this is an imagination that encourages us to see one another through stereotypes and innuendos

an imagination that is arrogant about our ignorance

and denies that we are often afraid of what we do not know or understand and hesitant to take on educating ourselves

because it just might mean that we will have to open up our hearts, minds, souls, bodies, communities, religious homes to a full-blown spring cleaning of the spirit

in other words—we will have to change

taking my cues from Astrid Scheuermann2 who writes about migration in Europe, I translate her into our context and am suggesting that the reason there is a fear about our southern border that we don’t have for the north

is, in part, because we want migrants from the south to want to be just like us

and we place all the responsibility of adaptation on these migrants and refugees without acknowledging the stress and trauma that these folks have already been through

and what we put them through if they do manage to make it into the U.S. because of inadequate resources or misplaced emphasis on solutions that make problems rather than solve them, political posturing, and ignoring our own laws and regulations that creates a situation that piles these stressors and trauma they engender high and deeper

if we demonize them, as too many of the federal public narratives I hear do, then we do not have to acknowledge that migrants from the south and other countries may have experienced the destruction of their homes, violent acts perpetrated again loved ones, or have been victims of violence or life-threatening situations themselves

and sometimes U.S. foreign policy has helped fuel this destruction

displacement kicks in when folks are cast off to fend for themselves while waiting for their asylum hearings or border agents have separated families—parents and children—and no one seems to know who is where

and let me say that this is far too reminiscent of what happened during slavocracy in this country—children became pawns, caged, expendable, unaccounted for except for on the tote boards of slave bills of sale

so, as we end by talking about what happens to folks in post-migration—displacement and trauma

I do so by turning to the power of lament, communal lament that may help guide our way


I am often struck

as a sometimes archetypical grumpy and never quite satisfied ethicist

with the drive we have as meaning-makers and moral agents to address vexing moral problems like migration and immigration

and that we turn them into problems instead of opportunities to exercise the gift of God’s grace in our lives

our need for order sometimes drives us into acts of justice

sometimes acts of ill-conceived passions

sometimes acts of ethical hubris

sometimes acts of moral strength and resilience

sometimes acts of great care and compassion

sometimes brave acts—even when we do not have a burning bush to guide our way

in short, we humans are a rather creative lot

we never quite know what we will do next at times

and just when we think we’ve got ourselves figured out, we go and commit the unfathomable

dealing with displacement and trauma

is not a linear process

not exactly a loop

not wholly a curly-q

perhaps it is a sense of urgency that shapes our concern

a cosmic rumbling that is relentless in its precision in interrupting, disrupting, changing our lives and countless others

although the prophets of the Hebrew Bible are some of my favorite challenging/disturbing/disrupting reading—both as an ethicist and a person of faith

I do not envy their task

for they take on human predictabilities and unpredictabilities because of divine mandate

and this is not my idea of a particularly good time

but I find that their response to exile and despair are a profound biblical mooring for my moral musings today

for they are guides for how do we respond to the questions of What ought we do? How ought we be? What is happening?

the prophets Ezekiel and Micah help ground me biblically as I think about displacement (when people either move or are moved from their homes) and trauma (a deeply distressing or disturbing experience)

Ezekiel forces us to consider what it means when we cannot lament

and what forces of nature or the divine are at work that prevent us from forming our frustration and outrage into familiar groans of anguish

of loss

of chaos

of dawning awareness

of plotting faith-filled response

is this truly the way to re-forming us by placing us into a cataclysm of the primal where reason and rationality hold no sway?

we are not allowed to structure, to order the loss

instead we must twist and turn into the collapse of our efforts to reach out in faith and deep mission

and you and I are left with the horror of questions formed out of absolute confusion or confounding competing narratives and frustrations that we have when we are observers at the accident scene

and we begin to realize that the wail of sirens in the background is not the rescue squad that promises to help the wounded

no, those siren wails are coming from us

we are the questioners in modern and postmodern smugness at times

that is now worn thin by the shock and horror of realizing we have become like Shelley’s Frankenstein—not the monster, but its creator

rather than escape into neat discourses or familiar rituals

we must make meaning out of the devastation that displacement and trauma wreaks in the lives of migrants

rather than ignore the ways that we must step forward, perfectly and imperfectly to respond in deep faithfulness when our brothers and sisters need us

