Last week the Center for Interfaith Engagement at Eastern Mennonite University held a panel discussion titled “Faith and Trauma: Abrahamic Perspectives” at the American Islamic College in Chicago. The overall theme of the event was the perspective of each Abrahamic religion – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – toward personal and communal trauma – both as a source of healing and of trauma itself. Often inter-faith dialogues on controversial topics fail to address the elephant in the room. But in this case, the panelists took aim at how each religion has been both a victim and perpetrator of trauma.

The panel included

Rabbi Niles Goldstein, Associate Director of Development, The Center for Interfaith Engagement at Eastern Mennonite University. Rabbi Goldstein is the founder of the New Shul in Manhattan, NYC and author of nine books on Judaism and contemporary spirituality.

Dr. Carolyn Stauffer, Assistant Professor of Applied Social Sciences, Eastern Mennonite University. Dr. Stauffer is the former senior trauma counselor and founder of HIV/AIDS Program in Soweto, South Africa.

Dr. Timothy J. Gianotti, Director of Islamic Studies & Associate Professor of Arabic & Islamic Studies at American Islamic College. Dr. Gianotti is the founder of the Islamic Institute for Spiritual Formation in Toronto, and author of Al-Ghazali’s Unspeakable Doctrine of the Soul.

The panelists’ ability to speak plainly about past issues as well as ongoing crises was remarkable. The approach of the primary sponsor of the event, the Center for Interfaith Engagement, was one key factor in this refreshing honesty.  The Center emphasizes theological dialogue and collaboration with other institutions, while also doing faith-based conflict transformation and interfaith humanitarian service in the conflict areas of the world including Israel-Palestine, Northern Ireland, and South Africa. There is also a Center for Justice and Peacebuilding at Eastern Mennonite University that is actively involved in conflict resolution and social justice projects throughout the world. The tenor of the event was also influenced by the American Islamic College (AIC) in Chicago, which encourages this type of interfaith event on social justice topics. As the mission statement says, AIC provides an “interdisciplinary educational program, while grounded in Islamic learning, is committed to promoting inter-religious and inter-cultural understanding, responsible world citizenship, and engaged social service.” The combined focus of the two institutions on direct and challenging inter-faith work that addresses global social justice conflicts extended to this honest discussion on the intersection between faith and trauma.

Each of the panelists traced the history of trauma experienced by their community in the past and present including the response of their religion to those experiences.

Rabbi Niles Goldstein

Rabbi Niles Goldstein (Photo by Bill Chambers)
Rabbi Niles Goldstein
(Photo by Bill Chambers)

Rabbi Goldstein traced the traumatic events in Jewish history and Judaism’s response to them. The Exodus and the long period of semi-nomadic life resulted in internal strife and civil war creating the two separate kingdoms of Israel and Judea. This period of weakness led to the Babylonians destroying the first temple, slaughtering many of the inhabitants, and exiling the rest. Under the Persian ruler Cyrus, Jews were allowed to practice their religion, rebuild the temple, create a new role of the scribe, and allow public reading of the Torah. During the resistance to the Roman occupation, much of Jerusalem was destroyed, including the second temple, the priesthood was executed, hundreds of thousands were killed, and there was a huge diaspora of Jews to other countries. There was deep uncertainty and anxiety over whether this was the end of Jewish civilization. During this time, Judaism’s response was to replace priests with rabbis and the temple with synagogues so that religious rituals could be performed in many places in the community. The theme during this period was adaptation and evolution, especially replacing strict dogma and doctrine. The period of the Crusades led to a move toward internal spirituality and the rise of the Kabbalists and medieval pietists. Pogroms in Europe led to the Hasidic movement with its emphasis on accessibility, joy and celebration. The Shoah or Holocaust was a period of intense trauma as whole communities were devastated. The subsequent establishment of the State of Israel in 1948 presented challenges in that it was a response to the trauma of the Holocaust, but for others, like the Palestinians, it was traumatizing.

In summary, communal dexterity is the hallmark of Judaism’s response to trauma. Creativity and adaptability served the community well. But today there are still conflicts and ongoing discussions within the Jewish community concerning the traumatizing of the Palestinians as part of the creation of the nation-state of Israel.

Dr. Carolyn Stauffer

Dr. Carolyn Stauffer (Photo by Bill Chambers)
Dr. Carolyn Stauffer
(Photo by Bill Chambers)

Dr. Stauffer focused on the intersection of trauma and religion, especially seeing trauma as a “moral injury.” The Veterans Administration coined this term in 2009 to describe veterans with PTSD who were trying to assimilate back into society. Trauma can be considered a deep desecration of the sacred self.

There are three different types of trauma – material, symbolic, and identity-based. Material trauma is related to a place, your home, and your personhood including your physical being. Sexual assault is a primary example of this type of trauma. Often there is a profound silence around material trauma that can include not speaking up when sexual abuse occurs by a religious leader or living well when others nearby are living in poverty. She gave the example of spending time in Soweto, South Africa where there are rich communities right next to very poor communities. Every day there is a reminder of the very real trauma of poverty in an environment of “economic apartheid.”

The city of Jerusalem is an example of symbolic trauma. Whose city is it? The Jews, Christians, Muslims? All have symbolic and sacred claims. The violence of Charlie Hebdo in Paris was an example of an encroachment upon the sacred.

Identity-based trauma occurs when a group is represented in disrespectful ways. They are not allowed to participate, be represented, or have a voice. Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are examples here.

