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Tolerating Ambiguity in the Midst of Trauma

Associate Professor of the Practice of Pastoral Theology and Care at Duke Divinity School

I am very pleased for this opportunity to respond to Dr. Emilie M. Towne’s thought-provoking closing plenary address on “Displacement and Trauma” from the Migration and Border Crossings Conference in February of this year. The issues of displacement and trauma have been at the forefront for me for nearly two decades as I have conducted research among refugees in Kenya, South Sudan, eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and the United States. As a pastoral theologian I give particular attention to understanding human experience, particularly trauma and resilience in the context of forced displacement, through multiple lenses—most often those of theology, psychology, and culture.

I am grateful for Emilie Towne’s careful attention to building a moral frame for responding to the ideological and physical tragedies that has been put into action at our borders and in our refugee policies. I wish to engage Towne’s remarks around three topics: the need for tolerating ambiguity, traumatic injury, and practices of lament that push toward restorative justice. I start though, with a word about hope.

I am especially grateful for the words of hope and possibility with which Townes sent us forth at the end of the conference. She names the power of such conferences to share not only ideas but in the end to help us become a bonded community that, “has been through something together.” This building of kin-dom shores us up in our daily struggle against losing hope and serves as the embodied envisioning of what we hope for in a community of sustained compassionate response to the stranger.

I admit, though, that as the months have passed and our country’s response at the border has continued to deteriorate, it has been difficult to hold onto the hopeful convictions the conference left me with. The consequent heightened outrage and despair surely adds to the urgency and tone of my comments.

In the less than 6 months since the Migration and Border Crossings conference, matters at the southern border that were terrible have somehow managed to become distressingly worse. We continue to see pictures of children being held in cages and now we know in some detail the deplorable conditions they are enduring. Children are left to care for toddlers and infants while all suffer illness, shortages of beds, food, and medical care. Pushed momentarily to the background are the disturbing accusations of sexual violence committed against young detainees by detention personnel, immigrant children being placed in American foster care instead of with extended family, or worse, young asylum seekers who give birth to U.S. citizens while in custody being separated from their newborns. We now have reports of non-white U.S. citizens being detained even while holding U.S. passports.

The Administration has issued a “Third-Country Asylum Rule,” which effectively bans asylees originating in non-border countries from applying for asylum directly in the United States. And, for what could be a final blow to the refugee resettlement programs in the United States, the administration has proposed setting the refugee admittance number for next year at zero. Mercy has become criminalized and compassion a prosecutable offence. Together, these build a wall of policy that is perhaps more dangerous, evil, and detrimental to this country’s hope of building a legacy of compassion and justice than any brick structure.

Yes, we need hope.

Tolerating Ambiguity

In digging deep to locate the roots of our negative response to immigrants that create displacement and trauma, Townes points to the fantastic hegemonic imagination which “encourages us to see one another through stereotypes and innuendos…and denies that we are often afraid of what we do not know or understand…” Of course, it’s the instinct of human creatures to either shrink away or brace for a fight when we tumble into feelings of fear. For some, the fear never passes. This, indeed, helps explain why the very things that should make us feel empathy and compassion instead serve to galvanize hatred and resentment. We hold tight to what is ours and deny any opportunity to migrants seeking a safe place of belonging. But I think it is not only the fear of change at work in the fantastic hegemonic imagination. Undergirding other fears is the fear of uncertainty. It is the byproduct of being finite creatures in an unpredictable world and, as such, clings to us as an underlying existential concern. But it is also as a palpable psychological issue in the face of an unsure economic future, employment instability, health fluctuations, and so on. Without other coping mechanisms to act as a stopgap, fear and anger at an uncertain (and changing) world over which one has little control is easily projected outward through acts of violence and terror. The physical containment, psychological diminishment, and absolute rejection of the immigrant, who has been problematized and objectified as the cause of our fear, bring a temporary and false sense of control. The withholding of belonging from and containment of persons of color is a practice that has a long and sad history in the United States.