Micah—the advocate of pure worship and social justice

speaks judgment, divine forgiveness, and hope

we can ponder notions of the good with him

the ways in which it can be seen as a supreme end

the ways in which it can be juxtaposed to justice

the ways in which it can be inseparable from the inner person

and we should never forget the power of stories

they can help establish identity and location

they locate us in time—past, present, future

they can also clarify accountability

in Micah’s hands, the power of stories and the concept of the good join forces such that the good is something that the people should already know

what must we do to contribute to the good: do justice, love mercy, have an attitude of humility?

these concrete acts, these practices are the stuff of moral formation for Micah

not liturgies that are actually self-condemning or worse

displeasing to God

both Ezekiel and Micah remind us that we have the ability to grow and change

yes, both have witnessed the problem side of growth and change

and call for the faithful side of this to show its face in our actions

these are not easy tasks and they certainly are not for the weak of will or faith to engage in

I am reminded of something the British philosopher, Mary Midgley, points out

“it is the ideas we actually live by that we most need to understand”3

I think these prophets remind us of this on a continual basis

for as Midgley goes on to note, just being a part of a culture is not enough to make us understand it morally4

but when all is said and done—we are the interpreters of our cultures and we are its meaning-makers and we are the ones who must speak out of our faith rather than that which comforts only us

too often, we are ill-equipped to take up the challenge of understanding what it is we have helped to create

and what we have such a vested interest in maintaining

so, we have gathered to open up the shutters of the windows of our souls

to think through, feel through, talk through, act through how we can be present and alert when it comes to migration and border crossings

it is often in the exile of displacement and despair of trauma that we are shaken from our nocturnes of mediocrity and faithlessness

and our jazz riffs of injustice and annihilation


these two biblical guides call forth a much larger ethical playground than we tend to live our lives in from day to day

so I turn to them because prophets have a nasty habit of reminding us of what we already know—that when faced with the humanity of what we do when we would build a wall instead of opening a door

they remind us that we are not to be the poster children of the status quo and that we must turn to a bone-deep faith

its depths and its shallows

and recognize that if we have a faith that only rests on the familiar and the known, this does not get us to the radical reordering of the new heaven and new earth we are to seek to proclaim and work with God to bring in

if we continue to use the same moral playbook to guide our actions

we will, at best, only come up with updated versions of the same beliefs and practices that got us in the conundrum to begin with

salvation, which is god’s business, does not come very often in status quo moral formulations

at least not in the hands of these prophets

so, what must we do to move into our faith?

I argue this afternoon that take our cues from Ezekiel and begin by finding the lament, the moral clarity within us

for in the Hebrew Bible laments mark the beginning of the healing process that allows us to begin to see what we must do to be faithful

if we learn anything from prophets like Ezekiel and Joel, it is to know that the healing of brokenness and injustice

the healing of social sin and degradation

the healing of fractured relationships

the healing of spiritual doubts and fears

the healing of body, individual and corporate

begins with an unrestrained lament of faith to the God of faith that we need help

that we can’t respond to the shameful ways in which we do not welcome the strangers at our southern gates by our individual fears and worries alone

we ache, with every fiber of our being, with grief and sorrow and guilt

we need some divine help that allows us to confess that which we have done and that which we have not done

Claus Westermann maintains that no worship observance in ancient Israel better known to us today than the rite of lament.5 It is the cry of distress that is so powerful, this lament. For as Ezekiel and Micah present situations of crisis, of distress, the lament comes forth in potent language that is unequivocal in its anguish. It is only a rending of the heart such as this that Westermann notes belongs to the events of deliverance.6

Walter Brueggemann tells us that lament is formful.7 By putting our suffering into the form of lament, we first have to acknowledge that we are going through some mess. Lament helps us put words to our suffering and our frustrations and outrage. For when we can name it, we begin to see

the contours of allowing our faith to help us into how we can address the journey of the migrant, the causes of migration, the processes and consequences of migration—to do helpful, faithful acts of justice in responding to deep human need.

lament enables us and even requires of us to acknowledge and to experience our suffering or the suffering of others. lament in our contemporary world helps us ask questions of justice and righteousness.