The Mennonite or Anabaptist religion experienced trauma during their persecution in the 16th and 17th centuries for their belief in “re-baptizing” people as adults. In the face of this structured violence, they responded with non-violence. The shadow side of that response was a kind of “persecution complex” – becoming insulated from external groups, distancing themselves from other people, and a lack of engagement with other groups. But to address this shadow side of experiencing trauma, it is important to consider how we narrate trauma. How do we “re-member?” For the Mennonites it was learning what a community is. There was a new focus on peacemaker teams like those part of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding. Some other strategies for trauma and resilience include: taking time to heal; having just systems in place; taking responsibility for the community’s violations in the past; and creating institutions like the Center for Interfaith Engagement that focus on faith-based conflict resolution.

Dr. Timothy Gianotti

Dr. Timothy J. Gianotti (Photo by Bill Chambers)
Dr. Timothy J. Gianotti
(Photo by Bill Chambers)

Dr. Gianotti reminded the audience that we are safe here discussing this topic without guards at the door. We are also privileged to have food where only a few miles away people live with hunger daily. This conversation is happening in a nation that is both traumatized and traumatizing. Islam has had a history of traumas as well as perpetrating trauma on other Muslims. The Prophet’s own grandchildren were murdered by other Muslims. There has been the political trauma of colonialism and imperialism when the community was taught they were second and third class citizens with a degraded religion and culture. There has been individualized trauma when the community has been complicit as esteemed religious leaders preyed on children and others in recent cases from the Chicago area and Toronto. Trauma is not something experienced long ago, but is being experienced now.

How do our resources rise to the call? Trauma calls us to transformation. Trauma brings a sense of anxiety, pollution and desecration. Often the response is anger, violence and isolationism. We as a community are both traumatizing and traumatized. The Qur’an says that only light can dispel darkness, peace dispels violence, and love dispels fear. We believe in the study of the heart as a different approach to trauma. Trauma is celebrated not the event itself, but as it can lead to transformation. As Rumi said “Where Jesus lives, the great-hearted gather…if you are suffering, open the door.” Recognize the fact of trauma, but also try to inhabit that place. The final word always needs to be a one of healing, hope, and transformation.

Discussion Period

Some of the most important issues were covered during the discussion period. There were continued questions about the effectiveness of inter-faith discussions. Rabbi Goldstein emphasized that conflicts cannot be avoided in some effort to be “too nice.” Being respectful is important, but “niceness” cannot be the goal. We need to recognize our differences, not only accepting them, but also engaging them head-on. Dr. Gianotti echoed this sentiment in quoting the Qur’an saying that “if God had wanted He would have made you into a single community.” Coming to the table being vulnerable and open to criticism is important as well as participating in dialogues that can actually lead to transformations.

In some cases, religion can reinforce trauma on an individual and collective level. Dr. Stauffer stressed the importance of dealing with trauma as it is happening or soon after it occurs. Religious people need to advocate for change in their own community when it is reinforcing trauma. Being authentic and refusing to be complicit in violence or concepts that cause trauma is a requirement. Patriarchy, which is a significant part of all the religions, can make a woman who is a victim of trauma feel unsafe. In this regard, Dr. Gianotti spoke of not tethering religion so closely to doctrine in cases of trauma. A woman who feels uncomfortable praying five times a day because of being abused by an imam, needs to be able to see her therapy as a form of prayer. Rabbi Goldstein emphasized the debate going on in the Jewish community about the actions of the Israeli government toward the Palestinians.

Dr. Gianotti ended the session saying the Qur’an calls us to be witness bearers both to an unjust state and to the evil within ourselves. It is important to be a witness to the violence our government perpetrates against other countries and against its own citizens. There is a religious obligation to speak truth to ourselves and to power. Our government needs to see contemporary dissent as an act of love. It is easy to do that for a march in Selma 50 years ago, but not as easy for the #BlackLivesMatter marches of today.


The panel directly challenged many of the trends happening right now in American society.

The trauma of sexual abuse that has occurred in all three religious communities needs to be addressed directly in a transparent way and should be seen as an opportunity to transform the community. Islamophobia, often promoted by Christian groups, declares Islam is a religion of violence and terrorism creating trauma for American Muslims who bear the brunt of this bias.

There is an increase in Christian Right dominated politicians who recommend budgets in Congress that cut food stamps, Medicaid, and healthcare for the most vulnerable of U.S. citizens. There are pro-Israel American Jewish groups that support both the rejection of a Palestinian state by Netanyahu and a military occupation that violates Palestinian human rights. In every case, religion has an opportunity to speak truth to state power when it is traumatizing other people. All religions must acknowledge that there are extreme elements within their communities who are traumatizing others in their drive to establish an “Islamic State,” to expand a “Greater Israel” over all Palestinian land, or support racist policies in voting, policing, and social services.

All three Abrahamic religions have a history of both traumatizing other communities as well as bringing their unique spiritual resources and experiences to bear on assuaging these “moral injuries” for victims of trauma.


Other sponsors of the “Faith and Trauma” Panel:

Schools: Catholic Theological Union, Chicago Theological Seminary, and the Lutheran School of Theology

Interfaith Organizations: The Council for a Parliament of the World’s Religions, Niagara Foundation, and the Ecumenical & Inter-religious Relations of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

Religious Congregations: Emanuel Congregation, Chicago Community Mennonite Church, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Chicago Monitor’s editorial policy.