Of great concern is the manner in which these guiding fears can leave us vulnerable to manipulation, especially by those seeking to garner power and who come offering claims of safety and assurance. I have turned in the past and do so again here to political sociologist Didier Bigo for help in framing some of what undergirds this manipulation of fear in relation to immigration. He specifically examines the complex strategies behind the securitization of immigration in the European context though it is applicable in the United States as well. Bigo suggests that the problem is not necessarily a lack of awareness of value or worth of the immigrant by the public or politicians, such as the leaders of some NGOs and academics (among others) argue.1 Rather, he suggests that the securing against the immigrant is a political technology that has a compelling force “anchored in the fears of politicians about losing their symbolic control over the territorial boundaries. It is structured by the habitus of the security professionals and their new interest not only in the foreigner but in the immigrant.”2 This becomes effective at least in part, he says, because they are able to tap into “the ‘unease’ that some citizens who feel discarded suffer because they cannot cope with the uncertainty of everyday life.”3 Though Bigo uses the notion of unease in a structural rather than psychological sense, I think both are relevant. Obviously, this is a much more complex argument than we can fully explore here. This is not a new strategy though advanced technology is adding unfortunate dimensions to it. Nonetheless, it is helpful for us to consider the ways these factors come together. When those in the political sphere fear losing power, they operationalize our fear, the management of unease, by securing us against the criminal or terrorist foreigner.4 The ability of citizens to withstand the anxieties that ambiguity brings becomes key to resisting political manipulation.

The degree to which we can tolerate ambiguity is a spiritual matter of the first order, as much as an emotional one, that holds tremendous power to shape life and how we make meaning from it. It is at the core of creating communities of all kinds that choose to welcome the stranger and celebrate the beauty of difference. Ambiguity makes room for mystery and the sacred in our midst. Left unaddressed, the inability to tolerate ambiguity stifles our awareness of God in our life—and in the lives of others. It closes our ability to recognize experiences of God’s grace or to cultivate a spiritual disposition of joy. As theological educators and pastors, we have the responsibility of helping form individuals and communities of faith in ways that teach the practice of tolerating ambiguity.


If we are going to more accurately see (to understand) what is happening at our borders we cannot look away from the realities of trauma and its sometimes life-long effects. Townes accurately notes that one way to understand trauma is as a “deeply distressing or disturbing experience.” In the United States today, the application of the term trauma is used rather expansively. On the one hand, the notion of trauma serves to provide a culturally acceptable frame for understanding difficult life events and how the unpleasant affects impact in our lives. But, this broad usage of the term sometimes works to the detriment of our deeper understanding of traumatic injury. The clinical diagnoses of PTSD and acute stress disorder, for example, are the result of symptoms stemming from deeply distressing events that are not only life changing but life threatening to self or loved ones. So distressing are they that it may prove to be beyond the existing coping mechanisms of the individual to fully incorporate the experience without therapeutic intervention. I make this distinction to further elaborate the depth of the harm we as a nation do to individuals who endure humiliation and injury in our care, especially when they have already been traumatized by violent experience and threat to life in their homelands. What is happening to migrants at the border, especially tender age children (defined by border patrol as 13 years old or younger) far exceeds any colloquial notion of trauma. Separation from parental care and forced imprisonment in neglectful conditions may rightfully create for these children and adults the perception that their lives are being actively threatened. Townes is correct: displacement and trauma is as much about the asylum seekers as about us. But we need to be clear: they are the victims. As citizens we are morally culpable for the physical and psychological damage we are doing to our brothers and sisters who have come to us seeking safety and a better life for their children.