You see, the formfulness of communal lament has a deep moral character for us today. I believe that we are drawn to explore anew what lament can mean for us as a part of understanding displacement and trauma and how to effectively address them when we seek to shape responsive ministries for migrants—and for ourselves. I want to stress the importance of communal lament as we do this. We must tell the truth of what is going on with the various truths, half-truths, alternative facts, and outright lies when it comes to migration and immigration.

I have tried to begin this conversation one last time as we prepare to leave this place. For you and I have been doing a communal lament in our time together already. And in this lament, I end with a word about hope that we learn from Micah and then, finally, a word about home.


a disclaimer: the reality is that all forms of ethical reflection tend to forget that human actions, our actions and those of others, are incomplete

we are constrained and free, good and evil, historical and ahistorical beings

the world of Cartesian dualisms fails to capture the dynamic quality of the moral life

the challenge for me as an ethicist is to remember that at the end of the day decision-making is not as easy or as difficult as it seems

and that there is an intangible quality that can sustain us in all of our contingent wanderings

I believe that this is hope

Hope places us in the wonderful and maddening tension between the sometimes-harsh realities of the present and the vision of the new heaven and new earth that helps fuel our acts of justice and mercy. Engaging hope is to seek to live our faith in the face of the difficult reality that far too many of us live in whirlpools of catastrophe and it is up us to help folk who live this and seek to flee from it for the promise of a better day.

Acts of justice and mercy embrace all of humanity for it is our kinship and relationship with God and with one another. Through this embrace, we are transformed body and spirit, individuals and society, persons and cosmos, time and eternity.8

This is not the seductive siren call of rampant individualism that has have taken hold in many of our lives, and in far too many public policies and religious pronouncements. I am talking about community here. So, the faith we proclaim, the faith we seek is not perfect—for perfection is not the point. It is not to be hoarded like an ill-gotten possession. It is one that if found in a deep, deep hope that refreshes us as God’s relentless love for us, regardless, touches all of humanity in a caress that is neither sentimental nor spiritualized.

allowing hope to shape our acts of justice and mercy in displacement and trauma is a bold thing to do

I think

because it can, and perhaps must, conjure up the ghosts, the terrors in our lives

that come as dancing specters

haunting goblins

moaning trolls

who remind us again and again

that we are far too human

to try to do this life all by ourselves

and we cannot always be in control or seek to be in control

you see I think lament can be a good thing

because lament is often the sign that we are seeking


chasing hope

not just a hope in the divine

but the hope that God loves us

God rocks us

God cares for us

God will heal us

but perhaps not in the ways we expect or want

hope means we have opened our eyes, hearts, minds, souls, very spirits

and now see and feel and touch and smell

the joy and the agony living in the fractures of creation

that is the irony of hope

for in our yearning for it

we often walk far away from it as we try to come home to it

we often live into the small and narrow spaces of life that stunt our growth

and demand far too little of us

because far too little is expected from us

or far too little gives us comfort

hope is one more piece to the fabric of the universe

one more way to signal this restless journey we are on

one more sign that Emmaus is not the end of the journey

but its beginning

you see, I don’t think hope is the end product on the assembly line of our lives

no, I think it is simply a part of the journey

part of the way in which we come to know God’s way in our lives with a richness that ripens and ripens and ripens

a richness that often disquiets us when we learn that there are things we can do to humanize our nation’s response to migrants

and not only migrants, but the great variety of who we are along lines of race and ethnicity, gender, sexuality, sexual orientation, theological view point, political persuasion, ableness, and so much more

this richness often disrupts our comfort and our certainty

and this richness that lets us know that that we are not alone as a child of God

and an enormous part of our task as members of faith communities is to make sure that no one is alone or caged or marked as less than because we must be there as witnesses and disciples

