At times the LORD surprises us with the familiar, and this was certainly the case with my recent trip to Uganda. It was fascinating to engage with the cultural environment of African spirituality, urban and country life, food, language, traffic and so on, but I must begin however with what impacted me at the deepest personal level – trauma. I have been living with a certain sense of grief and vicarious trauma (carrying the painful emotions of others) since returning to Australia.
I have not been able to get out of my mind an on-site interview we conducted with survivors of the Barlonyo massacre carried out by the Lord’s Resistance Army in 2004 (http://youtube/sdXOCa23MwY) when between 400-600 people of all ages were hacked to death, shot or burnt alive. Two things struck me in the survivors’ testimony. The first was the description of nightly disturbances where the events were relived in dream form; personally I have lived with something similar for the last 15 years or so. Secondly, the comment by our escort about the mental condition of the survivors- “You see these people, they look like normal people but they are not normal people.” This has triggered a painful memory of a statement a counsellor made to me when I was pastoring, “The congregation has its problems, but they are nowhere as deep and damaged as yours.”
Unresolved trauma, whether in troubled Africa or prosperous Australia, raise sharply the question, “Is the death of Jesus powerful enough to heal anyone from anything that has ever happened in this present life?”
The Beautiful Exchange
A few days before travelling to Barlonyo the Spirit of God reminded me of an incident several years ago in Jerusalem. When I entered the chapel at the site where Jesus was crucified I saw a large painting showing Christ laid down on the cross; as my eyes were drawn to Jesus’ face I was suddenly overcome with an extraordinary sense of beauty. In my heart I could sense what the Father felt on that day 2000 years ago, “This is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.” The pain of Christ was not beautiful to God, it was shocking (cf. Gen 6:5-6), but the loving submission Jesus made of his sufferings to the Father was “a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 5:2). For a time however Jesus had to go through his sufferings without knowing how his Father felt; the cry “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” reveals he carried all the traumas of humanity alone. God’s Spirit however would not leave Jesus in such an orphaned state (John 14:18; Rom 1:4).
The fruit of Christ’s beautiful sacrificial love was his glorification in heaven (Luke 22:69). As I pray over this I sense that today Jesus gives thanks to the Father for the trauma of the cross; as it says in Hebrews, ““I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation/church I will sing your praise.””(Hebrews 2:12 ESV). As a human being completely healed from trauma Jesus personally knows in his heart the forcefulness of the Father’s promise, ““Behold I make all things new.”” (Rev 21:5). But how does Christ’s own experience impact us?
A Beautiful Conscience
We believe that the grace of God far exceeds all the powers of evil; “where sin abounded, grace did much more abound” so that “we might reign in life through the one man Christ Jesus.” (Rom 5:20, 17). The beautifying power of the gospel of Christ is able to undo all the ugliness of evil no matter how severe. This is our final hope. Why then is there so much despair in the lives of believers, not only in a nation as visibly crisis-torn as Uganda but below the surface of materially peaceful Australia? The morning after being at Barlonyo the Lord directed me to a scripture that speaks healing to our deepest inner being; “how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” (Hebrews 9:14).
To wrestle with the problem of evil in the world is truly human; to attempt to solve this puzzle is to try to be God! Our Father tried to shield us from the terrible burden of “the knowledge of good and evil” from the beginning (Gen 2:17). The mental replaying of traumatic life episodes are works of our conscience to settle the horrors of evil and find inner peace by our own efforts. These are “dead works” which need to be cleansed away from deep within by the power of the blood of the cross which has brought peace to “all things, whether on earth or in heaven” (Col 1:20). Sacrificial “blood” means life taken violently in death, “the blood of Christ” teaches our consciences that every act of cruelty and its trauma was carried by Jesus on the cross and became his responsibility, not ours, to resolve. We are freed from the problem of good and evil and can leave such things in God’s hands! This however does not mean leave as passive about the state of the world, instead this inner knowledge of Christ’s triumph strengthens us for godly action.
Signs of the Resurrection
It is not only the immediate survivors of the Barlonyo massacre who have been rendered weak and helpless, but a whole community is suffering from moral and spiritual paralysis. This community needs hope-bearing signs of God’s new creation. The gospel of Jesus’ death-and-resurrection reveals that God has released into humanity a creative presence evil cannot destroy (2 Tim 1:10). By practical steps of reconstruction in the name of Jesus it is possible to image NOW the reality of the new world that is coming. This involves much more than “church activities”. “All things” belong to Christ and so to us (1 Cor 3:21-23).
Where children are unschooled a school can be built based on the peace Christ gives through the gospel (Eph 6:15), where there is sickness there can be a clinic, those who are unskilled can receive a trade, the natural richness of plant and animal life can be restored and multiplied through new and creative methods of farming and agriculture. All this must be done in full partnership with local people and with great care and wisdom.
Australia is full of good schools, hospitals, vocations and tremendous agricultural and animal husbandry, but the glory is given to men and not God. Our affluent Western societies blinded by their material success have fallen under the severe judgement of God (1 Cor 1:31). The desperate state of much of Africa however represents a divine opportunity to build a Christian civilisation from the ground up, acknowledging that the source of all true wisdom and knowledge is in Christ (Col 2:3). When men and women rebuild a society from this foundation what is imaged is a foretaste the new creation in Christ where ““He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”” (Revelation 21:4 ESV)
The exercise of trying to write this article has been a significant stress itself – too many old memories and misunderstandings remain. Yet I am thankful for my life’s agonies, for anyone who has never felt the trauma of living in this world is to be pitied for their triviality. The final word however is neither trauma nor trivia, it is that “Jesus is Lord” over heaven and earth. To be real to the depraved state of this world and to be a part of its transformation is the challenge that faces each of us, African or Australian. May I encourage you to listen to the Spirit’s voice about this matter- what is he asking you to do?
 This is a quote from Ps 22:23, the very psalm whose first verse Jesus quoted on the cross, ““My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”” The conclusion of anguish borne faithfully is not trauma, but praise.
AFRICA INSIGHTS SERIES
- Is the Cross Enough?
- O Righteous Father
- The Gift of Suffering
- Masculine Mystique
- The Root of Revival