Lament and Interrogating Catastrophe

Townes guides us in finding a “faith filled theology and ethical muscle” that will help us find a way through the humanitarian crisis we are in. For this, she points us to the Hebrew prophets and the practice of lament. We should, she says, “take our cues from Ezekiel and begin by finding the lament, the moral clarity within us, for in the Hebrew bible lament marks the beginning of the healing process that allows us to begin to see what we must do to be faithful.” This communal lament, Townes notes, articulates our anguish as well as our pleas for help, gives voice to our confession for what has been done and left undone, allows us to name our pain, provides a structure to our suffering as well as the suffering of others, and, finally, “allows us to ask questions of justice and righteousness.” I wholeheartedly celebrate this turn toward lament and recognize its power. I fear, however, that, in practice, communities of faith too often fall into a meekness of lament that gives sway to the sorrow without challenging how, through action or inaction, we are culpable to the injuries we inflict on others—or on ourselves. I urge us to consider the ways theologians, practitioners, and others can invigorate these practices of lament so that we lean past vigils toward productive actions of restorative justice as I think the prophets intended.

Larry Graham in his 2006 address to the Society of Pastoral Theology was not thinking about human rights abuses at the border when he focused on “catastrophic disaster”. The address framed a pastoral response to catastrophic disasters, which he defined as, “cataclysmic intrusive events that tragically kill individuals and destroy, rupture, or render ineffectual the personal, communal—cultural, ecological, governmental, and economic structures necessary for life to be viable.”5 At the time, Graham was talking about mass shootings and natural disasters such as Katrina. But while there may be some limitations to its application, the humanitarian crisis at our southern border is not only tragic and traumatic but also catastrophic—especially when viewed through the eyes of asylum seekers, even if not the rest of us.

Graham suggests three responses to catastrophic events: lamenting a torn world, interrogating catastrophe, and reclaiming the good. Because of my work with refugees, including those who have survived torture, until recently I have resisted the use of the term interrogate which is so frequently associated with violent force. The catastrophe at the border has invited me to reconsider these objections. Interrogating one’s world, its systems, and our beliefs, Graham says, “. . . involves on

the deepest level the questioning and reconfiguration of our religious and theological understandings, including most importantly how we conceive of God.”6 Creating a new narrative after catastrophe has befallen us requires that we Reclaim Goodness. This includes, according to Graham, “the capacity to protest the ’wrong’ disclosed by catastrophic disasters mobilizes anger against the injustice and neglect that contributed to the disaster, and it provides the basis for a spiritually vital and ethically viable way to create conditions of healing and well-being.”7 Interrogation and reclamation act not as a postscript to the grief of lament but embody the grief even as we engage in the active creation of change and new possibility.

In order to authentically participate in lament/ interrogation/reclamation, learn to tolerate ambiguity, and recognize traumatic injury we must be able to empathize with those who are suffering as a neighbor in need, even if not as a citizen in our midst. We need to figure out how to move from “us” and “them” to become a communal we like that of the church congregation in the town square of Alter, Mexico whose prayer of mercy Emilie Townes used to open her address. It is perhaps too grand a vision at this point to imagine ourselves as a community coming along side asylum seekers, lending a shoulder to lighten the burden of their suffering, instead of adding to it. Even so, I suspect that is where we will find God’s hope for us together.


1 Bigo, Didier. Security and Immigration: Toward a Critique of the Governmentality of Unease in Alternatives: Global, Local, Political, 27 (2002), Special Issue, 63-92.

2 Ibid. Page 65

3 Bigo states that he is not using “unease” in a psychological sense but rather, “It is a structural unease in a ‘risk’ society’ framed by neoliberal discourse in which freedom is always associated at its limits with danger and (in)security.” I do not think it so easy to separate out the psychological sense and think it remains relevant in the context we are using it here. Ibid. Page 65.

4 Ibid. Page 64.

5 Larry Kent Graham (2006) Pastoral Theology and Catastrophic Disaster, Journal of Pastoral Theology, 16:2, 1-17, DOI: 10.1080/10649867.2006.11745282

6 Ibid. Page 11.

7 Ibid. Page 13.