perfect and deeply imperfect

and we demand restored humanity

acts of justice and mercy

for those who have made one of the most difficult decisions they will make in their lives—to leave their homes in search for a safer, better life

it can mean lobbying our elected officials to honor our shared responsibility to protect the rights of refugees, asylum-seekers, and migrants

it can mean pressuring our government to properly process asylum claims with diligence and fairness so that families and individuals are not left in limbo or worse, locked away in detention centers for years

it means working to see that migrants are being protected from exploitation and abuse by their employers or by traffickers

it means remembering that “migrant” or “asylum seeker” are temporary names—they do not reflect the person behind the label, and it is that person to whom we must fight for at all the borders that get constructed in our society

and this only happens if we allow ourselves to practice the faith-act of lament and allow our days to be shaped by hope rather than walking around the rib bones of nothingness

lament can be a gateway into hope

and hope, in this case, is another way to say faith

a faith that is forged on the hard work of living it

rather than have it handed to us in doctrine or dogmatics

lament, earnest and soul-deep searching, can hold us when we begin again and again

to step out of the folds of old wounds

and live anew as we refuse to let the howling specters of displacement and trauma to keep us from reaching into ourselves as we stretch out our arms in welcome


a lament that calls forth hope names our sister and brother migrants is a search for home—to go from displacement to a place of one’s own that is more than a cot in a camp that dangerously mimics the Japanese internment camps of World War II

home is a place for health, healing, identity formation, resistance, celebration, transformation

not only for one, but for all

that is the place where the “real lives” the “real worlds” of peoples take place

it is not the obscene depiction of evil hordes of drug dealers and criminals and murderers caravanning from the south or middle eastern terrorists

bringing with them crime and terror

it is the place where the realities of the journey that has been travelled and the journey yet to come provide a place for folk to be themselves rather than a statistic or sound bite or photo op

it is the place that acknowledges the trauma of fear and loathing and violence yet insists on providing an alternative space that is a launching pad for an ornery refusal to let these things become the only thing in their or our narrative

it is the place of core resistance to devaluing oppressions

and, oh yes, home is a place of rest

a place where we get things done, sometimes alone, but mostly with others

a place that we are still learning to create in a world that features a suffocating regime of galloping inequalities

it is the place of Morrison’s dancing mind

Neruda’s light and darkness

Walker’s world in our eye

Marquez’s yellow flower

Sanchez’s house of lions

Luiselli’s dream

Danticat’s Krik?, Krak!

it is a place, that we are building, life by life as we allow the voices within our communities

the young and the old

the lesbian and the gay

the propertied and the propertyless

the heterosexual and the celibate

the dark and the light

the bisexual and the transgender,

the female and the male

the conservative and the radical

the undocumented and the documented

the thoughtful and the clueless

all these and more

to speak, to breath free air, to live lives to their fullest

and learn a communal hope that teaches us as we learn

to love the eyes








inside parts


life-holding wombs

life-giving private parts




of everyone

may it be so


1 Thanks to Viki Matson, Assistant Professor of the Practice of Ministry and Director of Field Education at Vanderbilt Divinity School who shared the prayer and the story behind it in a faculty meeting, 1 February 2019, Nashville, TN.

2 http://www.petrieinventory.com/misinterpreting-integration-displacement-and-trauma/

3 Mary Midgley, Can’t We Make Moral Judgements? (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991), 13.

4 Ibid., 89.

5 Claus Westermann, The Psalms: Structure, Content and Message, trans. Ralph D. Gehrke (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing House, 1980), 32.

6 Westermann, “The Role of Lament,” 21.

7 Walter Brueggemann, “The Formfulness of Grief,” Interpretation: A Journal of Bible and Theology Vol. XXXI, No. 3 (July 1977): 265. Although Brueggemann uses the word grief in this essay, I believe that his remarks also closely parallel the process of lament in Joel.

8 Gustavo Gutiérrez, A Theology of Liberation: History, Politics, and Salvation, rev. ed., trans. Sister Caridad Inda and John Eagleson (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1988), 85.